The rise and rise of the pocket watch

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We live in unprecedented times. AI, automation and a whole host of other globally significant advancements have changed the world in countless ways in the past two decades. The internet has transformed virtually every aspect of our lives. Mobile phones are a necessity and social media is hugely influential. We are witnessing the development of driverless cars. Climate change is threatening our very existence. So, where do pocket watches fit in to all of this?

A brief history of the pocket watch

Pocket watches have been around since the 17th century (ever since the 16th century, small round timepieces have been carried as a status symbol, but were at that time not small enough to fit into pockets). Early pocket watches were bulky and came to fruition after Peter Henlein, a German inventor, created the first timepieces that didn’t require falling weights.

Early pocket watches weren’t very accurate, but that all changed with the invention of the lever escapement (first introduced by English horologist, Thomas Mudge). In the late 1850s pocket watches in America were being manufactured using mechanised production lines with standardised parts.

At that time pocket watches were used on the railroads for accurate timekeeping. After a railroad engineer’s pocket watch lost time for 4 minutes, causing the famous Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway crash in 1891, stringent standards were subsequently applied to pocket watch production.

Wrist watches, which became popular during the 1st World War, and the development of the quartz mechanism, led to pocket watches falling out of fashion. There was a short revival of interest in the pocket watch during the 1950s as a result of the three-piece suit, but the wristwatch became the timepiece of choice for decades.

In recent years, along with the explosion of interest in vintage, the pocket watch has once again become a sought-after piece of gentlemen’s attire.

The vintage trend

The interest in antique and vintage mechanical pocket watches has spiralled in recent years. Vintage is a growing trend across the board from furniture, lighting, artwork, clocks, and jewellery to clothing.

The pocket watch is an iconic accessory. Celebrities, including Johnny Depp and Justin Timberlake, have been spotted wearing them, as has business man and entrepreneur Peter Jones.

In the W.E. Clark watch repairs workshop there has been a sharp increase in the number of older pocket watches coming in to be restored to their former glory. The demand for vintage pocket watches is booming.

Built to last

Our experienced watch repairer at W.E. Clark, Daniel Stent, says “Our clients like the history behind pocket watches – often these are passed down through the family.

Furthermore, vintage pocket watches were built to last – the quality is often significantly better than you’d get from a modern piece. Take a Hamilton Railroad Pocket Watch for example. You can pick these up for relatively little money given the great quality, with many having features like a safety pinion, fantastic finishing to movement, gold centre wheels, and 5-position adjustment.”

Throw-away era on its way out

People are starting to reflect and shift away from the throw-away era that has become the scourge of modern life. The impending climate crisis is in part driving the U-turn. Younger generations in particular are taking this global threat seriously. Quartz watches brought timepieces to the masses, but the vast majority became throwaway commodities.

The popularity in pocket watches is largely down to a change in consumer attitudes. Younger generations in particular are much more focused on environmental issues and sustainability. Nostalgia also plays a role in vintage consumption, with consumers keen to preserve history and memories in our fast-paced world.

Our watch repairer, Daniel says, “Society is moving away from the ‘throw-away’ era – people demand items with longevity. Good quality vintage pocket watches (and wristwatches for that matter) certainly have this. Provided they’re properly maintained they’ll continue to give many years of excellent service.”

“We recently had a Jaeger Le Coultre GSTP model in for repair – these were issued to the military during World War Two. This was a very fine quarter repeater chronograph; a lovely antique silver verge fusee piece. We also see many examples from brands such as Waltham, from the ubiquitous Traveller, through to the Vanguard and Crescent Street models.”

If you have a pocket watch that is a family heirloom languishing in a safe, jewellery box, or at the back of a drawer, why not bring it back to its former glory. We can fully restore any pocket watch.

If you would like to know more about pocket watches, read our beginner’s guide to pocket watches here.