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Collectible watches: an introduction

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Constant exposure and study are the keys to expertise in any area. But here are some tips that can help even novices avoid costly errors when buying and selling old watches

Watch and clock collecting is growing ever more popular, with some jewelers among its devotees. Jewelers, of course, are in better-than-average positions to acquire such items. Customers who require appraisals or want to dispose of a relative’s estate often turn to their jeweler for help.

Antique watches appear alongside antique jewelry and modern items in many jewelry shop windows on New York’s 47 St. One jeweler believes that offering antique items for sale builds respect among customers and shows he loves his business. It also attracts new customers who want to sell old family items or add to their own private collections.

The jeweler who decides to set up a department of vintage wrist and pocket watches needs some guidelines. But no courses on old clocks and watches are available. And while experts do give lectures at watch and clock collectors’ meetings, these are offered on an irregular schedule.

The good news is that many stuhrling automatic watch review by leading authorities are available as references and guides. JC-K’s Book Club catalog, for example, describes volumes covering many facets of collecting, with current values, advice to beginners and tables listing the age of an item, its comparative scarcity and appeal.

Expertise in any area is acquired by constant exposure and study. Here are some tips to help avoid costly errors in buying and selling. Let’s look first at the types of watches collectors seek.

What’s in demand: Scarcity is the key to value for any collectible. A watch becomes scarce because it was produced in limited numbers or because it contains special features that make it unique. (See Fig. 1.)

Scarcity also arises from reduction in numbers of older items because of irreparable damage, loss, fire, neglect and the simple passage of time. For example, the cheaply made Ingersoll Mickey Mouse watches were produced in the millions about 50 years ago. Today, the few still surviving bring multiples of their original cost in the vintage watch market.

Quality items hold their value — and their quality — longer because their proud owners generally take better care of them.

Skeletonized watches with artistically pierced movement plates through which the mechanical movements may be observed appeal to collectors. In fact, this design now is in vogue in many new top-of-the-line watches.

Animated watches with applied subjects on their dials also attract collectors (see Fig. 9).

Sturdy railroad watches (Fig. 6) with bold Arabic numerals and dials bearing the maker’s name appeal as well. Some names with special appeal to collectors are E. Howard, Waltham, Elgin, United States Watch Co. (at Marion, N.J.), Studebaker, South Bend, Illinois, Hamilton, Rockford and Seth Thomas.

Highly jeweled railroad watches (Fig. 4) — some with 19, 21, 23, 25 and even 26 jewels — are sought after. Some also have an extra dial-ette that records the amount of mainspring power remaining in the watch. These so-called “Up and Down” indicators use a tiny differential, not unlike that in the rear end of your auto. Railroad watches and precision timekeepers with such features are more valuable.

Still rarer and especially attractive to knowledgeable collectors are 19th century European and English watches with unusual escapements. Also desirable are multicolored gold watch cases carved in high relief and “box” cases with engraving or multicolored gold applique and steam engine, horse or other animal motifs. Masonic emblems or portraits of historic figures also are appealing. (See Figs. 3 and 5.)

Ladies’ pendant watches strangely have not appreciated in value, though they often are attractive and well-made.

Some younger collectors are on the lookout for Mickey Mouse models and for pocket or wristwatches featuring dials with such characters as Spiro Agnew, Babe Ruth, Orphan Annie and the Lone Ranger.

U.S. factories have produced more than 125 million watches in their 100 years of productive history. For that reason, many watches offered to jewelers are of U.S. origin. Many are collectible, and most collectors naturally like to acquire top examples of their country’s horological art.

Movements in U.S. pocket watches were highly decorated with a type of engine-turning called damascening (see Fig. 10). Most U.S. factories embellished their quality watches with these intricate designs. Factories also placed a serialized production number on each movement, regardless of grade or quality. Thus reference akribos mens watch reviews (some of which are listed later) can be used to pinpoint authenticity, exact age or year of production, jewel count and other details. These books also indicate a comparative current value depending on watch condition.

Grading watch quality: Dealers grade watches as mint, near mint, fine and fair. The term mint condition often is used loosely to describe an item that appears factory-new. To an experienced collector, however, a watch would have to be in its original box and virtually unused to deserve that term. Observation under 5X magnification should reveal no scratches on the case or movement. Its steelwork should be devoid of even the tiniest rust spots — or, heaven forbid, fingerprints! The steel work on higher grade watches should exhibit a dead-flat black mirror finish. Dials, if porcelain, should be devoid of any hairline cracks, fissures or chips discernible under high magnification.

In near mint watches, all parts should be original, with wear marks visible only under the 5X loupe inspection. Fine also requires all original parts and little case wear. In a watch in fair condition, the porcelain dial reveals hairline fissures, the gold or gold-filled case shows wear along the handling edges, and engravings show some wear. The movement may have repairable rust spots or minor scratches.

