In this interview Barry S. Goldberg gives advice on collecting antique American made pocket watches. Barry is based in Melrose, Massachusetts, and his site, http://barrygoldberg.net/watches.htm is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I got started collecting pocket watches partly because I hated wearing wristwatches; I used to carry my wristwatch in my pocket, so I thought; why not just try getting a pocket watch. I happened to find one at an antique flea market. I was impressed by it, over a hundred years old and still running. A couple months later I saw another very nice antique pocket watch with a pretty dial on it, and I thought, I’m not collecting or anything, but I’ll have two. Pretty soon they just started growing on me. I fell into it. I was amazed at the workmanship. I love holding a little piece of history in my hands.
I find pocket watches in a variety of places, flea markets and antique shows. I used to go to the Brimfield Antique Show out in Western Massachusetts that happened twice a year. I joined the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, the NAWCC, and they had regular meetings where you could meet with other collectors and buy, sell, and trade with them. I also found watches on eBay, back when eBay was starting, the mid to late 90s, you could go on and find some good bargains.
Collectors Weekly: Who’s your favorite manufacturer?
“Waltham was the first American company to mass-produce watches on an assembly line.”
Goldberg: I really prefer the Waltham pocket watches, made by the American Waltham Watch Company in Waltham, Massachusetts. There are two things that I love about Waltham. It’s the oldest American watch company in terms of mass production. There were smaller companies that made watches by hand as far back as the 1700s, but Waltham was the first American company to use the assembly line to mass-produce watches. And second, they made pretty much every type of watch, which no other American company did. They made high-end Railroad watches, repeater watches that chimed on the hour, high-end chronographs, stop watches.
The company itself went out of business about 1953. The Waltham name has been either acquired or stolen by various companies over the years, so sometimes you’ll see a modern, cheap battery operated watch that has a big red W on it, but that has no relation to the Waltham Company.
Collectors Weekly: How many watches do you have in your collection?
Goldberg: I’d have to count, but I’d say about 40 or 50. Over the years I’ve had hundreds, but over time I’ve traded up to get better examples. When I started collecting, I had in my mind a growing list of the types of watches I wanted to buy, representative samples of various types of watches. I’d go to Brimfield and come home with 10 watches. There would be two I wanted to keep, and eight that were similar to ones I already had or were not in as good condition. So I’d sell those to help me buy another one I wanted. If I saw a better watch, I’d buy that watch and try to sell the lesser examples of it. That happens with Railroad watches, if I have a 21 jewel Waltham Vanguard and I have an opportunity to buy a 23 jewel Waltham Vanguard, I might sell the 21 jewel to help pay for the 23 jewel.
Collectors Weekly: What’s a railroad watch?
Goldberg: They were built to specifications required for use on the railroad, including the number of jewels and the number of adjustments. Adjustments means the watch has been specially calibrated to keep constant time regardless of how it is held, adjusted to work in the vertical position, the horizontal position, the left, right, upside down position. Jewels are basically bearings on the various gears. A watch with no jewels is metal grinding on metal and pretty soon will stop. They’re real jewels like rubies, diamonds, and sapphires – the shaft of each wheel goes through this little donut shaped jewel to reduce the friction.
On a very high-grade watch, every single wheel or gear would have a jewel, one on the front and one on the back and what they call cap jewels to prevent it from going up or down. Lower-grade watches would only have them on the gears that are moving the fastest and a really crappy watch would only have one or two jewels or maybe none. These are not gem quality jewels, no one would take them out of a watch and try to sell them as jewelry, they are more industrial type jewels because the ruby, sapphire, and diamond are so hard, they make very good bearings because they don’t wear.
Collectors Weekly: How do you keep your watches in good condition?
Goldberg: I bring them in for a good cleaning so they can run. I have a friend who has a watch shop, and he does that for me. I do minor repair work, I’ve replaced broken glass crystals on occasion, but for the most part I try not to fiddle with them too much. They’re fragile and if you spend too much time taking them apart, there is the danger that you won’t be able to get them back together.
Collectors Weekly: Why do you like going to shows and flea markets?
Goldberg: You get to hold the item in your hand and talk to the seller instead of just looking at a picture and hoping it’s real. The downside is that you can wander around hours and never find anything you’re looking for, whereas online you can do a search for pocket watches and they are displayed in front of you. So if I have time, I prefer to buy at a show. The other thing about buying at shows is you really need to know what you’re looking at, be prepared, because you don’t have the luxury of thinking something is interesting, going to do some research, and coming back the next day to the listing. So you can make mistakes and think that something looks interesting and buy it just in case, and get home and find out it’s not worthwhile.
Collectors Weekly: How do you do your research?
Goldberg: I primarily use a variety of books. There’s a kind of watch collectors bible by Shougart called The Complete Price Guide to Watches. There’s also a whole series of books put out by a company called Heart of America Press, the owner recently passed away, but he had a good variety of watch books.
Collectors Weekly: Is there a certain date of manufacture you won’t collect past?
