There are examples of pocket watches dating from as early as the mid-16th century, but collectors are unlikely to see watches from earlier than the 19th century. Before the Victorian era, pocket watches were the preserve of the wealthy few, until mass production methods and increased prosperity brought them within the reach of many more people. By the 1950s, pocket watches had been almost entirely superseded by wrist watches.
The most common kind of watches from the 19th century are known as full hunter watches. These have a metal case – gold, silver or brass – of which one half opens with a button that operates a spring loaded hinge to reveal the watch face under a glass, or crystal as it’s properly called.
A half hunter has an aperture, sometimes with a crystal, that is smaller than the watch face but allows the user to see the time without opening the case. A double hunter has back and front opening pieces, while an open-face watch is withour a cover. Hunter, half-hunter and double hunter watches sometimes come with ornately engraved covers.
Because pocket watches were mass produced, most have a fairly modest value. Nineteenth century pieces in good condition and full working order are often available for under £200. Watches from the first half of the 20th century are often worth less. Pocket watches can be much more valuable, in the thousands, if they have gold casings; were made by a well-known manufacturer such as Charles Frodsham or Cartier; or include some of the rarer features such as phases of the moon or chimes.
At the very top end of the market, in 1999 Sotheby’s auctioned a particularly fine Patek Philippe pocket watch made as recently as 1933 for £6 million. This extraordinary price still stands as a record.
Condition is also important to the value of a pocket watch. Worn parts, cracked crystal, broken hinges or rust will all have a pronounced downward effect on value. Watches can be mended and worn parts replaced, but the cost of this is likely to be prohibitive unless the watch has a high intrinsic value.