Pocketwatch 101™ – Learn about Vintage and Antique Pocket Watches
Vintage Watch Buying Guide
How to Become a Smarter Vintage Watch Buyer (or Seller!)
As you learn more about antique watches, you may find yourself attracted to particular brands or styles, and wearing or carrying a vintage watch for which you have a special appreciation can be a real source of pride and pleasure. Vintage watches are, in our opinion, often undervalued compared to modern, high-end watch brands. The quality and craftsmanship that went into many finely-made mechanical watches is simply not available in modern watches for less than thousands of dollars, yet many vintage watches which exhibit the highest standards of the watchmaker's art can still be found at very reasonable prices... IF you know what to look for.
American railroad pocket watches, in particular, were some of the finest mechanical watches ever crafted. High-grade watches from Howard, Hamilton, Elgin, Waltham and Ball (just to name a few) can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the finest watch names in the world. There's just something special about carrying one of these fine old watches in your pocket: that solid feel, the daily ritual of winding and setting the time, and the often amazing performance and accuracy that these 100 year old micro-machines can provide is truly remarkable.
But whether you are an avid collector, a first-time buyer, or just someone who appreciates the timeless beauty of a vintage watch, there are certain factors you should always consider before purchasing ANY vintage watch. Here's our best advice to help you become a smarter vintage watch buyer.
Proper identification is key to knowing what you are buying. If you don't know what a watch is, or what its "market value" is, then how can you know if you're paying too much for it? In order to accurately determine value, you must first determine who manufactured the watch, and as much information as possible about the model, grade, age, size, quality and unique features of your watch. There is simply no way to be an informed watch buyer if you don't know what you're buying or what it normally sells for. Click here for our article on watch identification.
Checking the Condition of a Vintage Watch
Assessing the condition of a vintage watch is one of the toughest challenges for the inexperienced watch buyer, but this is one of the most important steps in any purchase. A watch that has been well-treated over the years, with careful handling and regular service, can be in near-new condition and will perform like a new watch. On the other hand, a watch that has been abused, or has been improperly serviced, can have hidden problems which are difficult or impossible to repair. These watches can turn into a real money-pit, often requiring repairs which can exceed the value of the watch. Such watches should be avoided at all costs!
So how do you tell? The first and most obvious clue is whether the watch is working. If the watch runs, even if only for a short time, that indicates that the watch is probably mechanically intact and there are not major broken components. If the watch is non-working, then the potential cost of repairs should be carefully considered before purchasing. Buying a non-working watch in hopes that the repairs will be inexpensive can be a money-losing proposition. On the other hand, if the repair is something simple, the watch can sometimes be purchased at a bargain price. So again, knowledge is the key!
Look for any obvious signs of abuse or lack of care. If the watch is worn, beat-up and dirty on the outside, then you can assume that it is probably worn, beat-up and dirty on the inside too. If there is anything obviously missing from the watch, then buyer beware! Missing screws or regulator springs, chewed up jewel settings, extra case-screw marks on the rim of the case, scratches on the movement around the plate screws showing that the watch has been "worked on" are all signs that the watch may not have had the care it deserved and may be in less than pristine internal condition.
Try winding and setting the watch. It should wind smoothly, with no uneven resistance and no grinding. If you can't wind the watch at all, it could be that the mainspring is already fully wound and the watch is too dirty to run, or there could be some other more significant problem with the watch. Don't let the seller tell you the watch is just "overwound". There's really no such thing as an overwound watch; if the watch is fully wound and is not running it's because there is something wrong with the watch that is preventing it from running... it has nothing to do with how wound-up it is.
The hands should move smoothly around the dial as you set the watch. If they jump or jerk as you set the watch, or if the hands catch on each other, that may indicated the need for service.
Assuming that the watch is in working condition, inspect for any obvious mechanical problems. Look straight down at the balance as it's running. Is it perfectly circular and true, or do you see a side-to-side wobble? Now examine the balance edge-on as it runs. Is it perfectly flat, or does it jump up and down? The balance should run true in all directions... if it's wobbling or jumping, it could be an indication of a serious problem. Similarly, examine the coils of the balance spring (hairspring). They should be concentric, even, and centered on the balance. As the balance oscillates, the hairspring should expand and contract smoothly and evenly. Beware of any watch where the balance spring appears bent and distorted, or is offset to one side of the balance.
Use Your Ears!
