How To Open A Pocket Watch Case

Many people, not necessarily familiar with watches, post questions on the NAWCC Pocket Watch Message Board, trying to learn more about their watches, be they family heirlooms, or those just acquired. In almost all instances, its necessary for those who try to help to know exactly what is marked on the watch movement (the "works"). The purpose of this article is to provide instruction on how to open the various types of common watch cases.

The Reasons For Needing The Movement Markings

Prior to the mid-1920's, only a small percentage of American-made watches (or Swiss watches made for the North American market) were cased at the factory. With a few exceptions, the watch movements were made to industry standard sizes and cases were made to those same sizes. Only a few of the companies that made the watch movements also made the cases, and when they did, the two would frequently be sold separately. A person would go to the jewelry store, select the make and grade (quality) of the movement they desired, and then pick out a case, or perhaps they would choose a certain quality of case and then use the balance of their budget on the movement. The jeweler would then assemble the two in a matter of moments. Even when watches were cased at the watch factory, the same model case might be fitted onto any variety of movements, or the same model/grade of movement would be put in a variety of cases. Whichever set of circumstances occurred, the best documentation available is for the movements, not the cases. Thus it is through the movement that a watch's identification can be made.

WARNING: If your watch case doesn't open with normal amounts of effort, don't force it! Post a message on the NAWCC Pocket Watch Message Board, or contact one of the members who has answered watch questions, and describe your difficulty. You should receive useful suggestions appropriate to your specific problem.

Screw Back & Bezel Cases

One of the most common types of cases is the Screw Back & Bezel (SB&B) case. The back literally screws off. In fact, so does the bezel, which is the ring around the dial that holds the crystal (glass). SB&B cases are characterized by the fact that there are no hinges (there are "invisible-hinge" cases, but these are somewhat rare and have that other distinguishing feature of a hinged case, a raised lip by the winding stem). On SB&B cases, you can see the fine lines of the joints between the back, the center ring (the part to which the winding stem is attached) and the bezel. If there is only a one joint, that between the bezel and the center ring, the case is a Swing-Ring case (see below) and the back won't screw off.

To unscrew the back of an SB&B case, hold the watch dial down in the palm of your left hand, with the winding stem, more properly called the pendant, up against your left thumb. Press the palm of your right hand down firmly on the back of the case and unscrew the back by turning it counter-clockwise (or, if its an English case, anti-clockwise). If its difficult to unscrew the back, check again to see that its not a Swing-Ring, or invisible-hinge case. If not, try using one of those circular pieces of sheet rubber, normally used in the kitchen to open tightly closed jars, between your right hand and the back of the watch. A rubber-type coin purse also works very well for this.

Hinge Back & Bezel Cases

Another common style of case is Hinge Back & Bezel (HB&B) case. These have hinges for the back and the bezel, typically located down at the 6 o'clock position, but not necessarily. There should be a slightly raised lip on the back normally, but not always, near the winding stem. There may also be a thin slot between the lip and the rest of the case. I usually get my thumb-nail in the slot and slide it around the edge of the case, opening the back. Resist the urge to pry the back open with your nail, you'll probably just break the nail. Especially, AVOID USING A SHARP KNIFE (OR SCISSORS). THERE IS A VERY LARGE RISK OF IT SLIPPING AND GIVING YOU A BAD CUT. Besides, if it slips, it'll probably scratch the case. If you can't wait to ask somebody for advice and must use a tool, try a dull butter knife. See: "Prying The Back Open," below. However, if you can't find a raised lip, don't pry with a knife or any other tool - you probably have a different style of case. If it's a HB&B case, it's possible that there's an inner back that can be opened the same way.

Hunting Cases

Hunting Case (HC) watches are those which have an outer, metal lid , or cover, over the crystal. Otherwise, the backs open in a similar fashion to the HB&B cases discussed above.

Opening The HC Cover
The cover is released by pressing down on the crown (the correct name for the winding knob). When opening the cover of a HC watch, always hold the watch in your right hand, with the crown at your right thumb and with your left hand over the cover. Once the cover is released, ease it open with your left hand, without letting it hit hard as it swings open. There are no proper "stops" to catch the cover and letting it spring open eventually damages the hinge. Similarly, when closing the cover, always press in the crown with your right thumb until the cover is firmly closed, then release the crown so that the inner catch, latches the lid in place. "Snapping" the cover closed without pressing in the crown eventually wears away the lip that the inner catch grabs onto.

Swing Ring Cases

The term Swing-Ring (SR), or swing-out, is usually applied to those cases in which the movement is mounted on a ring which, is hinged to "swing-out" from a cup-shaped back. An SR case appears similar to a SB&B case. However, there are only two outer parts, the bezel and back, so there is only one joint visible when the SR case is carefully looked at. To open an SR case, unscrew the bezel in a manner similar to removing the back of a SB&B case. This exposes the inner ring, with its hinge at the 12 o'clock position and a groove at the 6 o'clock location.

