Highly Jeweled Watches

As explained elsewhere, jewels play a very important role in making a pocket watch both durable and accurate. In the middle 1800's, a watch with 15 jewels was considered "high grade", but as time passed watches with 17, 19 and 21 jewels became the standards of what was required for a "high grade" watch, in spite of the fact that most collectors acknowledge that a pocket watch didn't really gain much in the way of accuracy or durability once it had more than 17 jewels, since a 17 jewel watch has all of its major wheels jeweled with the exception of the mainspring barrel, and the mainspring barrel revolves so slowly that it really isn't noticibly affected by the friction that jewels were designed to reduce. And, in fact, watches with more than 17 jewels also tend to be harder to repair and maintain, which can be seen as a distinct liability.

And yet, by the 1930's many American railroads were requiring that all watches used for railroad service have 21 jewels. Perhaps this was driven by an inaccurate perception in the mind of the public that "the more jewels, the better". Or perhaps it was simply an acknowledgment that if a watchmaker went to the trouble of adding extra jewels, it likely also took the time to make sure that every other aspect of the watch was the best quality possible. Whatever the reason, some companies decided to take it one step further and began producing watches with additional, wholly unnecessary jewels. By the early 1900's a number of American companies began producing railroad grade watches with 23 jewels, and some companies even went so far as to produce models with 24 and 25 jewels [watches with 26 and 27 jewels are also rumored to exist, but there are few if any surviving examples today].

These extra jewels were, in fact, fully functional and not just added for show, but they were unnecessary in the sense that they didn't contribute to the timekeeping ability of the watch. And much of their value lies in their relative rareness, not in their superior construction. And yet, and yet... In my mind, these extra jewels are sort of like the leather interior and the Bose stereo on the best luxury cars. These extra features don't add to the car's performance by themselves, but they're an extra sign that the maker wanted to make the best possible watch.

One of my goals as a collector, by the way, has been to acquire an "overly jeweled" 18 size watch produced by each of the major American watch companies. So far I have one by Waltham, Elgin, Hamilton, Hampden and Illinois.

If anybody has some additional information about these watches that they would care to share with me, please send me an e-mail and let me know!

Click on any image below to see additional pictures and information for that watch.

Waltham "Vanguard" pocket watch. Size 18, Model 1892. Stem wind and lever set. 23 jewels, adjusted to 5 positions. Housed in a lovely gold-filled hunter case. Ca. 1902.
Waltham Model #1899, "Riverside Maximus" pocket watch. 16 size, 23 jewel, stem wind and pendant set, adjusted to temperature and five positions. Nicely engraved gold-filled case. Ca. 1902.
Another Waltham "Vanguard" pocket watch. 16 size, Model 1908, stem wind and lever set. Not only does it have has 23 jewels, it also has a rare up-down wind indicator.It's in a gold-filled railroad style case and is ca. 1913.
18 size, 23 jewel Hamilton "946" railroad grade and railroad approved pocket watch. Stem wind and lever set, adjusted to five positions. Nicely engraved gold-filled case. Ca. 1906.
16 size, 23 jewel, Hamilton "950" prestige pocket watch. Stem wind and pendant set, adjusted to five positions. Gold screw-down jewel settings and a solid gold train. Housed in an especially fine gold-filled case. Ca. 1912.
18 Size Illinois "Bunn Special" in a highly engraved solid 14k gold hunter case. Stem wind, lever set, with 24 ruby jewels. Ca. 1900.
Illinois "Bunn Special" railroad grade and approved pocket watch in a highly engraved solid 14k gold case. Size 18, 24 ruby jewels, adjusted to temperature, isochronism & 6 positions. Stem wind and lever set. "Gothic" style double sunk railroad dial. Ca. 1903.
16 size Illinois "Bunn Special" pocket watch, grade 163, rare type "I-R". 23 jewels, 60-hour mainspring. Stem wind and lever set. Housed in a really sharp white gold filled "Bunn Special" case. Ca. 1931.
An 18 size Hampden "New Railway" pocket watch with 23 jewels. Railroad grade and approved, stem wind and lever set. Housed in a nicely engraved gold-filled case. Ca. 1909.
Elgin 18 Size Model #8, "Veritas" railroad approved pocket watch. It is stem wind and lever set and has 23 jewels. It is housed in a nice plain-polished Silverode case. The serial number of 8400348 dates it to about 1900.

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