The third edition of my popular "New Collector's Guide to Pocket Watches" is now available at my Barry's World store at a special introductory price of only $10.98 + s/h. Credit cards and international orders now gleefully accepted! For more information and to order, click HERE.
When I first started collecting pocket watches, I knew absolutely nothing
about them except they looked nice and I wanted one. I couldn't even
figure out how to set the time on my first watch! As with any specialized
field, pocket watch collecting has its own terminology, and it's not always
easy for a novice collector to understand what the "experts" are talking
about. What follows is a brief explanation of some of the terms I use when
describing my watches, as well as some [hopefully] helpful information about
watches in general. This is not meant as a scholarly treatise, and much
of what I say are basic generalizations.
Also, I now have available copies of my informative and lavishly illustrated 40+ page booklet "The New Collector's Guide to Pocket Watches." This self-published booklet expands upon much that is found on this page, and also includes a number of additional sections, including a brief history of timekeeping through the ages, a diagram of all the major parts of a watch, and much, much more. For information on getting a copy, please click HERE or go to http://www.cafepress.com/barrysworld/1266340.
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The following is a list of general terms used by watch collectors, together with a basic definition for each term:
|Arbor||Another name for the shaft that passes through each of the gears, or wheels, that make up the bulk of a watch's movement. The arbor of the balance wheel is called the ''balance staff.'|
|Balance Wheel||The little wheel visible on most watch movements which rotates rapidly back and forth. The balance serves the same purpose as the pendulum in a clock. Balance wheels on older [pre-20th Century] watches are usually flat steel or gold, while on later watches they usually have a number of small screws attached which are used to adjust the watch for accuracy.|
|Bezel||The ring of metal that holds the crystal in place. Bezels can usually be removed by either prying them off or unscrewing them, depending on the watch, but care should be taken not to break the crystal in the process.|
|Bridge||The movement of a watch consists of a top and bottom plate of metal, between which are located all the gears. On many watches the top plate of the watch [the plate visible when you remove the back cover] is divided into separate sections, called ''bridges.'' A ''two finger bridge'' or a ''three-finger bridge'' watch is one that has two or three short narrow bridges next to each other that resemble fingers. The balance wheel usually has its own separate bridge which is often referred to as the ''balance bridge'' or the ''balance cock.|
|Case||The metal shell that houses the actual movement of the watch. Cases can be made of gold, silver, brass, nickel or a variety of other metals. Some are plain, whereas others are extremely ornate.|
|Chronograph||With American watches, a chronograph is a combination watch and stopwatch. With English watches, the term is often used to denote a watch that can be stopped and restarted on demand for timing or calibration purposes. Most chronographs are easily recognizable by the fact that they have a central sweep second hand, and many also have separate small dials [or ''registers''] to keep track of elapsed time.|
|Chronometer||Denotes a watch of superior quality. Note that just calling a watch a chronometer doesn't necessarily make it one. This term is also used to refer to watches with a chronometer-style escapement.|
|Crown||The knob attached to the top of the winding stem.|
|Crystal||The transparent covering over the dial which protects it from dust and damage. Crystals can be either glass [called ''mineral crystals''] or plastic [called ''acrylic crystals'']. Plastic crystals have been around since the 1930's, and the earliest ones were actually made of celluloid. Remaining examples of celluloid crystals are often discolored with age. In general, plastic crystals tend to scratch more easily than mineral crystals. On the bright side, though, they don't tend to break as easily as mineral ones.|
|Damaskeening||A wholly American idiom [probably a corruption of ''Damascus''] used to describe the detailed engraving many watch companies put on their movements. Damaskeening comes in many different patterns, and is an art form in its own right. Also spelled ''damascening.'|
|Demi-Hunter Case||This is a hunter case that has a circular window cut out of the front cover, often with an additional crystal inset. Most demi-hunter cases have additional numbers on front cover of the case which correspond to the numbers on the dial, which means that you can actually tell the time by looking through the central window without having to actually open the case. A ''true'' demi-hunter cased watch will also have a special hour hand with an additional pointer on it that can be seen with the cover closed. Also known as a ''half-hunter'' case.|
|Dial||The face of the watch, often made of enamel over metal or just metal, where the numbers and hands are located. Clocks have faces. Watches have dials.|
