If you've never held an antique watch in your hand before, then this is the place to start. Get tips on helping to identify it, learn some of the basics like winding and setting, how to open it, and what not to do.
It's important to learn the names of the parts, and these are the primary components of any pocket watch.
The bow serves as an attachment point for a tether, like a chain, and the crown has the dual function of both winding and setting. The entire assembly is called the pendant, housing the winding stem and sleeve. The bezel holds the glass crystal to the case, protecting the dial and hands.
Open face is by far the most common, with the winding stem right at the top at the 12:00 position, and was available in every size that American watch companies had to offer. This configuration eventually became a requirement as one of the primary railroad criteria.
Hunter (hunting) placed the stem at the 3:00 position, and was not railroad approved. The case had a front lid to protect the dial and crystal, which opened by depressing the crown, along with several hinges, a dust cover, and springs for the front cover and the latch.
There is no such thing as a double hunter or a half hunter.
A case is either a hunter or it's not.
Both covers unscrew like a jar lid. Do not pry anything!
Hold the case in your left hand with your thumb against the pendant and rotate either cover counter-clockwise with your right hand.
If they're stuck try using rubber kitchen or latex gloves for a better grip, or putting it someplace warm to expand the metal slightly.
One or both covers open on hinges, which are usually clearly visible.
These do require a small amount of prying, and there should be a thumbnail catch or a small slot for a pocketknife blade. If the case isn't too worn the covers will snap closed. There might be a second rear inner cover, called a dust cover (cuvette), that opens the same way.
Make sure to pop up the crown first!
A swing case has no rear cover and a hinge at the top of the dial under the bezel. Look for a thumbnail catch or a small slot at 6:00 on the dial to help you swing the movement open on the hinged inner ring. If you feel resistance, stop to make sure the crown is up and don't force it.
This requires one hand to hold the watch and the other to press the crown. The front cover should open, unless the lift spring is broken.
To open and close the back cover(s) see the Hinged section above.
When closing the front do NOT click it shut! Press the crown, close the front lid, and release the crown. The steel latch is much harder than the gold-plated brass of the front cover, which will wear through some day.
Here are some clues to figuring out what you have:
Modern reproductions are fairly easy to spot. They are much lighter than their antique counterparts, with plain movements that may be battery powered. They contain stamped parts with sharp edges, and the flat dial is a plastic decal that will likely be marked Swiss-Made.
The brand is the name of the factory that made it and should be hard to miss, because the company put their name on both the dial and the movement itself, which is the mechanism inside the case. There are exceptions to this rule, like private labels or named grades.
Backgrounds on the American companies are on the Histories page.
Simply put, a model is a mechanical design that doesn't change.
The parts that make up a given model were manufactured for use with that particular model and generally aren't interchangeable with others, regardless of jewel count, pattern, or plate finish.
A grade is a name, title, phrase or location that was assigned by the company that had some significance or was produced in quantity for a large retailer, and was likely also meant as a marketing strategy.
A given grade could be present in multiple models.
Most American companies used at least some jeweling on their watches to reduce friction, and as a general rule-of-thumb the higher the count, the better the watch and therefore the more desirable.
After 1890 most factories started stamping jewel counts on the plates, eliminating confusion and guesswork about totals.
Most American watches have a unique serial number, which is stamped on the movement plates, not the case. Knowing this number will allow you to use any of several resources, some of which are fairly accurate.
A variant is a slight change in pattern, plate finish, or engravings between factory runs or even on individual watches. It could be a hardware change from polished steel to gilt, a different pattern on the winding wheels, or red to black enamel in the plate markings.
The size of the case is unimportant!
Digital calipers work best, but a ruler is better than nothing. The dial is slightly smaller than the movement (which is the true size), but since it's the most accessible part measuring its diameter is close enough.
This was the most common method of winding after 1880 or so. The crown gets twisted back and forth, producing a ratcheting sound in both directions as tension on the mainspring builds. If you feel no resistance whatsoever then the mainspring is likely broken.
There is no such thing as an "over-wound" watch, and you will feel it when the far end of the mainspring is reached. Most watches have a run time of roughly 36 hours on a standard and healthy mainspring.
This was the only way of winding a watch prior to 1880. A key with a square hole mated with the winding arbor of the mainspring, making a clicking noise as the mainspring coils up. Key-wind watches are wound in a clock-wise direction only; there is no ratcheting mechanism.
A key-wind watch usually has two back covers. Opening the outer one reveals the protective inner one, called the cuvette, which has a round stamped hole directly over the mainspring arbor, pictured here.
This is the easiest and most common method.
The crown snaps up when pulled into setting mode and clicks back down into winding mode. There is usually a fair amount of resistance, and care must be taken not to pull too hard. If the depth of this part of the watch isn't set properly the hands may skip or not move at all.
Set the hands in a clockwise direction only!
The setting lever was a railroad requirement so the hands couldn't accidentally be changed. The bezel or front cover must be opened first and the lever deployed before setting the time, which could be located in one of several positions around the dial, depending on the model.
Remember to retract the lever before replacing the front cover!
Setting the time on a key-wind watch takes skill and steady hands.
Both the outer cover and the bezel must be opened for access to the dial to fit the key over the square center arbor. Carefully rotate the key in a clockwise direction, being very careful to not slip and damage the dial, and to leave the hands parallel to each other without crossing.
Pocket watches are loaded with delicate steel and glass parts. If you've never handled one before and are opening it, winding it, or setting the hands for the first time make sure to do it carefully over something soft. And if you carry one, make sure to tether it with a strap or chain.
Several important parts in the gear train of a watch are made from hardened steel, which can be easily magnetized, slowing the watch and ruining the accuracy. Take care to avoid placing your watch near any fixed magnets, and be aware that watches can become magnetized in shipping.
The joy of tinkering is a common one, and the watch is yours to do as you please, but know when you're in over your head. Don't do further damage to what could be a rare or exceptional piece by opening up the back and spraying it with oil, sticking anything in the gear train, or taking it apart.
Watches used semi-precious stones as bearings to reduce friction. Learn what jewels were made from, what they were for, where they were used, how they were mounted, and most importantly - how to determine jewel count just by looking at the watch.
No single part on a pocket watch was as visible as the dial, and they came in an incredible array of colors, designs and fonts. See all of the variants, learn what they were made from, how they were mounted, and don't forget the section on hands at the bottom of the page.
Learn what makes your watches tick, from mainsprings and plate finishes to balance wheels and hairsprings. There are sections on the different types of escapements, gear train ratios, verge fusees, railroad standards, and find out just what Adjusted to Positions means.