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Determining a Watch's Value

I get a lot of e-mail saying "Can you tell me how much my old watch is worth?". To put it simply, no, I can't. I must emphasize that I am not an expert in this field. Even experts can't put an accurate value on a watch without actually holding it in their hand and examining it carefully. Any valuation I give could be out by hundreds of dollars.

The first step to identifying the value of your watch is to identify exactly what kind of watch you have. Some manufacturers (most notably "Elgin") can tell you this from the serial number on the watch movement (NOT the case). See the Watch Identification part of this site, especially the Elgin Database, to identify your watch from the serial number. For other watches, you will have to open the watch, look at the watch movement, and compare it to pictures.

A good book to consult regarding watch values is the "Complete Price Guide to Watches" by Cooksey Shugart, Tom Engle and Richard E. Gilbert. This is published annually, and is an excellent guide for identifying watches and finding their value. I suggest you sign this book out from your local library.

Once you know what kind of watch it is, you can check price lists (such as in the book mentioned above). A quick way is to search eBay for similar watches and see what people are buying the watches for. (See the "Watch Collecting" page on this site).

If you want your watch professionally appraised, contact your insurance company. They can put you in touch with an appraiser. However, keep in mind that most pocket watches are only worth about $50. Don't be surprised if the appraisal fee is worth more than the value of your watch.

The bottom line, your watch is worth whatever someone will pay for it.

Things to keep in mind about valuing a watch include:

  • Does the watch run?
  • Open your watch to look at the mechanical movement. This should have the serial number, the manufacturer name, and if we're lucky the model number. Note all the writing on the watch movement. Also note if the movement is plain, or if it has any decorative "etchings" on it (called "damaskeening").
  • Check any writing on the watch dial, such as manufacturer name. Note any special features of the dial. For example, does it have Roman or Arabic numbers. Does it go to 12, or all the way to 24, etc. Also, is the winding stem of the watch at the "12" or "3" o'clock position.
  • Examine the watch case. Is it Gold or Silver. Is it a hunter case (a flip out lid to cover the watch face) or an open face (no cover). Does it have any other writing or inscriptions? What is the serial number on the case? Is it like brand new, or does it show any wear?
  • Compare your watch to pictures of the watch movement. Often the only way to identify watch models is to compare the mechanical movement to pictures in a book such as the one mentioned above.
  • Do you have the original box for the watch? Any other information like letters or bill of sale accompanying the watch? Those can add value.

The most common mistake new pocketwatch owners make is to "judge the watch by its cover". They go into a lot of detail about the watch dial or case, and provide no information about the watch movement. The case and dial is like the frame on a picture. This information is useful for fine-tuning estimates, but the most important thing is the serial number on the watch movement. If I don't have that, nothing else matters.


Below are what I consider common-sense things to consider in determining the value of an antique pocket watch. However, anyone wanting a serious appraisal for insurance or other reasons should consult a qualified watch appraiser.

The most common question asked by new pocketwatch owners is also the most difficult to answer: "How much is my watch worth?". This depends upon a variety of factors. Some of these are obvious just looking at the watch, others require an expert knowledgable in the field. Here's a few things to consider.

Please remember these are guidelines only. Ultimately what a watch is worth is whatever someone is willing to pay for it. You may have an old watch that doesn't seem worth anything, but if someone has watches with serial numbers on either side of yours, they might pay more to get a consecutive set of numbers. On the other hand, you might have a great watch with lots of gold and a great movement, but if that particular watch is out of style, you may not find a buyer for it. Besides, even if you do own a watch worth $30,000, how may people are actually willing to spend that much for it?

Value of Materials

This is the value of the materials if you forget about appearance, historical significance, etc. On this level, a watch made of a lot of gold, or decorated with precious gems, is naturally more expensive than a plain watch made of brass.

Age

Generally something is an "antique" if it is 100 years old or older. If it is out of production and less than 100 years old, it is considered "vintage" (could be only one year old!!). Everything else being equal, an older watch will generally be more valuable than a newer watch.

The age of most pocket watches are relatively easy to find. Generally, the smaller the serial number on the watch's movement, the older the watch. My Watch Identification page provides links to a number of tables that can help you with this.

Completeness

If you have a pocket watch, great. If you have the pocket watch with the original bill of sale, all the papers it came with, the box it came in, and any special presentation cards that show the history of the watch, then it will be more valuable.

Condition

Given two identical watches, the one in better condition is worth more. In the case of watches, there are three things to consider, the dial, the case, and the movement. My Watch Collecting page lists details on grading watches.

  • The things to look for in the dial are tiny hairline cracks, chips, and discolouration or fading of the dial. These will reduce the value of the watch. However, obvious repairs to the watch dial can also reduce the value. Often it's better to leave a chip in the dial than it is to have it repaired. If you do get it repaired, have an expert in watch dial repair do it.

