If you’re like most people, you probably have an ancestor’s pocket watch stashed away. At some point or another, its worth may have crossed your mind. While some old watches are valuable, the vast majority are actually worth less than $100. Like most antiques, it’s all about the old rule of supply and demand.
While clocks and watches have been around for hundreds of years, the practice of carrying a timepiece did not become commonplace until the mid-1800s. From that point on, most gentlemen, and many ladies, carried a pocket watch. This continued until the popularization of the wrist watch in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, the pocket watch generation had all but ended, but during those 80-some years, many millions were made. Of those, most were intended to be affordable and utilitarian.
Because watches are a small, durable and attractive keepsake with a sense of intrinsic value, most people choose to hold onto them with very few ever being discarded. Thus, with so many watches still in existence, compared to the number of collectors who seek them, only the finest examples will command high prices.
While there are exceptions to every rule, here are some clues as to whether your watch is valuable.
Check the watch case
First, examine the case. Is it simply decorated, or is it elaborate? Is the dial covered (called a hunter case), or exposed? Fancy hunter cases are worth more than watches with exposed dials.
Next pop open or unscrew the back. In many cases there will be a second dust cover to open in the back. Pry it open carefully so as not to distort it. Is the case marked 18K, 14K (both gold), sterling, nickel or silveroid? Of course, gold and silver cases are worth more, but look carefully to see if the words “Guaranteed” and/or “20 or 25 Years” appear. If you see those markings, it means the watch case is only plated in that metal and worth much less.
Consider dials, movements and makers
Next, examine the dial and movement. Is it just a standard clock with hours, minutes and perhaps a separate second hand, or does it have other features such as a repeater (gongs and dings), chronograph functions, a calendar or other complications? If so, those features make your watch worth much more.
Finally, consider the maker. Most watches by common manufacturers like Waltham, Elgin, Hamilton and Illinois are less valuable, while European-made or smaller high-end American manufacturers whose names you likely won’t recognize tend to be worth more.
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