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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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