Pocket watches were once the norm for men. From their original development in the late 1500s until the wristwatch effectively replaced them after World War I, pocket watches enjoyed popularity as both a functional timepiece and as a status symbol for the wealthy. While the earliest examples were built in Europe and designed to be worn around the neck, it was the growing American market that defined pocket watches from the mid 1800s until the first World War.
Although the great watchmakers of Europe continued to produce excellent hand-crafted pocket watches during this period, it was American manufacturers that dominated and defined the pocket watch market. Eventually, the Swiss regained their place at the pinnacle of watchmaking, but with the advent of the wristwatch after World War I, pocket watches everywhere fell out of favor.
Today, pocket watches are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, both as collectors items and functional testaments to the abilities of the craftsmen who make them. In the following article, we’ll take a look at some of the most valuable pocket watches, both antiques and their contemporary cousins, and one particular pocket watch that stands alone as the most valuable of all the watches in the world.
American Pocket Watches
The first successful watch manufacturer in the United States, the famous Waltham Watch Company, was originally known as the American Watch Company, but there were many pocket watch manufacturers in the U.S by the early 1900s. With the introduction of interchangeable parts in the 1850s, pocket watch manufacturers in the U.S. were able to mass produce accurate timepieces for a fraction of what it cost to build them by hand. In addition to Waltham, companies like Hamilton, Elgin, Illinois, and Ball dominated the market.
Pocket watches of this period were highly influenced by the demands for precise timekeeping from a growing railroad industry. Following a famous train wreck in 1891 that was thought to have occurred due to a failure of an engineer’s watch, General Railroad Timepiece Standards were established in 1893. Any pocket watch used by the railroad was to be open faced, size 16 or 18, with a minimum of 17 jewels in the movement, and adjusted to at least five positions.
Over 35 million pocket watches were produced during this period by the Waltham Company alone. Though many of these timepieces were of low and medium quality, Waltham did produce some higher quality timepieces. These companies produced so called ‘railroad watches’ to exacting standards, accurate to within 30 seconds per week, and some of them remain relatively valuable collectors items to this day.
Because these American pocket watches were massed produced, there are still many existing, and while remaining highly collectible, only certain models command relatively high premiums. Early serial numbers are more likely to be valuable, as are unique, custom models built for specific customers. But even the most rare versions, like the first American watch to feature a complication, an American Watch Company M57 model with a “chronodrometer,” fetch only modestly high prices, selling in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Though the Europeans eventually adopted some of the American manufacturing technology, their reputation for hand-made quality was firmly established long before the American companies were formed. Most of the truly valuable antique pocket watches were made by companies with long histories of high craftsmanship in horlogerie, like Breguet, Vacheron-Constantin, and Patek Philippe.
Breguet Pocket Watches
Breguet was founded in 1775 by Abraham Louis Breguet, a craftsman widely thought to be the greatest watchmaker of all time. His early innovations included the first self-winding mechanism, and the tourbillon—a mechanism that counters the adverse effects of gravity on accuracy. The tourbillon is a complication still included on many mechanical watches today as a demonstration of a watchmaker’s virtuosity.
Pocket watches from the early days of Breguet are owned mainly by museums or private collectors, and are rarely sold. In 2005, the Breguet ref. 2567 pocket watch was purchased by the Breguet company itself for $260,000. This pocket watch was built in the workshop of the company’s founder in 1812, and features one of the first “tourbillon regulators” to be offered in a pocket watch. The ref. 2567 features a simple guilloche dial with Breguet’s signature blue pomme-style hour and minute hands and a subsidiary seconds dial, with the tourbillon prominently visible through the lower part of the face. The gold case features an engraved hunter-style case back that opens to display the movement.
An earlier Breguet pocket watch, known simply at the “No. 5,” was originally produced in 1794, but became the subject of intense study by Breguet when they purchased it in the early 2000s for $1.5 million. After carefully dissecting the original, Breguet watchmakers were able to reverse engineer the original No. 5 and began production of only six No. 5 replicas in 2004. The No. 5 Replica features a moon phase indicator, a subsidiary seconds dial, a quarter repeater complication, as well as a power reserve indicator. The last of the six replicas sold for an impressive $1.9 million.