|Dust Cover||An inner cover protecting the movement of the watch from the harmful effects of the environment. This is most often found with keywind and hunter case watches. Also known as a ''cuvette.''|
|Ebauche||In general, this refers to a style of unfinished watch movement that was mass produced by various Swiss companies in the mid to late 1800's and which were then shipped to retailers or jewelers who ''finished'' the watch by adding the dial, hands, case, jewels, the escapement, etc. Quite often the name engraved on a European watch from this period is that of the retailer and not of the company that actually made the watch itself.|
|Escapement||Left to its own devices, the mainspring of a watch would wind down in a matter of seconds. The escapement is the part of the watch mechanism that keeps this from happening, forcing the mainspring to instead unwind at a slow, regular pace. The regular interaction of the various parts of the escapement is what literally makes a watch "tick."|
|Hairspring||An incredibly fine and delicate metal coil attached to the balance wheel that expands and contracts and thus allows the balance wheel to rotate back and forth as it receives power from the mainspring. This serves the same function as a pendulum in a clock.|
|Hunter Case||A ''hunter case'' watch is simply a watch with a front cover. A watch without a front cover is called an open face watch. Also known as a ''hunting case.''|
|Mainspring||A long, thin strip of highly tensile metal which is coiled up inside the watch mechanism and which gives the watch it's power. Winding a watch coils the spring, and it slowly unwinds over the course of the day. The mainspring replaces the heavy weights which were previously used in clocks and which depended on gravity. The mainspring is housed within the ''Mainspring Barrel'' which slowly rotates as the spring unwinds.|
|Movement||The inner workings of the watch, the ''guts'' or ''works.'' The actual watch itself, as opposed to the case which may or may not be original to the watch. When a collector refers to a watch's serial number, he or she is talking about the number engraved on the movement.|
|Pinion||The larger [usually spoked] gears of a watch are called ''wheels.'' The smaller, solid gears are called ''pinions.'' A ''Saftey Pinion'' was a special design used on many watches to reduce the risk of damage to the movement in the event the mainspring should break.|
|Regulator||A device near the balance wheel which allows you speed up or slow down the watch to a small degree. Most American watches have regulators marked ''F'' [''fast''] and ''S'' [''slow''], whereas many European watches are marked ''A'' [''advance''] and ''R'' [''retard'']. Some regulators have a simple needle which can be pushed in the desired direction. Other regulators [especially those found on higher grade watches] are designed so that they can be moved only a little bit at a time for precise calibration, and these are generally referred to as micrometric regulators.|
|Sidewinder||A ''sidewinder'' is a watch movement designed for a hunter case which has been placed into an open face case instead, with the result being that its winding stem is at the 3:00 position instead of the normal 12:00.|
|Winding  Stem                            ||The shaft that sticks out of the watch. Technically, the stem is the actual shaft and the pendant is the outer casing, but the terms are often interchanged. On watches that are ''stem wind,'' you turn the crown on top of the stem to wind them, and on watches that are ''pendant set,'' you pull out the crown and turn it to set the time.|
|Wheel||The larger [usually spoked] gears of a watch are called ''wheels.'' The smaller, solid gears are called ''pinions.''|
Most people think that you set a pocket watch the same way you set a wrist watch, by pulling out the winding stem. Well, that is true with many pocket watches, but by no means all of them! In fact, there are four main ways pocket watches can be set, and if you don't know how your watch is set you can break it by pulling too hard on the stem.
Most of the information crucial to identifying a particular pocket watch is inscribed on the watch movement [the "works"]. Different watches allow you to see the movement in different ways, however, and if you don't realize how your watch opens up you can damage it.
A watch movement mostly consists of a number of gears [called "wheels"] held in place by an upper and a lower plate. Each wheel has a central shaft [called an "arbor"] running through it, the ends of which fit into holes in the plates. If you have a metal shaft in a metal hole, with nothing to protect it, it will eventually wear away as the shaft turns. To prevent wear, and also to reduce friction, most watches have tiny doughnut-shaped jewels at the ends of many of the wheel arbors to keep them from coming into direct contact with the edges of the hole. The jewels are usually natural or man-made rubies, but can also be diamonds and sapphires. The fastest moving wheels [especially the balance wheel] on a watch frequently have additional "cap" jewels on top of the regular "hole" jewels to prevent the arbor from moving up and down, and most watches also have a few special jewels [called "pallet" and "roller" jewels] as part of the escapement.
