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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Waltham Vanguard, 23 Jewels, 16 size, model 1908; up-down indicator; sold: $742. Photo courtesy of Time & Strike Auction Co.
I remember asking my dad what time it was over and over again when I was a kid. It wasn’t so much I needed to know the time, as it was a fascination with the old silver pocket watch he carried so lovingly in his trousers. A cherished hand-me-down from his dad, it was the thread binding him to everything that came before.

Dad’s gone now and I’m not sure what happened to his pocket watch. But the memory of that watch is as clear today as it was 40-years ago.

Maybe the wristwatch is a 20th century necessity, but there’s an undeniable charm to old pocket watches, something a wristwatch can’t quite outclass.

Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian pacifist-leader had very few possessions in his life, but he did carry an Ingersoll pocket watch he wore tied to his waist and bound with a cord. Between 1896 and 1921, Ingersoll sold more than 70-million dollar-pocket watches.

The story goes that soldiers during World War I found wristwatches easier to use in the trenches, and in the ‘20s and ‘30s production of pocket watches almost stopped.

In 1850, an American could buy a Swiss pocket watch for about $15 or an English watch for about $25. At the same time, the average blue-collar worker was lucky if he made $1 a day. So owning a pocket watch was an extravagance.

America’s gift to watchmaking was the creation of companies that mass-produced machine made interchangeable parts. An entire watch could now be made in one place. Companies like Waltham, Elgin, and Hampden mass-produced watches that made the pocket watch affordable to everyone.

Much had to do with the railroads. They were growing in the 1860s and people were more aware than ever of time. A disastrous train wreck in 1891 was blamed on the failure of a watch and the railroads relied on watch and clock makers to come up with standards for accurate timepieces.

The companies created high-grade watches set and approved by the railroad industry. If a watch was slow or fast by 30 seconds, it was repaired. The term Railroad Watch became synonymous with high quality. At the turn-of-the-century, a railroad watch sold for $40 while a common watch might sell for $15.

Nowadays, collecting these old beauties has become a high art. They have a life of their own that’s set in motion by winding them up. They exude quality. The elegant dials and the exact way a watchcase closes speak of the delicate attention to detail.

Several factors are involved in valuing old pocket watches. One is age. Usually, the smaller the serial number on the watch’s movement, the older the watch is. American-made watches are generally worth less than European ones. All things considered, a gold watch is obviously going to be worth more than a silver one. Given two identical watches, the one in working order is more desirable. The original box or bill of sale will also increases its worth.

One June 9, Time & Strike Auction Company in Allenstown, N.H., featured a collection of pocket watches and horological accessories at auction. Here are some current values.

Pocket watches

Waltham; hunter case; model 1908, 17 jewels; grade 625, yellow-gold filled; $154.

Elgin; 16 size hunter case, 15 jewels, 18K grade 86 case; $385.

Elgin; multicolored hunter case, box hinges and shoulders, 18 size, 11 jewels; 14K multi-color rose gold; $3,520.

E. Howard & Co., Boston; hunter case, N size in 18K California gold case made by H. Wachhorst, Sacramento, Calif.; $3,630.

Pocket chronometer, rare, sea captain’s, open-face enamel dial, gold case, no karat mark, made by H. Perragaux Locle for Capt. Nehemiah A. Bray of Newburyport, Mass., (master from 1824-1849); $5,280.

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