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What is a Pocket Watch?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 21, 2024
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A pocket watch is a timepiece meant to be carried in the pocket, rather than worn on the wrist. Pocket watches predate wristwatches by about 400 years, the first invented in 1510 Nuremberg, Germany by Peter Henlein.

Despite its long history, the absence of exacting mass manufacturing meant the accuracy of pocket watches varied greatly from watchmaker to watchmaker, even into the 19th century. Dire results were to be demonstrated in the great train wreck of 1891 in Kipton, Ohio. Here the pocket watch of an engineer stopped for 4 minutes, leading to two trains colliding on the same track. The only way to avoid further disasters was for the American Railway Association to set a high quality standard for pocket watches used in the railway system. Ergo, a pocket watch that met this standard held the distinction of being Railroad Approved.

A pocket watch can have a visible bezel, or it can be encased, usually in a metallic cover of silver or gold. The case might be finely polished, engraved, include a relief, or other artistic design, such as the once-popular train. The pocket watch case has a small spring latch. When activated, the bezel's cover flips open, remaining latched at the left bottom portion of the case for easy closure.

A pocket watch is used with a gold or silver watch chain. The type of chain depends on where the pocket watch will be worn: in a vest pocket or pants pocket. The T-bar chain slips through a vest buttonhole; the spring ring chain attaches to a belt loop; and they belt clip chain attaches to the belt itself. A shorter-style chain features a decorative fob on the end, and is meant to simply hang from the pocket freely. In all cases, the other end of the chain attaches to a small ring at the top of the pocket watch, for easy retrieval.

By the 19th century the pocket watch was a status symbol of high society. This popularity continued into the 20th century when pocket watches became fashion statements worn with zoot suits. And while the wristwatch gained popularity from its necessity on the battlefield during WWI to coordinate troop maneuvers, (wristwatches were provided to the troops by the army), the pocket watch was still the accessory to wear with three-piece suits of the 1950s. Eventually, however, wristwatches replaced the pervasive popularity of the pocket watch.

Today there is a resurgence of interest in the ever stylish, ever classy timepiece that has been faithfully ticking away the hours for nearly 500 years. If you are considering a pocket watch for yourself or as a gift, they are sold wherever watches are sold, and they are available in every price range.

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Discussion Comments
By Lostnfound — On May 15, 2014

I saw on one of the antiques shows that some antique pocket watches are worth a great deal of money, but most are not, simply because so many of the same kind were produced.

I've seen some pocket watches in antique stores that were very pricey, but I'd be leery of buying them at such a price, unless I had independent confirmation that the watch was worth what the merchant was asking for it.

By Grivusangel — On May 14, 2014

Pocket watches have always fascinated me. I always thought they were wonderful. I don't think I've ever known anyone who carried one, although I do have to have my wristwatch on at all times.

I also did not know about the train wreck in Ohio caused by a stopped pocket watch. It's really amazing how something so small could have caused such a catastrophe.

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