Very early pocket watches rarely had jewels, simply because the concept hadn't been invented yet or wasn't in common use. By the mid 1800's, watches typically had 6-10 jewels, and a watch with 15 jewels was considered high grade.
By the 20th century, however, more and more watches were being made with higher jewel counts, and the quality of a watch is often judged by how many jewels it has. Thus, lower grade American-made watches from the late 1800's and into the 1900's typically have jewels only on the balance wheel and the escapement [7 jewels total]. Medium grade watches have 11-17 jewels, and high grade watches usually have 19-21 jewels. Extremely complicated watches, such as chronometers, chronographs, calendar and chiming watches, might have upwards of 32 jewels, and some high grade railroad watches have "cap" jewels on the slower wheels in addition to the faster moving wheels.
Note that, although the number of jewels that a watch has is usually a good indication as to its overall quality, this is not an absolute standard for three main reasons. First, as mentioned above, many watches made prior to the 20th century were considered to be "high grade" for their day, in spite of the fact that they only have 15 jewels. Second, some watches have extra jewels that were added primarily for show and which did not add to the watch's accuracy or quality [and which were sometimes not even real jewels to begin with!] Third, there has been significant debate over the years as to how many jewels a watch even needs to be considered "high grade." The more common notion of "the more jewels the better" is not likely to go away anytime soon, however.
Most pocket watches made in the late 1800's and thereafter that have more than 15 jewels have the jewel count marked directly on the movement. If there is no jewel count marked, and the only visible jewels are the ones on the balance staff [right in the center of the balance wheel], the watch probably only has 7 jewels. Note that a watch with 11 jewels looks identical to one with 15 jewels, since the extra 4 jewels are on the side of the movement directly under the dial. Also, a 17 jewel watch looks the same as a 21 jewel watch to the naked eye, since the additional jewels in this case are usually all cap jewels at the top and bottom of two of the wheels.
The following diagram illustrates the location of the jewels on a 16 size, 23 jewel Illinois "Bunn Special." Jewels in parentheses are typically found only on higher grade watches. The exact arrangement of jewels varied from company to company, but the layout shown below is fairly typical:
Early clocks were powered by heavy weights attached to long chains. Every day the weight was returned to the top of the clock, and throughout the day gravity pulled the weight down, thereby causing the gears to move. Unfortunately, this only worked if the clock was mounted vertically and there was room for the weights to hang down. The invention of the mainspring, though, enabled clocks to be portable and eventually gave rise to what we call a pocket watch today. One problem with early mainsprings, though, was that as the spring wound down it lost power, and as a result the watch or clock would get slower and slower as the day progressed.
"Fusee" [also called "chain driven"] watches use a very fine chain running from the mainspring barrel to a special truncated cone [the "fusee"] to regulate the force of the spring as it winds down, as seen in the following images:
The Mainspring Barrel
As the mainspring unwinds, the chain moves from the top of the fusee to the bottom, thereby increasing the tension on the mainspring. The older fusee watches used a "verge" escapement that, because it is mounted vertically within the watch, required the watch to be very thick. These watches, generally referred to as "verge fusees," were usually not as accurate as their later counterparts, although there were some notable exceptions such as John Harrison's famous "No. 4" marine chronometer. Perhaps to make up for this lack of accuracy, verge fusees were almost always works of art, employing intricately engraved and hand pierced balance bridges [or "cocks"] and other ornamentations.
In the early 1800's fusee watches began to be made with the newer "lever" escapement which, because they were mounted horizontally instead of vertically, allowed the watches to be thinner. These so-called "lever fusees" were also generally much more accurate as well. As the watches became more accurate timekeepers, however, less emphasis was placed on making them as artistic, and you rarely see much in the way of hand piercing or engraving on the later lever fusee watches.
