Pardon me, but do you have the time?

“I’ve got all the time in the world.” I often repeat this little saying to myself when feeling squeezed for time in this fast-paced life of our 21st century. This always slows me down a bit and helps me focus on just enjoying the journey.

It has been said that time is irrelevant and, in eternity, does not even exist. Well, time may not be important in other dimensions, but it sure is in this one. I have met a number of people who tell me, “I hate watches. I don’t even wear one.” These same people will always be running late, trying to make some appointment and asking strangers, “Please, can you tell me the time?” When someone asks for the time and you glance down at your watch and tell them, you have just shared a bit of knowledge, a tiny piece of scientific wizardry. Of course, you can then come back with, “Do you know what time it really is?” They will stare questioningly into your eyes and then you say, “It’s time you bought a watch, buddy!”

So saying, if you’ve got to have a watch, why not own a really cool one like a red LED (light-emitting-diode) wrist watch out of the early 1970s that someone like Darth Vader would have on. Or maybe a lady’s Art Deco Gruen Curvex from the 1930s, or a man’s Hamilton 992B pocket watch. How about high-stepping with a 1950s Rolex on your wrist. Why not own a watch that is special so that every time you look at it, it’s fun and it gives you pleasure?

NASA astronauts who venture out into space know the importance of their “mechanical” watches. If all electric computer systems should fail, their lives could depend on the timepiece on their wrists. This actually happened in 1970 during the Apollo 13 mission when the crew had to rely on their Omega Speedmaster Professional Chronograph to time the rocket burn that got them safely back to earth after an on-board explosion disaster.

Vintage watch collecting is so enjoyable because the collectible can be used in your daily life. Your collectible doesn’t have to just sit around acquiring layers of dust. It can be worn, looked at, listened to, and shown off every day. Watches are great conversation pieces and perform useful functions.

No one person is responsible for the invention of the watch. It is believed that the first watches gradually started appearing around the end of the 1400s and the beginning of the early 1500s. These were actually small clocks made to be portable. The clocks of the time were stationary and all driven by weights. This form of power was not practical for a portable clock (watch), so the use of spring tension was developed and expanded upon further by these craftsmen, inventors, jewelers, metalsmiths, and clockmakers. Spring (mainspring) driven clocks were scaled down further and further by these innovators and the portable watch gradually came into being. Watches were first made for the very wealthy aristocrats, princes, kings, queens, and the like.

During the 1600s, extremely beautiful watches were created in France, England, Switzerland, and Germany. Many survive today in museums and private collections.

Early watchmakers in America fabricated their watches mostly from parts made overseas and imported into the country. Not until around the 1850s did Americans start producing watches completely made in this country. There were well more than 300 million watches produced by U.S. companies, plus millions more imported into this country from Switzerland. Many of these vintage watches have survived to this day and are lying around somewhere just waiting to be discovered.

The modern stem winding and setting system was perfected in Switzerland in the 1840s and eventually all watches used it. However, key-wind watches were still being produced well into the late 1800s.

In America, as the early watch manufacturers poured more and more watches into the market, the prices for them gradually went down and the average person could eventually afford to own one. Still, the watch purchase usually represented a good deal of money, so the timepiece was often treasured and taken very good care of. It became more than an investment; it became an heirloom that could be passed down to other members of the family. To inherit your father’s watch or one from your grandparents was, and still is, a very popular tradition. Watches became symbols of accomplishment and rewards for reaching milestones in one’s life for graduation gifts, career milestones, and company retirement recognition awards.

As the manufacturers competed with one another, they produced better and better watches with more quality and beauty going into their movements and cases. Watch companies started decorating their movements with what is called “damaskeening” (Damascene: from the word Damascus). This was a decorative etching engraved into the metal plates and bridges of the movements during the final machining processes.

This artwork had nothing to do with the functioning of the watch, but added a beauty and a special quality to the American pocket watch. Also, watch case companies were very competitive and so produced a wide variety of very ornately engraved cases. The cases would have such things as birds, deer, flora, fauna, trains, and idyllic country scenes engraved on their outsides. These watch cases were made in solid gold, gold filled (base metal, usually brass, sandwiched between thick plates of gold), rolled gold plated, gold gilded of base metal, silver, and silveroid. American pocket watches from this era are huge collectibles because of the machining precision and artwork put into their creation.

