Three Reasons to Collect Pocket Watches

Hampden pocket watch

I’m not sure how it happened, but it happened. I collect pocket watches. This article is an attempt to justify my new obsession and lure unsuspecting wrist watch aficionados into the pocket watch fraternity. Which is currently populated by Boomers busy dying off. So either you’re one of us and need to get on with it, or you’re the future, perfectly positioned to benefit from your peers’ disinterest. Here are three reasons that’s a good idea . . .

1. Pocket watches are cheap

I could wax lyrical about the intellectual, sensual and sartorial pleasures of pocket watch ownership. And I will. But let’s start by thinking about how much money you’ve spent on wrist watches. A lot. And now, Coronageddon. Ready for something horological that’s a little – make that a lot less financially demanding?

An entry-level Rolex or OMEGA runs five grand. Watches from the Big Three start well into the teens. You can buy a mint condition WWII American-made pocket watch for $300 to $800.

Collect pocket watches - 1943 IWC

You can spend less for a modern pocket watch (not recommended), but the same two thousand dollars that wouldn’t even start to pay for a coveted wrist watch buys you an outstanding vintage pocket watch and leaves plenty of money in your pocket. That 1943 IWC pocket watch above? $893.

Collect pocket watches - Patek Philippe 18k Chronometro Gondolo

Of course, there are pocket watches that cost a lot more. The 1914 Patek Philippe Chronometro Gondolo above runs $10k. Yeah, a Patek for $10k. It be like that.

2. Pocket watches are useful – at least in theory

Mechanical pocket watches are not anti-magnetic or shockproof. As long as you stay away from an MRI machine and carry your pocket watch on a chain, a properly serviced and adjusted (and warrantied) example from a reputable seller like The Pocket Watch Guy is hardy enough for daily wear and dead nuts accurate.

It’s a watch Jim, but not as we know it. And? And now we must address the thorny issue of carry.

Caseback

If you wear a vest, you’re sorted. Who wears a vest? Luckily, the vast majority of casual pants (jeans or khakis) have a small “change pocket” on the right side. It was originally designed for a pocket watch.

Clip the pocket watch chain to a pant loop, slip that bad boy in your pocket watch pocket and you’re good to stow (exposed chain length as you prefer).

Pocket watch desk

If you wear a suit – jacket, dress shirt and pants – you’re SOL. Same goes if you pocket carry a pistol on your right side. The good news: pocket watches make excellent desk clocks.

And then there’s the issue of what to do with your cherished wrist watch. The simple answer: wear it and carry a pocket watch. It’s a lot less silly than double-wristing two watches. But what’s the point of carrying two timepieces? It’s better to just carry the pocket watch.

Are you ready for that?

Hampden caseback

Glancing at your wrist is automatic. Checking the time with a pocket watch is a conscious decision. If you embraced the Apple Watch Series 5 because it’s “always on” – enabling a discrete time check – there’s no getting around it: a pocket watch is a PITA. (Helpful hint: put your pocket watch on the table at a meeting. Now there’s a message.)

3. Pocket watches are satisfying

There’s an upside to the time check process: pulling out your pocket watch shows off your watch in a way that your wrist watch can’t touch. It identifies you as someone . . .  who wears a pocket watch.

Truth be told, I’m not exactly sure what that means. I hope it signals that you’re a man of wealth and taste, not a member of a motorcycle gang or a fop. But discreet it ain’t.

Collect pocket watches - Hamilton Railway Special

The other advantage: checking the time with a pocket watch is a deeply sensual experience. You’re literally holding time in the palm of your hand. You feel the weight of your watch, the smooth warm metal against your skin. You glance at a wrist watch. You look at a pocket watch. If it’s quiet enough, you can hear the ticking of a finely tuned machine, counting off the moments of your life.

Vintage pocket watches are manual wind, of course, creating a tactile connection to the watch’s inner workings. The pocket watch’s relatively large crown and workings are more satisfying to manipulate than a manual wind wrist watch’s gubbins.

To set a lever-set pocket watch, you prise open or unscrew the front case, pull out a  little lever, set the time, push the lever back in and replace the front glass. To set a stem-set pocket watch, you simply pull out the stem (as per a wrist watch), set the time and push it back in.

