Tom McIntyre talks about antique pocket watches, discussing key manufacturers, the mechanics behind the watches, the varying types, and the collecting hobby in general.
I got interested in clocks in 1967, and I started collecting watches fairly seriously in the early ‘80s. I ran out of room for clocks. Pocket watches are a little bit more manageable, and in some ways more interesting, too. I collect precision clocks, clocks that are very accurate timekeepers, and marine chronometers; things like that.
I specialize in a few different specific types of pocket watches, but my principal interest is in the Waltham Watch Company, and even more specifically in the American Watch Co. products of the Waltham Watch Company.
When the American watch industry first began, the first successful company was called the American Watch Co., and it was founded out of the Boston Watch Company, which had failed in 1859. So in 1859, the American Watch Co. was formed, and it’s generally considered to be the first successful company. It had many name changes over the years and a couple of small reorganizations and eventually became the Waltham Watch Company in the early 1900s. The very best, most expensive Waltham watches for all of that roughly 50-year period, from 1859 until maybe 1915 or so, were always labeled American Watch Co.
Collectors Weekly: Why did they change the name to Waltham?
McIntyre: There were lots of reasons. The town of Waltham had become well known, and the name appeared on all of their watches as the location anyway. They got into a trademark dispute with another company that started building watches in Waltham, so they wanted to protect that name, and I think that is the main reason. Also, American Watch Co. couldn’t really be protected as a brand name because America was the country. You can’t own the name America if the United States owns the name America.
The company that everybody calls Elgin was originally the National Watch Company. That was the second company that started up. It’s almost like the American League and the National League in baseball. They were always the two biggest.
At that time there was nobody manufacturing pocket watches like we manufacture automobiles and appliances and various other things today. That whole manufacturing process was invented by Waltham for precision goods. It was just beginning to be developed. Everything was made by hand before that. An individual would sit down and work on pieces of metal until they had built all the pieces for a watch. Then they would assemble it and have the watch run. But having an assembly line with lots of people working on it and putting things together in large volumes had never been done before.
The first experiments were at the Springfield Armory for the Civil War. The Springfield Armory built lots of rifles. Those techniques were adopted and adapted by the people at Waltham to build pocket watches.
Collectors Weekly: Before that, were people making pocket watches in America at all?
McIntyre: There were some brothers in Connecticut called the Pitkins who made some watches before that, and there was a family near Worcester, Mass. called the Goddards. Luther Goddard and Benjamin Goddard and Parley Goddard made watches, but they were handmade watches. The Pitkin watches used some machinery and were a first stab at doing it, but they didn’t do it all that well, so it didn’t really take off, and one of them went insane trying and killed himself.
Collectors Weekly: Once Waltham introduced precision manufacturing, how did the quality of the watches change?
McIntyre: The point of manufacturing them was that if you made the same part over and over again, you could make it better than if you had to make each one from scratch each time. They had special machinery that would make gears and special machinery that would make shafts and plates and little springs and all the various pieces of the watch, the screws and so forth, but it took a long time to develop all those machines.
The very first pocket watches they made with machinery were about as good as the regular run-of-the-mill watches that were being made in Europe, but they weren’t nearly as good as the very best European watchmakers could make them. They were better than any that were being made in this country because we just didn’t have the tradition of the crafts here, but the English and Swiss and French made very fine watches in the early 19th century, and we didn’t make any that good probably until at least 10 or 15 years after we began manufacturing them here.
At first they were figuring out the machines. They were figuring out how heavy they had to make them to be able to cut the same shape reliably every time and all sorts of things about how to build production machinery that they didn’t really know. If you’re going to make parts automatically and have clamping jaws opening and closing and picking things up and moving them around by machinery, then you need to have a great, strong, and stable base for that machine.
I think they were surprised at how heavy they had to make the machinery and it took them a few years to work all that out, but by the early 1870s, the watches that were being made at Waltham were winning all of the prizes around the world for the best watches. It only took them about 20 years.
