Properly opening a pocket watch

To properly open your pocket watch so you are able to see and assess the movement, it must first be determined what type of watch case you have. This will generally dictate how the pocket watch is to be properly opened. The most common examples of cases that you will find are the the hinged back, screw-off back, snap-of back, and the swing out type. Whenever you view the movement of a pocket watch be certain not to breathe over it because the moisture from your breath can cause the movement to develop specks of tarnish or rust.

Opening a hinged back cased pocket watch

Opening a hinged back pocket watch so as to see and examine the mechanism must be done by way of the back of the watch. You must turn the case over so the back of the case is facing upward and open it with a case opening tool.  A case opening tool is a small hand-held device that has an end on it that resembles the tip of a butter knife. If you do not have a case opening tool you can use a small knife blade but you have to be very careful not to scratch the case as this could devalue your pocket watch. When the case is turned over, a small notch or ear like protrusion can be found along the edge of the rim usually to the right-hand side of the winding stem as viewed from the back side.  One simply inserts the knife blade/tool into this notch to gently pry the lid open. When you complete this task you may discover a second lid that is called a “Cuvette.”  The Cuvette is opened in the same manner as the outer lid. This “cuvette” adds additional protection for the mechanism by keeping out dust and moisture.  

Opening a screw-off cased pocket watch

With this type of watch case, the back of the case simply unscrews to open. If at the six o’clock position on the rim of the case you do not see a hinge you probably have a screw-off cased pocket watch.  When you turn the watch over on its face, you will notice the seam that separates the back cover from the main body of the case. These cases will tend to be a right handed thread so gently turn to the left to unscrew the cover while firmly holding the body of the watch with the other hand.

It is rather simple to remove and replace the cover but there can be some difficulty if some corrosion developed along the threads of the cover. If this is the case, it may be difficult to unscrew and it would be wise to take it to a professional who can clean up the corrosion and have your watch case working like new.

Opening a snap-off cased pocket watch

The back case cover of a snap-off watch case can be completely removed from the rest of the body of your pocket watch just like the screw-off cover does. The only difference is that there are no threads associated with this type of cover so the cover will just snap back into place after it has been opened.

When properly trying to open this type of watch cover, it would be best if you had a watchmaker’s case knife tool.  If you are forced into a situation where you don’t have the proper tools, it would be wise to use some type of dull bladed instrument. The tendency to slip is great and a sharpened implement will lead to scratching the case.

Close examination of the back rim will locate a tiny notch. The notch is so small that it will not likely accommodate the tip of your blade so you will have to resort to using the side part of the blade. All that will be needed to open the case will be some slight and gentle back and forth motion and it should just pop open.

Be gentle with the mechanism. Trying to force the cover open can lead to damaging the watch as well as your hand. Closing the snap-off cover is also a delicate operation. You can’t force it and it must be properly lined up. If it isn’t closing smoothly and easily, you are doing something wrong. Check the cover and the rim. You might find small markings that are there to be lined up for ease of closing.  In performing this operation do not press in the center of the cover because you will dent the case.  Press gently on the edges of the cover that are curved because this is the strongest part of the lid.

Opening a swing-out cased pocket watch

The swing-out case was originally designed and manufactured by the Crescent Watch Case Company which began its operations in Chicago in 1882. The company moved a couple of times; first to Brooklyn and then to Newark before it merged with the Keystone Watch Case Company in 1904.

This particular type of case is also known as a swing-ring or swinging-ring case. They are the most difficult cases to open and more damage is done trying to open this type of case than with any other watch. The main reason for this is that the movement is attached in a ring and then hinged to the body of the case. The back of the watch and the case body are all one piece. The case was originally marketed as one that was superior with regard to both moisture and dust protection.

To open this type of case, the front bezel (the metal ring that surrounds the crystal) and crystal must first be removed. The front bezel is almost always a screw off situation. After the bezel has been removed the hinge mounted movement ring can be seen at twelve o’clock or, sometimes, at three o’clock. There should be a small notch by which to insert a blade to lift the movement.

The challenge here is that the winding stem connects to the entire mechanism of the watch and it remains engaged in the movement. When trying to move the movement upward and out of the case, don’t force it by trying to bend the stem in a sideways direction. It will almost certainly fracture or break the stem. Once the stem has been damaged or broken, you will no longer be able to wind your watch.

Before you swing-out the movement, simply make sure you are pulling up on the crown/stem into the proper setting position. Again, it should swing out easily for you. If it doesn’t, don’t force it but simply redo your steps until there is a free and easy movement to the opening.