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What to Look For in Choosing a Single Pocket Watch

Decide what your budget will allow.

Buying a single pocket watch to use on special occasions can be an enjoyable experience. However, its easy to get caught up in the process and end up spending more than you might at first anticipate. Pick a budget range and stick to it. Don't forget to allow portions of the budget for the cost of servicing the watch and for a Watch Chain (which, if its not gold-filled, is closely related to the spot price of gold).

Be prepared to have the watch serviced.

Recognize that unless a watch is guaranteed to have been properly cleaned and oiled, there will be additional cost involved for Watch Service (which can be to several hundred dollars). Don't be satisfied with the simple claim "recently serviced." Ask if it has been disassembled and if each pivot hole has been "pegged out" (cleaned by inserting a sharpened pegwood stick and rotating). Ask if the balance pivots have been polished. Ask what else was done during the servicing. An honest, competent watch repairer or watch maker will be pleased to describe the process. After the initial service, the watch will require service on regular intervals, depending upon how often it is wound up. If the watch is run continually, a cleaning and oiling is needed every 3-5 years. If you're only going to wear your watch occasionally, this ought to be done once at the onset and about every 7-10 years thereafter. If you're not going to carry it (or run it), don't bother getting it serviced.

Condition matters!

Depending upon the size of your budget, be prepared to own a lesser (but not low) grade (quality) watch in the best possible condition as opposed to a higher grade watch that has seen a hard life. The lesser grade watch will hold its value and appreciate as long as you take good care of it. If your budget is large enough to cover a high grade watch in like-new condition, congratulations! If the watch you choose has a gold-filled case and you'll be carrying it constantly, you might consider carrying it in a soft pouch (such as flannel or suede) so as not to wear the gold through to the underlying brass, or wear down the engraved design (which also needs to be considered if it is in a solid gold case).

Consider originality.

A lot of watches, of all makes and grades, have had dials, cases, and other parts replaced, frequently with parts inconsistent with the grade and date of manufacturer of the movement. Even with the appropriate parts, unless one can examine the receipts of a complete service history of a watch, one can never be sure of how original a watch is. Even if you buy it from a family that owned it for a hundred years and who swear that they never had anything changed, great-grandpa could have had the case and dial changed eighty years ago and the family wouldn't have been the wiser. The best thing that can be had is that all of the parts of the watch are appropriate for the movement within the era it was manufactured and the seller is honest and ethical and can tell you that he or she doesn't know of anything having been changed (other than expendable items such as the mainspring or crystal) and didn't change anything themselves. For a one-only watch, this is what you will want - a watch that is probably all-original, as best as can be determined. Achieving this requires a little research of the watches that appeal to you and/or an ethical, honest dealer whom you can trust.

When will you carry the watch?

If you're going to carry the watch only at special occasions, when you're wearing a suit or tuxedo (or at least a jacket and tie), you'll possibly want a gentlemen's dress watch, perhaps a hunting-case style (one with a metal lid over the crystal). These are thinner, and are of smaller diameter, than the everyday watch a workingman might carry. The sizes are 10-size and 12-size (plus a few 14-size). For more casual wear, the open-face versions of the same sizes are more appropriate. The good news is that the higher grades of these smaller watches are generally less expensive than the equivalent grades of a larger watches (there are exceptions, of course). However, there's a certain feeling of satisfaction, and an aura of substance, in carrying a Man's watch, a large 18-size timepiece that weighs six ounces or more. The 16-size watches fall in-between and can suitable in almost all situations.

How will you carry the watch?

There are additional costs involved in carrying a pocket watch that go beyond those associated with the watch, its servicing and a chain. These costs are for appropriate clothing. In short, carrying a pocket watch requires a having watch pocket. Refer to the Watch Chain Encyclopedia article to see how the watch is carried in the pocket. For dress occassions, you'll need a vest (with a vest pocket), or at the very least, a watch pocket that will have to be added to your suit or dress pants. Watch pockets aren't usually designed into these pants and will have to be added, usually at the time of initial alterations (and for a minor cost). In some stores you might be told that they don't add watch pockets, but usually, they discover that they can add them as soon as you make it clear that no watch pocket equals no sale. For more casual wear, you'll have to be careful to choose slacks and jeans that come with a watch pocket, or find a tailor who can add one. Be careful that the pocket is large enough for the watch you'll be carrying. Some of these pockets are only there for appearance and will only accept a 12-size watch, or smaller. Also, check to see that there really is a pocket under that flap or seam. Some manufacturers save the cost of actually adding the pocket since more than 99% of the world's population has no use for it.

What reaction would you want when others see you check the time?

Describe to yourself the situations in which you envision yourself pulling out the watch to check the time. If you want people to take notice and start conversations, go with something larger (18-size) in a hunting-case. Although it can be done casually and unobtrusively, you can make quite a production out of pulling out the watch, easing the lid open to check the time, closing it softly by pushing in the crown while you close the lid (never snap the lid closed - it ruins the catch), and tucking it away in your pocket. If you want to avoid attention and have the quiet satisfaction of just owning a nice watch, go with a smaller open-face model with which the time can be checked a bit more inconspicuously.
Scarcity is expensive, how rare does it need to be? Only collectors will be aware of the value of a rarer watch and only your heirs will be concerned with how much its worth. The general public will be more impressed with how large, how ostentatious and how old the watch is, rather than how few of the particular make and grade were produced. A more common (and hence less expensive) watch will make an impact on the uninformed just as easily. For public recognition, consider a Hamilton. The name is still generally well-known for being a quality watch and the firm built the most popular railroad watches ever made.

Technical quality or expensive appearance, or both?

As a group, the railroad watch has the technical features that lead to superior timekeeping (for mechanical watches - if you want a truly precise pocket timekeeper, buy a quartz watch). However, many of the 18-size and 16-size railroad grade watches were placed in inexpensive cases that don't look impressive. This is because the railroaders - working men - had to have to have a high grade movement as a condition of employment and didn't necessarily have the wherewithal to put it in a fancy case. Nor would such a case stand up in the working environment. Fancy, expensive cases in these sizes are frequently seen containing lower grade watch movements. That's because the original buyer used his budget for appearance over superior timekeeping. You'll probably be best with a blend of the two, a better railroad grade (or smaller equivalent) in an almost new-looking, gold-filled case, or a more common railroad grade in a plainer solid gold case.

The smaller watches of equivalent grade to the railroad grade watches (or better) that were placed in nice, solid gold cases are a good balance of technical quality and stylish, expensive appearance. They probably offer the best combination for the value. Then, there are the Presentation Grade Watches - the finest examples made by the watch companies. These offer style, high technical quality, refinement and, in good condition, an investment that will appreciate.

Do Your Homework!

One can spend a considerable amount of money on a pocket watch. You should do the research to get it right the first time. Once you define the type of watch you think you would like, start asking questions on the NAWCC American Pocket Watches Forum or the NAWCC European & Other Pocket Watches Forum.

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