  • A watch case should be examined for signs of wear, dents, etc. The covers should screw on properly to a tight fit. The gold or silver plating should not have worn down to the brass underneath, and any decorative engravings should still be sharp and distinguishable. The crystal should be clear with no cracks or scratches for highest value.

  • A watch movement should be all original pieces with no modifications. It should have no serious wear on the parts, indicating it was well cared for with regular maintenance (cleaned and oiled by a professional watch repairer every two to three years). Any modifications from the original should be documented. And, of course, being a watch, it should keep good time (as good as it did when it was new). Also, any additional features, like chimes, should work properly.

Quality

Not all watches were created equal. There were cheap watches, and expensive watches. Here are some things to consider when evaluating watch quality.

  • A "jewel" is a gemstone bearing in the watch movement that resists wear. More jewels in the watch mean less damage over time caused by friction of metal against metal. The watch lasts longer, and is of better quality. Generally the number of jewels is marked on the movement. If it is not marked, you can usually assume it is a bottom line 7-jewel watch.

  • Watch cases were usually brass, with nickle, silver, or gold plate. The thickness of the plating determines how long it will be before the plating is worn down and the brass shows through. Typically, terms like "gold filled" indicate thicker plating. A good indicator of this is the warranty on the watch case. The longer the warranty period, the thicker the case plating.

  • Watches might be stamped "adjustable to five positions". A pocket watch is a mechanical device. It can be affected by things like temperature, humidity, movement, even the position the watch is in. A watch that is "adjusted to five positions" means that there are specific adjustments to keep the watch accurate no matter what position it is in (face up, face down, crown up, crown down, temperature, etc.). These were of higher quality than watches without this feature.

  • A specific cue to quality are "railroad grade" watches. These were watches that meet the standard for timepieces used on railroads, where accurate timing was crucial in avoiding train collisions. Not all high quality watches were railroad grade (for example, railroad grade prohibited watches with roman numerals), however all railroad grade watches are high quality watches. Information about railroad watches can be found on my Watch History page.

Attractiveness

What is "in style" changes from one year to another, but there are some general rules for pocket watches.

  • Watch dials can be plain or fancy. Fancy dials are more decorative, often multi-coloured with inlaid gold and/or silver accents.

  • The most common watch hand style is the standard "blue spade" style. However, there are more decorative styles such as the Louis IV style. Often these are in gold or gold plated.

  • Watch cases can be "open face" (no cover, pendant at 12:00), "Hunter case" (covers on the front and back, pendant at 3:00), and "Half Hunter" where the front cover of the hunter case has a small window to see the hands. Cases can also be plain, or they could be decorated with intricate engravings. These can increase the value of the watch. Often the watch cases were supplied by different companies than those that made the movement. Knowing which artist built the case can help assess the value of the case.

  • The watch movement can be a plain movement, or it could be decorated with special engraving called "damaskeening". Usually the higher quality watch movements had this additional decorative touch added. The brass movements could also be plated with nickle or gold. In high quality watches, some of the gears might be made of gold instead of brass.

Rarity

Some watches were made by the thousands. Others were one of a kind specially commissioned pieces. All else being equal, the rarer piece is usually more valuable (simple law of supply and demand). A qualified watch appraiser should be able to tell from the serial number how many other watches like yours were made.

Don't forget the decorations on the watch case either. There could be thousands of watches with identical movements, but the case could be a one-of-a-kind creation.

Historical Value

The watch that went with Neil Armstrong to the moon is worth much more than an identical watch that never left the earth. Watches that can be tied to important people or events can have significant value. The key is documenting that this is true, with presentation cards, etc.

For example, special commemorative pocket watches, such as 25 year service railroad gold watches, may be considered more valuable than ordinary watches to people related to the Railroad industry. Exactly how valuable would depend on how many of these commemorative watches were built, etc.

Engraved inscriptions not part of the original watch on watch cases could be considered damage by some. However, if the engraving was done when the watch was new, it could add a historical personal touch that makes the watch more collectable. For example, consider the value of the inscription "Purchased on the first Atlantic crossing of the Titanic". Just watch out for forgeries.

Special Features

Most pocket watches use the standard hour, minute, and separate second hand. However, some have additional features, like a built in calendar, moon phases, animated scenes, chimes, 24-hour dials, etc. All of these will normally increase the value of the watch over the "standard" watch layout.

In addition, there are special watches to look out for. Some watch salesmen had watches with a crystal on both the front and the back, so they could show off the movement without taking the watch out of the case. These are rare, and more valuable than normal watches. There may also be prototype watches that never made it into production that could be quite valuable.

Conclusion

A qualified watch appraiser can probably take issue with some of the things I listed here, and come up with hundreds of other things to consider in determining the value of a watch. However, the above should give you a rough idea of how to set a value to watches. Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule. You might have a watch that looks really plain and uninteresting, but later find it is a one-of-a-kind production prototype that's worth thousands of dollars. You could also have a really fancy watch that you think is worth thousands, when in fact it is worth very little. Only a qualified watch appraiser can tell for sure.


Copyright 1998-2001 Kevin Lowey