The pocket watch… No style is more iconic and nothing has endured for as many centuries. These marvels of mechanical engineering have relayed status for elites, advanced transportation needs across land, air and sea, and just kept average folks on schedule. Outfits were even designed specifically to accommodate them. In the 21st century, three-piece suits have become a rarity, often relegated to the odd, formal occasion (or cold weather at times). With that absence of a waistcoat and modern proliferation of wristwatches, pocket watches have largely disappeared from view. They can still complement an outfit as much as fancy cufflinks, however, and although identical in purpose to wristwatches, they emanate a very different vibe.
With wrist-worn timekeepers so perfected, not to mention easier to use, are pocket watches even worth the hassle? Well, absolutely – for the right person. Let’s dive in.
Books have been written about specific pocket watches and brands alone, and I can easily write 5,000 words and only scratch the surface of five centuries of pocket watch history. I’ll try to keep this relatively short and sweet. As the old saying goes, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Seems like the ancient times and was quite literally at the tail end of the Dark Ages. Less than 20 years later in 1510, however, the first “pocket watch” debuted in Nuremberg, Germany. Invented by master locksmith Peter Henlein, the precise mechanism of gears and cogs was small enough to fit in the hand, accurately measuring time on the go (for the era). Powered by a new internal spring instead of hanging weights, these first “clock watches” were large and ungainly by today’s standards, and initially worn on a chain around the neck. Like clock towers of the day, dials had just a single hour hand, but the ability to carry time with you was revolutionary – if not reserved for the wealthy.
The following century brought about big changes as cases evolved into what we recognize today as a pocket watch. We can thank King Charles II of England for introducing waistcoats in 1675, serving as the perfect attire to carry this burgeoning timepiece. In the early 17th century, glass began covering and protecting the dials, and fobs were introduced to keep them securely fastened to the owner. The age of pocket watches had truly arrived.
For another century, pocket watches continued to be expensive, luxury items made by hand for the privileged. Technical innovations were exploding, however, such as the first repeater by watch/clockmaker Daniel Quare at the end of the 17th century and first tourbillon by Breguet in 1801 (June 26, 1801, or rather on 7 Messidor, year IX, since the Republican calendar was still in force in France). Advances to the escapement were the biggest achievements with the archaic verge escapement (derived from the earliest known clocks) replaced in the early 18th century by the cylinder escapement, allowing for a much thinner watch case. It’s the lever escapement, invented around 1754-56 by Thomas Mudge, that really brought watchmaking into the modern era. This development used an anchor-shaped lever with two pallet forks to control the escape wheel. It works in conjunction with the balance wheel, giving impulses to power it. In return, the escapement is regulated by the oscillator that locks and unlocks the escape wheel. Relatively simple and accurate, this escapement is still used in the vast majority of movements today.
By the late 1850s, standardized parts became commonplace and mass production brought pocket watches to the commoner. Companies like Tissot and the American Waltham Watch Co. pioneered these efforts.
To wind and set the time on pocket watches up until the mid-19th century, a separate key was inserted into corresponding slots in the movement. Adrien Philippe invented the modern, integrated stem-winding system in the mid-1840s (wind and set time via the crown), and Patek Philippe was first to commercially produce stem-wound pocket watches. There are also three types of pocket watch cases. Open-face cases have a solid (or exhibition) caseback and exposed crystal, allowing for a quick view of the dial. Hunter cases have a metal cover closing over the crystal for protection, while double-hunter cases have both front and rear covers, allowing the movement to be viewed.
World War I was the catalyst for the mass adoption of wristwatches. A more practical solution was required where time would always be available without the need for retrieval. Rifles and other equipment were already being carried, leaving no third hand for a pocket watch. The resulting wrist-worn “war watches” also eliminated the stigma of wristwatches being feminine and a “lady’s accessory.” Pocket watches continued to endure for decades, but the watch buying public embraced wristwatches in earnest and never looked back. It’s now much more fashionable to have a dress watch slide from under a cuff than being pulled from a pocket. A relative few still gravitate to pocket watches, of course, and they’re alive and well in the shadows of modern horology.