Next, hold the watch, dial up, in the palm of your left hand with the pendant facing toward you. Grasp the crown with your right thumb and first finger and pull it out with moderate force. You should feel the crown and stem move to an outer position, settling into that position with a soft "click." To ensure that they're out of the way, set the hour and minute hands to 12 o'clock. If the watch is pendant-set, you'll already have the crown pulled out to the correct position for setting the hands. If the watch is lever-set, set the hands by using your thumb nail to pull the lever (which is located somewhere between the 6 and 12 minute marks) out, away from the center of the watch, parallel to the dial. You can then put your first finger's nail into the groove at 6 o'clock and ease the ring and movement upward, out of the back. BE VERY CAREFUL to make sure that you put your nail into the groove, or under the lip of the case ring. NEVER PRY DIRECTLY ON THE DIAL! It is sometimes helpful to slowly rotate the crown counter-clockwise while easing the ring up, but be careful to keep the second hand away from your finger.

Single Joint Cases

The "Single Joint" case, occasionally referred to as a Clamshell case, is another form of the SR case. Its bezel hinges open in a manner similar to the HB&B style case. The pendant, with its crown and bow (the loop to which the watch chain or strap is affixed) is attached to the inner ring which holds the movement. The inner ring is hinged to the back, normally at 9 o'clock, and if the ring is not too tight it can be opened by grasping the pendant and using it to lift the inner ring and movement, swinging it away from the back. Normally, there is a notch or lip on the ring at 3 o'clock that you can put your nail under to help pry the ring out of the case if a normal amount of force on the pendant will not release the swing-ring. BE CAREFUL TO PRY ON THE SWING RING, NOT THE DIAL.

Snap Back Cases

Smaller pocket watches, and some inexpensive larger watches, are frequently mounted in cases whose back (and bezel) simply snap on (and off). Display cases, also called salesmen's cases, are those with crystals on both sides of the watch. They too are frequently snap back and bezel cases. All but the cheapest larger snap back cases appear the same as HB&B cases in that they'll have a small lip and can be opened in the same manner as a HB&B case. Smaller snap back cases, usually those having art deco designs wherein the case is not circular, will have a groove at one of the corners into which a fingernail can be inserted with which to snap the back open. If this doesn't work and you feel that you must pry the back off, see: "Prying The Back Open," below. If a lip or notch is not present, the case is probably not a snap back case and no attempt should be made to pry off the case back. Before putting one of these cases together again, carefully examine the mating surfaces, especially at any "corners." Usually there is a small locating pin, and corresponding hole, to assist in determining the correct rotational position for the back cover.

Go To The People Who Know

If none of the above worked, it may be time to visit a jewelry shop where watch repairs are done on the premises and ask them to show you how to open it. Most reputable places won't mind, and you may wish discuss the costs of have the watch serviced there.

Prying The Back Open

For HB&B, HC and Snap Back Cases, if you have tried putting a fingernail in the back lip/slot and running it around the edge of the case and it didn't work, and you are impatient and can't wait to ask somebody knowledgeable for help, you may wish to disregard the warnings in red and pry the back open. THIS IS NOT ADVISED! There are tools specifically made to be case openers. If a case opener isn't available, I prefer something dull, like a butter knife for safety's sake (which what the case opener tools resemble), but I know many people have successfully used a sharp knife for years without a problem. In either instance, BE CAREFUL! IF YOU HAVE ANY DOUBTS, WAIT TO ASK SOMEBODY!

Set the watch face down on a soft mouse pad and use a low stool so that you can look closely at what you're doing without bending over too much. If you're right-handed, hold the knife, in your right hand, with the sharp edge in the slot. Then, use your left thumb against the back edge of the knife to hold the knife in the slot. Using moderate force only, rotate the knife handle a little in each direction (up and down) to "pop" the back off. This is a wrist action - don't actually move your elbow - keep the knife parallel to the table top and to the watch.

WARNING: If your watch case doesn't open with normal amounts of effort, don't force it! Post a message on the NAWCC Pocket Watch Message Board, or contact one of the members who has answered watch questions, and describe your difficulty. You should receive useful suggestions appropriate to your specific problem.

Useful Web Sites

Glossary of Watch Terms

BezelThe ring that holds the crystal.
BowThe loop to which a watch strap or chain is affixed.
(Case) BackThe portion of the case covering the back.
CrownThe knob used to wind the watch and set the hands.
CrystalThe glass (or clear plastic) that protects the dial and hands.
DialThe "face" of the watch.
HB&BHinged Back & Bezel.
HCHunting Case.
MovementThe watch's "works."
NAWCCNational Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.
PendantThe portion of the watch which holds the winding stem, crown and bow.
SB&BScrew Back & Bezel.
Snap BackA case whose back "snaps" or "pops" off.
SRSwing Ring.
(Winding) StemThe shaft that winds the watch and sets the hands.

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