CASE IN POINT
Trends in Antique Early American Pocket Watch Manufacturing
Once ubiquitous as the archetype of America’s golden era, the American-made mechanical watch has gradually succumbed to mass-produced disposable quartz imports; inexpensive overseas manufacturing; and rapid proliferation of digital and online technologies. For nearly 100 years, the United States led the world in building high quality mechanical timepieces, but for the last several decades, the American watch industry has been in steady decline. As a result, early American timepieces — especially antique pocket watches that are in original, pristine condition — have become increasingly rare and highly treasured by collectors for their extraordinary beauty and investment potential. The appraisal value of an early American pocket watch integrates numerous aspects, such as its rarity, authenticity, design, historical significance, as well as the sophistication and workmanship of its movement; and composition and intricacy of its case.
The two parts of an antique pocket watch considered most influential in determining its vintage, authenticity, and appraisal value are: 1) the movement, or time-keeping mechanism, which includes the dial and hands; and 2) the case, or outer metal housing for the movement, which accommodates the winding stem.
In terms of design, pocket watches are either hunter-cased or open-faced. A hunter-cased pocket watch features not only an external metal housing around the movement but a metal cover over the dial, which needs to opened to reveal the time. A properly functioning hunter case is equipped with a metal latch that snaps into the inside lip of the rim on the front cover to keep the pocket watch closed when not in use. To open a hunter-cased watch for reading the time, one pushes down on the crown, or, winding stem, which causes an inside spring to release the latch. In an open-faced pocket watch, there is no metal cover over the dial. An open-faced pocket watch case consists only of the metal housing around the movement. Railroad-grade pocket watches had to be open-faced for immediate, unobstructed reading.
Both hunter-cased and open-faced pocket watches are equipped with a clear crystal that protects the dial from scratches and impact. Whether open-faced or hunter-cased, the back of a pocket watch case can be opened to view the movement. Based on how it opens, the back of a watch case will be in one of four configurations: 1) Screw style, consisting of two sections divided by a visible seam, but no hinge or notch; 2) Snap style, possessing a visible seam with notch for insertion of a case knife, but no hinge; 3) Hinge style, displaying a visible seam that is both hinged and notched for a thumbnail or case knife; 4) Swing-out style, in which the case back and body are one piece, so there is no visible seam, hinge, or notch. To open the back of a swing-out style case, the front bezel of the watch must first be removed to access to the swing-out mechanism.
Prior to the mid-1920s, American-made watch movements were almost never cased at the factory. Movements were manufactured by watchmakers in various sizes, configurations, and levels of quality; while entirely separate companies produced compatible watch cases ranging in materials, workmanship, and price. A customer interested in buying a pocket watch would visit their local jewelry store and select a movement and case based on his budget, purpose, and aesthetic inclination; and the jeweler would assemble the pocket watch for the customer. A wealthy customer would almost certainly choose a high-quality movement featuring an elegant hand-painted dial and place it in a handsomely engraved, solid gold case, possibly embellished with precious stones. A less affluent buyer seeking reliability and durability would invest in a high-quality movement while opting for an inexpensive gold-plated case. Others with limited budgets, for whom the outward appearance of wealth was a priority, would spend lavishly on an embellished solid gold case while compromising on the quality of the watch movement. Due to the numerous potential combinations of pocket watch movements and cases, a fancy solid gold case might house an inferior quality movement; or a high-quality movement could be hiding inside an inexpensive, gold-plated case.
Due to the watchmaking industry’s adoption of size standards, cases and movements were interchangeable. Thus, the most reliable means of identifying a watch for appraisal purposes has always been by the serial number of the movement, not the serial number of the case. Like watch movements, cases were assigned their own serial numbers; but case serial numbers were completely independent of movement serial numbers. Thus, once a customer left the jewelry store with an assembled pocket watch, it was no longer possible to link a particular case to the movement.