A watch in mint condition is worth about four times as much as one in fair condition, excluding its metal content. Cases in cheaper watches often were marked with the number of years their gold plating might last — a practice no longer permitted.

Numerals and logos on metal dials almost always were printed over an applied layer of silver. These may be tarnished, with fading colors or logos, and are less desirable than porcelain dials.

In many older U.S. watches with porcelain dials, numerals were hand painted and fired into the enamel surface. Dial painters were indeed artisans; many could divide the small hour circle into 60 minute divisions accurately by eye. You can distinguish the newer machine-painted dials by observing the uniformity of tint in figures or numerals. Tints seldom were uniform in hand-painted dials, discrepancies depending on how and how often painters dipped their brushes into the paint-wells.

Silver dials with applied numerals in very high karat gold are desirable.

Railroad watch dials in which minutes are marked 1 to 60 around the outermost circle are called “Montgomery dials” after their designer and patent holder (see Fig. 7). Numbers at five-minute intervals (ie 5, 10, 15) on the outer circle often are red, which enhances the watches’ value. The main numerals are in bold arabic — a requirement of “official” railroad watches.

In many highly-jeweled watches, the jewels were set into solid gold with dead-flat highly polished surfaces. Steel screws with polished heads blued by heat-treatment held the jewels onto their plates and bridges. The condition of these jewel settings and their screws, plus the polish and condition of the finely adjusted escapements, balances and blue-steel hairsprings must be inspected closely. Watch for fingerprints etched into their surfaces, which polishing won’t remove. These reveal that a careless workman put his unskilled hands into the movements.

A few of the cheap watches made by Waterbury Watch Co. — a forerunner of Timex — are desirable collectors’ pieces. These watches, with their loud-ticking duplex escapements and sunburst-style brass escape wheels observed through skeletonized movements and dials, are much sought after. (See Fig. 11.)

True collectors covet 17th and 18th century watches. But new collectors shouldn’t jump at such items without consulting an expert. Watches with so many years behind them often have gone through many repairers’ and owners’ hands. Some repairers are better than others; some who attempt restoration know too little about horological history or how the watch appeared when new. Such knowledge, plus a look at museum pieces of those ages, are needed before purchase.

In addition, clever reproductions which might fool the novice are apparent to the experienced. For example, a group of clever Viennese craftsmen created many watches, some with artistic enameling, in the early and mid-19th century (see Fig. 8). These are attractive and collectible in their own right, but should not be confused with the 16th and 17th century pieces on which they were modeled (see Fig. 2). Examine the quality and intensity of color in both groups and the sharpness of detail in the originals. Note, too, the price estimates (these photos were taken from auction catalogs, which include pre-sale estimates).

Fakes, forgeries, imitations: If one is famous, he or she faces the prospect of imitation or outright forgery of one’s name on an inferior product.

Thomas Tompion was the first watchmaker to have his name thus forged. The story is told of a gentleman who came to Tompion’s shop, suspicious of a watch with Tompion’s name on it. He asked the Master to verify its origin and authenticity. Tompion took the watch and smashed it to the stone floor, then went to his drawer and took out a watch, which he presented to the astonished on-looker. “This, sir,” he said, “is a genuine Tompion!”

Others, such as Graham and Mudge, were similarly imitated. But Breguet of Paris had perhaps the most forged name on watches of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. To overcome this nuisance, he perfected a reverse pantograph which he used to create a secret signature on his dials (see Fig. 12). This signature was so small that a knowledgeable person could observe it only through high magnification when holding the watch at a certain angle under good lighting. Breguet also documented each watch minutely, and in duplicate. One record was kept in a parchment book, separated from its duplicate by hand cutting the parchment with a straight razor in an irregular scalloped stroke. The duplicate, with its tell-tale scalloped edge, went with the watch.

Breguet also gave each watch a serialized production number, and when that reached 5999, he started a new series. Forgers, who knew their work could be easily discovered in the Breguet establishment, almost always used serial numbers above 6000. Any “Breguet” with numbers above 6000 is certain to be an imitation.

The house of Breguet still exists and will verify any watch for a fee. A copy of the original bill of sale listing costs, the assistants who worked on the watch, its timekeeping performance when delivered and, of course, a copy of the famous Breguet signature will be provided.

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The social stigma with six legs

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M OST Torontonians wouldn’t recognize a cockroach if it crawled across their plate,” says Professor Stephen Tobe, cockroach expert at the University of Toronto’s Zoology department.

