Antique Pocket Watches, Chains, and Fobs

Collectible Timepieces and Accessories

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    Brands

    From high-end Tiffany & Co. and Cartier examples made of karat gold to the more affordable models marketed by Elgin and Ball, associating a watch with a brand will help you discern whether you have a $400 watch or a $40,000 one. There are other lesser known brands that are popular with collectors as well. 

    One example is a Patek Philippe 18-karat yellow gold pocket watch with hunter-case (a hinged cover on a pocket watch is a hunter-case as opposed to an open-faced watch that has no cover). In excellent condition, it was auctioned with the original Patek Philippe presentation box. It sold for $3,900 (not including buyer's premium) at Morphy Auctions in 2014. Patek Philippe watches of all types are often passed from generation to generation as family heirlooms and are highly prized by collectors.

    Elgin and Ball railroad pocket watches, among other brands, are high quality, precision timepieces that were used to keep train schedules running smoothly. There are also a number of novelty pocket watches that can sell for $1,000 or more at auction today. These may not look like much at first glance, even toy-like in some instances, but it pays to thoroughly research great-grandpa's pocket watch before selling it too cheaply.

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    Inner Workings of Pocket Watches

    Zenith pocket watch inside
    Prunk/Wikimedia Commons

    The term "jeweled movement" references industrial-grade gemstones used as bearings for gears. The jewels were employed to minimize friction and subsequent wear on a watch's mechanism; having a high number of jewels adds to the value of an antique pocket watch. The higher the quality of the watch, the more jewels it will have—up to 25 in some instances—and the more jewels a watch has, the higher its value. 

    The number of adjustments (the calibrations a watch has to keep it running accurately regardless of the position in which it is held) also impact the value of an old pocket timepiece. Look to a watch professional for more guidance, if you're having trouble determining the quality of your antique pocket watch.

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    Pocket Watch Chains

    A variety of pocket watch chains
    Morphy Auctions

    Watch chains were made in a variety of different styles. They could be made of karat gold for use with top-tier gold watches, gold plated, or silver. They could even be woven of hair, fitted with metal findings, and given as a gift from a bride to a groom during the Victorian era. 

    Regardless of what they were made of, most had a specific type of catch with a curved top and side hook used to hold the watch on one end. The other end could have one of several types of mechanisms used to hold the chain in place on a vest. Some were hooks or loops to fit around a button; others were toggle types that fit through a small hole (finished like a button hole but specifically meant to hold a watch chain). Some chains also have a decorative fob.

    Once fastened to a gentleman's vest, the chain would drape like a garland to the watch pocket where the timepiece was held. The storage of the watch in a vest pocket, in fact, is the origin of the name "pocket" watch. 

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    Two Types of Watch Fobs

    A classic Victorian watch fob
    RubyLane.com

    A fob can be a small ornament suspended from a pocket watch chain. It is sometimes purely decorative, sometimes utilitarian, like a seal or key used to wind a watch. An example is a 10-karat yellow gold Victorian-era charm.

    However, a link or mesh chain or a length of ribbon used to suspend such an ornament was also called a fob back in the day. These elongated fobs also dangled from a chain, and some held charms on the end. 

    Developed around the 1770s, alongside the invention of pocket watches, fobs were worn by both men and women, attached at the waist or to a belt originally. Their popularity continued throughout the 19th century but gradually became more associated with male attire. Some watch chains held multiple decorative fobs where they dangled similarly to a ladies charm bracelet when draped on a vest.

    Once pocket watches fell out of fashion, many fobs were refashioned into ladies charm bracelets or worn on necklaces.