They were still making them by hand in Europe until then, and then a fellow from Switzerland came over to our centennial exposition in 1876 and saw the Waltham watches being made by machinery. He went back to Switzerland and tried to persuade the Swiss to do that. It took quite a few years to persuade them, but a couple of Americans went over there and set up factories, and then the Swiss reports said that the machinery was the way to go.
The Swiss developed a very similar style of making watches by machine, but not with large factories like the Americans had. So the Swiss never did get to making millions of watches a year, at least in the 19th century, whereas the largest American watch companies were making more than a million watches a year.
The Swiss are known for their craftsmanship, however. They had an edge in terms of assembling the watches and adjusting them and that sort of thing. Once they got to using the machinery, they could produce some very wonderful things. They caught up with the Americans in the early 20th century and then passed them. That, plus a couple of wars where the Swiss didn’t fight and we did, essentially finished off the American watch industry.
The last American watch factory folded up in the 1960s. Recently a fellow started making watches in America, complete watches but on a very small scale, but that only started a couple of years ago. They’re mostly wristwatches because there’s not a big market for pocket watches. Nobody wears vests anymore.
There are some craftsmen, mostly in England and Switzerland, who occasionally make a very special pocket watch, and Patek Philippe, which is one of the top wristwatch companies, also occasionally makes pocket watches. The Patek Philippe caliber 89, which is probably the most famous recent production, was made back in 1989 and cost $2.5 million, but it was a very special watch. It could tell you what day Easter was going to fall on 50 years from now.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the major pocket watch manufacturers?
McIntyre: In Switzerland, Geneva is where the headquarters are, but the Le Locle is where the major part of production is. It’s called the Valle de Joux, which is the valley of joy, loosely translated, which is north and east of Geneva. It’s been there for 200 years now.
The English, French, and Swiss didn’t build factories, so there were lots more of them because the individual makers might be producing maybe a hundred watches a year, at the very most maybe 300 or 400 watches a year, and out of a very small shop with maybe three people working at benches. The American factories had hundreds and hundreds of employees in very large factories.
“The last American watch factory folded in the 1960s.”
So Waltham was the first, as I said, then Elgin was formed, and then the Illinois Watch Company, and then there were Hampden and Hamilton. So at the peak, I think there were 20 American watch companies. As things tapered off in the 20th century with the Depression and so forth, Hamilton, Elgin, and Waltham were the last three survivors, and Hamilton was the final survivor of all of those.
The Elgin company still makes fancy alloys for some industrial applications, so there’s a little piece of Elgin that’s still alive. The Hamilton people bought one of the Swiss companies and then merged back into a Swiss company. So if you followed all the little pieces around, there may still be a little piece of Hamilton that’s left in the company that’s called Swatch now. Hamilton is really part of Swatch today, and legitimately so.
The Waltham Watch Company was sold off and became a retailing division and a separate manufacturing division called Waltham Precision. Waltham Precision made little clocks for the Air Force to use in airplanes for a long time, but that contract went away around 1993, so they’re finally gone. But the name was bought by a Japanese family who manufactures Waltham watches in Switzerland now, so there are Swiss Waltham watches that follow in the tradition of the original Waltham watches.
The North American rights to the name were bought by a distributor on Long Island and he sells cheap Chinese knockoffs of watches that you see occasionally at Wal-Mart or K-Mart or places like that. So Waltham is pretty much done.
By the 1950s and ‘60s, there were very few pocket watches being made, but the last of the Waltham pocket watches were made in the early ‘50s and the last of the Hamilton watches were made maybe 10 years later.
So by 1965, there were no more pocket watches being made in this country. Timex was still making some pocket watches. General Time was making pocket watches and some of those companies that grew out of the alarm clock business that didn’t have anything to do with the original watch companies. But Westclox did alarm clocks. There were Westclox pocket watches, and those are still around but they’re made in South America now.
