Collecting (Vintage) Watches - Thomas M. Meine - ebook

Collecting (Vintage) Watches ebook

Thomas M. Meine



The authors of this book are neither watchmakers nor specific watch specialists, just dedicated watch collectors. A book for the friends of watches and a guide for the collector or the possible collector-to-be, giving some advice and guidelines, certainly also expressing very subjective opinions. Specific subjects of interest from the multi-facetted mosaic of time, watches and watchmaking as a whole: collecting watches, watches and time, the quartz crisis, the revival of mechanic watches, clocking of watches and the corresponding amplitudes from the pendulum to the atomic clock, adjustment and regulation of a watch, time as a standard unit, changing of the time itself, technical features, magnetism and watches, radium contamination, watch dials, hallmarks, the 'gold rush', things to watch out for when collecting watches and more. Mechanical watches hand wind, mechanical watches automatic, electric watches, electronic watches, quartz controlled electric watches, tuning fork watches, quartz controlled tuning fork watches, quartz watches, watches - radio controlled by an atomic clock. Also including antique- and vintage pocket watches. Over 300 pictures (black and white) of original watches, tools, equipment and others.

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'A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.'

Lee Segalln

The watchmaker, painting by Josef Urban, 19th century

1970s OMEGA F300 tuning fork wristwatch


Watches shown in the book

Collecting (vintage) watches

Watches and time

The quartz crisis and the revival of the mechanical watches

Radium contamination

Clocking of watches, corresponding amplitudes

Time – one of the standard units

Mechanical wristwatches, hand wind

Shock protection

Compensating balance, screw balance

Magnetism and watches

Adjustment and regulation of a watch

Condition of watch dials

Mechanical wristwatches, automatic

TIMEX, new techniques

TIMEX watches, mechanical, hand wind

TIMEX watches, mechanical, automatic

TIMEX, 1. Electric watches, 2. Electronic watches, 3. Quartz controlled electric watches

Tuning fork watches

Quartz controlled tuning fork watches

Quartz watches


Radio controlled watches

Antique and vintage pocket watches

Watch movements – the gold rush

1947 Gotham wristwatch by Ollendorff, Switzerland and USA

Verge fusee pocket watch, England, between 1750 and 1780


The watches presented in this book, with a small selection of tools and equipment added, can only cover a mere fraction of the different timepieces as they came along over time. No museum would have the space to display every variation that was ever made. Different types of watches have been grouped together as far as possible. If you are missing some of your favorite brands, bear in mind, that these images have all been taken from original watches as they were available. Some specific images, not self-produced, have been marked as such or are in public domain.

When putting this all together, the core focus was set on the largest possible coverage of the different techniques and types of watches as they have appeared over time, still available and affordable today within a reasonable budget, rather than on a few highly-priced specimens. This of course must also include watches which are less attractive to the ambitious collector, but are nevertheless an indispensable part of the overall picture.

Seen from this angle, a mass product like an Elgin mechanical pocket watch, a Timex electric, a Bulova tuning fork watch plus a Far East quartz watch, as an exemplary selection, will tell more about watchmaking, than a single luxury timepiece with a hammer price of US$50.000 at Sotheby's, although the latter would certainly be nice to have.

There are specialized exhibitions or locations displaying precious watches, interesting also from a technical and historical point of view. But too often, you will find places with motley assortments of gorgeous clocks and watches – gorgeous in a sense of their fancy external appearance. What's really more important is the technique behind and the art of watchmaking implemented inside these fascinating little machines.

I rather stare all day at John Harrison's 'H4' marine chronometer in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, a watch which has changed the course of our world by finally solving the problem of calculating longitude while at sea, then five minutes at some fire gilded, distasteful Louis XVI fireplace clocks, where the craftsmanship went into the sculptures and bric-a-brac above and around the clock in line with contemporary liking and not primarily into the movement and its precision.