Jeweling, or the jewels used in watch movements, act as bearings. Let us say you drill a small hole into a brass plate and place the end (pivot) of a steel shaft into it. OK, now in the middle of the steel shaft rests a wheel-shaped piece of brass with teeth cut into the outside edge. Then you drill another small hole into another brass plate, and place it on the opposite end of the steel shaft that has the wheel in the middle of it. As the steel shaft and wheel spin round and round over years and years, eventually the harder steel wears into the softer brass and makes the hole bigger. Now the shaft has play in it, is loose fitting, and starts to wobble.

Picture many such shafts with wheels and gears spinning around and getting wobbly. Soon, the whole affair would all come to a grinding halt, wouldn’t it? Let’s do it better, shall we? Now, you drill a small hole into a brass plate, but this time make it a bit larger so we can press into the hole a “doughnut”-shaped jewel. The end of your steel shaft, with the wheel on it, now fits into the “doughnut” hole in the middle of the jewel. Your steel shaft can spin around for centuries and centuries and not make the jewel hole larger or the shaft size smaller, providing you have lubrication.

This is, very basically, how the jewel functions inside the movement of a watch. The jewels are made from man-grown corundum (synthetic ruby and sapphire), and polished into the various shapes used for watchmaking. The more jewels fitted into a watch at the factory, the more time spent on its manufacture and adjustments.

In the 1930s and 1940s, more and more watches started appearing on the market equipped with spring-like settings holding the endstone (cap) jewels, or the endstones and jewel holes of the balance. These jewels would “give” when the watch received a shock, thus preventing the end (pivot) of the balance staff from breaking. Earlier watches were built well, especially the beefy pocket watches, but an accidental drop or shock to the movement would break even the best balance staff. With the invention of the many styles of shock-resistant jewel settings, broken balance staffs became, for the most part, a thing of the past.


Railroad pocket watches

In 1891, there was a large train wreck near Kipton, Ohio. It was surmised that the watch of one of the train engineers had malfunctioned. One train was supposed to pull to a side track to let the other go by, but due to the pocket watch time-keeping problem, they were on the same track at the same time, and it resulted in a disastrous head-on collision.

After this wreck, local railroad officials asked Webb C. Ball, a Cleveland jeweler, to organize a standard system of checking timepieces. In time, many other railroads followed the standards set. These were standards that the watch manufacturers had to meet before railroads would approve their watches for railroad use. The watch companies were up to the task, and began the production of the finest mass-produced, factory-made watches in the world. The American railroad grade and railroad approved watches were the “high tech” machines of their time, and still remain to this day as excellent and well-made timekeepers. They are, by far, the most popular American collectible pocket watches. The standards were very stringent and required that a pocket watch be as follows:

• American-made 16- or 18-size movements
• 17 jewels minimum
• Open face, with the stem at 12 o’clock to preclude a hunting movement in an open case
• Lever escapement with double roller and steel escape wheel
• Equipped with overcoil hairspring and micrometer regulator
• Adjusted for temperature, isochronism, and at least five positions
• Lever setting
• Accurate to 30 seconds per week, and reset to correct time whenever the error exceeded 30 seconds
• Cleaned annually and inspected every two weeks, with performance noted on a card carried by the trainman
• Mounted in a dust-tight case
• Equipped with a crystal free of chips and scratches
• Equipped with a dial of Arabic numerals, heavy style hands, a second hand, and minute divisions

Railroad pocket watches had to keep time in at least five different positions, such as when laying dial-side down, laying dial-side up, stem-up position, stem-left position, and stem-right position, that were adjusted to temperatures so as to keep time whether you were in Alaska or Florida. They have a lever to set the hands to prevent the hands from accidentally being moved while carrying the timepiece in your watch pocket. Unlike pulling out on the crown/stem to turn the hands for setting, a true railroad watch must have a lever you pull out, after removing the bezel/crystal, to then engage the setting mechanism. These were some of the early standards set up, and as the years passed, there were additions and other requirements. Today, many railroad watch collectors look for the 21- and 23-jewel timepieces in the 18 and 16 size.