The watches America is most famous for are the railroad watches, because we had time standards on our railroads that required lots of people to carry pocket watches in order to make sure that the trains didn’t run into one another.
Collectors Weekly: Did all the major manufacturers make railroad pocket watches?
McIntyre: Most of them did. Technically, people get confused because when you say railroad, they think that if it has a picture with a train on it or if it has a train on the back of the case, it has something to do with railroads. The watch that railroad employees carried was called a standard watch.
A standard watch had a set of operating specs that changed over time, but the final specifications were pretty much set for pocket watches in 1909. The watches that met that specification were made by all the major American companies. So Waltham, Hamilton, Illionis, Elgin, and several other smaller companies all made the same watches. There were probably 15 companies altogether that were making standard watches that conformed to the specifications.
Other than standard pocket watches, there were ladies’ watches. The first ones were made by Waltham in 1860, and they made them in various sizes from that point on. Standard ladies’ watches are about an inch in diameter as opposed to about 2 inches in diameter for a man’s watch and correspondingly lighter.
There were also presentation watches that were very much like railroad watches the same size, but were made to have a better appearance than the railroad watch or to have a heavier gold case or various things of that kind that weren’t really appropriate for the railroad watch.
You can think of the railroad watch as being a tool that somebody used in their job, whereas the bulk of the watches were for people to carry and use for their own pleasure or just to help them in their daily life. A train conductor’s pocket watch was the same as a carpenter’s hammer. Then at the top end were the presentation watches.
So the watches that I collect – the American Watch Co. grade watches from Waltham, the ones that I like the most – are not railroad watches. Most of those are set by the pendant. You pull out on the stem to turn the hand. That was not allowed in the railroad specification. In the railroad specification, you had to set it by pulling out a lever of some kind by a separate mechanism that engaged the setting and then you could set the hand. That was to avoid accidentally moving the hands while winding the watch if you were busy and you were distracted by something else and looking on a train because the worst thing that could happen with a railroad watch was not that it would stop running. It’s that it would keep running but have the wrong time on it. If you were looking at a watch and it was running but was five minutes off, there’s a good chance you could get killed.
Other than the specifics of the railroad watches, the mechanism of watches was essentially the same from around 1820. There was a mechanism called the lever, which is the way that the watch works. There’s a balance wheel you can see spinning back and forth very quickly, and that balance wheel gets its impulse to keep spinning from a little mechanism called a lever and an escape wheel.
Those pieces were invented in the 1770s and took over the industry long before manufactured watches. So that was the preferred way to make a watch for a very long time, and all watches were made that way until 1990 when George Daniels invented the coaxial escapement. Omega has been making coaxial escapement watches for about seven or eight years now. It keeps better time and uses less wear on the various moving parts, so it’s more reliable. It’s partly a marketing gimmick.
Collectors Weekly: Does the watch movement determine collectibility?
McIntyre: It does, primarily because of the finish. If the metal is finished very well with rounded edges that are then polished with decoration patterns on the flat surfaces, then those are quality marks that make the movement itself worth more money. Generally, you find those quality marks associated with a fine porcelain dial with very delicate workmanship on it and often in a heavy 18 karat gold case. Those things all come together to contribute to the value of a watch.
In terms of materials, the shafts on all the wheels are made out of steel. The plates themselves are made of some kind of a brass. The most common one is a nickel brass, which is generally called nickel plate. Those are the flat pieces of metal that hold the gears between them. The gears themselves are mostly made out of brass, but occasionally some escape wheels and some other special parts might be made out of steel.
On the earlier very high-grade watches, the gears were made out of gold. You have the gold gears and the steel shafts and the small gears, which are called pinions. If you look at a gear train, you have a little gear and a larger gear, and the big gears are called wheels. Wheels and pinions are both gears, but they have different names.
Then you have the plates, and then you have the jewels. The jewels are generally some kind of hard stone. In the best watches, the jewels are rubies that have been shaped and pierced to make a little bearing surface out of them. Those rubies are held in gold settings to allow you to place them in the nickel plates.