But that's unfortunately true for a large variety of watches and clocks throughout history. Whenever a certain technical stage was reached, believed to be sufficient for the needs of the time, 'creativity' went in different directions, like material, embellishments of all sorts, mostly superfluous complications or useless gimmicks. Posh dials often make it difficult to see what time it is, and some fatal and mysterious road accidents might find an explanation by examining the driver's watch with its artistically designed and hard to read dial.

Henlein-Watch (named after Peter Henlein). The Henlein watch is a drum watch, also called Nuremberg Egg, made 1510, on display in the Germanic National Museum, Nuremberg.

replica of a portable sun-dial.

Royal Observatory, Greenwich, printing from 1833.

Greenwich is the home of the Prime Meridian, where West meets East at the longitude 0º. At noon, it also divides the world into equally long a.m. and p.m. timespans. The International Date Line lies exactly at the opposite side, at 180º longitude. It is a very practical location, as there are only very few people in that area in the Pacific Ocean, having to live with the problem that close neighbors have a different date. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was the world time standard until 1972. It was subsequently replaced by UTC (Universal Time Coordinated). GMT still has the same time as the UTC, but has since then become a pure time zone.

Due to the overall slowing down of the Earth's rotation, time has to be periodically adjusted, which is reflected in the UTC. When 25 nations met in Washington DC in the year 1884 to decide on the location of the Prime Meridian, Greenwich was selected, mainly because already chosen by the USA. The vote was 22 : 1, with two abstentions coming from France and Brazil and one vote against from San Domingo (who?). The line of the Prime Meridian has meanwhile been moved 102.5 meters to the East, due to new satellite data and other measurements. It is now called IRM (International Reference Meridian) and puts the observatory and the historic Prime Meridian to the West of it. Interesting: The Eurasian plate, including the Royal Observatory, is slowly drifting further away north-east, approximately 2.5cm per year – about the annual growing rate of your fingernails. The IRM is not fixed to any specific point on Earth anymore.


Before things tend to get of hand, always remember a wise saying, coined by someone whose name I unfortunately forgot: “in the time you spend collecting things, better take a walk instead”.

Is it a good and wise thing to collect (vintage) watches in larger quantities? There are two answers to this question; a clear and definite 'yes' and a decisive 'no' – and everything in between.

Yes, by all means! – because watches are fascinating little machines with an exiting history. They have accompanied mankind since a long time, have driven forward also other technical developments and revolutionized the world. They are, still today, representing the finest in engineering and craftsmanship and have always been fun to have and wear.

No, what for? – because they have become more and more superfluous, as time is available everywhere and in higher precision then what can be achieved by a mechanical watch. The chairman of an upper luxury watch brand has recently stated that they sell products no one needs at luxury prices, and that was meant to be a selling argument, certainly putting some specific people above the crowd.

And it is naturally also a matter of money spent and quantities, from a few specimens to piles of ticking friends and room-filling accumulations.

Why people collect watches, especially in large, occasionally sprawling quantities, can not so easily be explained, not even with a 'collecting mania', which would not be different from other 'accumulations' of particular objects.

Not too long ago, the average family did not have more than one or two timekeepers, a pendulum clock on the wall or a desk clock, and a pocket watch to be carried to work. More than today, people were adapted to the natural daily routine. Private activities, especially in times without television and Internet, have been totally different and to a lesser extend governed by temporary fashion. However, one was always getting up in time, something which proves to be more difficult today for some contemporaries.

One thing is for sure, if seen from a strictly financial point of view: with certain exceptions – primarily in the luxury sector – and if not professionally done (which would also involve frequent selling and letting go at the right moment) – watches and clocks are amongst the worst investments one can make on this planet.

Getting rid of watches again, especially in larger quantities and in a short space of time, can mostly be done only under painful losses; and often, the 'ticking friends' come back to the market for a song, at garage sales or 'from estate'.

