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Pocketwatch 101 – Essential Information about Vintage and Antique Pocket Watches

How to Open (and Close) a Vintage Pocket Watch

Tips and Tricks for Opening and Closing Various Types of Pocket Watch Cases

While we can't make you an antique watch expert with just a few web pages, we can share a little of our knowledge with you in order to help you learn more about your vintage or antique watch. We hope we can provide answers to some of the more common questions you may have about your vintage watch, and help you learn more about this fascinating area of American history.

Proper Way to Open and Close a Hunter-Cased Pocketwatch

A properly functioning hunter case has a latch, usually made of steel, which catches on the rim of the front cover, usually made of gold or gold-plated brass, and keeps the cover closed. To open the watch, you depress the crown (the winding knob) which is connected through a spring to the latch.

Steel latch on hunter-cased watch

Steel latch catches on the rim of the front cover of the case.

When closing a hunter-case watch, it's important that you don't "snap" the case-lid shut. Doing so will quickly wear out the spot on the case-rim where the latch engages, especially if you're lucky enough to have a solid gold case. The steel latch is much harder than either the soft gold of a karat case, or even the gold-plated brass of a gold-filled case. Once the case rim is worn out, the only real option is to have it repaired by a skilled goldsmith. No amount of bending and twisting of the case lid and hinges is going to make the latch hold once the case rim is worn out.

It's also important that you don't press the cover down into the crystal of the watch. Sometimes the clearance between the case lid and the crystal is VERY small, and we've seen many a broken crystal from someone closing their hunter case with a big ol' thumb pushing down right in the middle of the case-lid.

So to close the cover on a hunter-case watch: first depress the latch button, then close the cover with your fingers on the edge of the cover, then release the latch button. This simple habit will save you from a costly case or crystal repair down the road.

Pocketwatch Case Back Types

If we want to open the watch case so that we can see the movement (the working parts) of the watch, then we've got to figure out what kind of case it is. It's probably one of four most common types: a screw-off back, a snap-off back, a hinged back, or a swing-out case. Let's look at each of these in more detail:

Screw-off Pocketwatch Case Back

As the name suggests, the backs of these sorts of pocket watch cases simply unscrew. For a screw-off back, you should be able to see a seam-line that separates the back from the body of the case. If it's a screw-off back there should be no sign of a hinge attaching the back to the body. I've never seen a case that wasn't a standard right-hand thread, so righty-tighy lefty-loosey applies.

Screw-off caseback

Screw-off case back

Sometimes it's possible to get some corrosion between the case back and the body. When this happens the case can be VERY difficult to open. If you've tried to open it by hand, or maybe with the help of a rubber jar opener and still can't get it, it's probably best to let a professional attempt to take it off. Please don't be tempted to get your 12" slip-joint pliers and start working on it... you won't be happy with the results.

Snap-off Pocketwatch Case Back

A snap-off case back is fully detachable from the case body, just like a screw-off case back. The difference is that the snap-off case back isn't threaded; it simply "snaps" into place on the back of the watch case. This type of pocketwatch case is best opened with a case opening tool, or a watchmaker's case-knife. It's best if the blade is dull; you're asking for trouble if you use a really sharp knife and I won't be responsible when you bleed on the rug. If you carefully examine the rim of the case, where the back meets the body, you'll usually find a small notch, just large enough to allow you to get the edge, not the tip, of your knife in the notch. Just a little side to side wiggle of the blade is usually enough to pop it open. Whatever you do, don't force it. Using excess pressure, or not keeping good control of the blade, could result in a big scratch on your watch and a slice out of your thumb.

Pop-off caseback

Snap-off case back

You have to be careful when closing a snap-off case back to make sure you have it properly aligned. There might be alignment marks or pins that have to be in the right places. I like to get the case back "hooked" on the rim on one side, and then using my thumbs slide around the perimeter of the case while applying downward pressure.

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Hinged Back and Bezel

A hinged case back is like a snap-off case back, except the case back is attached to the case body with a hinge. Most of the time, the bezel is hinged as well. The hinge is usually found at the 6:00 position, unless it's a "side-winder" watch (as in the photo below) in which case the hinge will be at the 9:00 position. As with a snap-off case, a careful examination of the rim of the case back will almost always reveal a little notch or wide-spot in the rim where you can insert a case-knife or very strong thumbnail to open the back. Many times, hinged case backs have both an inner and outer metal cover. The inner cover, called the "cuvette", has its own separate hinge and opens just like the outer case back... except the little groove for your knife is even smaller, and it's even easier to scratch the cuvette if you slip.

Waltham 18s side-winder in hinged front and back karat case

Waltham 18s side-winder in hinged front and back karat case

Swing-out Case

Now pay attention, because the swing-out case is the trickiest of the bunch. These cases were also called "swing-ring" or "swinging ring" cases by their original manufacturer, the Crescent Watch Case Company.

text

Crescent Watch Case Company ad for Swinging

Ring cases. Reproduced from Jewelers' Circular

Weekly and Horological Review, March 13, 1901.

Courtesy NAWCC Library.

More people damage their watches trying to open swing-ring cases than any other case style. That's because the watch movement is mounted in a ring which is hinged to the inside of the case body. The case body and back are made as one piece, so there is no separation between the case back and the case body. The swing-ring case was advertised as the most dust-proof and moisture-proof case of its time.

To open a swing-out case, you first remove the front bezel and crystal, which is almost always a screw-off front. Once the bezel is removed, you'll see that the movement mounting ring is hinged, usually at the 12:00 position (sometimes at the 3:00 as in the photos below). Often there's a little notch opposite the hinge where you can insert a thumbnail or case-knife to lift up the movement.

But here's where most folks get in trouble. The winding stem, which connects the winding knob (the crown) to the watch mechanism, is still engaged in the movement. If you attempt to swing the movement up and out of the case, you will feel resistance when you start bending the stem sideways. If you force it, as many people oddly seem to believe is the right way to proceed, you will almost certainly break the stem, and then you will no longer be able to wind or set the watch. To make it worse, when that happens, you'll be so upset that you won't notice the little broken stem part rolling around inside the case, and it will fall out and be lost, making it much more difficult for your watchmaker to reproduce the stem without being able to measure the broken pieces.

So the answer is simple: just be sure to pull the crown and stem out into the "setting position" before trying to swing-out the movement. Even if it's a lever-set watch, you'll be able to snap the crown out a notch if it's a swing-out case. And don't force anything! If you try to swing the movement out and it catches partway and doesn't want to come out, try wiggling and turning the winding crown a bit to see if it will come free. But if it doesn't open easily, don't force it or you'll break the stem.

American Waltham 18s in Crescent swing-out case

American Waltham 18s in Crescent swing-out case

Summary of Pocket Watch Case Opening Styles:

  1. Screw-off back: no hinge on the back, visible seam around rim of case back with no visible "notch" in seam for case-knife.
  2. Snap-off back: no hinge on the back, visible seam with notch for case-knife.
  3. Hinged-back: hinge visible on back. Look for the notch for thumbnail or case-knife.
  4. Swing-out: no seam around the back cover i.e. back cover and body all one piece. Remove front bezel and look for swing-out movement. ALWAYS pull out winding stem before lifting the movement out of the case.