So in the nicest watches, you see ruby jewels in gold settings set in nickel plates. On my website, the 1872 model American-grade watches are generally considered to be the very best of that technique. Those are what most people consider the best watches that were ever made during that high-craft period, anyway.
Collectors Weekly: How many jewels there are in the mechanisms?
McIntyre: In order to be a jeweled watch at all, there has to be seven jewels. That little fast-spinning wheel called the balance has four jewels on its pivots, and then the lever escapement has three jewels that are critical in the operation of the lever escapement. Those seven jewels make a jeweled watch. After those, all the rest of the jewels are pivot jewels on a shaft that’s turning. You can have as many as 10 more jewels.
There are five shafts on a standard four-wheel watch because there’s the palette and then there’s a shaft for each of the five wheels. That gives you 17 jewels – seven on the balance and escapement and 10 on the train. So 17 jewels is what’s normally called a fully jeweled watch. The center shaft turns so slowly that it’s probably not necessary to jewel that, but many people think it’s important. Either 15 or 17 jewels are all you really need to make the watch operate effectively.
There’s some theoretical argument for putting cap jewels so that when the shafts are turning, if they get to sliding up and down in their bearing surfaces, you put a cap jewel on the end so that they don’t slide very far. They’ll just move a short distance, and then they touch another bearing surface that they can spin on and it’ll keep them from losing any energy.
If you put as many of those cap jewels in a watch as you can reasonably put in, you can get up to 23 jewels, and that’s the standard high-jeweled watch. After that, you have to start putting extra jewels in the winding mechanism and other places where they don’t really do much good. Fifteen is enough, and 23 jewels is the most that it’s reasonable to put on, but a few watches do have more than that.
High-jeweled watches are very collectible because they weren’t made very often. They’re collectible because of their scarcity. The Illinois Watch Company had a number of high-jeweled watches that were made with 24 and 25 jewels and higher. The Columbus Watch Company made a lot of very high-jeweled watches. Seth Thomas Watch Company made some high-jeweled watches. But Waltham and Elgin and Hamilton didn’t make really high-jeweled watches because they didn’t need a gimmick to sell their watches.
The ones that made the high-jeweled watches were the less prominent companies that were trying to compete with something special to try to gain market share. There was a company that only made a very few watches because they never really got in business. That was the McIntyre Watch Company, and their standard watch is 25 jewels. It has extra jewels in the winding mechanism for the little gearing and that show you how much the watch is wound up.
The McIntyre Watch Company was an American company. It was started by Fred McIntyre in Kankakee, Illinois in 1908, and it failed in 1911 and was pretty much out of business by 1913. They made a handful of watches as prototypes and Fred tried to sell those to the jewelry stores and actually succeeded in taking orders for a lot of watches but the people that they were renting factory space from evicted them because they had a better tenant. Somebody wanted to come in and make sewing machines, and so they threw out the watch people and gave the space to the sewing machine people.
There are only three or four of those watches that are known. Some of them belong to Bruce McIntyre, and one belongs to a collector in Chicago who bought it at the sale when the Time Museum was sold a few years ago. Another one was bought by a person in Wellesley, Mass. So there are four of them that are known, and there were probably eight produced, so there are four sleepers out there someplace. Someday I might wander across one at a flea market and somebody will sell it to me for $20.
When I first found out about those watches, I was interested because it had my name on it. I’ve gotten to know the family, the descendants of Fred McIntyre, and we think we are probably cousins but we don’t really know how. We haven’t been able to find a common ancestor.
But a few years back, when the factory went out of business, their drawings and tooling and all of the materials got stored away in Chicago for quite a few years, then was sold to a watch collector here in the Massachusetts area. I bought all that stuff about 10 years ago now. So, technically, I own the McIntyre Watch Company now, but we haven’t produced any watches for a long time. I’ve thought about it but haven’t.