As a collector, mostly tempted to pay the highest price, it is good to keep things within reasonable bounds. You should accept that money is lost, like after a good dinner or a visit to the Opera, with the exception, that the watches will still be there to enjoy, with whatever residual value. To quickly determine what's lost at the very moment you are about to greedily buy a watch, think of going to the next store or to the next auction and imagine a realistic price you will be able to obtain. If your imagination suggests enormous profits, you are destined for a very harsh landing on the grounds of reality. The only way to make a sure profit is to steal or inherit a watch.

So, what's motivating a collector?

It must be the fascination for the technique, especially of the mechanical versions of the timepieces, perhaps also the interest in the individual stages of development or the allure of some particular models.

For the male part of the population, it has always been – and still is – a piece of jewelry a man can wear, notwithstanding the fact, that even tax-advisors can nowadays run around with a nose-ring or piercings of all sorts. Occasionally, it is also a signal to the personal environment – of whatever nature – a status symbol or a form of self-expression.

But in the end, things must lie much deeper. It is the time which is within all of us, which 'governs' us, which occasionally even makes us – often unconsciously – feel uncanny. We only get a small portion of it, not knowing how much and all associated with the uncertainty about what comes after. As much as we have to concentrate on hours and minutes to respect plans or to timely attend certain events, it is always the time in its larger dimension which stands above everything.

Nature does not know us and doesn't care what we, a flyspeck in the system, do or don't. Everything follows physical law in the endless universe, beyond the limit of human comprehension. Time is running out on this planet anyway, as we will learn in more detail in a later chapter. We can only speed up the end of mankind locally, without any influence overall, but we can measure tiny fractions of the time, even on our wrist.

Whilst some collectors love the different types of clocks, it's certainly the pocket-and wristwatches which account for the largest part of the collections.

Many people don't even know that they collect watches. One should really count all the watches which have accumulated over time, lying around, often unused. If all devices are also added which are no watches or clocks, but include and also indicate the time, like a microwave oven, the TV set, a recorder, a camera, a smartphone and what have you, fifty or more 'watches' are not seldom around people which would not consider themselves as watch collectors.

Collecting watches has always been popular. They can be new or old, for daily use or just kept in a box or safe. For new mechanical watches, prices of US$5,000, US$25,000 or even US$250,000 are nothing exceptional and often precious material of the case, the bracelet or a setting with diamonds are only partly determining the price-level.

US$1,000 is rather at the lower end than in the middle segment of renowned brands; in the premium sector, this would be very far away even from the entry level. Super-complications (watches with numerous, in particular rare indications above a moon phase (perpetual calendar etc.), combined with exclusive names, can carry extremely hefty price tags, and there are almost no limits when two rich people quarrel about who of them has the best watch and privately commission new models with ever more complications, most of them totally useless or impractical, like many of those implemented in more household watches.

Used mechanical wristwatches of a particular kind can occasionally see a hammer price at auctions of several million US Dollars plus premium and VAT. The high bids mostly come over telephone, when the buyers want to stay in the hiding for obvious reasons. At the same time, they avoid the danger of being personally identified some day on the pillory of crazy collectors. But it needs only two bidders with enough money, fighting over one item, to catch the virus and to lose control.

All in all, what concerns prices paid, I guess this is just another bubble which is inevitably destined to burst. But even watches, more in the budget of the 'normal' collector, are fetching ever higher (sometimes idiotic) prices, on Internet platforms or elsewhere, until also this craziness will go up in smoke, sooner or later – at least based on the real value of money and not in nominal terms of some rotten currency like the Euro.

Specialization is a good thing, but not a must, unless an impressive number of timepieces harvested is the intended main characteristic of a collection. But even then, do not go for ruined, half-dead or optically and hygienically repulsive watches, unless you need parts, objects of practice or have other plausible reasons. A clean watch in working condition is worth a lot more than a pile of such junk.

