Time-telling has been a basic human need for as long as civilization has existed. The ability to schedule our time by coordinating with others when to get things done or go places has structured our lives for centuries, and has resulted in a remarkable piece of technology which we take for granted today: the humble wristwatch. But watches were not always so common or so affordable, and therefore today we face an interesting paradox: there are watches which are worth almost nothing, and watches which are very valuable and worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But what makes the difference, and how do we tell them apart?
In the first place, we need to look at what the watch is made of. A watch with a precious metal (gold or platinum) case is going to be worth a lot more than a watch with a steel or plated base metal case. Watches are still sometimes made with gold cases today, but were more often made with precious metal cases in a time when a watch was one of the more expensive items a person might own, and they served (as they still do to some extent) as a status symbol or display of wealth, just as much as they did as a teller of the time. A gold case can add significantly to a watch's value. Hand in hand with this, does the watch have diamonds set into the case or dial? These diamonds are sometimes very small and don't add a lot of value in themselves, but other times they're good quality and certainly add to the value of a watch.
What kind of movement does the watch have? Older watches will usually have a mechanical movement, either hand-wound or with an automatic mechanism that winds the internal spring by the motion of the wearer's wrist. Newer watches will typically be battery powered, and may say "quartz" on the dial or the case back. As a rule, the older, mechanical watches, are more likely to be collectible, but the newer, quartz watch will probably keep better time.
Who made the watch? Is it a high-end brand? Everyone knows that a watch that says "Rolex" probably means it's expensive, but there are many other brands of luxury watches as well. Some of these watches were pricey when new but don't tend to retain a lot of resale value second-hand, and others become highly sought-after collectibles. In general, if a watch is made by Rolex, Omega, TAG Heuer, Breitling, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, or Jaeger LeCoultre, there's a good chance it's valuable. Some American pocket watch brands to look out for include Hamilton, Elgin, Waltham, Illinois, South Bend, and Howard.
Is it an antique pocket watch or a wristwatch? A new pocket watch is likely to be quartz, and not very valuable. An old, antique pocket watch, can be valuable, especially if it's in nice condition and is running. Who made it, and the details, matter a lot here. If it was originally made for railroad service, for example, it can be much more collectible than a more common everyday pocket watch.
Is it a men's watch or a ladies watch? There are more watch collectors among men than among women, so grandpa's watch may be more valuable than grandma's. Also, grandpa probably wore his watch for years, while grandma got a new one more often, so there tend to be more ladies' watches still around than men's, making the older men's watches somewhat more valuable to collectors.
Is it a sport watch or a dress watch? In the olden days, many more dress watches were made than sport watches. People dressed up more frequently, and watches were proportionately more expensive, so if you only had one watch, it was probably going to be a dress watch. Today, that means that the sport watch will probably be worth more as a collectible.
Is there a historical connection? Many times, watches have beautiful engravings or inscriptions on the case back or inside the back cover of a pocket watch. If it says "With all our love, from your parents, 1906" then it may have a great deal of sentimental value, but it probably won't set a new sales record at auction. On the other hand, if it says "To my husband John, in commemoration of your having survived the Titanic disaster, 1912" -that watch is a piece of history and will be much more collectible.
Many other factors can affect whether a watch is valuable or not, but these are some of the basics which can make the difference between a watch worth $0.50 and a watch worth $5,000 -or even more! Our expert estate specialists will be happy to look through your treasures at one of our many estate buying events, and help you to determine the true worth of your own valuables!