I talk about watches a lot. I’m giving a talk on the McIntyre Watch Company at the NAWCC national meeting in Grand Rapids here in a couple of months. We just released our new NAWCC website today. It’s a lot easier to navigate the website and find things on it today than it was yesterday. It’s much more attractive. The other one was a cobbled together effort of some 15 years ago, and it’s just not been able to keep up with our needs, so we just put a lot of effort into designing that. It should be less intimidating now.
One of the areas that’s listed on the website is the forums, and that’s where the members get together to discuss watches and clocks. There’s a link off of the main page of the website. It just says forums. On the new website, there’s only five entries on the left, so it’s easier to find things. There used to be 30. I’m one of the directors of the NAWCC. We have a national board of directors that provide strategic direction and planning for the organization, and I’m one of the people that does that.
Collectors Weekly: With pocket watches, what else determines rarity besides scarcity?
McIntyre: There are some very rare watches that aren’t all that great. There was a company in Massachusetts called the Auburndale Watch Company, and they made two watches. They made the Auburndale Rotary and the Auburndale Timer. The company was only in business for three years.
They probably made a couple of hundred of the Auburndale Rotary and 500 of the Auburndale Timer, but you can still buy those watches for a relatively small amount of money. You can buy a Timer for a few hundred dollars, and you can buy the Rotary for maybe $1,500 to $2,000, as opposed to a very fine railroad watch produced by Hamilton in the 1950s, one of which sold two years ago for $40,000. So the two watches are maybe equally rare, but one’s worth a thousand dollars and one’s worth $40,000. It’s the quality of the watch itself that makes the biggest difference.
The Waltham 1872 models are not as rare as some of the other watches. They made about 3,000 of those, but they’re far and away the best quality watches that were made in the country. The only ones that come close to them are the watches that Elgin made that they call the 21-jewel convertible watches. Those are about as good as the Waltham 1872 models. Those two are the top-rank of American pocket watches in terms of quality. But there’re 2,000 of the convertibles and there’re a couple of thousand of the ’72 models, so they’re not really super scarce like the McIntyre watch.
There are only maybe four of the McIntyre watches, and the one that has come on the market now twice in the last 50 years sold the first time for about $4,000 and sold the second time for $50,000 plus premiums. If you put scarcity and quality together, the price goes way up.
Then you get into things that don’t make any sense to collectors like me. Modern wristwatches that are just coming on the market by prominent makers in Switzerland sell for anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000. You have to have your name on the list for five years to get one. The people that want those pay a lot of money for them.
Collectors Weekly: When pocket watches were still being made, how often were they coming out with new models?
McIntyre: Waltham produced a new model in each size and each class of watch. So for their principal men’s watch, they had two kinds: a full-plate line of watches that was for working men, and the three-quarter plate, slightly smaller, 16-size watches. They produced a new model in each of those about every three or four years, although there were some long gaps. There was a full-plate model produced in 1857. The next full-plate model wasn’t until 1877, but then in 1879, there was another one, and then in 1883 there was another one, and the last one in 1892. Those were the 18-size full-plate watches.
The first of the 16-size watches was produced in 1860, and then another model was produced in 1868 and then another in 1872. Then there was a long gap until 1888, and the last one was in 1908. If you averaged out those numbers, I guess that turns out to be close to a new watch for the men’s market every 10 years. There were smaller watches for women that were being produced at the same time, so maybe it would be fair to say a new watch on average every three or four years.
Waltham always named their models for the year the watch was made, after the first few years. In the very beginning, they called it the full-plate watch and then the key-wind watch of 18-size, but later on, after they had more models than they could deal with that way, they started calling them by the model year. 1868, I believe, was the first time they actually referred to the watch by the model year. Then they went back and assigned model years to all the previous ones.
Elgin called them either by a grade name or a grade number, and Hamilton always called theirs by grade numbers.
