If you've never held an antique watch in your hand before, then this is the place to start. Get some tips on how to identify your watch, compare an open-face watch to a hunter, learn how to wind it and set it, how to carefully 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, 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 factories had to offer. This layout eventually became one of the primary railroad criteria.
Hunter (hunting) placed the stem at the 3:00 position, and was not railroad approved. The cases have a front lid to protect the dial and glass crystal, which opens by depressing the crown.
There is no such thing as a double hunter or a half hunter.
A case is either hunter or it's not, though demi-hunters have numerals on the front lid and a small crystal to view the hands.
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 gloves for a better grip, or putting it someplace warm to expand the metal.
Open-face cases have a crystal set in the front cover, which opens on a visible hinge. These do require a certain amount of prying, and there will be a thumbnail catch or a small slot for a pocketknife blade. Hinged cases work on friction and if yours isn't too worn the cover will snap shut and stay closed.
Do not force the cover past 90 degrees!
The back cover(s) open on hinges, which are usually visible. These also require a certain amount of prying, and there should also be another thumbnail catch. There might be a second inner dust cover, called a cuvette, that opens the same way.
Do not force the cover past 90 degrees!
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 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 that the crown is up.
Press the crown should cause the front cover to open, unless the lift spring is broken. When closing the front do NOT click it shut! To close it, press the crown, close the front lid, and then release the crown. The steel latch is much harder than the gold-plated brass of the front cover, which will wear out some day.
Do not force the covers past 90 degrees!
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 usually a plastic decal.
The brand is the name of the factory that made it and that name should be found on both the dial and on the movement itself, which is the mechanism inside the case. There are exceptions to this rule, like private labels or named grades.
Simply put, a model is a mechanical design that never changes.
The parts that make up a given model were manufactured for use with that model and generally aren't interchangeable with others, regardless of jewel count, pattern, or plate finish.
A grade is a name, phrase or location that was assigned by the factory that had some significance or was produced in quantity for a large retailer, and was also meant as a marketing strategy. A given grade could be present in multiple models.
Most 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 online 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 change from steel to gilded screws, 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 pillar plate of the movement, but since it's the most accessible part measuring that 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 mainspring tension builds. If you feel no resistance 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 between 30 and 36 hours.
This was the only way of winding a watch prior to 1880. A square key mates with the 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 inner one, called the cuvette, which has a round stamped hole directly over the mainspring arbor.
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 some 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!
This was a railroad criteria so the hands couldn't be changed accidentally. The front cover must be opened and the lever deployed before setting the time, which could be located in one of several positions around the dial, depending on the model.
Retract the lever before replacing the front cover!
Setting the time on a key-wind watch takes steady hands. 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 over something soft. And if you carry one, make sure to tether it.
Several components of the gear train of a watch are made from steel, which can be easily magnetized, 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, valuable or exceptional piece by opening up the back and spraying it with oil, sticking anything into the gear train, or by taking it apart.
Watches utilized 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 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 and how they were mounted, and don't miss the section on hands.
Learn what makes a watch 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 what Adjusted means.