Improved mainspring design, as well as special adjustments to the balance wheel and hairspring, eventually did away with the need for the fusee. By about 1850 most American watchmakers had abandoned the fusee entirely, although many English watchmakers continued to make fusee watches right up until the beginning of the 20th century. One notable exception was the American Hamilton Watch Company that decided to use a fusee in their Model #21 Marine Chronometer that they built for the U.S. Government in the 1940's. This was probably due more to the fact that they built their model based upon existing European designed chronometers, though, than it had to do with the need for the special properties of the fusee.
One final tidbit of information: fusee watches are distinctive not only for the fusee itself but also for the fine chain running from the fusee to the special mainspring barrel. A non-fusee watch is therefore generally referred to as having a "going barrel" to distinguish it from a fusee watch.
Many pocket watches state that they are "adjusted" to temperature and to a number of positions. This basically means that they have been specially calibrated to maintain the same accuracy under a variety of conditions. A watch that has been adjusted to temperature will keep the same time regardless of temperature. A watch that has been adjusted to position will keep the same time regardless of how it is held. There are 6 possible position adjustments: stem up, stem down, stem left, stem right, dial up and dial down. Most railroad grade watches are adjusted to 5 positions [they didn't bother with stem down]. Most watches that are adjusted are also adjusted to isochronism, meaning that they keep the same time as the mainspring winds down.
The model of a watch is the overall design of the watch's movement. In general, the model defines the size and shape of the plates and/or bridges. The model especially defines the layout of the (gear) train and the design of the vast majority of the parts. Waltham watches have model numbers which roughly correspond to the first year they were produced [1883, 1892, 1912, etc.] Other companies used names such as "Series 1," "Model #2," etc.
If the model of a watch denotes the general design of the movement, the grade refers to variations between examples of the same model. These variations can include such things as the number of jewels, how well-finished the movement is, whether the movement has screw-down jewel settings, etc. Sometimes these variations can be significant, and a particular model can come in a variety of grades from low quality to high. Often, however, the term "grade" is used merely to distinguish between minor variations, and in some cases two different grades are actually identical except for the name. Grades were frequently named after individuals who worked at the watch company, famous historical figures, railroad lines, previous names of the company, and just about anything else you can think of. Thus, you might have a Waltham Model #1892, "Vanguard" grade. Or an Illinois Series 6 "Bunn Special."
Keep in mind that "model" and "grade" are technical definitions and are often used interchangeably. Some watch companies used the term "grade" almost exclusively without distinguishing between different Models. Other companies used the same grade name with more than one model. So, for example, it is important to distinguish between a Waltham Model #1857 "P. S. Bartlett" grade and a Model #1883 "P. S. Bartlett" grade, since they are completely different watches. The Hamilton "992" grade, on the other hand, was only made in one basic model and is just referred to as the Hamilton 992.
When a collector refers to an American pocket watch's "size," he or she is generally referring to the diameter of the watch movement only, not the case. The same size watch movement will usually fit in a variety of different size cases, so the size of the case is usually not helpful in identifying the watch. European watches are typically referred to by their size in millimeters. A small ladies' watch might be 30 or 35mm, whereas a men's watch could be upwards of 50 or 60mm. American watches, on the other hand, have their own special sizing scale. Most American watches fall between 0 and 18 size, with 0 being the smallest and 18 being the largest. The most common sizes are 18, 16 and 12 for men's watches, and 8, 6 and 0 for ladies' watches. The size 10 watch is right in the middle and is generally considered to be either a men's or a ladies' watch. The following table shows the standard American watch movement sizes and their equivalent size in inches:
|Watch Size||Size in Inches|
|18||1 23/30 [1.8]|
|16||1 21/30 [1.7]|
|12||1 17/30 [1.566]|
|10||1 ½ [1.5]|
|8||1 13/30 [1.433]|
|6||1 11/30 [1.366]|
|0||1 5/30 [1.166]|
As you might expect, it can be a bit tricky measuring a watch movement to determine its size, not only because many of the sizes are so close to each other, but also because it's not that easy to measure such odd sizes in the first place. Also, the sizing chart above refers to the size of the plate under the dial [which may or may not be the same diameter as the dial itself], and on some watches that plate has a slightly different diameter than the plate visible when simply viewing the movement. Experienced collectors, however, can often tell the size of most watches simply by looking at the movement and comparing it to other, similar, watches they have seen before. As with any skill, this ability comes primarily through experience, but here are some quick pointers when dealing with American watches:
Many collectors feel that American watchmaking reached its pinnacle with the invention of the railroad watch. In an effort to meet the stringent and rigorous demands of the railroads, where the incorrect time could and did prove disastrous, American watchmakers were called upon to make a watch that was incredibly reliable and incredibly accurate -- far more so than any watch previously being manufactured. And they met the challenge! Following years of development, by the turn of the 20th century American watch factories were producing pocket watches of unsurpassed quality. Watches that would lose no more than 30 seconds per week. Watches that were specially adjusted to keep accurate time no matter what position in which they were held, and in both cold weather and hot. Watches where all the major wheels were jeweled in order to prevent wear from long hours, days, years and decades of constant use.