Collectors Weekly: What is the grade?
McIntyre: The word is confusing because grade is used as just a name. A grade number is just the same as a name that describes a watch. So the grade 162 Elgin just describes a particular watch; a 168 is not better than a 162, and a 162 is not worse than a 155. They’re arbitrary numbers. The same is true of Hamilton. It can be very confusing.
Waltham, in addition to the models, had grades that were names that applied to many different models. So I collect watches that are American Watch Co. grade. The American Watch Co. grade was introduced in 1859, and they made an American Watch Co. grade watch for the 20-size 1862 model, the 16-size 1860 model, the 16-size 1868 model, the ’72 model, the ’88 model and the ’99 model. Those were all made in American Watch Co. grade. They made some 12-size watches in American Watch Co. grade also. The 1894 bridge model was American Watch Co. grade, 12-size.
Waltham also made a ladies’ watch in 1890 that they called the OM model, but they made that in American Watch Co. Grade, too. So that was the only ladies’ watch that was ever made in this country as officially the highest grade watch made by the company.
All the companies made ladies’ watches, I believe. I can’t think of any exceptions offhand. In general, the interesting thing about ladies’ watches is that they don’t get collected nearly enough. I guess women aren’t as attracted to mechanical things, perhaps. But ladies’ watches generally were made as a piece of jewelry. There were pretty dials and pretty cases and just very plain mechanisms inside them, and those are relatively common. They’re collectible because the case that enclosed it is very pretty.
There’s a few ladies watches at the very top end, and they were made in relatively miniscule quantities. Waltham made some of those, and Elgin and Hamilton and Illinois. They all made a handful of watches in very high grades for ladies, and people should collect them more. There are a few of us that do collect them, and I have some of them on my website under “Small Wonders,” but I haven’t gotten most of them photographed. I have quite a few more that are not on the website.
All the watches on my website are part of my personal collection. There are a handful of watches there that people have let me take pictures of to include to complete the story. The McIntyre watches for example do not belong to me.
Collectors Weekly: What attracts you to a pocket watch?
McIntyre: The quality of the movement, how well it’s made, and the attractiveness of the mechanism itself. Generally I look for a nice dial and a nice case, but on American watches, you can often find a case for the watch, so it’s not as critical to have the best grade case. Some of my friends will only collect something if they have really strong evidence that the case and the dial and the movement have always been together since the watch was first made, so that restricts their collecting quite a bit. But they’ll pay a lot more money for a watch if you can prove that to them.
That’s another aspect of collecting. It’s called originality. I often collect authentic examples but not necessarily original examples, where some other people only collect original examples. People who collect all-original watches spend hours painstakingly looking at the cases on the inside to see if there are any extra scratches where somebody might have taken something apart at one point in time and just examine them microscopically to determine whether or not they’re original.
Sometimes you know it’s original just because of the provenance. If you bought it from the great-great-granddaughter of a U.S. senator that bought it originally in 1863, I’m reasonably sure that since that’s been sitting in the family vault for the last 85 years, it’s original.
But for me, the case isn’t necessarily important because you can often find an authentic case. Watches get damaged, and the movement may or may not be worth repairing, and if it’s a lesser grade of movement, it might not get repaired, in which case somebody is offering the case for sale independently of the movement. But of course, there are a lot more movements than there are cases because in times like today, when gold is at a very high price, the premium for having that gold made into a watch case is not all that high over the value of the gold itself.
The gold in a typical American men’s pocket watch today starts off for a relatively lightweight case at around a thousand dollars and can go up to as much as $3,000 just for the gold content of the case. During the Depression in the ‘30s, lots of watches lost their cases. Times were a lot harder than they are now, and a lot more people carried watches, but they were perfectly willing to trade their gold case from their father’s watch in for cash and have the watch cased in some other kind of metal case that wasn’t gold.
Collectors Weekly: Are pocket watches still pretty popular as a collectible?
