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Watch Companies Discussions on watches and watch companies.

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Unread 03-30-2010, 05:34 PM
Jon Jon is offline
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Default The Sum of the PARTS, by Greg Davis, Ch 149

The American watch industry of the 19th century was an integral part of the Industrial Revolution. The foundation for the industry was the invention of machines that could turn out identical copies of individual parts, which in turn could be assembled by trained workers and craftsmen. Because the parts were identical in all mechanical aspects, they were interchangeable. This made the American watches of that time easier and less costly to service than watches from non-industrialized manufacturers, resulting in a longer useful life for the watches.

The watches of that era were produced in common sizes that could be fitted into any number of case options. This allowed the buyer to select the look and the price that best fit their budget and personal preferences. Most of the more common watches were sold to jewelers as loose movements without a factory provided case, unless you count the watch movement tins that protected movements during shipping and storage.

Modern collectors of these early watches reap the rewards of these technical innovations. Watches that might otherwise have been discarded as useless long ago have remained available and serviceable throughout the intervening years. While most collectors of early American pocket watches do not actively use the pieces in their collection, collectors prefer watches that are in working order. Watches that are not in working order are more likely to become parts sources for watch restoration projects.

For many collectors there is no greater thrill than to find a watch in pristine condition, looking as bright and shiny as the day it left the factory. Such immaculate timepieces, sometimes referred to as “New Old Stock”, are quite rare and desirable.

The average collector often finds it more practical to acquire timepieces that are in less perfect condition. They may elect to replace the imperfect parts as opportunity and budget allow. All too frequently, the limited technical skill of these individuals causes them to replace more parts than is necessary in order to restore functionality. For example, inexperienced restorers address a broken balance staff by replacing the entire balance assembly using parts taken from another watch. Replacing the balance assembly requires no specialized skills or tools. While this approach may result in a working watch, it creates serious problems for serious collectors and researchers compiling data about the watches.

For serious collectors, the early American watch is more than just an old timepiece. It carries with it layers of history that offers insights into many aspects of life in the 19th century. Some of that historical data may have been retained in records compiled by the factory or the jewelers. All too often those records were either destroyed in fires or disposed of as the factories and jewelers went out of business. In such cases the only way to recreate the data is by careful inspection of the timepieces they produced and sold.

Consider a hypothetical common watch that might have been carried by Abe Lincoln during the course of the civil war. If such a watch was not engraved in some special way (a method that is frequently faked), would there be any way for a collector to know that the common watch was an important piece of history? Moreover, if the only linkage of that watch to the historical owner was a serial number recorded at the time of sale, how would such information come to light before the watch could be studied by a historian or researcher?

Yet if such a watch was to find its way into the market, it would appear no different from any other watch of the same make and model of that period. Its parts would be interchangeable with the parts of any of its siblings in the product family. A collector interested only in the functionality or appearance of the timepiece might replace parts on the watch with those from other watches, perhaps even other models. By so doing they would erase the history of the watch itself making it increasingly difficult for an historian or researcher to draw information from the watch.

Of course, not most watches were purchased by common folks who made no remarkable impression on history. Yet even these watches carry historical information. A number of recent serial number research projects conducted by Chapter 149 members have revealed interesting information about the production methods used by various makers at various times during their histories. This information yields insights into the rarity and originality of watches that might otherwise be lost forever, were it not for the serial number tracking projects.

The history attached to any watch is fragile. Each change made to a watch alters or eliminates information sought by the serious collector, historian or researcher. Some argue that these changes are a natural part of the history of the watch. They cite the fact that case and movement pairings were made by jewelers, not by the factory. By this logic, there is no such thing as an “original” case for any watch sold in this manner. Serious collectors and researchers disagree with this assertion.

If Abraham Lincoln's hypothetical common watch was switched from its original case to a solid gold case for aesthetic reasons, any historical records pointing to the case Lincoln carried would be invalidated. Likewise, if a collector modified the watch movement by replacing some serialized parts, it would be all but impossible for a researcher to deduce anything about the historical information of that watch because that information has been muddied by the change.

An even worse loss of historical information occurs when a watch is broken down to component parts and sold piecemeal, as so often happens today. In such cases, the history associated with the watch is lost forever. Those who purchase the parts and use them in subsequent watch restoration projects mar the histories of all of the "restored" watches, exponentially compounding the loss of historical data. This problem is most tragically harmful on less common watches, such as E. Howard watches, that so often show up as marriages of parts from multiple watches.

It is certainly true that some watches are so common that the history contained in any individual watch is of little significance to the watch collecting community. However, it is all but impossible to know whether that is true for any given watch without doing some serious research. The vast majority of watch collectors or parts dealers are unequipped and unwilling to invest the time in performing that research. The pursuit of the “perfect” watch or increased profits motivates them to ignore the harm they may be doing to the historical data a watch may possess.

As an association of collectors, our own interests are split along similar lines. There is no single common motivation that drives us to aligned action. However, we do share a fundamental appreciation for the timepieces and what they represent. While we will not always agree on exactly how each watch should be treated, it behooves us to better understand each others desires and motivations and to seek equitable ways to accommodate the needs of each group.

I believe that the first step toward this goal is to educate the collectors about the amount of data contained within each watch. If they understand the potential that each watch possesses for researchers and serious collectors, they will at least have the option of assisting in the collection of that data before making changes to a watch that forever alter the data. Likewise, if they come to appreciate the value of the historical information a watch possesses, they may begin to understand the need to value the watch as more than just the sum of its parts.
__________________
Jon "the truth" Hanson
American Horologe Co. (America's Most Respected Name).
Founder of nawcc Chapter 149--the leading pocket watch collectors' club!
Long time collector; NOW over 60 years of collecting, researching, educating and assisting collectors with pocket watch issues.
Join the ranks of ethical/credible pocket watch collecting practices--KEEP POCKET WATCHES ORIGINAL--DON'T PART THEM OUT OR SWITCH COMPONENTS!
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