This takes a little practice, but listening closely to the sounds of the watch can tell a lot if you know what you're listening for. Hold it up to your ear and listen carefully to the sounds the watch is making. Every watch sounds different, but a properly running watch should have a crisp, clear ticking sound with a slight metallic ring. There should be no sounds of scuffing or dragging, double-knocking, or other noises that indicate anything but smooth, clean operation. Change the position of the watch as you're listening to see if the sounds change as the position of the watch changes. If there are big changes in the sounds of the watch as you move it from one position to another, that may be a sign that something is amiss.
Just Say "No" to Rust
If the watch shows ANY sign of rust or water damage (especially salt-water damage), that may be an indication of more serious problems. Nothing destroys a watch more quickly than rust! If the hands are rusted, it may well be an indication that more rust would be found on the setting and winding parts underneath the dial. Also look for rust on the movement, stem or steel case parts around the crown of the watch, as this is a likely place for water to get into the case. Avoid buying a watch that shows any sign of rust without a full inspection by a qualified watchmaker.
It's quite likely that any mechanical watch that's 75 to 100 years old has been worked on a few times over the years. Whether that work was done properly could have a significant impact on the current condition and ongoing reparability of a vintage watch. One of the first rules of good watch repair is "Do no harm to the watch" i.e. a watchmaker should never undertake repairs which alter the watch from its original state or make future repairs more difficult. Sometimes watchmakers in the past "made do" with the tools and parts that were available to them at the time, resulting in some less-than-satisfactory repair work. For example, perhaps they didn't have the exact right balance staff to fit the watch, but they had one that was "pretty close" so they installed it by opening up the hole in the balance arm, and filing a little bit off the balance-cock to reduce the end-shake. In doing so, the watchmaker altered the watch so that the correct balance staff will no longer fit! When a "botch-maker" who doesn't have the correct part alters the watch to fit the part, they do a huge disservice to the owner of the watch and to every watchmaker in the future who has the unmitigated joy of trying to figure out what they did!
Factor in the Cost of Service
If you are buying a good-quality watch from an online auction, a "mart" or a private-party sale, then it's quite possible the watch will need to be serviced to put it in proper running condition. If it's a high-grade watch, cleaning and lubrication are essential before you begin using the watch on a regular basis. The cost of this service, which can be significant, should be factored into the purchase price of any vintage watch. Unless you can get a watch at a particularly good price, sometimes it makes more sense to purchase a watch that has been already been properly serviced. What's a better deal: a watch that you buy for $300 with completely unknown condition and service history, or the same model watch bought for $500 in fully-serviced and guaranteed working condition?
Unless the watch is a rare or unusual piece, it almost never makes financial sense to purchase and repair or restore an old watch for the purpose of re-selling it. That 7-jewel Elgin that you picked up at the garage sale for $40 seemed like a real bargain. But after you put another $300 into restoring it and getting it running, only to find that you can only sell it for $150, it's not nearly as sweet of a deal.
Buy the best quality you can afford
While nearly all vintage watches have increased in price over the years, the watches that have increased the most in value are the higher quality watches. Our advice is to buy the best watch you can afford. Stretching a little for the higher quality watch may turn out to be the best long-term investment.
Jewel count isn't always a guarantee of quality, but it's a good starting point. Concentrate on "fully-jeweled" watches of at least 15 or 17 jewels. Many higher quality American pocket watches were 19-jewel, 21-jewel or 23-jewel models... and these tend to be the most sought after by collectors. We recommend that you avoid the 7-11 jewel Elgins and Walthams (and other extremely common watches) unless there is something else unusual or interesting about the watch. We see a lot of 7-jewel watches where the pivot-holes in the plates are worn into ovals by the high-pressure grinding action of the moving wheel. Once that happens, there's little that can be done (cost-effectively) to make the watch run properly. Stick with fully-jeweled watches and you'll have a much better chance of ending up with a watch that's dependable.
Buying for gold or silver content
As precious metals prices have increased, so too have the prices of vintage watches in karat (solid) gold cases. Unfortunately, this has led to a lot of fine old watches being sold to gold-buyers for scrap gold value, because the gold in the case is worth more than the watch inside. In the long run, this only drives up the value of watches that are preserved in their original karat cases, but it's a practice we abhor. We strongly encourage sellers to keep watch and case intact. Once a movement is stripped from a case and the case sold for scrap value, that watch is gone forever. Seems a shame to lose such an amazing piece of American history.
