Like most of us, your budget is limited when it comes to your hobbies, so this page is devoted to spotting potential problems before buying anything. If you'd like to get better at avoiding trouble by knowing what to look for, then scroll down.
Collecting antique watches is a fascinating hobby, not only for people that have an interest in the mechanical, but also for those who appreciate the history behind them. Prices can vary between a few hundred dollars and tens of thousands of dollars, so there's something for everyone. Most collectors want the very best examples they can find without over-spending, but even longtime enthusiasts sometimes buy a lemon. Here's some tips on how to avoid that:
The best collectors are the ones that do at least some research before buying anything. This means learning how many of a certain model were made, how long of a period in which they were made, which movement/case/dial combinations are correct, which variants are more desirable, and patiently checking current and past auctions to see what they bring.
When researching your watch always use multiple sources, because relatively few factory records remain after so many years and there are bound to be inaccuracies. Don't believe everything you read, and what really counts is the watch itself. Online databases that pose as a one-stop destination for those seeking an instant education may be a good starting point, but they are certainly not the final word.
Watches in nearly-untouched condition are generally the most desirable, unless the piece is very rare from small runs of fewer than a hundred. Running watches are not always the ones to look for, and there are times when broken ones are the best choice. Why is that? Because the first owner may have dropped it eighty years ago, breaking the mainspring or the balance staff and simply tossed it in a drawer, where it's been ever since and has almost no mileage on it.
There is a school of thought that mismatched hands and missing parts somehow form the tapestry of the watch, and that they should be left as a tribute to its service life. It's your collection and if you feel that way it's certainly your business, but mismatched hands are simply a testament to the laziness of someone who couldn't be bothered to find the right ones. The time will come to sell or auction your collection, and those in better shape will almost always bring higher prices.
There is a vast difference between professionally restored watches and those that have been simply dunked in cleaning solution or re-staffed using Superglue. Watches can take days to bring back to factory specifications, and anyone offering a "servicing" for $45 is obviously cutting corners. It takes well over a hundred close-tolerance parts working in unison for these antiques to function properly, and each and every one of them must be examined for fit and condition, and that includes the case pendant and the case itself. Examples with the regulator all the way to Fast while claiming to be serviced have likely never been touched.
The dumbest thing you can do is chase the leftovers from any eBay parasites that part out original watches and sell the pieces, because you will absolutely pay more for the scattered parts than to simply buy the best example that you can afford. It's pointless to buy uncased movements since there are almost no decent gold-filled cases left, thanks to the relentless greed of the gold scrappers. Buying from flippers is relatively harmless, but the popular ones have many followers, so you're bidding against more people. There is a growing trend to "rescue" watches by buying a pile of parts big enough to hopefully assemble a running timepiece, and again you will absolutely pay more in the end than buying an intact and original example.
A good place to find the least-molested watches are estate sales, garage sales, and small auction houses that don't specialize in such things. You may find interesting pieces at pawn shops and antique malls, but those places generally want ridiculous money simply because the watch is old. If you do troll eBay, look for sellers that do NOT deal in antique watches because these are the attic finds, the safe-deposit box cleanouts, the inheritors that can't wait to cash in on Grandpa's watch, and the ones who don't know much about them. Joining closed groups on social media and buying from other collectors is a great idea, too.
Knowing exactly what to look for is the very best way to avoid buying a Frankenwatch, a money pit, or a basket case. To do this you need to be able to spot issues before buying a pocket watch, so for anyone interested in learning the most obvious tip-offs, read on:
Once a porcelain dial is broken or cracked it cannot be reversed, and replacements take time to locate. The damage usually occurs at the dial feet locations, the result of someone trying to pry the dial off before loosening the corresponding set screws.
Incorrect or missing hands are an obvious problem because they can be difficult to find and expensive to replace, carefully fitted and installed parallel to the dial. The minute hand is more susceptible, since it's longer and sits the highest.
Dents are always caused by an impact. The metal is now stretched, making it difficult to erase the worst dents. Additionally, the fall will likely have caused internal damage to the more delicate components, like the balance staff pivots and gear train jewels.
A bent or leaning pendant is also the result of an impact. The stem inside the pendant will bind, making it more difficult to wind the watch. Any attempt to straighten a bent pendant carries the risk of breaking it off.
Hunter cases have delicate hinges and it doesn't take much to force the covers past 90 degrees. Once the metal of the frame is distorted it cannot be made right again. These are also called "sprung" hinges.
The bezel is the metal ring that holds the crystal, and is specific to that manufacturer and style of case. Finding a replacement can be nearly impossible with regard to metal color, and you still need a crystal.
Patterns on the case back that don't line up with the pendant were occasionally caused by a manufacturing defect, but the simple explanation is that the back is most likely from a different case, resulting in mismatched serial numbers.
Bows wore out the quickest from the metal contact of chains, and crowns simply wore out from normal use, so yours could be the wrong style. Aftermarket replacements are available, though the color-match is seldom accurate.
Sidewinders are hunter movements in open-face cases. Seldom purchased this way historically, this arrangement means the original case has likely been melted down. Most collectors believe this configuration to be incorrect.
A poised balance wheel is one that weighs the same at any point on the wheel rim, so any change in the weights will ruin its positional accuracy. This is one of the worst forms of intentional damage because the weights never need to be touched. When a watch slowed from thickening oils, the lazy choice was to grind off the weights to gain time.
