Collectible watches: an introduction

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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