Not until the mid-1920s, did the trend shift for American watchmakers to equip their watch movements with cases at the factory prior to distribution to jewelry stores. These cases were manufactured by outside companies that specialized exclusively in supplying pocket watch cases to watchmaking factories. Each case was marked by its manufacturer with a unique serial number, as well as being stamped to identify the type and grade of metal from which it was made. While the Ball Watch Company had been selling “completed” railroad grade pocket watches to jewelers for two decades before American watchmakers began combining watch movements with cases at the factory, it is important to note that the Ball Company never manufactured its own movements. Ball only branded and distributed watch movements made by other American watchmakers, including Hamilton, Waltham, Illinois, Elgin, E. Howard, and Hampden, marking them as either “BALL & Co.” or “BALL WATCH Co.”
The Waltham Watch Company was the first watchmaker to combine its own brand of movement with its own brand of case, offering preassembled pocket watches in assorted mechanical and aesthetic combinations to suit varied tastes and budgets. This manufacturing model not only enabled streamlined and cost-effective production, but also permitted in-brand interchangeability between watch movement and case. Due to its widespread success, similar production practices were eventually adopted by other American watch factories. While watchmaking factories continued to supply uncased movements to jewelers for custom applications, preassembled pocket watches comprised the majority of their output. Since pocket watches no longer required “completion” by a jeweler; they could, instead, be sold to customers through large mail-order catalogs, such as Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward.
Since pocket watch cases tended to wear out much more quickly than movements, a watch owner might have replaced the over the lifetime of the movement. Beginning in the early 1930’s through the late 1950s, replacement cases for older pocket watch movements were manufactured by the Star Watch Case Company, the Keystone Watch Case Company, and the Illinois Watch Case Company. These replacement cases, just like their predecessors, were offered in a variety of grades, styles, and materials, including white or yellow-colored base metal; chrome-plated base metal; yellow rolled gold-plate; gold-filled; and 14- or 18-karat solid gold.
During the 1970s, replacement cases, referred to as “re-strike” cases, were produced by the Star Watch Case Company upon acquiring the original tooling specifications from a number of early pocket watch movement and case manufacturers. These “re-strike” case imitations resembled the original cases so closely that novices were easily fooled, and even by a few experienced collectors, too.
One strong indicator that a case was a replacement rather than an original was if it had two lever slots — one at the 6-minute position, and the other at the 56-minute position. Original factory-supplied cases had only one lever slot in the position required by the movement; and if the movement were pendant-set, the original case would have had no lever slot at all.
Opinions by pocket watch collectors differ regarding the appraisal value of a pocket watch if the movement is not housed in its original case. Many collectors feel that separating a movement from its original case destroys the authenticity of the pocket watch; and that originality can only exist in the first movement-case pairing; and furthermore, that originality should be preserved as the pocket watch undergoes changes in ownership.
Other collectors feel that, since a pocket watch movement and its case were selected independently and arbitrarily by the customer, then assembled by the jeweler at the time of purchase, no documented link would exist between a non-factory-cased movement and its initially-selected watch case; hence, in their opinion, there would be nothing historically significant about one particular movement-case combination over another. As long as the case and movement came from the same watchmaking era and that the presented combination could potentially have existed as an original pairing, the pocket watch movement housed in a replacement case would be no less valuable and no less collectible. In order to be deemed suitable for some collectors, however, a replacement case could only have been used to house a watch movement from the same manufacturer and model series, ensuring that any markings left by the first set of screws would line up exactly with those on the replacement.
As precious metal values have sky-rocketed, so have the prices of antique pocket watches cased in solid gold. Unfortunately, the high price of gold has also resulted in the quick sale of beautiful antique timepieces to gold-buyers as scrap. While this practice has only driven up the value of antique pocket watches preserved in their original solid gold cases, owners are strongly encouraged to keep watches and cases intact. Once a movement is stripped from its case and the case sold for scrap value, the original watch as a rare vestige of history is gone forever.