McIntyre: I think so. If you look at the activity on places like eBay, you see a lot of watches changing hands and a fairly large number of people doing that. I’m not so sure about the number of people that are serious about watches and really want to make a study of them.
At one time we had almost 40,000 people that belonged to our collectors’ association, and now we’re down around 20,000 people. It’s gone down by quite a lot in the last 15 years. I’m putting a lot of effort into not only my website but the NAWCC website, and my hope is that the Internet age will bring some younger collectors out and get them interested in these watches again because we’d like to have more people.
Clocks have a lot of appeal because five people can sit around in a room and look at a clock. It’s a little more difficult to share pocket watch collections, although if people are willing to photograph some and make web pages out of them, then they’re a lot easier to share. It’s still a lot of fun if you have a small number of similar watches and you get a bunch of people to sit around the table to look at them and talk about them. That’s what we do at our local chapter meetings. We have 170 groups around the world besides the association itself that actually collect the watches and clocks.
McIntyre: I first got interested in collecting pocket watches when I was around 30 years old, and I think we still get a lot of people starting to get interested at that age. But most people that are raising families don’t really have the time to spend on it while their children are small, so our typical member joins sometime in their early 40s and stays with the hobby for at least 20 years or so.
The average age of our members is probably getting close to 60, so we need to get younger ones interested. But the younger ones will always have a hard time staying with us because it’s really hard to spend as much time as it takes to really enjoy these things when you’re doing other things in your life.
When my wife and I got married, we went to live in Spokane, Washington for a year. Then we moved to Parkville, Missouri for two years. Then we lived in Los Angeles for five years, and then we moved to Canada for two years, then West Virginia for nine years. Then we finally got here to Massachusetts, and we’ve been here for 30 years. We didn’t start collecting anything until we moved to West Virginia.
Collectors Weekly: Are there steps to identifying a pocket watch or is there a taxonomy of pocket watches?
McIntyre: A group on our website’s forums provides that service to people that log on and ask. They need a good picture of the movement, and if you can’t get a picture of the movement, you need to know what it says on it. And if you think there’s something special about the case, you need some good pictures of that. Inside the covers of the case will be trademarks and hallmarks and things like that, so good pictures of those are needed as well. With that kind of information, you can tell somebody a lot about the watch.
For specific companies like the Waltham Watch Company, there’s a database that some friends and I put together that lets you look up information on all of the really old Walthams. You can find some information for the more recent ones after 1900, but not as much as on the early ones because the companies stopped keeping as good of records.
We’re about to produce something like that for the association for Hamilton watches. There’s a friend of mine, his name is Wayne Schlitt, who has a similar database that’s online for the Elgin Watch Company, and then one of our chapters, chapter 149, has some databases available, including a good CD database of the Illinois Watch Company. So it’s haphazard; it’s not all in one place.
One of the things NAWCC would like to do is make a global serial number database that you can type in the serial number. Just type in the number and it’ll show you pictures of, say, a half a dozen watches that yours might be because of the number, and then you can compare your watch to one of those pictures and see if that’s the watch that you have. We’ll be producing that sometime in the next few years.
The best way to identify a watch is to come to the discussion group at the NAWCC. The people there are very helpful and would be happy to tell somebody what they have. That applies to clocks, wristwatches, pocket watches, European watches, American watches, clocks of all kinds.
Collectors Weekly: Is there an overlap between pocket watch and wristwatch collectors?
McIntyre: Certainly at the dealer level – the people that buy, sell, and trade them – deal in both wrist and pocket watches, but mostly the two are pretty specialized. Wristwatches are mostly bought for style reasons, whereas pocket watches are mostly bought for technical reasons. So you need to know two different kinds of things in order to be able to deal effectively in them. So there’s some overlap, but not as much as you might expect from them both being essentially the same thing.
Collectors Weekly: What about hunting case versus open face watches?
