Pocket watches are both delicate and durable at the same time, easily broken and yet built with quality materials to run for decades, and designed with maintenance and repair in mind.
Most collectors want the pieces in their collection as close to factory-original as possible, so here are a few of the more obvious issues to avoid when considering purchasing a watch.
Once a fragile porcelain dial is broken or cracked it cannot be reversed, and correct replacements take time to locate. The damage usually occurs at or near the dial feet locations, the result of someone trying to pry the dial off without loosening the corresponding set screws.
Incorrect or missing hands are an obvious problem because they can be difficult to find and expensive to replace, fitted carefully by closing or broaching the arbor hole and installed parallel. The minute hand is more susceptible to breaking, since it's longer and sits the highest.
Carefully inspect all of the visible components for unoriginal parts or signs of obvious damage before buying any watch. Focus on the balance assembly, because the worst damage are molested balance wheel weights and unoriginal jewels.
Here are six of the biggest and most common issues:
A "poised" balance wheel is one that weighs the same at any point on the wheel rim, so any change in the balance weights will ruin the poise, which affects positional accuracy. This is one of the worst forms of intentional damage because the weights never need to be touched.
When a watch inevitably slowed from thickening oils, the lazy choice was to simply grind off part of the balance weights to gain time.
Jewels that appear wrong are the most common indicator of damage, because it means the original has been broken. Milling a replacement 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 below the plate it means that the balance was re-staffed with one that was too short, leading to more problems.
A hairspring is paired to the balance wheel in a process called vibrating, because there's a relationship between the working length of the spring and the amount of mass on the balance wheel. Replacing the hairspring means adding or removing weight to re-time and re-poise the watch, which is a very time-consuming and expensive process.
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 dimensions, and that the plate threads 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 setting lever springs, since not all designs were good ones and the part sometimes failed because of this.
Others were simply discarded, like stopworks and regulator springs.
Ghost marks mean that the case has held previous movements and is not the original. While this is not critical, original combinations are generally worth more. When the watch was first sold the case was fitted to the movement, ensuring a snug fit, but after repeated swaps a movement may end up in a replacement case that's a poor fit.
Cases cannot be made new again and most bear the scrapes and dents from decades of service, so choose carefully by making sure that your case is in the best possible condition.
Here are six of the biggest and most common issues:
Dents are always caused by an impact. The metal is now stretched, making it difficult to completely 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 winding stem inside the pendant must mate with the movement at a right angle or the stem will bind, making it 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 called "sprung" hinges.
Patterns that don't line up horizontally or with the pendant can be caused by a manufacturing defect or the back is almost certainly from a different case, resulting in mismatched serial numbers.
The bezel is the thin ring that holds the crystal, and is specific to that manufacturer and style of case. Finding an exact replacement can be nearly impossible - and you still need a crystal.
Bows wore out the quickest from of the harsh metal contact of chains, so yours could be unoriginal or the wrong style. While aftermarket replacements are available, the color-match is seldom accurate.
Crowns simply wore out from constant use, and case manufacturers made many different models, diameters, sizes and threads, so finding an original new-old stock replacement is not easy.
Parts inevitably get worn out, lost or broken over the years, which must be replaced from new-old stock or culled from donor movements. This is standard practice with small parts like screws and jewels, but the larger pieces, such as the upper and lower plates, balance wheel, balance cock and others, are all factory-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 from a collecting standpoint, especially early or rare examples worth thousands of dollars. To some extent this is also true of watches that are in their original cases, and the value can climb when provenance is involved, like a factory shipping box or bill of sale. 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 antique timepieces are not confined to the mechanical.
Sadly, there are several kinds of self-styled middlemen who contribute nothing to the study of horology or to the hobby itself. They research nothing, collect nothing, and repair nothing. They exist solely for profit.
This wildly 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 people disassemble intact and original centuries-old combinations and sell the individual parts for profit. Novices swarm to buy their ruined leftovers, lured in by nauseatingly over-hyped ads with hysterical catchphrases, hoping for a bargain, and then discover how expensive it is to reassemble the scattered pieces.
Gold cases have been disappearing for years, thanks to the relentless greed of both the scrappers and the auction houses that let them in. Smelters openly bid on or purchase antique pocket watches with the single-minded intention of melting down the cases.
Bravo. Well done.
The best auction venues are those that concentrate almost exclusively on timepieces. Their listings include plenty of high-resolution photos and data on the piece, such as production totals or condition reports. Some have no buyer's premium and charge no tax, and will often allow double-blind forms of payment, such as Paypal or cashier's checks. They often offer item pickup for consignors and in-house shipping.
The worst ones are those that focus on unrelated sales like real estate or farm equipment. They seldom have more than a single photograph of the piece, and will refuse to post more if asked. They charge high premiums and sales tax after requiring credit card info and ID simply to browse the listings. They do not ship anything, forcing the winner to chase a third-party shipper whose rates may change without notice.
Key winds are several decades older than railroad-era pocket watches, which means that they've had several more decades of repairs, and were sometimes run for far too long between cleanings. Except for some minor differences, most brands were nearly identical.
It's difficult to find examples that aren't ruined. It's common to find stripped screws, cracked jewels, mismatched serial numbers, distorted hairsprings, loose canon pinions and quite a few other problems.
Nearly all key winds are low-grade pieces with fewer than 15 jewels and were not designed to run forever, so anticipate worn bushings and wheel pivots. The fit between the parts and plates was sometimes poor and the alignment of the jewel/bushing pairs was not always exact.
The oldest key winds had solid balance wheels, which couldn't compensate for changes in temperature, and they had no weights, so there was no simple way of correcting for poise issues.
The flat hairsprings had no Breguet overcoil and were mounted in an inaccessible spot underneath the balance wheel, and because of these reasons they were not the most accurate timekeepers.
The majority of key wind watches are mounted in the case with a single half-headed case screw, which acts like a drill bit, reaming out the case rim until the movement itself falls through the frame.
When that happens the case is no longer able to hold the movement, and the only solutions are a special washer or replace the case.
Quality work takes patience, plenty of time and skill, the right tools, and sound methods.
Always send your heirloom timepiece to the best watchmaker that you can find.
Beware the low prices of those who service a watch in an hour because they're cutting corners, usually with very disappointing results. I see a lot of intentional damage on a daily basis, usually done by the same people who were paid to repair the watch in the first place.
I also spend considerable time reversing the "fixes" of those who like to tinker with their watches. Click here for a gallery of some of the worst botched repairs and issues that weren't addressed.