If you're looking for watches to purchase, be on the look-out for cases made from yellow or white gold, coin-silver, sterling silver, platinum or other precious metals. I don't often run across big, heavy solid-gold 18-size pocketwatch cases at swap-meets these days, but it's still possible to find smaller pendant-watches in karat cases. Sometimes testing by a jeweler is the only way to verify the metal composition of a case, but many times there are reliable markings or clues as to what the case is made of. Learn what to look for to tell a gold case from a gold-plated case.
Buying Vintage Watches from Online Auctions
Online auction sites like Ebay have certainly revolutionized the buying and selling of antiques, and vintage watches are no exception. But purchasing a vintage watch from an online auction presents its own unique set of challenges. Vintage watches are small, so defects are hard to see in a few online photos. They are mechanically complex, so many problems are simply not apparent in a photo-inspection. Problems can be hidden: it's almost impossible to tell anything about the internal condition of a watch without a hands-on inspection by someone who knows what to look for. I don't know how many times we've heard the same story: "I bought this nice watch on an online auction site. I got it at a great price! The seller said it was working great, but when I got it it would only run for 20 minutes before stopping, and the winder makes a funny grinding noise." OK... it looks like you bought a watch that doesn't work properly... maybe not such a bargain after all?
Even though there are a lot of honest and reputable sellers in the online auction world, there are also just enough dishonest sellers to make online auction purchase of vintage watches a risky proposition. If you are able to work with sellers who you know to be honest and reliable, then you may be able to find some nice watches in online auction sites. But recognize the special risk that comes with buying a watch that you can't see, hold or inspect: you may be buying a pig in a poke!
Buying Antique Watches from Flea-Markets, Swap Meets and Marts
Becoming a knowledgeable watch collector or buyer isn't going to happen overnight, and the more watches you look at, the better you'll get at spotting high-quality watches and avoiding problems. The more you learn, the more luck you'll have finding valuable pieces. Find out if there is a National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC) Chapter in your area. The NAWCC is a great place to meet other collectors, connect with buyers and sellers, attend "marts" where watches and clocks are sold, and learn more about collecting watches.
NAWCC "marts" used to be one of the primary markets for buying and selling vintage watches, but that has been changed by online auction sites like Ebay. Marts are still wonderful way to learn a lot about watches, but don't expect to find any "hidden treasures". Dealers often have the opportunity to look over eachothers inventory before the "public" are admitted to the mart, so the bargains are often gone before you ever get a chance to see them. Still, marts are great if you're looking for something specific, or if you just want to hang out with other watch collectors and talk vintage watches for awhile.
Buying from a Reputable Vintage Watch Dealer
One of the safest ways to buy a vintage watch is to purchase from a reputable dealer who can provide assurances (in the form of a warranty) as to the internal condition of the watch. Think of it like the difference between buying a certified, pre-owned vehicle that has been inspected and put in good running condition by a skilled mechanic, or a used car bought sight-unseen from an ad in the newspaper. By purchasing a watch that has been inspected and is guaranteed to be in proper working condition, you may save yourself a LOT of disappointment and unexpected expense. You'll no doubt pay more for a watch that has been serviced than you will for a watch in unknown condition... that only makes sense... but you'll know a lot more about what you're buying and can be assured that your investment is not wasted on a watch that either doesn't work properly or requires expensive repairs to make it work properly. If purchasing from a dealer, be sure that you understand the terms of any guarantee or return policy.
Just get started... you'll be glad you did.
In summary, there are many excellent reasons to collect vintage watches, and we hope these tips can help you be a little smarter the next time you're thinking about buying a vintage watch. Vintage watches are a broad subject area, so don't try to eat the entire elephant at one sitting. Pick an area of focus, whether it be a time period, a certain manufacturer, a certain style of watch or whatever aspect of collecting strikes your fancy and learn as much as you can. The key is: learn as much as you can! There's no substitute for education, and it won't take long before you start to develop your own "eye" for what makes a good, collectible watch. As your confidence and understanding grows, so will your ability to recognize which watches are good purchases and which should be avoided.
But we warn you: collecting vintage watches can be a very addictive hobby... and a thoroughly enjoyable one as well! It can even be a profitable hobby if you equip yourself with a little knowledge. Once you buy that first watch and get captured by the magic of these wonderful old vintage timepieces, you just might turn into a VINTAGE WATCH COLLECTOR. And we don't know any watch collector who has just ONE watch in their collection!