Jewels that look obviously wrong are the most common indicator of damage. Milling a replacement jewel is an exact science with regard to pivot size, diameter, and shoulder thickness, although the new one may not be a perfect color-match. If the balance cap jewel sits too low it probably means that the balance was re-staffed with one that was too short.
Cracked, blown, or missing jewels are another obvious tip-off that the watch has suffered an impact. Even worse is someone separating the plates out of curiosity who then failed to align the pivots, shattering several jewels when screwing the plates back together. Jewels in gold settings are getting very hard to find, so replacements may not be a good color match.
A hairspring is paired to the balance wheel in a process called vibrating, because there's a relationship between the length of the spring and the amount of mass on the balance wheel. Replacing the spring means adding or removing weight to re-poise the wheel and re-time the watch, which is time-consuming and costly.
Incorrect or mismatched screws means that the original hit the floor and couldn't be found. Most American factories chose unique thread pitches to ensure that only their material was used, so an obviously wrong screw likely means that it came from a different brand with different threads, which are now stripped.
Broken or missing parts may be difficult to replace, especially if the watch is a rare variant or the factory had a short run. It's common to find certain parts broken, such as lever springs, since not all designs were good ones and the part failed because of this. Others were simply discarded, like stopworks and regulator springs.
Wartime material shortages meant using acrylic for crystals, which yellowed and caused the hands to rust by trapping moisture. If your piece has a glass crystal and the hands still rusted, then the watch was probably stored for years in a damp location, which means that most of the internal steel components will have nascent corrosion.
Case screws with part of the head missing made it easier to mount the movement into a given case because they could be pre-loaded, whereas full-headed screws had to be threaded in as the final step.
The problem with half-headed screws is that the leading edge acts as a drill bit, eventually cutting their way completely through the case rim, leaving no metal, so the only option is an ugly washer.
Ghost marks mean that the case has held other movements and is not the original. While this is not critical, original combinations are generally worth more. When the watch was first sold the movement was fitted to the case, ensuring a snug fit, but after repeated swaps a movement may end up in a replacement case that's a poor fit.
The earliest examples had solid balance wheels, flat hairsprings, press-fit jewels, concealed banking pins, and other designs that made them less than accurate and tough to service. The hairspring was under the balance wheel, making it difficult to put in beat, and the jewel/bushing locations could vary considerably so that the gears were not always perpendicular or even spaced correctly.
These pieces represent the origins of the American watchmaking industry, and so are decades older than railroad-era watches. This means they've had decades more of hobbyists and tinkerers doing "repairs" and altering them in sometimes-permanent ways.
Stripped screws are by far the most common issue, with the factory threads ruined and holes reamed out. Mismatched hands, broken jewels, and blown-out taper pins on dial feet are very common, as are weak case hinges and lids that won't stay closed.
Parts inevitably get worn out, lost or broken over the years, which must be replaced from NOS or donors. This is standard practice with small parts like screws and jewels, but the larger pieces, such as the upper and lower plates, balance wheel and cock are all inscribed with matching serial numbers. A Frankenwatch is one that is cobbled together using any part with a serial number that came from a different watch.
Watches with matching serial numbers are far more desirable, especially early or rare examples. This is also true of watches that are in their original cases, and the value can really climb when provenance is involved. In May of 2018 our friends at Jones & Horan Auctions sold Rockford SN #1, an original combination, for $91,000.
Click HERE to see it happen.
Problems with old watches are not confined to the mechanical.
Disgustingly, there are several kinds of self-styled middlemen who contribute nothing to the hobby or the study of horology. They don't repair, collect or research, existing solely for profit.
This clever bunch outbids all others to win a watch at auction, and then will promptly re-list the same watch to the same audience at a higher price. There is absolutely no skill involved in this relatively harmless practice, unless you like paying more than necessary.
These gleefully destructive jerks disassemble intact and original combinations and sell the individual parts for profit. Novices swarm to buy their ruined leftovers, lured in by over-hyped ads with hysterical catchphrases, hoping for a bargain, and then discover how expensive it is to reassemble the scattered pieces.
Solid gold and gold-filled cases have all but disappeared, thanks to the relentless greed of both the scrappers and the auction houses that sell to them. Smelters purchase watches with the single-minded intention of melting down the cases.
Bravo. Well done.
Cyanoacrylates can fog glass, discolor gold and nickel, and forms a weak and brittle bond, making them a very poor choice for repair work.
Of course, this doesn't stop determined tinkerers and novice hobbyists from using it everywhere, including jewels, screws and balance staffs.
Enjoy this gallery of wretched work performed by those who keep their Superglue in a shoulder rig for fast and easy access.
The most common kind of damage on an antique pocket watch is a broken balance staff, because people can't seem to stop dropping their watches. Replacing the staff is a simple matter, assuming the part is the correct one and all the related measurements have been checked, including pivot size. The wheel is then riveted to the staff with a staking set and finished in the lathe to remove any burrs.
The re-staff in this video was performed by a hobbyist and fails in every way, leaving the wheel itself loose and free to rotate easily.
Quality work takes patience, time and skill, the right tools, and sound methods. I see intentional damage on a daily basis, usually done by the same people who were paid to repair the watch in the first place. Beware the low prices of those who service a watch in an hour because they're obviously cutting corners, and always send your heirloom timepiece to the best watchmaker that you can find.
Enjoy this gallery of "repairs" performed by hobbyists laboring at their kitchen table.