My Pocketwatch

This time yesterday, I didn't know anything about pocket watches, other than I inherited one about 15 years ago, and I think about it every time we watch Antiques Roadshow. (Not that I'd ever sell it.)

I also didn't know anything about reset buttons on hot water heaters, despite distractedly flipping through the manual, so when faced with the icy drink of a busted heater yesterday, I took all of the storage boxes out of the closet so the water heater could be serviced.

In one of the storage boxes was my great-great-grandfather's watch. (With no mantle or spare inch of bookshelf here, I'm at a loss for display options.) Aha, I thought, time to take some photos and see what the internet says. (Research buzz! Research buzz!)

First, though, let's introduce my great-great-grandfather, Henry Clay:

Henry Clay and Friend

H.C., as he was sometimes known, is the one on the right. I can't think of anyone in the family who looks even a little like him, but since his son gave me the photo and identified him in writing, I guess that's my dad's dad's dad's dad.

Henry Clay had five sons, the youngest of which was my Uncle Pat. I've mentioned him here before. Not every young lady gets an 80-year-old great-grand-uncle for a best friend, but I did for awhile. Below is not a great photo of Uncle Pat - I took it from the passenger seat as my grandfather (his nephew) drove away from Pat's house - but if you can tell that Uncle Pat is sticking his tongue out at me, you can tell that we had a mutually impish respect for each other. (To be fair, I stuck mine out first.)

Uncle Pat, Swell Friend

At some point in our correspondence (we first met when I was 25 and sent him a letter to the effect of "holy crap, one of my great-grandfather's brothers is alive?"), Uncle Pat said he wanted to give me his father's watch. Here I'm tempted to open one of the other boxes I brought out yesterday, the one with all of Uncle Pat's letters and short stories, but that 18" box is too deep a well for a school night. But If I remember correctly, Henry Clay was doing some painting work with one of his sons (not Pat) for a widow. She was so impressed that, when the job was done, she offered H.C. her husband's watch.

I don't know when that was, but Henry Clay died in 1931 at the age of 55. (He had a stomach ailment. Later in our friendship, Uncle Pat voiced some suspicion toward H.C.'s second wife in this matter. But then, Pat idolized his mother, who died when he was a child, and Pat was barely a teenager when Henry Clay died. It all makes for good Irish drama, right down to the part where, if it weren't for Henry Clay's stories to Pat, I wouldn't even know we were Irish, for the genealogical research that led to me meeting Pat remains at a dead end.)

Uncle Pat inherited the watch, and apparently some family members (including my grandfather) expressed a direct interest in having it. But Pat held on to it for almost 70 years before slipping it to me in a brown paper bag at my Uncle Billy's funeral.

This is the watch:

Great-Great-Grandfather's Watch

Like I said, 12 hours ago I didn't know anything about pocket watches, other than they feel so solid and trustworthy in the hand. The smooth heft makes me wish I could take it to school, disarm the soulless wall clock, and make a big show of drawing it out of my pocket to check the time. (Such is the power of the timepiece, that briefly I imagine I teach in a classroom where the kids would even notice this gesture. Meanwhile, I used to be annoyed when students would openly look at the clock, but lately I'm just so pleased with the ones that can still read an analog clock interface. Enough digression...)

The Brass Shines Through

Later I would learn that the splotchy back is from where the gold has rubbed off and the brass is showing, but first I began my knowledge-trek by looking up the name on the dial: "Waltham."

Wikipedia has an entry on the company, which led me to the Waltham serial number database.

Juicy! Except, in order to see the serial number, I would have to open the watch. Yikes. Attached to the watch is a chain (not original) and my great-great-grandfather's old pocket knife. "Is this what the knife's for?" I wondered. Then I whimpered a little, my intense curiosity now at war with the horror of sticking a knife into an antique pocket watch.

So I Googled some more, finding a page full of watch-opening possibilities to try. Including, say, just unscrewing the back.

That worked.

Amazed that it was that easy, I now beheld the stylish workings of my Waltham watch, and the gateway to all the watch's (production) secrets.

Waltham 1892 Vanguard Mechanism

Before I could find the serial number, I paused to gasp at the word "ADJUSTED." I had just read that these were special watch movements that were more valuable. "Adjusted! Oh my gosh! Adjusted! Look!" (Then I went on to discover that adjusted watches - ones adjusted for better timekeeping in various temperatures, positions, etc. - weren't more rare, just more accurate. Oh. Still!)