The main requirement for a railroad watch was, of course, that it be accurate. Throughout the twenty years from 1890 to 1910, the various railroads' watch standards evolved, demanding more stringent adherence to safety and good timekeeping principles. Although minor local differences remained, these standards eventually became well enough established and accepted so that watch companies could build, at reasonable cost, both 18 size, and later 16 size, watches that would be accepted on any railroad. The standards continued to evolve, and by the 1930's, only size 16 watches were approved, and these watches had to also have at least 19 jewels, be lever set, open face and adjusted to five positions, temperature and isochronism. Some railroads, however, continued to accept watches that were currently in use and which had previously been approved under earlier standards.
Not all watches that were built to meet the railroad standards were actually accepted for service on all railroads. Many railroads published their own lists of "approved" watches, and these lists varied from one railroad to the next. Thus, it is possible to have a railroad "grade" watch that was never actually railroad "approved." Even if a watch wasn't specifically listed as "approved" for a particular railroad, however, there were also instances where a particular watch was accepted for service by the inspector out in the field and would thus still be considered "railroad approved."
The official railroad standards were only the minimum standards that a railroad grade watch had to meet, and many pocket watches that were approved for railroad service were actually made to higher specifications than required for a "railroad grade" watch. Many companies produced extra fine railroad watches that had 21-23 jewels [sometimes more!] that were adjusted to six positions instead of just five, and even had extra "wind indicator" dials to let you know how much the watch was currently wound. These watches are especially prized by many collectors as being the absolute best of the best.
Remember, just because a watch has a picture of a locomotive on the dial or the case doesn't mean it is actually a "railroad" watch. The same is true with watches that are just marked "railroad special" or the like. A true railroad grade watch MUST meet the specifications set out for railroad watches, and a true railroad approved watch MUST have been either listed by one or more railroads as approved for railroad service or else specifically accepted by a railroad inspector. Some of the more commonly found railroad grade and approved watches include the Hamilton "992," the Illinois "Bunn Special" and the Waltham "Vanguard," although there are quite a few more out there.
For obvious reasons, it's important to know whether your watch is in a solid gold case or whether it is merely gold-filled or gold plated. The only way to be absolutely sure, of course, is to take it to a competent and reputable jeweler and have it tested. But many watch cases are marked in such a way that you can usually figure it out if you know what to look for. Here are some pointers:
If the case is solid gold, it will often have a mark stating the gold content, such as "14K" or "18K". Some [especially early American] case makers unscrupulously marked gold-filled cases as "14K" or "18K", indicating that they were 14 or 18 karat gold-filled, so it is always best if the case also says something like "Warranted US Assay" after the karat marking. Again, when in doubt, have it professionally tested.
Some, especially European, watches express the gold content as a decimal. Pure gold is 24K, so an 18K watch would have "0.750" stamped on it and a 14K watch would have "0.58" or "0.585" stamped on it.
If a watch is only gold-filled it will often state that it is such. "Rolled gold" and "rolled gold plate" are similar terms that mean it is not solid gold. Note that a "14K Gold Filled" case is still just gold-filled.