I’ve talked with many watch enthusiasts, watchmakers and journalists, and almost all were surprised at the variety of brands still producing pocket watches. A lot come from companies you’ve probably never heard of with Chinese movements, but just a bit of digging will turn up quality models, many even Swiss made. Woodford is a UK-based company that’s been around since 1860 and maintains a sizeable collection of new pocket watches in all styles. One can be had for around GBP 100, but well-executed hunter pocket watches with Swiss movements sell in the GBP 400 neighbourhood. Not bad for a mechanical Swiss timepiece. Jean Pierre is another brand, founded in 1932 in Bienne, Switzerland. Now headquartered in London, mechanical pieces also start at GBP 100, but higher-end, sterling silver models climb to GBP 650.
Both Woodford and Jean Pierre are good starting points for budding pocket watch enthusiasts, but like many products of its ilk, there’s a lot in a name and brand recognition often rules.
Founded in 1853 in Le Locle, Switzerland, Tissot was among the first to mass-produce pocket watches in the 1850s. The brand is also Switzerland’s largest watchmaker in terms of production. We recently reviewed their Heritage Petite Seconde wristwatch that houses an ETA 6498-1 calibre, first developed in the 1950s and originally designed for pocket watches. As a major Swiss brand, Tissot is also the most invested in affordable pocket watches with a current portfolio of over a dozen models. All three styles are represented – open-face, hunter and double-hunter – and anything from vintage-inspired to modern skeleton pieces are offered.
I have several models on hand that range from old-school to modern, open-face to double-hunter. I initially thought I’d prefer hunter cases, but open-face models ultimately won me over. You get the pocket watch experience with quick, wristwatch-like convenience – no fussy lids to deal with. That being said, the Bridgeport Mechanical Skeleton with its double-hunter case is arguably the best looking, most novel piece they offer. Shrouded in stainless steel, the Bridgeport has an ETA 6498 with views of the movement from both sides. Both covers are identical, however, so you don’t know which side is which until you push a button on the crown to open the front, but it’s one cool piece.
My favourite Tissot model is the Pocket Mechanical Skeleton, which is basically an open-face version of the Bridgeport. It differs a bit in style, but the overall concept is the same. It’s among the most expensive pieces at USD 1,100 but offers a contemporary take on the centuries-old style (definitely not your father’s Oldsmobile). The open-face Lepine Mechanical takes a vintage approach if you want something traditional (also available with a hunter case as the Savonnette Mechanical). Whatever your taste, Tissot has you covered with a major Swiss name to back it up.
Patek Philippe & IWC
On the other end of the spectrum are luxury, often limited-edition pocket watches from some of the most prestigious brands in the industry. Patek Philippe currently has nine models in yellow, white and rose gold cases – open-face, hunter and double-hunter.
All use in-house, hand-wound calibres with prices starting above USD 40,000, but the clientele for these differ from the aforementioned brands, of course. All Patek Philippe pieces have relatively simple time-only dials with a couple featuring power reserve indicators. The 983J-001 model with an 18k yellow gold hunter case is a good example with a power reserve at 12 o’clock.
As with most storied brands, pocket watches are the foundation of both style and technological advancements, and iconic IWC designs have deep pocket watch roots. The legendary 19th-century Pallweber featured digital jumping hours and minutes in lieu of hands (a small seconds hand was still present) and was a marvel in 1885. Curiously, these original Pallwebers were only produced for a few years with production ceasing around 1890. Well-preserved pieces look as contemporary today as they did over a century ago.
IWC revived the Pallweber in 2018 to celebrate its 150th anniversary (although the brand had been producing pocket watches into the 1990s). A few Pallweber wristwatch models were produced, but the limited-edition pocket watch stole the show.