Goldberg: I don’t have a hard and fast date, but really any watch made after the 1930s isn’t going to interest me. Even the later Walthams made in the 1940s, 1950s, at that point they were really cutting the corners and they just don’t appeal to me. One thing I loved about the old watches is the workmanship and as they got away from that they became less interesting.
Collectors Weekly: What parts of the pocket watch most attracted you at first?
Goldberg: The mechanisms. I was really draw to the key wound watches at first. Just the history and the fact that it’s such a bygone time, using a little key to wind your watch and watching the mechanisms move back and forth. The other parts of the watch are nice, I really enjoy a finely made case and a fancy dial, but to be honest it really is the mechanisms or what we call the movements of the watch that inspire me. If you look on my watch pages you’ll see that I always include the movements of the watch.
Collectors Weekly: What are the cases typically made out of?
Goldberg: Different metals, silver, gold, a lot of them are gold-filled, which is two very thin sheets of gold on the outside around a thicker layer of brass. You have watches that have cases made from a wide variety of silver color material, with a colorful trade names like silveride, usually nickel based. Gold watches are appealing to collectors but the value really has to do with what was appropriate to the watch at the time. If the particular watch was only ever offered in a nickel case, then putting it in a gold case isn’t necessarily going to make it a better watch.
Collectors Weekly: What’s a two-tone movement?
Goldberg: It’s a way of decorating a watch movement. Sometimes it involved actually using two different colors or types of metal so you got a two-tone effect. Sometimes it was the way they acid washed the movement itself, I personally think those are some of the most beautiful. They would actually use acid to engrave and change the color of the metal plates.
Collectors Weekly: I see that you made your own guide to pocket watches?
Goldberg: Yes, its a 40-page book called The New Collectors Guide to Pocket Watches. People were asking me the same questions over and over, questions you really needed to understand before you started reading the big books, which assumed you already knew the basics. I had a section on my website of frequently asked questions that just kept growing and growing and people suggested that I put it into a book format. It allowed me to add some illustrations and really expand on it.
The most popular questions were things like how do I set my watch? How do I open my watch? What are jewels? How can my watch be adjusted? What is a Railroad watch? Are my watches really gold or gold filled? Also, European watches have foreign words written all over them and a lot of people don’t understand that they usually have nothing to do with who made the watch, they’re general descriptions on the watch.
Collectors Weekly: What about European pocket watches?
Goldberg: I’ve collected European watches as well, but not as heavily. European watches tend to be very expensive in the U.S., and hard to maintain because watch makers here don’t have the expertise and knowledge to make repairs to them. The European watches weren’t mass produced, they were made by hand, so any replacement parts have to be made by hand. Whereas if a hand broke off of your Waltham or a gear was damaged, the watchmaker could reach into his drawer where he has 500 replacements and fix it for you. So I decided early on that I should focus on the American.
Collectors Weekly: Do you see lots of reproduction pocket watches?
Goldberg: Not as much with pocket watches as with wristwatches. What you do see is reproductions of the dials and the actual face of the watch, because they were primarily porcelain, and tended to break over the years. There’s a booming secondary market with people putting together very cheap metal dials with just laser printed paper stuck on there. Or a hand painted dial that looks like a dial from 200 years ago. People sell those and then somebody puts them on watches and tries to sell it as a 200 year old watch when in fact it’s just a 60 year old watch with a fake dial.
The same thing can happen with high-end Railroad watches, which are very collectible. These are the highest-grade watches that were made by the American watch companies in the late 1800s, early 1900s. Those had very specific dials, which over time got damaged and there was a market for reproduction dials. Those Railroad watches by themselves are pretty valuable, but if they have a perfect dial and a perfect case and a perfect movement, they’ll command a much higher price. So, if people produce a reproduction dial, and again they might be selling them very innocently, the next person buys it and puts it on eBay saying it’s in mint condition, perfect all around original. The watch itself is not a reproduction, but the dial was made 10 years ago.
For most collectors, if a pocket watch doesn’t have an original dial, they don’t want it. I’m less picky, and because I can never afford the best of the best, I have watches in my collection that don’t have perfect dials, or they have a little crack or chip. I still prefer that over a perfect reproduction dial, because at least I know it’s original, it’s authentic.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone just starting to collect pocket watches?
Goldberg: Learn as much as you can before you spend too much money. Buy the Complete Price Guide to Watches, because that’s a really good overview of what’s out there and the prices you should be looking to pay. Join your local chapter of the NAWCC, because the best way to get experience is to talk to other collectors. I certainly wouldn’t discourage people from going out there and buying watches, but I’d say be careful and don’t try to buy the most expensive watches you can find. Until you know what you’re looking for, you can spend a lot of money on junk.
Collectors Weekly: Anything else you’d like to mention?
Goldberg: I just think that pocket watches are a wonderful way to own a tangible piece of history. They’re something from a bygone era that isn’t made anymore and it’s amazing that something made 100 to 200 years ago can still be running after all that time.
(All images in this article courtesy Barry S. Goldberg, http://barrygoldberg.net/watches.htm)