Hemswell Antique Centres

How can we help?

A guide to: Antique watches

Antique watches


There is something deeply appealing about antique watches. Their attraction stems from a number of factors, from the fascinating innovations of mechanisms over the centuries to the phenomenal decorative appeal. Many antique pocket watches are sought after for their stunning designs as much as they are for their accurate time-keeping. For dealers and collectors, it’s possible to make a profit on antique watches - you just need to know what to look out for:

Different types of antique watches

Powered by a three-wheel train, fusee (a spirally grooved metal cone) and a verge escapement (a device regulating the transfer of power to move the watch), the first pocket watches of the 16th century may have been simple but they were crafted with sheer technical ingenuity. They’re extremely rare for dealers to get their hands on, but here are some you might stumble upon and what to look out for:

Antique watches before 1800

Pocket watches evolved to a four-wheel train in the 17th century. Look for antique watches with only one hand - a distinctive mark of this period. They were either very plain or decorated with simple religious markings, although antique watches for sale from the end of the 17th century do show a few flairs: look for champleve dials made with metal and inlaid with black wax. Minute hands can be also seen in antique pocket watches from the late 17th century onwards to give more accurate readings. 

Collectors tip: Verge antique pocket watches for sale from this period can reach high values. Look out for any by British watchmaker Daniel Quare - a gold antique pocket watch from 1700 values at up to £4,000.

Antique watches after 1800

If you find antique watches for sale from the beginning of the 19th century you’ll notice they’re a lot slimmer than their predecessors. Most antique pocket watches from this period are keyless, with enamelled dials and several subsidiary dials. When identifying pocket watches, antiques from this period are mainly decorative painted enamel, forged into novelty shapes such as hearts.

Collectors tip: Keep your eyes peeled for antique watches with chronograph (stopwatch) mechanisms, moon phases and calendars - these are especially collectable.

Antique watches before 1920

Watches dating before the early 20th century might come with antique watch chains, as this was the most efficient way of carrying them at the time. But wire or leather straps were soon designed to attach watches to wrists. The first wristwatch was made for aviator Alberto Santos Durmont in 1904 by Parisian firm Cartier. It was known as the ‘Santos’ and is still produced today. Swiss watchmakers Rolex began producing wristwatches for soldiers in World War I. A key Rolex watch known as the ‘Trench’ watch is easily identifiable by its protective grille over a glass dial cover.

Antique watches after 1920

Oval, octagonal, square and rectangular antique watches for sale will most likely be from the 1920s onwards. Military watches continued to be produced, larger than normal with black dials, but the watch mainly became a fashionable item, with a range of unusual designs. They usually had clean lines and bold numerals, until the 1930s when numerals became exaggerated and lengthened. 

Collectors tip: Antique watches from the 1920s and 1930s are highly collectable: pay attention to makers such as Rolex, Patek Phillippe, Cartier, Jaeger le Coultre, Audemars, Piguet and Vacheron & Constantin. Some of these valuable makers can be found in our range of antique watches for sale

Where to buy antique watches

There are a wide range of places to sell and buy antique pocket watches or wristwatches, including auction houses, antiques centres and shops, fairs and markets. If you’re a collector, keep your eyes peeled at jumble sales, charity shops, car-boot sales and private advertisement sections in local newspapers for potential unidentified treasures, or ‘sleepers’ as they’re known as in the world of antique watches.

Where can I sell my antique pocket watch or wristwatch?

A few heads are better than one, so if you’re wondering where to sell an antique pocket watch or wristwatch, a good starting point is to take it to a local dealer, centre or auction house. If your antique watches are rare, go to a specialist dealer. We have around 400 dealers at Hemswell Antiques Centres specialising in all kinds of quality antiques who are very generous with their knowledge. You can browse our selection of antique watches while you’re there. 

Back to articles