The more you know about a watch in your collection, the better. It also increases the value for a collector, a big advantage if the watch is to be sold some day. This includes maker, movement, age, specific technical details, materials etc. Some people don't even know how to correctly set the date or other indications on the vintage watch they have acquired, often the cause of damage done to delicate components. Original documents and boxes add to the value, but that is a criterion (and proof of origin) for expensive timepieces, otherwise a nice-to-have. You might also look for odd things in whatever area of vintage timepieces, go for a particular brand, a certain period, or concentrate on unusual characteristics. Exclusivity must not solely be determined by the price or the trend.

Older watches are divided into antique (older than 100 years) or vintage (they should have an age of at least 25 years, preferably 30 or more; the borders are not so clearly defined). They have been produced and sold in the billions, but specimens, even from mass production, in pristine or mint condition, are naturally getting ever rarer, especially as lots of them have been neglected over time or have never seen a regular professional service.

There is an important element to remember when collecting watches, especially the mechanical type, regularly worn or not. Even when unused, they need a regular service as the oils inside will dry out over time. They are still working, but the dried-in oils will work like sandpaper on shafts and bearings when the watch is running. So, service costs add up over time, but a lot of collectors say 'so what, that's cents a day, spread over a period of several years, and the joy it gives is worth a lot more!' That's certainly right for one watch and exclusive watches can become really costly – per piece!

Now, you might want to know how often a watch has to be given away to get a service. The answer to that is not so easy. It depends on many factors, type, age, use etc. It's also a question of 'just' a service – disassembly, cleaning, oiling, reassembly and adjustment – or if some repair is needed. Figures in the ballpark range from 2 to 10 years, whereby things have changed somewhat with the new types of oils used, having a much longer durability.

And then, there is that strange phenomena which can be observed in this connection: service intervals always get much shorter towards the lower end when people give an advice to others, and move opposite to the longer end, when it comes to service their own watches.

Occasionally, one can find so called NOS (New Old Stock, new watches from old stock). They come up from inventory of the manufacturers, have been forgotten at a watchmaker's- or jeweler's place, have been pure and unused collector's items (although in this case they should not be called as such) or are simply faked or cobbled together from old parts.

'NOS', 'pristine' or 'mint', one has to wonder what some people think these terms exactly mean when it comes to offering watches on Internet sales platforms, often for specimens even far away from an average state of preservation. And a lot of people do not have a clue when something comes along as 'minty'. That means 'cool' at the very best (if not used in a totally different context in local slang).

Talking about Internet sales platforms: It takes a lot of experience to 'read' and interpret the offers correctly.

Missing details, bad images, no idea about age and maker, no movement pictures not even an indication about what's inside, scarce and incomplete or even false descriptions, can be a hint that the seller might be honest, but has no inkling of what he is selling – often a source for a bargain buy, but mostly this is a signal to stay away as far as possible.

If you offer a watch at whatever price, you should really know what you are trying to sell (perhaps with the help of an expert or watchmaker) and provide a minimum of information as well as clear and meaningful images. And, especially in the higher priced categories, 'runs, not tested for accuracy' is a no-go.

It must not be a test on the timegrapher (see page →), but winding up and setting the watch, checking how much it is slow or fast after 24 hours and how long it ran (power reserve), can be done by a 10-year-old child.

Whatever, people fall into apparent traps, day after day. No movement shot – no purchase, should be the rule, unless other convincing elements or an extremely low price justify putting up a bid.

The list of fakes and imitations in circulation is endless. That begins with total forgeries, faked or badly restored dials (specialist term 're-dial') or badly repaired originals with all sorts of parts not compatible with the original. The 'franken-watches' (named after the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein), patched up from bits and pieces of different watches, are an inherent part of the market for vintage watches.

Besides private tinkerers, there are entire industries which have been established around the faking and 'frankening' of watches. We can see downright nauseating forgeries of famous brands or dreadfully re-dialed originals coming from India, the so called 'Mumbai-specials' (usually still referred to as 'Bombay-specials').

There are several places around the world which a vintage watch collector, especially the inexperienced, should avoid like the plaque.

