How to Make Pocket Watches Popular Again

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Illinois pocket watch 3

Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, shopping for a watch was a different experience. While millions of pocket watches were sold as complete timepieces, millions more were sold on a “build your own” basis . . .

Buyers would start by choosing a movement/dial combination; selecting from a variety of manufacturers’ movements, made in a number of different grades. Buyers considered the price, accuracy, dependability and style of the movement that would measure the moments of their life.

After that, the buyer would choose a case according to their station in life. Cases ranged from plain base metal to meticulously engraved and/or stamped 10k or 18k gold.

Pocket watch case

The watch dealer instructed the watchmaker to insert the movement into the case and make sure the watch was running smoothly and accurately. The dealer would take the customer’s money, present the finished pocket watch and bid them farewell – expecting to see them again in a year’s time for a service and, hopefully, a move up the pocket watch price ladder.

Hampden caseback

Watchmakers like Waltham, Hamilton, Elgin, Hampden, Rockford and Illinois would show sample movements to dealers in a special “salesman’s case” (what wristwatch people call an “exhibition caseback”). Normally hidden behind a protective rear metal cover, the watch’s movement was revealed in all its glory; its elegantly decorated wheels and cogs working in perfect synchronized harmony.

Dealers would keep salesmen-cased pocket watches on hand to show customers exactly what they were buying. More than that, American watchmakers and dealers understood the hypnotic allure of a ticking movement. They used the salesman case to win business in a highly competitive market.

Pocket watches

That said, all concerned understood that a pocket watch was a delicate device (hence pocket watch chains). The crystal could be scratched or broken. Dust could destroy a pocket watch’s accuracy and longevity. (America in the late 19th and early 20th century was an extremely dusty place.)

All of which meant that even open-faced pocket watches – a pocket watch with no front cover, as specified by railway standards – walked out a dealer’s door protected by a solid metal caseback. Sensibly enough, the market chose utility and status over naked beauty.

Pocket watches rear

In World War I, American soldiers learned the practical advantages of wearing a wrist watch, previously considered a ladies’ fashion item. The pocket watch fell from favor. By the 1950’s, pocket watches were something Dad or grandpa wore before wrist watches were invented.

Enter pocket watch collectors.

Pursuing authenticity, the vast majority of pocket watch collectors buy pocket watches with solid casebacks. Very few collectors (including our publisher) prefer to wear or display their pocket watch in a vintage (top image) or modern “salesman case” (below). Right answer.

Hamilton pocket watch caseback

Imagine sitting around a campfire. You smell the smoke curling your nostrils. You feel the heat on your skin. You stare at the flickering flames. But you can’t see the embers’ enchanting glow.

The embers power the fire much like the movement powers the watch. Without seeing a pocket watch movement at work, it’s impossible to experience the full mystery, majesty and thrill of an American pocket watch.

Pocket watch on its side

Solid pocket watch casebacks can be beautiful beyond measure, but they discourage wrist watch collectors from expanding their collection to include relatively inexpensive, accurate and reliable American pocket watches. Oblivious to the bits that move the hands, they easily dismiss pocket watches as quaint machines that tell time in an antiquated format.

To broaden the interest of watch enthusiasts, to preserve our uniquely American heritage, we need to go back for the future. To re-equip American pocket watches with vintage or modern salesman’s cases. To reveal the full and complete majesty of these engineering marvels.

Illinois Bunn Special pocket watch front

American pocket watches were manufactured to strict standards to fit specific case sizes. Removing a solid back case and fitting it with a salesman’s case is a simple and inexpensive process. It allows collectors to sideline – but not abandon -the original solid cases, preserving both the watch and the case for generations to come.

So-called “seasoned collectors” are appalled by the idea. (Don’t get them started on bluing screws and other parts to make them pop.) They view themselves as preservationists. Guardians of historical authenticity.

Illinois Bunn Special pocket watch caseback

Placing an American pocket watch into a salesman case isn’t defiling history, it’s making history more accessible. It stimulates aesthetic interest in America pocket watches – watches that will otherwise be, at best, shoved in a drawer and forgotten. At worst, allowed to disintegrate and disappear.

To preserve America’s unique horological history, American pocket watch movements should be put on full display. Doing so replaces the pragmatism associated with American pocket watches with awe and admiration. Salesman’s casebacks give these magnificent timepieces a new lease of life.

Dr. Brendan Frett owns Frett & Co. Clockworks

4 COMMENTS

  1. I must belatedly agree with this premise, despite one that finds crystal wrist watch backs to be a bit twee and movements exposed from the front to be obscene. The necessity of holding in the hand to read makes the admiration of the workings seem a more natural and less of a novelty act. For the non-elitist, even non-enthusiast, one instinctively expects a pocket watch to be mechanical, so the exposition seems somehow less ostentatious. The recognition of them being full of gears and springs exist in the the minds of those that have never actually seen or held one in person. Anyone that has had to awkwardly look at someone’s wrist while he displays his watch, or have him unstrap it and have it dangling like a caught fish, should recognize that the chained watch is more suitable for shared viewing.

  2. I am in a few FaceBook groups, for vintage watches, both wrist and pocket. In my opinion, American watch makers of the late 19th and early 30th centuries really make the most attractive movements, not to mention accuracy and price point to the common people. I’ve been saying for years, I don’t know why the display back cases haven’t been, now or in the past, more popular. I have a few pocket watch cases, salesman, like that, and last year bought a modern made case for that purpose. A well maintained pocket watch, in one of these cases can really draw some attention.
    Thank you for your fine article of this subject.

    • Thanks for bumping this. I commented on today’s article, “Watch Beauty – It Is What It Is”, that I didn’t really have an appreciation for what constituted an attractive movement, but I can agree that these are splendid.

  3. As a newby pocket watch owner (Hamilton 950B, 1947), I find the large well decorated movements mesmerizing. However, I am good with the solid 10k gold filled back cover. This cover actually has dates of inspections inscribed into it (inside cover). And I find it easy to open the back up to look when I want to. Much easier than an expensive wrist watch (that can damage the waterproof gasket). Well done article.

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