One final Breguet pocket watch worth noting here is one that is actually in production and for sale. The 1907BA is a modern take on the historic Breguet pocket watches. The case is machine engraved guilloche in the traditional Breguet style, with the famous Breguet pomme hands and a regulator style display with a tourbillon movement. The movement also includes a grande sonnerie, with the hammers visible through the dial. Though this pocket watch is in extremely limited production, it isn’t a limited edition, and is available to the general public for about $900,000.
Vacheron-Constantin Reference 57260
Another storied Swiss watch manufacturer, Vacheron Constantin, has been making elaborate and complicated pocket watches since its inception in 1755. In 2015, the company celebrated its 260 years of uninterrupted watchmaking with the Reference 57260 pocket watch, the most complicated mechanical watch ever made.
The result of eight years of research and development, the ref. 57260 was created for a private collector, and features a mind boggling 57 complications. In addition to fairly standard chronometric complications, it features an armillary sphere tourbillon—so called because its interlocking spheres resemble the celestial modeling device. The armillary tourbillon is a triple-axis tourbillon with an innermost cage that rotates every 15 seconds and lends its accuracy to the myriad of other complications dependent on exceptional timekeeping.
As the hands proceed in perfect rhythm every day, hugely complicated sets of gears, wheels, and pinions all move at varying rates, ultimately indicating everything from the day of the week, to phases of the moon, to how the constellations appear in the night sky at the owner’s location. Multiple calendars and a double retrograde split-seconds chronograph are included, as are seven alarm functions and a Westminster carillon striking mechanism that rings a succession of five steel gongs struck by individual hammers.
The ref. 57260 features a double dial, and is housed in a white gold case, 98mm in diameter and 50.55mm thick. Despite the number of complications, the watch is remarkably easy to read, and the push-buttons and alarm winding crown are balanced and discreetly integrated into the case. Completely hand decorated and assembled by a master watchmaker, all 2,800 parts echo the tradition and craftsmanship of over 250 years of exceptional horlogerie.
The Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication
One pocket watch stands above all others as the most valuable. The Supercomplication was commissioned in 1925 and delivered to banker Henry Graves in 1933 for about $15,000. The Supercomplication was the most complicated watch for over 50 years, and remains the most complicated watch ever built without reliance on computer design.
A perpetual calendar that adjusts for leap year, Westminster chimes, phases of the moon, and multiple chronographs are only a few of the 24 complications. Of particular note is a complication that shows a moving celestial map of New York as seen from Grave’s apartment on Fifth Avenue.
The watch sold at auction in 1999 for $11 million, and in 2014 it fetched the highest price for any watch at auction: $24 million.
Other Modern Pocket Watches
The fascination with the Supercomplication has helped fuel a renewed interest in pocket watches, as evidenced not only by classic designs like Vacheron Constantin’s Patrimony, but truly innovative contemporary designs from manufacturers like Roger Dubuis and Panerai.
The Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Pocket Time Instrument is a modern statement of craftsmanship and technical excellence. The Geneva based manufacturer has constructed an audacious piece that includes a total of four balance wheels placed at opposing angles and regulated through differential gears to compensate for each other’s minimal inaccuracies. The skeletonized 60mm case is made of titanium, and the highly stylized Roman numerals at the twelve, three, six, and nine o’clock positions are truncated in such a way as to highlight the balance wheels. Only 28 of these Time Instruments were constructed, and each are priced at $468,500.
Officine Panerai has recently offered the Pocket Watch Tourbillon GMT Ceramica, another skeletonized pocket watch constructed to highlight the manufacturer’s prowess. With thoroughly modern styling, the 59mm black zirconium oxide ceramic case combines the technical excellence of haute horlogerie with modern design. Featuring a tourbillon cage that rotates twice per minute on an axis perpendicular to the balance to compensate for slight errors due to gravity, the limited production special edition GMT Ceramica is available for $215,000.
Where to Sell an Expensive Pocket Watch
If you are the owner of expensive pocket watch, and wish to sell it for a generous and immediate cash offer, please contact Diamond Estate Jewelry Buyers for a free appraisal today. Our fine watch buyers, specialize in limited-edition Swiss pocket watches and rare antique pocket watches, valued upwards to $250,000 and beyond.