In the Ukraine, a lot of efforts are put into fumbling around in the glut of Russian watches which come back to the market as 'franked' bits and pieces with fake dials etc. If you want the Czar of Russia with his daughter Anastacia on his lap or counterfeit emblems of the Wehrmacht (or worse) on the face of an old pocket watch, this is the place to get them. Naturally, you will also find honest dealers in the Ukraine; it's just a matter of identifying them – the needle in the haystack.

The French, with their nice, melodious and dulcet language, giving even toilet articles a special touch, have their own 'word of exclusivity' for watches which have been cobbled together: 'marriage' (marriage).

Then, there are these cheap products, mostly coming from that large country in the Far East, or have at least been produced there, with formerly big names on the dial. Often, just the name rights have been acquired of companies which went out of business a long time ago, caused by the quartz crisis or for other reasons. Today's products have no relation to the old shop whatsoever and certainly no uninterrupted historical connection.

The advertising 'since 1850' might be correct in a legal sense concerning the name, a serious buyer can only laugh about this nonsense. If a website of such a company should exist at all, then one too often does not find an appropriate masthead or even a simple contact address. Conclusion: Better no watch than this garbage. Admittedly, things are more and more moving into the right direction what concerns the quality 'Made in China' – be it the trash can on one side and serious business on the other end.

In addition, we have new products with freshly created, often ridiculous names. As an advertising man, I could extend the list of these hot-air brands with names like, 'Worldman and Sons', 'Prince of England', 'Mayflower', 'Zeppelin', 'Nicewear', 'Shinebright Watch', 'Bravesmart' or 'King Time'. And yes, there are all the 'misspelled' names on the dial, slightly variating from well know brand names, looking for idiots to spend their money on this rubbish.

Whatever, if you are only interest in knowing what time it is at a given moment, you are well served with a cheap quartz watch – almost irrelevant where it comes from, and if you stay below or near the cost for a battery change, you can simply throw it away when the time has come (of course observing environmental regulations). But there are also not so cheap and excellent quartz watches out there, both in quality and appearance, most definitively worth wearing and collecting.

And then, we have the hoards of 'restorers', amateurs and occasionally also professionals who, despite best intentions, screw up on watch-restorations, worse than someone giving an inherited 18th century piece of furniture a new shine with blue gloss paint. Here, we can observe a never tiring 'effort' to make well-preserved watches steadily rarer.

Someone has once stated, that every idiot can make (or better, have someone make) expensive watches, if he has the financial means and a good marketing concept. That also high quality, precision, precious materials and the mastery of technical challenges must be associated with this endeavor is out of the question – only the prices are sometimes far away from being in any sensible proportion to the real value.

It is, however, something totally different to produce watches for the mass market which everyone can afford as reliable companions in day-to-day life.

Timex, still very active today, has produced one billion watches between 1950 and 1980 alone. That means more than 130,000 pieces every working day. They are still available at affordable prices, although specimens in top condition are ever harder to come by, because Timex watches were made to wear, not to collect. For the collector with an interest in the technical development of watchmaking, Timex also made numerous electric- and electronic watches, the first models to have batteries inside, replacing the main spring as a source of power.

Of course, many others producers have also supplied the mass markets with affordable, yet reliable watches which the collector can get for cheap money. Perhaps a good occasion for the beginner to start a collection or to fill up the rows in a collection of a quantity-oriented hoarder of timepieces.

Leaving aside all the different kinds of clocks, we are looking at portable watches which have been made from the 16th century until today. Wristwatches had been smaller pocket watches in the early beginning, which were somehow attached to the wrist. Later, they got their typical shape and type of lugs to fasten wristbands.

The watch on the wrist was more practical under many aspects, especially in the upcoming Industrial Age. There was less interruption of the work when people wanted to quickly check the time. Simultaneously, ideas went into all directions, like designing watches which were easier to read depending on the activities of the wearer, like watches for chauffeurs with curved cases and crystals, making it possible to check the time without taking the hands off the steering wheel.