In Three Ways to Kill a Pocket Watch, I warned collectors to avoid eBay like the plague. Premium-priced, perfect-looking, “serviced” and “running” pocket watches might have hidden defects and inappropriate parts. Buy from a reputable dealer. There is another path: restore a broken ass pocket watch to its former glory. I spied with my little eye an entirely dubious Waltham military pocket watch on eBay . . .
Military World War Waltham Radium Numbers Pocket Watch. No cracks or chips. The back shows wear. The front says Waltham 17 Jewels, the back says ORD.DEPT. U.S.A. OB 28125. Inside back cover says Keystone Base Metal 158263. Winding mechanism moves and hands move freely but doesn’t appear to be working. Condition is Pre-owned.
“Doesn’t appear to be working.” Translation: the watch is broke AF. Picture of the movement? Nope. A fixer-upper at best. A $275 pile of junk at worst.
Dr. Frett at Frett & Co. Clockworks ‘ -“Bringing New Life to Old Watches” – charges around $100 to repair and accurize a reasonably complete and functional railroad grade pocket watch. I’m more than reasonably sure this ain’t that.
Even if it cost three bills to whip the DOA Waltham military pocket watch (at the top of this post) into shape, or substitute another movement, the low purchase price means it should still be worth it.
Just. Maybe. A fully functional 21 jewel Waltham military watch like the one immediately above sells for around $745. Anyway, done! The Waltham military pocket watch is mine for $275. One problem . . .
“Don’t send it to me,” Dr. Frett texted. “I won’t touch it.” And now we need to talk about the Waltham military pocket watch’s luminous numbers and hands. Illuminated by radium.
I knew that the words “Radium Numbers” in the product description were something of an issue. So I Google searched “radium.” One of the first questions listed: “Can radium kill you?” chemistryexplained.com:
Like all radioactive materials, radium is a dangerous substance to handle. The radiation it gives off can kill living cells.
People who work with radium must take great care that they do not get the element on their skin, swallow it, or inhale its fumes. Marie Curie herself eventually died from working with radium. She developed leukemia and died in 1934.
So yes, radium can kill you. And yes, radium dialed watches are a danger. A pair of British academics tackled that very subject. The result was headlined WWII military watches ‘potentially pose serious cancer risk’
In this study, a collection of 30 antique, radium-dial watches gave rise to radon concentrations 134 times greater than the UK’s recommended ‘safe’ level when kept in a space the size of a typical boxroom.
In addition, three of the watches in poor condition gave rise individually to radon concentrations – when kept in the same poorly ventilated room – well in excess of the threshold where Public Health England would recommend remediation.
The authors, Dr Robin Crockett, University of Northampton, and Professor Gavin Gillmore, Kingston University (above), warn these levels are high enough to be dangerous even in much larger spaces, such as whole houses.
Dr Crockett said: “These results show that the radon emitted from individual watches can potentially pose a serious cancer risk. This is of concern because in addition to military watches being particularly prized by collectors, many individual radium-dial watches are kept as mementoes by ex-servicemen and their descendants.
“They have the potential to pose a significant health hazard to themselves and their families. Smokers are particularly at risk.”
Sixty-year-old cigar smoker, me. One who knows that you have to remove the front glass from a lever-set pocket watch to set the time.
Professor Gillmore added that due to the age and condition of many of the watches in this study, opening up such watches without taking appropriate precautions is not recommended.
Question: why are there radium dialed watches – and dials – for sale on eBay? Where’s the health warning? I know a disclaimer announcing “THIS WATCH CAN KILL YOU” would affect values, but seriously. A strongly worded email is headed eBay’s way. (I’ll post their reply in the next installment of this series.)
Meanwhile, it’s no surprise pocket watch restorers and collectors won’t touch a radium dial pocket watch with a ten foot pole. Especially those who’ve seen this movie:
I’m not going to lick the Waltham’s dial. Still, no thanks.
There is an answer. Remove the radium. “Just scrape it off with a pen knife into water,” an elderly pocket watch dealer advised. Yeah, no.
All is not lost. International Dial Co. specializes in safely stripping off the cancerous lume and repainting the dial with vintage-colored Super-LumiNova. I sent them the 411 on the Waltham military pocket watch for an estimate: $106. Awesome! Only . . .
International Dial told me not to send the watch. Just the dial. For both practical and health reasons, I’m not the guy to remove the Waltham’s dial. So I’m sending the radioactive beast to Jeff The Pocket Watch Guy to safely remove the dial and hands and send the dial to the refinisher.
And that’s where we are. I’m waiting for the watch to arrive. When it arrives I will NOT unpack it. I’ll just relabel the sucker and send it to Jeff.
Why bother? Waltham military pocket watches helped win the war. The Civil War, that is. That’s another story, coming to a truth telling watch blog near you. As for the Waltham military pocket watch with the mystery movement, watch this space.