The serial number is 12,051,042, dating it from around late 1902 (per this chart), and - per the link above - identifying the watch model as 1892 (named for the year it was introduced).

I could also now throw around terms like "21 Jewels" and "Vanguard" (which I learned is called the "grade"), and "open face" and "size 18." And, later, "Railroad Standard quality."

Somewhere in this I discovered a Mr. Schneider who has a whole website devoted to the 1892 model. But then my face started twitching as I drowned in terms like "pallet arbor" and "escape wheel." It's nice, though, to know there's more out there for when I'm ready for the next leap in pocket watch smartness. (I was still just psyched to see that old-fashioned font inside: "Vanguard, Waltham Mass." Shivers.)

Speaking of what's in the case, this is the inside of the case back:

Jeweler's Marks

Another thing I learned is that people would almost always select the case and the watch mechanism ("movement") separately. As several sites point out, some people would choose a high quality timepiece, but not worry about getting a fashionable luxury case. Others would pick a fancy case, but not care so much about the workings inside. Either way or inbetween, the watch-buyer did not point at a finished timepiece and say, "gimme." Instead, they selected the case and movement, and the jeweler would put the two together. (It also wasn't unusual to change cases as one became worn.)

One link led to another, and I came upon this catalog page from 1903, showing 21-jewel Waltham Vanguard watches, size 18. Maybe someday I'll be able to tell whether my watch has jeweled main wheel bearings or gilded plate screws, or if it's non-magnetic, or maybe some kind soul will happen upon this page and delight in making me smarter?

Whatever the finer points, it appears that the watch originally sold for 50-60 dollars. Using MeasuringWorth.com, that's around $1200 in today's money. (As far as these things can be reckoned.) But to buy the watch today, in today's money, it looks like you would need no more than about half that - $600 - or at least that's what some (seemingly) similar watches are listed for, and other auctions would lead me to believe that those sellers are a mite wishful. (Nothing but wild guesses at this early stage of Learning Stuff about Pocket Watches, but it's not like Antiques Roadshow is coming to Las Vegas anytime soon.)

(OMG! Antiques Roadshow is coming to San Diego this summer! Tickets requested!)

Back to the back of the case, this case was made by Fahys and is the gold-filled "Montauk" variety, guaranteed not to be mottled for 20 years. Interestingly, in 1924 a law was passed saying that case makers were no longer allowed to put guarantee stamps on their work (see here). I guess some manufacturers weren't honoring the warranty? And they wanted a clearer indication of the case materials? I don't know. It's easy to see why some people were particular about their cases. Alas, Fahys was a casualty of the Great Depression.

One thing I noticed, once some of the stars cleared from my eyes, were the scratches and little numbers around the serial number on the case. (By the way, it seems that case serial numbers tell us very little.) It turns out that whenever the watch is cleaned or repaired, the jeweler will make a mark inside the case (and scratch out previous marks). There is absolutely no standard method of marking - could be a name, a date, the phone number of a hot redhead with her own Model T... Below is a collage of 10 of the 12 "jeweler's marks" that I have found so far on the case:

Jeweler's Marks - Close Up

Two of these I didn't even find until I zoomed in on the photo. (I was unsure about the one that ends just under the "4" in the serial number, which is why I wrote "9-10," but now I'm convinced.) One just looks like the letter "M" crossed out.

I dimly recall Uncle Pat mentioning having the watch serviced... or maybe it was just cleaned. The various online guides would have me believe that it's time to go into the shop again, but that's a decision to make further along the learning curve. I'm trying to picture myself letting go of the watch long enough to have it cleaned. Ha ha ha. That's a good one. On the other hand, I'm scared to wind it if there isn't any new oil in there.

This weekend I learned that our hot water heater has a reset button, that you need a reservation on a Saturday night for Don Vito's at South Point (I guess everyone else got those coupons, too), that you should just trust that CiCi's Pizza is not an acceptable dining alternative for a childfree couple (and not prove it in the name of something "fun and new"), and that pocket watches are as interesting as they are pretty.

(Thanks, Uncle Pat, for giving me the time of day.)

11 January 2010 |



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