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Pocket Watches: The Value of Nostalgia

Buy Sell Elgin Hamilton Waltham Pocket Watch Saratoga Springs Albany NY Pocket watches were one of the most popular collectibles 15 to 20 years ago. Many people had fond memories of sitting with their grandfather and playing with or being shown his pocket watch, and it was traditional to pass these keepsakes down through the family. In the 1920s, the wristwatch began to replace the cumbersome pocket watch in popularity and by the 1950s pocket watches were a thing of the past. In many ways, the popularity of collecting pocket watches was driven by remembrance and nostalgia, which has faded over the last two decades.

Pocket watches were a part of my early fascination with “interesting things”. I can remember playing with my great-grandfather Marden’s pocket watch (he was a railroad policeman on the New York Central) in the 1960’s when I was a boy. At that time the only new pocket watches I saw being sold were inexpensive, mass produced ones at the five and dime store like Woolworths, probably mostly purchased by little boys like me.

Today we see many pocket watches brought in by people who no longer need or want them. Very often, the watches may have been passed down through the family, but the watches have no significance to their children or they have no one to pass them on to. A gold pocket watch or silver pocket watch with an antique watch chain can be an interesting curiosity, but isn’t very practical in today’s modern world. We help our clients find the current value of their watch and how to best find a new home for it.

Like many things that were mass produced and are no longer popular as collectibles, the values for pocket watches have changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Your pocket watch value today depends on many factors. Watches with very fine movements (railroad grade pocket watches were the pinnacle of 19th century technology and good examples can be found from American watch companies like Elgin, Waltham, and Hamilton) and watches by prestigious well-known makers (Patek Phillipe, Breguet, etc) are still highly sought after by collectors and can have good value. “Complications”, or extra functions on these watches such as a stopwatch, alarm, moon phases, chiming the time (repeaters), etc., can add value as well.

The more common pocket watch produced by companies such as American Waltham, Elgin, and Illinois have much more modest values today. Many of them were cased in what only appears to be solid gold cases. Most of these are actually gold filled – similar to a heavy gold plating. To create a gold filled case, a thick plate of brass is sandwiched between two very thin sheets of gold and the watch case is manufactured from the layered sheet. These are usually marked 15 year, 20 year, or 25 year depending on how thick the gold sheets on the sandwich are, indicating how long the manufacturer guarantees the watch to not wear through to the brass layer in normal daily use.

Occasionally we will see a more common watch in a solid gold case, usually marked 14k for 14 karat gold. Pure gold is 24 karat but very soft. It is alloyed or diluted with other metals to make it durable and hard wearing. 14k gold is 0.585 pure gold alloyed with other metals. The term 14k is because 0.585 pure gold = 14/24k. We sometimes see 18 karat gold cases as well. Because of the generous rise in gold prices over the past ten years a common watch in a solid gold case can be worth $300 to $500, and sometimes more.

So many antiques dealers today focus on the bottom line, especially with objects made of gold or silver. We help our clients who want to sell a pocket watch by looking past just the material value, and connecting the watch to a collector who wants to buy a pocket watch for its technology, its beauty, or its nostalgia.

Mark Lawson


Would you like to buy or sell a pocket watch? Do you have questions about your antique pocket watch? Would you like to schedule an appointment for a free evaluation? Call us today at (518) 587-8787. We have offices in Saratoga Springs and Colonie, conveniently located for our clients in the Albany, NY and surrounding Capital Region.

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