Pocketwatch 101™ – Essential Information about Vintage and Antique Pocket Watches
"How Much Is My Vintage Pocket Watch Worth?"
How to Determine the Value of Your Vintage or Antique Watch
If you've arrived at this page, it's probably because you're looking for an easy way to determine the value of your antique watch. "What's my watch worth?" seems like such a simple question, and I wish we could offer you an antique watch price guide where all you had to do was type in your watch's serial number and up would pop the watch's value, but it's just not that simple!
Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy way to value an old watch unless you are a watch expert, and even then it can be tricky. Vintage watches are a unique and relatively complex mechanical antique that can span a range of several hundred years of production, with millions of watches produced and thousands of variations which can affect value.
Whether you are a buyer or seller of vintage watches, knowing what you're looking at and having a good understanding of the factors which affect the fair-market value of a watch could make hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars difference in the price you pay or receive. While we are primarily concerned with evaluating vintage pocket watches, these same general rules apply to any antique watch, including vintage wristwatches. We hope that the information we've provided helps you learn more about your watch, and helps you become a more informed buyer or seller of vintage watches.
10 Keys to Understanding Vintage Pocket Watch Value
If you don't know what your watch is, there's no possible way to know what it's worth. If you're buying or selling a car, it's not enough just to know that it's an old Ford. You would need to know the year, model, engine size and type, whether it's an automatic or manual transmission, how many miles it has on it, what kind of condition it's in, what special features it had that made it more or less collectible, etc. The same is true for vintage watches. In order to accurately determine value, you must first determine who made the watch (its manufacturer), and as much information as possible about the model, grade, age, size, quality and unique features of your watch. Click here for our article on watch identification.
For many American watch brands, the age can be determined using the serial number from the movement (the working part) of the watch. You must use the serial number from the movement, not the serial number from the watch case! Our Company History Pages have serial number information for many of the more common watch brands.
For some watches, particularly Swiss or European watches, it is much harder to determine the age of the watch. Most Swiss pocket watches did not have a unique serial number which can be used to date the watch, and for those watches the age must be estimated by the style of the movement and the way the watch is constructed. Unfortunately, this requires a fair amount of experience and understanding of how watches were constructed over the years. Several of the books and vintage watch pricing guides on our Watch Books page can help you learn to identify various movement types and styles.
Some watches were very cheaply made, while others used the best materials, and were very finely finished. Determining the overall quality of your watch is a key to understanding its value. One general rule-of-thumb is jewel count; the higher the jewel count, the higher the quality. Most antique watches (with a few exceptions) have a minimum of seven jewels, and for standard movements the highest jewel counts were 23 or 24 jewels. Below 15 jewels is considered a lower-grade watch. 15-17 jewels would be considered a mid-grade watch, and 19, 21, 23 or 24 jewel movements would be considered high-grade. Sometimes the number of jewels is marked on the movement, as in "19J", and sometimes it can only be determined by a watchmaker examining the watch. See our article on Watch Jewels if you're interested in learning more about why jewels are used in watches.
Jewelling is only one indication of quality, but there are many others. The level of movement finish and material is another important consideration. Some watch movements are fairly rough, unadorned, and not very highly finished. Other watches exhibit a high degree of finish. For example, polished and damaskeened plates, gold jewel settings, polished and blued screws, rounded spokes and/or gold-plated wheels, motor-barrels, "chiseled" teeth on the escape wheel... all are indications of a higher-grade watch where special attention has been paid to the details of construction.
As with any antique, condition is an extremely important consideration... many would argue THE most important consideration. First, is the watch working or not? A watch is non-working condition is worth substantially less than one that works, because the purchaser must factor the unknown cost of repairs into the purchase price. Every collector can tell you a story about buying a watch that they thought was a real bargain, only to find out that it had serious hidden mechanical problems that rendered it essentially worthless.
Now examine the case and external surfaces of the watch. If the external condition of the watch is rough, with dents and dings in the case, cracked glass, missing hands and cracks or chips in the enamel dial, then it is likely that the watch has been roughly handled and the internal condition will probably reflect that handling. Do the case parts align properly? Are the hinges bent or over-stressed? Is there brass showing through the gold plating around the edges of the case? Is the watch especially dirty? Caked on dirt or grease in the cracks and crevices indicate a watch that hasn't been properly maintained, which can be a sure sign of potential problems.
Now open the back of the case and examine the movement. If you don't know how to open the case, don't force it... get some instructions starting with our article on opening various types of pocket watch cases. If the screws holding the movement in the case are mismatched, or if it appears that parts of the watch have been replaced, then a more thorough examination by a professional watchmaker is in order. If the movement has a lot of scratches around the case screws, or if the movement screws themselves are "chewed up" then it's likely that the watch has been worked on by individuals who may not have been as careful as they should have been!
If the watch is in working condition, hold it to your ear and listen carefully to what you hear. Is the ticking of the watch clean and crisp, with a faint metallic ring, or does it sound rough, like something is loose or dragging? Observe the motion of the balance wheel. Does it look straight and true, or is there a wobble in the motion of the balance? Any wobble could be an indication of a bent or broken balance pivot, an "out of true" balance, or damage to the balance jewels.