Housed in an 18k gold double-hunter case, the engine-turned lid featured cutouts over the hour and minute digits, displaying the time when closed, while the back opened to reveal the in-house, hand-wound 94200 Calibre (same as the Pallweber wristwatches). Limited to 50 pieces with a USD 66,500 price tag, only a small subset of collectors were targeted, but the watch perfectly encapsulated the history and design prowess of the brand.
Audemars Piguet & Vacheron Constantin
Best known for Royal Oak luxury sports watches, Audemars Piguet also has a couple of pocket watches in its collection. Unlike those from Patek Philippe and IWC, these are loaded, grand complication pieces. Coming in at 59mm, the Classique pocket-watch features an 18k yellow gold hunter case with a perpetual calendar, minute repeater and split-seconds chronograph, while the smaller 52mm Lepine has the same complications in an open-face, 18k pink gold case. Both use the in-house, hand-wound Manufacture Calibre 2860. Prices are available on request, so use your imagination.
Vacheron Constantin doesn’t currently have a pocket watch in its regular collection, but the brand is recognized as producing the most complicated watch in the world – the Reference 57260 pocket watch. Presented in 2015 after eight years of work, the piece has 57 complications (2,826 parts), beating the Patek Philippe Calibre 89 pocket watch from 1989 with 33 complications. The larger dimensions of pocket watches make this otherworldly sophistication possible as a wristwatch case is too constrained.
Patek Philippe does hold the record for the most expensive pocket watch ever sold at auction – the 1932 Henry Graves Supercomplication sold for USD 24 million via Sotheby’s in November 2014, beating its own auction record of USD 11 million back in 1999. The most expensive timepiece ever sold is Patek Philippe’s Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300A-010 wristwatch, which went for a staggering CHF 31 million at the 8th Only Watch auction in November 2019.
I haven’t covered every brand producing pocket watches by a long shot (either currently or very recently), but this provides a snapshot of just how prolific they are in the context of being relegated to the shadows. Frederique Constant, Longines and Hanhart add to the list, while American luxury watchmaker RGM recently produced a bespoke pocket watch for a client with its in-house 801 calibre, signature guilloché dial and keystone hands.
Then there’s Piaget, Montblanc, a hybrid from Bovet and many more. You can spend a few hundred dollars or six figures, but every type of enthusiast is covered by a healthy variety of brands. Why, however, should you want to buy one over a wristwatch?
With time all around us – in the car, on your phone, on your computer screen and so on – watches aren’t the required tools of yesteryear. Kids and teenagers generally don’t wear watches anymore, other than the occasional Apple Watch or Fitbit. Pocketed smartphones have become the principal timekeepers for many, so in a sense, pocket watches have made a resurgence. For the millions of watch enthusiasts around the world, there’s also been a recent, exploding trend of nostalgic heritage pieces. Reproductions or re-issues of vintage timepieces like the Longines Avigation Type A-7 1935, Hanhart TachyTele Pilot’s Chronograph and Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical have big appeal. What could scratch that throwback itch more than a fine mechanical pocket watch? They’re truly the classic cars of horology.
Perhaps you wear vests or three-piece suits, maybe you wear a fitness tracker, but don’t want to give up on mechanical watches… Whatever the case, pocket watches are easy and especially enjoyable to live with. I’ve been carrying several new models to see if it’s something I’d like and retrieving one always puts a smile on my face. It’s a more interactive, purposeful experience. It also provides a sense of antiquity that no wristwatch can match. Pocket watches certainly aren’t for everyone, but you’d be surprised at how satisfying they can be. If you’re fast-paced and thrive on convenience, they’re probably not for you. Slow down a bit and enjoy the little things, and you might get hooked. They’ll always be a part of my collection moving forward and the interest they generate out in public is surprising (if you like that kind of attention). Like manual transmissions, board games and physical mail, pocket watches still have a place in the 21st century. And they remain truly special.