Pocket Watches for Re-Enactors

J Rogers, MA
1849 Verge Movement watch with face open for setting with a key on the small square lug in the center of the dial.1849 Verge Movement watch with face open for setting with a key on the small square lug in the center of the dial.

The watch is the peak of Victorian precision technology, as the Railroad Engine is the apex of our power technology. If you have a watch, it is a treasured possession that you expect to have for a very long time and to pass on to your heir. You probably spent a month's income or more on it, and took considerable time to choose it. If you have a watch, you proclaim it by wearing chain and perhaps a fob. You expect it to be noticed.

Do you need a watch? Do you need to carry it? You probably won't risk carrying your watch if you are planning strenuous activities. Perhaps you lost your watch gambling or were robbed of it. Maybe you have better things to spend your money on. Perhaps exact time is not really of importance to you. Portable sundials are much less expensive, should you find time of relevance.

Watches were individually made by groups of craftsmen until industrial methods were applied in 1850 by the founder of the Waltham Watch Company. With the introduction of standardization, prices fell to the point that only one month's wages was needed to purchase one.

Time zones won't be invented until the end of the century, so you set your watch by the sun, or to the city clock which was set by the sun.

You are proud of your watch and protect it carefully. You wind it each day and keep it in a watchstand when you aren't carrying it. This way you have a clock that your whole household can use. If you are from one of the smokey cities like New York or London you are used to protecting it in a dome from the dust and soot that foul everything so quickly.

You can surely tell a story about your watch. Did you buy it, inherit it, win it gambling, steal it, take it as security for a loan, find it in lost luggage, or get it from your sweetheart? Are there features that mean something important to you? Is the case decorated with designs that mean something special? Is the
watch from your home town or region?

In 1850 you most likely have a key wound, key set, cylinder escapement watch in a solid metal case. In 1870 you might instead have a stem wound, stem set, lever escapement watch with compensated balance wheel, damasceened plates, and a gold-filled case.


Bow - The loop at the top of the open-face watch or on the side of the hunter case watch to which the watch chain is attached.

Damaskeening - decorative swirled marking on the watches plates.

Train - the series of wheels that transfer power to the escapement. The first wheel is the barrel wheel which contains the mainspring. It meshes with the Center Wheel (also called the Second Wheel), to which the minute hand is attached. Just under the dial, the center wheel drives a small gear that moves the hour hand. The center wheel drives the third wheel. The third wheel drives the fourth wheel, to which the seconds hand (if any) is attached. The fourth wheel meshes with the escapement wheel to which the escapement meters the movement of the balance wheel to precisely measure time.

Bridge - The wheels of the train are held in position by thin flat plates, the bridges. Bar bridges are small and, not suprisingly, bar shaped, in contrast to plate brides.

Escapement - The part of the watch that divides time into regular beats. A balance wheel with a regulated hairspring rotates back and forth at a precise 1/5th second interval. The escapement is a mechanism that uses the escapement's rhythm to turn the fifth wheel at exactly one revolution per minute. Types of escapement are verge, cylinder, and lever. See http://www.horologia.co.uk/index.html for details. The motion of the escapement makes the watch tick.

Ebauche barred cylinder movement, c 1850. Click image to zoom.Ebauche barred cylinder movement, c 1850. Click image to zoom.

Cylinder escapement - The teeth of the fifth wheel directly engage a slot cut into the pinion of the balance staff to form the escapement. The balance wheel is nearly always uncompensated - appearing as a smooth circle rather than having compensating weights.

Balance wheel - The wheel that moves back and forth, performing the function that a pendulum does in a clock. A compensated balance wheel has a radial slit in the rim to allow the two metals of the rim to expand and contract, thus adjusting the watch for changing temperatures. In addition, it will have adjusting weights all around the wheel that adjust for different positions of the watch. A compensated balance wheel almost always means a lever escapement.