McIntyre: A hunting case watch is one that has a closed cover over the dial so that you can’t see the dial when you’re holding the watch in your hand. You push down on the little button at the top, the crown, and the cover opens up and you can see what time it is. That was a popular style from around 1800 to around 1900, for about a hundred years. But it got displaced by the open face. The open face style existed before that, and the hunting case style disappeared probably close to 1900. They still made them after that, but the bulk of them were made before 1900.
With the open face watch, if you just pick it up and look at it, it’s just like a wristwatch. There’s the dial in front of you and you can see it, where if it’s a hunting case watch, when you pick it up to look at it, it’s metal on both sides. You have to figure out which side is the front side and then you have to push the button. Then when you push the button, the lid pops up because there’s a little spring that makes it pop up. The idea behind them was that you could carry a hunting case watch in your pocket and it was less likely to have the crystal broken or the dial damaged. The other reason for it is that they were a heavier piece of gold, and people like them just for the feel of them.
The other big difference is that the way the mechanism was laid out in a key wind watch, you could case a key wind watch in either a hunting case or an open face case, the same movement. It just depends on where you drill the holes for your winding and setting keys.
If you take a key wind movement and you attach a winding mechanism to it so that it winds like a modern watch with the stem and then you put it in a case, then the 12 o’clock position is in the wrong place. You want the 12 o’clock position to be under the stem, but in fact the 3 o’clock position is under the stem. That’s a fuzzy reason, but it is the reason that there were a lot more hunting case watches in the second half of the 19th century.
From 1860 to 1900 as they were developing these new watch styles, the first thing they did was make key wind watches because it was easier. The first kind they made were hunting case watches because it was easier to make a key-wind watch into a hunting case watch than it was to make a key wind watch into an open face watch. Most of the ones that you will see are from that period from around 1850 until 1900. The bulk of the watches during that period have closed faces – a hunting case.
Collectors Weekly: Would you say that was the heyday of pocket watches then?
McIntyre: I would say the 20 years from 1900 to 1920 was the American railroad watch’s peak, but for Waltham and maybe Elgin, also, it was that earlier period. There’s another company which is the E. Howard Company, which is a very prominent company as well. Those are really quite collectible. There were major collectors that collect only Howard. They were located in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and then in 1900, they merged with a watch case company and moved to Waltham, Mass.
Only two fairly large companies, Howard and Waltham, were in Massachusetts. But the Dueber Watch Case Company was in Ohio and the Dueber Watch Company was in Ohio. The Gruen Watch Company was in Ohio as well, but that was half Swiss and half American. Hamilton’s in Pennsylvania, and Elgin and the Illinois Watch Company were both in Illinois.
There were more watch companies in Illinois than there were anyplace else. So you had Elgin and Illinois and Rockford were all pretty significant companies that were in the Chicago area, within 50 miles of Chicago. The New York Standard Watch Company was in New York, and they made cheaper watches but lots of them. That was a fairly large company. Those are the big ones.
Collectors Weekly: If somebody was going to start collecting pocket watches now, what advice would you have for them?
McIntyre: Try to focus on one company and one particular kind of watch if you’re just starting because there are just an awful lot of things that you need to know, and it’s easier to learn from one watch. Buy lots of books first and then buy some watches later. You really needed to do the studying and the reading to find out what else you need to know.
In terms of long-term value and the general collecting advice – this doesn’t apply just to watches; it applies to all collectibles – you should buy the very best you can afford to buy at any given time. Buy fewer better ones rather than buying lots of cheaper ones.
Collectors Weekly: How many watches do you personally have?
McIntyre: About 200. In fact, a lot of people that are into watches and clocks are in it for the craft rather than for the collecting. They have relatively small collections, but they work really hard on their individual pieces, getting them in really good shape. They like to buy things that are a little bit in rough condition so they can fix it up and bring it back to life again, and that’s a very exciting thing. So that’s another aspect of collecting – collecting to exercise your craft skills.
(All images in this article courtesy of Tom McIntyre).