If the watch shows any sign of rust or water damage, that could be a sign of more serious problems. Nothing destroys a watch movement 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 or steel case parts around the crown of the watch, as this is a likely place for water to get into the case.
How the watch looks... its "visual appeal"... can have a lot to do with its value. Sparkling blue hands on a clean, un-chipped white enamel dial give the watch that classic look of quality and craftsmanship that collectors really value. Is the case straight and handsomely engraved? Does the watch movement have an interesting damaskeening pattern, a two-tone movement, or other especially appealing visual qualities? Does it have a visually interesting or unusual dial, like a Montgomery, a Ferguson or a Canadian-style railroad dial? Sometimes just having a unique or interesting dial (especially in excellent condition) can greatly enhance the value of the watch.
Is the case solid gold, or gold-plated or some other material? With gold well over $1500 per ounce, a solid gold case can add significantly to the value of a watch. Our article on how to tell whether a watch case is gold or gold plated is a good place to start.
Many high-quality watches had gold-plated train wheels, gold jewel-settings, or other uses of precious metal in the movement itself. Recognizing where these materials were used allows for a more accurate assessment of value.
Authenticity and Originality:
Collectors value pocket watches that are in all-original condition. If the watch is in original condition, as it came from the factory, it will command a higher price than one which is less original. Are all the hands of the same style or has one been replaced with something of a different style? Also look for extra screw marks on the case rim, indicating that the case may not be original to the watch.
Authenticity is also a consideration, though we haven't seen examples of counterfeiting in American pocket watches. Some highly regarded European makers are sometimes copied, so this can be more of a concern if you are collecting early European watches.
For the avid watch collector, certain unique features can significantly increase the value of the watch. If the watch uses a unique escapement, has a particularly low serial number, or introduced a new technological advancement, that can make the watch more valuable to the collector. For example, does the watch have diamond end-stones on the balance cap-jewels? A wolf's tooth ratchet wheel? An interesting stop-works on the mainspring? These mechanical details, when recognized, can enhance the collectibility and hence the value of the watch.
Not every old watch is rare and not every old watch is valuable; Waltham and Elgin both produced over one million watches per year in their heyday! It's imporant to realize that the vast majority of vintage watches, especially in heavily used or non-working condition, are worth less than $200, and many are worth almost nothing. For example, a well-worn 7-jewel Elgin watch in non-working condition has very little value, as the cost of repairs would typically exceed the value of the watch. How many of a particular model of watch were made? Some watches were produced in huge quantities, while for others only a few examples exist. This is another factor which is difficult to determine without a fair amount of knowledge and experience. For some brands, accurate production records exist, while other brands have almost no production information.
Market Awareness - What's "hot" and what's not:
Market trends can have a lot to do with value. Watches and watch brands come into and out of fashion. Some brands become popular and collectors will pay more for them, while equally beautiful watches of a different brand languish in price. The only way to determine market trends is to be very familiar with the watch market. What prices are being obtained at collector's "marts," auctions and private sales?
The Complete Price Guide to Watches (listed on our books page) is considered one of the best sources of collector's prices for vintage watches, but it should not be relied upon as a sole source of valuation. A book which is published once per year can't keep up with the daily fluctuations in market value for precious metals, and with gold at today's astronomical prices, even small fluctuations can make a significant difference in the value of a gold watch. Based on our experience, collector's book values tend to be slightly higher than "real-world" market prices being paid at marts and auctions... but it's a great starting point.
Some of the best sources of current market prices paid for vintage watches are online auction sites like Ebay. There is NO larger market for vintage collectibles than Ebay, and looking at completed auctions to see what vintage watches have actually sold for is the best real-world indicator of what someone might be willing to pay for a particular watch. Again, proper identification becomes paramount, as it is essential to know whether the watch you're looking at is really the same as yours.
OK... So what's the value of my vintage pocket watch?
After all that, you probably still want to know the value of your watch. The bottom line on watch value is really quite simple: It doesn't matter what a book says your watch is worth, or what some collector or watch expert tells you your watch is worth. Your watch is only worth what someone is willing to pay you for it, so unless you have a willing buyer with cash in hand, anyone's opinion of what your watch is worth is just that... an opinion!
So your choice is to either invest the time and effort to educate yourself so that you can make a determination of value on your own, or find an experienced watch professional who can provide an informed opinion for you. If you decide to seek out the help of a professional it is essential that you find a vintage watch expert. Most jewelry store appraisers are not familiar with the special features of watches and the vintage watch market. They may be able to tell you about the gold case or the gems on the bezel, but most of them know nothing about the watch itself. The result is often either an "Antique Roadshow" appraisal that greatly over-values the watch, or a low-ball that completely misses the mark because the appraiser didn't recognize the special aspects of a particular watch. Pawn shops are usually another really bad place to get an "appraisal" on your watch as their only interest is buying low and selling high, and unless they happen to have a watch expert in-house, they seldom know the real value of a vintage watch.
If you're willing to invest a little time in learning more about your vintage pocket watch, you may find that you not only learn its value but also discover the many pleasures and rewards of learning about and collecting vintage American pocket watches. If you simply don't want to or don't have time to do your own research and want a professional identification and evaluation of your antique watch, then please check out our Professional Watch Market Evaluation Service.