Regulator - A lever attached to the hairspring. Adjusting the adds or removes tension from the hairspring, thus changing the period of the oscillation of the balance wheel. The indicator arm of the regulator points to a calibrated index on the balance bridge or one of the other bridges to assist the watchmaker in making the adjustments.

Jewels - The motion of the wheels, especially the balance wheel and the escapement wheel, eventually will wear the metal away from their pinions and the bearing holes in the bridges. By using saphires, diamonds, or rubies, the wear can be greatly reduced. Up to 21 jewels in a movement are functional,
although occasionally more were added for looks or for sales purposes. A typical mid-grade cylinder movement will have 8 jewels ("huit rubis" or "four holes jeweled"), while a basic lever movement has 7, 9, or 11 jewels.

Dials - in America, dials are made by kiln fusing finely ground white glass onto a disk of copper. Powdered black glass is then stenciled onto the dial and fused again at a lower temperature. Because of this process, a crack in the enamel cannot be repaired. Enamel dials are not painted. Early dials and some English, French, or Swiss dials are made of silver or gold with engraved or enameled markings.

Repeater - Costing 5 to 50 times as much as a regular watch, a repeater has a mechanism to chime the time on command. The most complex let you tell time to within 5 minutes in total darkness. Most come from Switzerland, a country otherwise known mainly for cheap knock-offs of good British and American watches.

Lever Set - The watch is set by the stem only if a hidden lever on the side of the face is pulled out to engage the setting gears. This prevents accidental setting of the watch.

Waltham 1905. A fine example of a watch that is not appropriate for reenactors. Note the Arabic numerals, gold-filled case, stem-winding and setting.Waltham 1905. A fine example of a watch that is not appropriate for reenactors. Note the Arabic numerals, gold-filled case, stem-winding and setting.

Railroad watches - Railroads were established in the 1830's. Trains relied on following timetables precisely in order to prevent accidents. By the 1880's railroads were issuing specific requirements for employee's watches. After 1893, there was a national standard for railroad watches, which was universally
enforced by about 1900 "Size 18 or 16, have a minimum of 15 jewels, adjusted to 5 positions, keep time accurately to within a gain or loss of only 30 seconds a week, adjusted to temperatures of 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, have a double roller, steel escapement wheel, lever set, micrometric regulator, winding stem at 12 o'clock, grade on back plate, use plain Arabic numbers printed black on a white dial, and have bold black hands." The railroad dial is very plain, with no fancy lettering or painting. Only open face cases were approved for railroad use. The total number of railroad watches produced were relatively

Ebauche - A style of unfinished watch movement mass produced as a cottage industry in Switzerland in the mid to late 1800's. The movements were sold to retailers or jewelers who ''finished'' the watch by adding the dial, hands, case, jewels, the escapement, etc. Quite often the name engraved on a European watch from this period is that of the retailer or is a 'fake' name similar to a prestige watchmaker. The movement almost never has a name engraved on it, but a brand will be engraved on the back dust cover instead. Swiss watches are considered distinctly second-rate mechanically, although they are often very pretty.

Size - Is numbered by movement size, not case size. An American size 10 (1.5 inches diameter) was suitable for either man or women, with larger sizes generally carried by men and smaller by women.

Case Styles

Hunter Case - The watch case has a solid front cover, usually released by a catch or by pressing the stem. The 12 on the dial will be 90 degrees from the bow. The case allows the watch to be placed open on a nightstand or mantle when not being carried.

Half-Hunter Case - A hunter case with a small round window of glass set into the center of the front cover. The hands can be seen through this window without opening the case. Usually early 20th century.

Open face - The watch face is covered by a clear glass cover, the crystal.

Case Materials

Gold filled - Beginning 1859, cases are made from thin gold plates surrounding a plate of base metal. Cases made before 1924 are often marked with a number of years guarantee that indicates how thick the gold layer is, later cases are marked 'gold filled'.

