How To Care For & Maintain A Pocket Watch

In these modern times, the majority of new watches for sale are made with quartz movements. There are still a few of what are termed mechanical models available, but they are few and far between. Pocket watches and certainly all of the older models, that people may have inherited will almost certainly have a mechanical set-up.

Today, and in my opinion, it would be hard to find any product that would still work a hundred years later. So I find it quite amazing that watches like the older vintage Elgin and Waltham sill function and keep time, if they have been looked after and given some tender loving care.

Mechanical watches like this date back to the late 16th century. These watches were made all the way through to the mid 19th century, and were assembled by a watchmaker using individual components. They were not the products of machine driven assembly lines. After that the wristwatch was invented and were the kiss of death for the pocket watch.

In and around the 1950’s we then saw the arrival of electric and quartz movements, and that pretty much put paid to most types of mechanical movements.

Understanding Movements

The movement is what essentially makes a watch work. A mechanical movement consists mainly of gears and springs whereas a quartz movement has an electronic circuit, battery and gears. The power source is one of the main differences in the two types of movement. The electric or quartz gets its power from a battery whereas a mechanical watch gets its power from a wound up spring. That is why most mechanical watches need to be wound up every day.

Some of the more advanced mechanical watches, are automatic. They wind themselves up simply by the movement of the person who owns the watches arm.

Identification of Movements

It is not too hard to spot the difference in these two types of movement. The most obvious is that you will find the word Quartz simply shown on the dial. Another easy way to identify a Quartz movement is to look at the second hand. You will notice that it moves in one second steps.

The mechanical watch also has a second hand and it floats around the dial with little or no bounce or stepping. The easiest method though is that if the watch needs a battery it will be a Quartz crystal movement. If it does not have a battery, then you are the proud owner of a mechanical watch, which I so much prefer.

Which Is Better?

Much as I hate to admit it, the Quartz will be more accurate and is only suspect in accuracy when the battery is reaching its end of life. No matter how good a mechanical watch may be produced it will lose a few seconds every day. Most experts agree this ranges anything between 3-20 seconds.

Now it does not need a battery of course so it will always keep going, but it needs to be wound up or it simply stops. However in terms of having a watch that lasts and endures, then the mechanical one will come out on top every single time. Many survivalists will only ever use one as Quartz will not work in really cold conditions, or in extreme situations such as a nuclear situation. (Hopefully we will never find out)

 Mechanical Watch Maintenance

Where you have springs and gears then you always need those to be cleaned and oiled. Over the years older watches like this will usually start working again with a good clean, unless there has been some type of physical damage. Another common problem is the dreaded moisture. Mechanics rely on a movement almost without friction for smooth running.

Moisture, water and condensation can over time cause rust to form and/or mould. Leave an old watch in damp conditions and this can be a very typical problem. These two problems of cleaning and moisture will actually fix most watches and get them working again. However, get a professional and do not be tempted to try this yourself.

The other common problem is a watch that has lay in a box or drawer for years and never been wound up. In this case it is most likely that the movement has completely seized up.  As I mentioned earlier these watches need wound up every day to keep the parts moving. Even when not in use this is still highly recommended, and if that is not possible, then once a week should prevent any risk of seizure.

Over Winding a Watch

mechanical pocket watchesMy father used to constantly tell me not to over wind any of my watches. That is actually a bit of a myth as it is almost impossible to do that. All of these watches were designed to be wound between the finger and thumb until you felt a strong enough resistance. Unless you used brute force to screw this to the maximum it is tough to over wind a watch.

One of the biggest problems for movements in these older watches is what I term, “well meaning amateurs” who attempt their own repairs. Please note I am very guilty of this until I learned just not to tinker, though often I am still tempted. A precision movement in the hands of an amateur is not just a good idea at all.

Top Tips for Looking After A Mechanical Watch

  • Wind it once a day at the same time if you can
  • Check it once a week for any signs of moisture or damage
  • When not in use store it on its back or hanging downwards
  • When wearing it make sure it is attached safely to a chain
  • Gently clean the watch face and case with a soft cloth
  • Have it cleaned and lubricated by a professional every 4-5 years
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7 thoughts on “How To Care For & Maintain A Pocket Watch

    • I don’t do repairs myself but there is a chap called Jeff Sexton who does antique watch repairs. You can drop Jeff an email to and he will be able to help you out. I sent Jeff an email and he said he would be happy to see if he could help with any repairs on their Elgin watch.

  1. how can i fix a gouden medailles prays 1889 antwerpen 1885 pocket watch ?
    i got my pocket watch from a old man that my brother and i looked after his house and i went to him to show him my new modern pocket watch and then he asked if it was the one he gave me but i didn’t take it but i realy wanted it because i like old things and i wanted to fix it but i am only 14 years old and you are the only person i can find that can help me.

    • Buddy..please read my article on repair…there is an email address there for a chap called Jeff who fixes up Elgin watches.

  2. I found an old Elgin pocket watch in a drawer being cleaned out that, probably, belonged to my grandfather. I’m sure it’s not rare and valuable but, still, nice to have. The movement serial # is 25379439 indicating that it was made in the 1922-23 timeframe. Is there any other information that you might provide as to the ‘history’ of the watch? Thanks so much!

  3. Hi, I have an Elgin Pocket watch serial number 19564286, Grade 313, Model 7, 15 Jewel, Size 16, I had it repaired to working order, and I have the chain that came with it, but the chain didn’t get cleaned. How can I clean it to match the watch. Thanks

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