Identify Your Mechanical Antique or Vintage Watch

Early pocket watches

Watches from the 1700s-1800s will usually have the origin and name of the maker engraved on the movement (the movement is the inside workings of the watch). These early movements used a mechanism called a chain-driven “fusee.” These typically had two cases, an outer shell and an inter case that swings out, exposing the dust cover. Carefully sliding a lever will remove the dust cover gaining access to the movement for identification.

Lever and cylinder escapement pocket watches (non-Fusee) were produced in abundance throughout Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many were cottage industry “generic” watches. The wheels and plates were manufactured by individual shops and sent out to be assembled by jewelers or individuals.

Well-known makers manufactured timepieces of quality. These watches have their maker proudly displayed on the dial and the movement. Most of the cases were easily opened and identified.

American Pocket Watches

The mid-1800s saw the rise of mass manufacture watches from the United States (Elgin, Hamilton, Waltham, Illinois, South Bend, and others). Most American watches will have the maker’s name on the dial of the watch and the movement. Most are accessible by opening a screw off or snap open case back.

In some instances, the name on the dial was not a recognized maker but displayed a private label. The images below show an example of a private label watch with the jeweler’s name “Frank E. Davis.” When we open the back of the watch up, it indicates that it is a Hamilton watch, but the jeweler cased it at the shop and had several dials made with the shop name. As chance would have it, I happened upon a reference to Frank E. Davis of Northampton in a “Jewelers Circular” dated Jan. 11, 1899. You can view the excerpt here. The “Ball” watch was another exception. Ball was not a manufacturer but provided standards for railroad watches. A watch (such as the one pictured above) will have “Ball official standard Cleveland” on the dial but would have a high quality 21-23 jewel movement from a maker such as Waltham or Illinois inside. 

Most American made watches have a serial number, and the databases are now available online. The serial number will be engraved on the movement, not on the case. Much information can be gleaned for the serial number, including the date of manufacture, and the number of jewels. The online database can be found here https://pocketwatchdatabase.com

Wrist Watches

Most wristwatches of the early and mid 20th century can be identified in the same manner as pocket watches (name on the dial and movement, and serial or model numbers). As watch cases became more dust and water-resistant, screw-down backs became the norm and required special tools to open. These cases make it more difficult for the average watch owner to open cases and identify the movement. Even cases with a snap-off back are difficult to remove without damaging the cover. Some high-end makers (Heuer shown in the example) will include a number on the back of the case to identify the watch model.

These examples cover the basics of most watches. If you have any questions about the identity of your watch, feel free to contact me.