Silver - Usually coin silver, which is 800 fine (sometimes 900 fine in Britain). Some cases are sterling, which is 925 fine. Hallmarks will usually show country of origin. If British, hallmarks show assay office, maker, and year, as well as the walking lion mark which indicates sterling silver. More common as case material before 1849.

Gold - British gold is hallmarked if over 15K, gold may be unmarked depending on country. After 1849, gold became more commonly available. Only the US used 10K and commonly used 10K, 14K, 18K; Britain commonly used 9K (legalized in 1854), 15K, 18K. European cases are marked with fineness rather than karat marks - 750 is the equivalent of 18K, 375 is 9K, 625 is 15K. Much gold before 1906 was unmarked.

Dating guidelines

  • Cases of precious metal made or sold in Great Britain will have a set of hallmarks that show the assay office, metal content, and year of assay.
  • In 1871, all watches sold in the United States were required to have the country of origin marked. Generally a watch without an origin marking dates before 1871.
  • American enamel dials date from 1838. No enamel dial is earlier than 1635.
  • Single sunk dials (where the seconds area is sunken below the level of the main dial - from 1825.
  • Watches with a fusee generally date 1850 or earlier.
  • Cases marked 'gold filled' are from 1924 or later. Cases marked 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, or 30 years are gold filled cases from 1859-1924.
  • Screw on bezels date from 1886.
  • Earlier American men's watches from the 1800's were most often 18 size, whereas 16 size watches became popular for men after the turn of the century.
  • Railroad watches usually date from after 1880.
  • A damaskeened watch is from 1869 or later. By 1880 nearly all American watches were damaskeened.
  • Gold-filled cases are almost always from after 1860.
  • Key wound, key set watches generally date before 1870. Stem wound watches generally date after 1860.
  • Stem setting began in 1842.
  • Watches before 1850 are usually hand-finished and hand fit.
  • Engine turned cases - 1830 and after.

Beginning dates for American Watch Companies

  • American Waltham - 1852
  • Ansonia - 1896
  • Aurora - 1883
  • Ball - 1879
  • Columbus - 1874
  • Elgin - 1864
  • Fasoldt - 1849
  • Hamilton - 1892
  • Hampden - 1877
  • Dueber - 1877
  • Boston - 1853
  • Howard - 1858
  • Illinois - 1869
  • Ingersoll - 1892
  • Ingraham - 1912
  • Lancaster - 1879
  • New York Standard - 1885
  • Rockford - 1873
  • South Bend - 1920
  • Seth Thomas - 1883
  • United States - 1865
  • Waterbury - 1880
  • Westclox - 1899

Beginning dates English Watch Factories

  • English Watch Co - 1874
  • William Ehrhart - 1874
  • Rotherham - 1880
  • P & A Guye - 1880
  • Nicole, Nielson - 1887
  • Lancashire - 1888
  • Coventry - 1892
  • J W Benson - 1892
  • H Williamson - 1897

Beginning dates European and English Makers

  • Agassiz - 1832
  • Barraud - 1750
  • J W Benson - 1749
  • Bovet - 1832
  • Breguet - 1747
  • Bulova - 1920
  • T F Cooper - 1850
  • Courvoisier - 1845
  • Gruen - 1874
  • International - 1869
  • Joseph Johnson - 1810-1850
  • A Lange & Sohne - 1845
  • Longines - 1866
  • Nicole, Nielson - 1840
  • Omega - 1848
  • Patek, Philippe & Cie - 1840
  • Tiffany - 1853
  • M I Tobias - 1805


  • Verge - before 1800.
  • Cylinder - after 1710
  • Lever - after 1815, rarely as early as 1759
  • DeLong Pallet - after 1883
  • Duplex - 1750 - 1850 (England), Waterbury 1880-1898, New England Watch
    Company 1898-1910
  • Roller and Lever - 1750
  • Right angle lever - before 1870
  • Detached lever - early 1800s

More Information

A Brief History of Precision Timekeeping
The watch Cabinet - escapements etc
Barry Goldberg's Watch Collection