Either way, setting the time on a pocket watch is an unalloyed pleasure- unless you’re the kind of person who thinks a Citizen Eco-Drive is the ultimate wrist watch.

Collect pocket watches - caseback Hamilton Railway Special

My thing: pre-WWII railroad standard pocket watches nestled in a transparent salesman’s caseback. They’re 100 percent U.S.-made, tapping into my first generation American patriotism. The watches also link me to the romance – and danger – of early railroad travel.

More than that, they’re living history. You can feel, hear and see the watch working. Sure, same goes for a manual wristwatch with an exhibition caseback. But the pocket watch’s simple internals are larger (obviously), more basic, more . . . primal.

Pocket watches aren’t for everyone

There’s a reason (or ten) the traditional wrist watch replaced the pocket watch. A modern wrist watch is a highly evolved machine. It’s robust, reliable, accurate and, above all, convenient.

Caseback

If you like your wrist watch, you can keep your wrist watch. If you’re ready to try something new that’s old and prepared to accept its demands and limitations, the pocket watch is the watch bargain of a lifetime. For now, anyway.

11 comments

  1. The typography on that Hamilton Railway Special is fantastic. That dial could/should be on modern Hamilton wristwatch.

    Collecting is one thing, but the problem I find with wearing a pocket watch in public, is that you inevitably end up looking like the guy who rides a unicycle or wears a fedora. No matter how honestly you came to it, it projects a cry for attention. Unlike a vintage wristwatch, there’s no way to wear a pocket watch that doesn’t call attention to itself.

    1. I wear one daily..I have a large collection of both vintage wrist watches and antique pocket watches (over 200)….I love wrist watches but my daily wear is a pocket watch. I practice medicine, I don’t wear a fedora, or even ride a unicycle..I do, however, get asked to show then to both patients and students about 100 times a day ….and I love that. So I guess I’m just a big, goofy, attention seeking hipster to you, but im ok with that.

  2. Very cool! Check out my buddy John Putnam at Cool Vintage Watches (www.coolvintagewatches.com) sometime. He gets some great vintage stuff and has a fantastic store here in Parkville, MO.

        1. E Bay Fees will kill your profets . I sold a nice 14 k 18 size double hunter Elgin in pristine condition for 4200.00. eBay kept over 400.00 for end of sale fees. Rip off.

  3. I own 3 Hamilton 992Bs. 2 with gold cases like the one pictured above and one steel case. I bought them around 1970. Back then, there were no quartz watches. The only wrist watches ordinary mortals could afford were Timexs which were dreadfully inaccurate.

    A roommate of mine snagged a job with a railroad and had to buy a railroad watch. He found a Hamilton in a pawn shop for about $50 ($350 in 2021 money). It was reasonably accurate, Railroad standards required 30 seconds a week. I don’t know how that compares with a fine Swiss wrist watch.

    I thought it was a great idea and bought a gold cased one. Then I bought a steel cased one for casual wear. My father bought one for his father who was going blind and needed the big numbers and high contrast 40 mm dial. Grandpa owned a Patek but couldn’t see low contrast dial or marks of a 20 mm square watch.

    I inherited Grandpa’s time pieces. I rarely wear the Patek because it has a leather band and I have the bad habit of hanging my arm out of the window of my car and my sweat dissolves leather.

    I stopped wearing the pocket watch, Quartz came in. 3 piece suits went out and you couldn’t wear jeans to the office back then. I owned a couple of lcd display quartzes which were heavy and ugly. I took a while but eventually (early 80’s) quartz regulated wrist watches with analog dials came on the market. I found a Seiko with a railroad approved dial and a steel bracelet. It was about $125. I own 3 of them and wear them all the time.

    The 3 Hamiltons will go to my children. My son, who will get the Patek, will get the steel Hamilton. The girls will get the gold ones.

    Note: I discovered this site when I decided I wanted to know what Robert Farago was up to. I used to participate in TTAC about 20 years ago, and I corresponded regularly with Robert offline.

    1. Here is an important question. I live in Jack Baruth country (RF will understand that reference). Is there any good watch repair place in my area? the whole state? between Chicago and NYC?

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