The curious and the concerned often come to Prof. Tobe with home-grown samples, and are “horrified and disgusted” to learn what uninvited house guests really are. “People associate them with filth. They’re a real social stigma.” By contrast, Prof. Tobe tells how he watched as a waiter in a very expensive New Orleans restaurant calmly reached over and crushed in a napkin a large, southern specimen climbing up the wall. “They’re used to them down there,” he explains. “If you lived in Florida you’d be used to having the house sprayed once a month.” Torontonians, however, are rapidly becoming acquainted with these little beasts. Some might say it’s about time. Cockroaches have been around for literally millions of years and fossilized remains prove that they’ve changed very little over the eons. Obviously, they are well designed for what they do.

Everyone agrees they’re unpleasant, but are they harmful? Toronto is fortunate in having two world- class cockroach experts. Besides Prof. Tobe, there is Mrs. Janet Avery, Educational Consultant for the City of Toronto’s Health Department. Unfortunately, they disagree.

While Prof. Tobe almost comes across as the roach’s apologist, claiming the beast is no more dangerous than the house fly, Mrs. Avery is less charitable. When asked if the cockroach is a health hazard, she answers an unequivocal “yes.” Having completed an exhaustive study of Toronto’s roach population, she has no illusions. “I’ve been in apartments where they’ve dropped from the ceiling onto my head, crawled up my pant leg and hidden in the rubber door seals of fridges,” she recounts in grisly detail.

The cockroach itself doesn’t bite or sting but, according to Mrs. Avery, it can carry such unappetizing microbes as Salmonella and urogenital infection bacteria. Both the World Health Organization and the Public Health Act identify the cockroach as a health hazard. The main problem is their affinity for warm, damp places. They frequently create “runways” between the bathroom and the kitchen.

Prof. Tobe doesn’t see this at all. “The organic pest control companies like to spread this around because it’s in their interest. But when you challenge them, they back down, because they can’t support it.” He does acknowledge that a cockroach from the worst New York slum may carry dangerous bacteria. The cockroach is apparently the product of his environment. In relatively clean surroundings the cockroach is relatively clean.

Then, is a Rosedale roach better than a Parkdale roach? “I don’t think so,” laughs Mrs. Avery. “No one can tell where they’ve been.” While roaches don’t travel far under they’re own steam, they do get around. If they lay their eggs in a potato warehouse, anyone who buys a bag of those potatoes at their local supermarket may subsequently have a cockroach infestation.

Mrs. Avery also raises the important psychological stress factor. “Some people are so terrified, they can’t get up at night when the cockroaches are out. Or there’s the woman who won’t have guests over because she’s afraid a roach will pop its head up at the dinner table.” This sort of stress can be very unhealthy.

One thing Mrs. Avery and Prof. Tobe agree upon is that the numbers are growing. No one has taken a census, but when you consider the average female cockroach only has to be fertilized once to produce 20,000 eggs, their abundance is not surprising.

Perhaps, though, people are just becoming more aware of the cockroach. With a wave of young professionals migrating from the antiseptic suburbs to the sometimes funky inner city, one is tempted to dismiss the roach phenomenon as “a new sensitivity to an old problem.” Not so. According to Mrs. Avery, North York and Scarborough both have burgeoning cockroach populations. Even Brampton has a few crawlies.

The chief culprit is, of course, the high-rise apartment building where the sheer number of people carrying food, furniture and garbage in and out of the building increases the odds of infestation. Once a colony has established itself in a highrise, the plumbing and heating conduits provide safe havens even if the building is sprayed.

Mrs. Avery’s recent cockroach study focused on non-toxic pest control, Integrated PestManagement. Because of the controversial nature of the chemical sprays normally used, the Health Department has found another option. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) uses non-toxic compounds such as Boric Acid (dangerous if swallowed) and Diatomaceous earth, an abrasive substance which works well in tight crevices. When roaches rub against it, their shells are scratched, their bodies lose moisture and the roaches die of dehydration. Mrs. Avery also mentions such home remedies as crushed bay leaves or garlic. Both work as repellents. But the real secret, she says, is to “think like roaches.” Apartment dwellers should be aware that it is the landlord’s responsibility to control cockroaches where they are in sufficient numbers to be judged a health hazard. Some people object, however, to having their home regularly sprayed with dubious chemicals. In these cases the City of Toronto’s Department of Health tries to encourage landlords to adopt an IPM approach. This method does, however, demand a much greater time and energy commitment on the tenant’s part.

Perhaps the future hope resides in Hydroprene, a juvenile roach hormone which renders adult male roaches sterile. Although already being marketed in the United States, Hydroprene is still not available for use in Canada.

Like the upstairs neighbor who is suddenly invaded when the apartment below is sprayed, we may be in for a massive trans- border infestation of American roaches fleeing this new hormonal spray.

It may already be happening. Prof. Tobe tells of a hitherto absent southern species called the Carolina Cockroach which has recently been sighted in Toronto.

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