A pocket watch on a chain was a must-have accessory for hundreds of years. The use of pocket watches dates all the way back to the 16th century, but they became very prevalent in the 19th century as the original personal technology device, allowing both men and women to keep appointments and track both personal and business activities. However, soldiers in World War I discovered the convenience of the wrist watch, and it quickly overtook the pocket watch in both popularity and sales after the war.
Resale Value of Pocket Watches
Pocket watches are quite common in estate sales and personal collections, and they all seem to be antiques! How can you tell if your pocket watches have value today? In today’s collector market, wrist watches are more generally more valuable and sought after than pocket watches, even though most pocket watches are older. But, there is a thriving resale market for those time pieces that appeal to collectors and resellers.
What Makes a Pocket Watch Valuable?
Collector Keith Allibone has seen hundreds of pocket watches in his buying trips for his Philadelphia-based store Goods Vintage. He says that because so many utilitarian and common models exist, the ones that will excite buyers the most will be the ones that are rare or unusual. Keith offers this advice on evaluating the potential resale value of pocket watches:
Assess the Condition
Take a careful look at the overall condition of the piece: the color and wear of the metal, the visibility of the face, and the functionality of the clock mechanism. Does it work? A broken pocket watch can still be valuable, but as with any collectible, obvious damage is bad. “If it’s beat up, it’s usually a no-go.” Keith says a monogram or other personalization may also affect value, but usually not by much.
Determine the Metal
Keith advises to look for markings on the back of the watch case or inside the casebook that indicate the metal the watch is made from. Obviously, more valuable metal will indicate a potentially more valuable timepiece. These are the most common metals/markings, in order of least valuable to most valuable:
- “20 Year” or “Gold Plated” means that the watch is primarily a base metal with a very thin gold veneer. Gold plated items frequently show wear at the contact points where the plating has worn off.
- “Gold Filled” indicates the metal contains a small amount of gold (usually 1 part of 20).
- “90%”, or “Coin” refers to what is known as coin silver, or 90% silver and 10% copper.
- Sterling Silver, also known as Standard Silver. It will be marked either “Sterling” or “.925“
- “Solid Gold”, is just that: a piece crafted from solid gold, and will usually be stamped to indicate 14 karat or 18 karat.
Establish the Maker
The manufacturer of pocket watches are almost always marked. If there is not an obvious mark on the back of the piece, you may need to investigate further. Most pocket watch backs are either screwed on, hinged, or must be pried off. If you can’t open your watch easily, you may want to ask an experienced repair shop to do it for you.
The most common brands that Keith sees are Waltham and Elgin, followed by Bulova, Longines, and Hamilton. If you have a common brand of watch, it can still have a high value if it has advanced features or unusual designs. They are also easier to research.
More highly prized brands of pocket watches include Omega, Rolex, and Patek Philippe. If you have one of these brands, you may have something special on your hands. This Antique Roadshow clip highlights a Patek Philippe model that is valued at over two million dollars! So, brands matter, but the resale value also depends upon the metal and condition, and the functionality as well as the brand.
Examine the Design
Ornate or elaborate models of all makers are more likely to have value in the resale market for pocket watches. Features that can add value include:
- Intricate designs, engravings or embellishments
- Advanced mechanical functions like moon phases or chronographs
- Hunting cases showing vignettes or enamel adornment
How to Research the Value of Pocket Watches
If your pocket watch seems like it could value based on the above criteria, Keith recommends that you do some research to learn more about your time piece, and what similar or identical pieces have sold for recently.
To learn more about your pocket watch, you may have it serviced or evaluated at a local watch repair shop. Local auction houses, appraisers or estate sale specialists can be of help as well. Many of these local pros will give a courtesy opinion if you send them detailed photo or information about your item.
eBay is a good resource for researching values of pocket watches. Keith advises that you look for serial numbers or model numbers that you can cross-reference with websites managed by pocket watch enthusiasts or sellers, like thepocketwatchguy.com.
There are many online resources that can give you detailed information about your pocket watch, including when they were made, how much they sold for, and even copies of the advertising that was used to promote them. Try pocketwatchdatabase.com for many known models.