A gold-filled case will often state how many years the gold is warranted to wear. Any time you see a period of years ["Guaranteed 20 years", "Warranted 10 years", etc.] you can be sure the case is gold-filled and NOT solid gold.
Although silver isn't nearly as valuable as gold, it's still nice to know if your watch is in a silver case or just a silver-colored case. Watch cases made in Europe were often stamped with hallmarks to guarantee that they were silver, but this was not the case here in the U.S. And to make matters worse, not only were there a number of types of silver, some companies actually made up misleading names for their non-silver cases. Again, the only way to be absolutely sure is to take your watch to a competent and reputable jeweler and have it tested, but many watch cases are marked in such a way that you can usually figure it out if you know what to look for. Here are some pointers:
If the case has a decimal number on it, such as "0.800", "0.925" or "0.935", it is probably silver. These numbers represent the purity of the silver, with "1" being pure silver.
If the case is marked "Sterling", this indicates that it is high grade silver [at least 0.925 pure].
If the case is marked "Coin Silver" it is still real silver, but of a lesser grade than sterling. In Europe, "coin silver" usually meant 0.800 pure, whereas in the U.S. it meant 0.900 pure.
The following are trade names for silver colored alloys containing no silver: "Silveroid", "Silverine", "Silveride" and "Oresilver" [this last one is particularly sneaky, since it sounds like it is simply low grade silver].
Here, then, is a list of commonly found foreign terms and what they actually mean when used with reference to a pocket watch. Just select a term from the pull-down menu below:
|Acier||Steel or gunmetal [usually found on the case itself]|
|Aiguilles||Literally ''needles'' [or ''hands''], this indicates which keyhole is for setting the time.|
|Ancre||Indicates the watch has a lever escapement.|
|Balancier||The balance wheel|
|Balancier Compensateur||A compensated balance [i.e., one with little timing screws set along the edges]|
|Brevet||Patented [usually followed by a patent number]|
|Chaux de Fonds||A Swiss town famous for watch-making, part of the Neuchâtel region|
|Cuivre||Copper or brass [usually found on a dust cover to indicate that it is not gold or silver like the rest of the case]|
|Echappement a Ancre||Lever escapement|
|Echappement a Cylindre||Cylinder escapement|
|Echappement a Ligne Droit||Straight line lever escapement [as opposed to the English-style right angle lever escapement]|
|et CIE||''and Company'' [usually follows a name and indicates that this is the company that made/sold the watch]|
|et Fils||''and son'' or ''and sons'' [watchmaking was often a family business handed down from generation to generation]|
|Geneve||Geneva, Switzerland [a watchmaking region]|
|Huit Trous Joyaux||Literally, ''eight holes jeweled''. The watch may actually have more than 8 total jewels, though.|
|Levees Visibles||Visible escapement [technically, it means that the pallets, which are part of a lever escapement, can be seen from the back of the watch movement without disassembling it]|
|Locle||Another watchmaking town in Switzerland|
|Neuchâtel||Another watchmaking region in Switzerland|
|Remontoir||Keyless winding [technically, a remontoir is a small spiral spring, continually wound by the mainspring, which provides constant force to the escapement. However, this term is often used on low to medium grade antique Swiss watches simply to mean that the watch features the ''new'' stem winding feature.]|
|Rubis||Jewels [literally ''rubies'']|
|Spiral Breguet||A type of hairspring [technically it describes a type of design of a part of the hairspring -- the overcoil -- but the important thing is that this describes the hairspring and not the watch or its maker]|
Due to the fact that I own a lot of Waltham pocket watches [i.e., watches made by the American Waltham Watch Company], I frequently get e-mail from people wanting to find out information about their own Waltham watch. Well, there's usually not much I can tell people without actually seeing the watch, but if someone knows the watch's serial number I can usually at least give them a good idea of how old it is. [The serial number is inscribed on the watch movement itself, by the way, and has no relation to any serial number that might be inscribed on the case.] Although watches were not always sold and delivered in the exact order they were manufactured, the following table will give you an approximate date for your Waltham watch based on its serial number:
|Serial Number||Date|||||Serial Number||Date|||||Serial Number||Date|
[SOURCE: Shugart & Gilbert, Complete Price Guide to Watches, 1997]