One of Nest Egg Auctions’ great specialties are antique pocket watches. We have sold a great number of antique pocket watches, dating from the 18th century to the mid 20th century, with a variety of movements and styles. Pocket watches are a rich and intriguing topic, given their long history as well as the artistic style and engineering prowess that goes into them.

Ulysse Breting Presentation Watch. Swiss (Locle), mid 19th century. 18K gold case.

Early History

Pocket watches date back to the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, especially in Germany. By the early 1500s, some of the most eminent people of the day wore pocket watches. These watches were large, bulky, and did not keep great time. In any case, however, they were mechanical marvels (the fact that they kept any time at all is impressive). Watches, however, were always style or status objects, meaning that there was a drive to make a better or more stylish watch. Thus, watchmaking innovations were not uncommon and watches grew smaller and more accurate as time went on

Nicholas Bernard, Pocket Watch. French (Paris), ca. 1560 - 1590. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The Fusee

From the beginning, pocket watches were essentially smaller versions of clocks. Both clocks and watches run on something called a movement, which is what makes the clock or watch “tick”. Early pocket watches ran using a miniature version of the somewhat accurate movement of medieval clocks, called a verge and foliot movement. By the 17th century, this style of movement was more widely replaced in pocket watches by the fusee. The fusee, marked by a cone-shaped spindle and a barrel, kept much better time than a verge and foliot; some fusee movements work so well that they are still used today. As a result of the adoption of the fusee movement, pocket watches grew smaller. Into the early 19th century, the fusee was the most common pocket watch movement.

View of Fusee Movement. J.S. Taylor of Pontefract, England. ca. early 19th century.

Pocket Watches in the 19th and 20th Centuries

By the 19th century, many viewed the the thick fusee movement as passe. Technological advances in watch design allowed for thinner and thinner movements that were more accurate, as well as multiple complications (date, time, moon phase, etc.). Centers of manufacture, like Switzerland and the United States, also began to make pocket watches more affordable with the widespread adoption of interchangeable parts and the assembly line. Soon, pocket watches were more common, and many people had them. Their growing thinness and, by extension, their light weight sowed the seeds of the pocket watch’s undoing.

Louis Matile, Chronometer Pocket Watch. Swiss (Locle), late 19th century. 18K gold case.

The End of an Era

By the late 19th century, the greater feasibility of wearing a watch on your wrist was clear. Wrist watches were more practical in battle, for instance, than a pocket watch. Thus, style passed the pocket watch. Pocket watches continued to be made into the early 20th century, as they were still viewed as status objects. By midcentury, however, they were outdated.

Valuing Antique Pocket Watches

While there is a growing appreciation and nostalgia for pocket watches, this does not mean that all pocket watches are collectible or worth a significant price. Remember that by the mid 19th century, pocket watches were very affordable and mass produced. So, many watches by midlevel American or Swiss makers of the 19th century are not worth more than $100 each or less. So, when valuing an antique pocket watch, a few aspects should be considered:

Hamilton Masterpiece Pocket Watch. Platinum case. Early to mid 20th century.

How old is this pocket watch?

Older pocket watches can be worth more than more recent ones, especially if it is a very complicated early movement.

Patek Philippe Men's Watch. Swiss (Geneva), late 19th - early 20th century. 18K gold case.

What is the case of this pocket watch made of?

If the case of the pocket watch is made of gold or platinum, that will significantly increase the value. Do be wary of gold plated cases, however. If a case has any marking like “G.F.”, “Test”, “Warranted”, or “Guaranteed”, these pieces are plated (perhaps heavily), and their value is less than a completely gold or platinum case.

Antique Pocket Watch with C.H. Meylan movement for Henry Kohn & Sons of Hartford. 14K Gold Case by Jeannot & Shiebler.

Who made this pocket watch?

Certain makers are better than others. For instance, the pocket watches of C.H. Meylan of Le Brassus, Switzerland are well known for their superior manufacture. Pieces by the Waltham Watch Company of Waltham, Massachusetts, however, do not usually carry the same value on name alone. Fine Waltham pieces, with a solid gold case and intricate movement, can bring great prices.

I. Brilleman Size 14 Men's Pocket Watch. American (Albany, NY), late 19th century.

Is there Something Special about this Watch?

This is a more open-ended question, but it has a great effect on a watch’s value. If the watch was made by a sought-after maker, was cased by a well-known jeweler, or belonged to someone important, it could carry a higher value. If the watch has more complications (date, moon phase, etc.), this can also add additional value. Finally, if the watch is particularly handsome or unique in its design or making, that too can add value.

Three Elgin Pocket Watches. American (Elgin, Illinois), late 19th century. 14K white gold cases.

Selling Antique Pocket Watches at Nest Egg Auctions

Nest Egg Auctions is the best place to buy and sell antique pocket watches. We have sold many fantastic pieces throughout our nearly three decades of business. From a 19th century Patek Philippe to an Art Deco Hamilton Masterpiece in Platinum, we have sold fine pocket watches for thousands of dollars to our buyers around the world. Our knowledgeable staff would love to discover what your watch has in store.

Selling Antique Pocket Watches at Nest Egg Auctions

Have antique pocket watches that you'd like to sell? Nest Egg Auctions would love to sell them for you for the highest price!