Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The English "Half-chronometer"

J.W. Benson "Observatory" watch made by Tavannes and
described  as a "Half-chronometer" as was the English made
Benson "Field" watch and many others.
The English description of a watch as being a "Half-chronometer" is, perhaps, a rather grandiose name for what the Americans termed an "adjusted" watch meaning a watch adjusted for temperature as explained in this Wikipedia entry.

This does not mean that other watches will not cope adequately with changes in temperature but that the "Adjusted" or "Half-chronometer" watch has been rigorously tested at extremes of temperature and adjusted to minimise errors.

Unfortunately most good quality English watches, particularly those by Benson, Rotherham and other good makers in Coventry and London plus most imported from Switzerland before the late 1930s and signed by English resellers are not marked "adjusted" so it is only possible to establish if they are by tracking down contemporary adverts such as the following.

From a J.W. Benson Sales catalogue from the late 1930s.

Friday, 26 August 2016

What size to buy?

Moved from the web site and updated.

Jump the next 3 paragraphs if you are a technophobe or just bored with the detail :)

The detail: 

Watch Sizes are specified by the diameter of the movement where it fits in the case, there are now two common measures, “Lancashire” for English and American watches and “Ligne” for Swiss.
An unrestored S12 fusee movement
with its carrier and oversized dial.
Lancashire starts at size 0 which is 1 5/30inch increasing by 1/30 inch per size. So the popular men’s size 16 is 1.7 inch and size 18 1.77inch but it is quite possible for a watch case to make a smaller movement look several sizes bigger although the dial remains the same size.
It was also common practice to mount 19th century English movements onto the back of a carrier two sizes bigger, the carrier attached to the larger size case and had the larger size dial on the other side so that it was indistinguishable from the larger size watch without opening it up.
Where quoted I normally use the nearest equivalent “Lancashire” size for Swiss watches.
As a rough guide the following table shows the approximate diameter of the watch for "normally" cased American and Swiss movements, some may be rather larger but a few can be smaller.
  • S14 4.9 – 5.0 cm
  • S16 5.0 – 5.2 cm
  • S18 5.4 cm+
English pin set watches will typically be a little larger as will full plate watches (because they are thicker).

Movements of size 12 and below and size 18 and above can vary significantly in size when cased up, so on the web site I normally give the dimensions for each watch as part of the description.
Here are some general guidelines on what each size of watch is best suited for, clearly there is room for variation here particularly for ladies if they are wearing a waistcoat or carry the watch in a handbag. And although a Fob watch is normally defined as one below about size 8 it is really only limited by the size of the fob pocket! 

A Ladies size 6 Waltham, heavily patterned cases are
frequently used on these smaller watches.

Size 0

Ladies watches only, suitable for wearing on a neck chain as a pendant (but be careful not to swing it around too much and bash it on something) or as a brooch with a suitable attachment.

Size 6

Ladies, as size 0 or as a fob watch. Men, as a fob watch.


A size 12 Rotherham although tightly cased
for a pin set watch it is still 1.9" / 4.7cm
 in diameter, about the same an American size 14

Sizes 12

Getting rather large to be a Fob watch but some American size 12s will be OK used as above. Many old size 12 movements are put into size 14 cases with the use of a carrier as described above.

English pin set size 12s make a good sized mans watch.


Size 14 & 16

A size 16 hunter in a New Old Stock Dennison
case. A Hunter will always be a little bigger
than an open faced watch due to the space
 taken by the bezel and lid.
A common size in the nineteenth century in all forms, this became the “standard” man’s size for keyless watches in the twentieth century, these are generally quite slim so do not distort pockets as much as earlier key set watches.

This was the smallest size that could be certified as a “Railway” watch in the USA (beware of this term! Originally it defined an accurate and reliable timepiece suitable for controlling railroad traffic in the US, later it was picked up as a marketing ploy and appears on some really awful Swiss watches – you have been warned!).


A tightly cased Waltham 1892 railroad watch.

Size 18

Originally the watch to go for to show status and now very popular with collectors, particular of North American watches and it is frequently said the bigger the better. Some very fine watches were made in the calibre.

Size 20 & 22

As for Size 18 but really showing off, not that common and most in UK are key set from the front and made in the 1890’s and very early in the new century.

Size 24+

Are really too big to carry around but frequently would have had a special stand to convert them into something you could use as a travelling clock.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

What affects the value of a watch?

Transferred from the web site faqs with some updating. 

A premium grade American railroad
watch movement by Waltham.

I think it would be useful to understand why watches come at different prices, this may help to focus on what is important to you in making the decision and how to get the best value (to you) for your money.

The simple answer is of course supply and demand but perhaps a more useful one for our purpose is “desirability”. Some aspects of what makes a desirable watch are fairly obvious and clear cut and so the more of these “boxes” a watch ticks (pun not intended but left in!) the more expensive it is going to be; but each individual will have their own view on what is desirable in a watch so may wish to select a watch or type of watch that presses their “buttons” but does not have some other attributes that increases price but is of little interest.

Here is an initial list, in no particular order, of things that may significantly affect the value of a watch - I suspect I’ll add more over time:

·       Condition.
·       Rarity.
·       Absolute age and also early or late examples.
·       Quality of design and construction.
·       Type of movement & escapement (see below).
·       American railroad watches will attract a significant premium, association with rail ways generally will also enhance value..
·       Features for accuracy and reliability (see below).
·       Method of winding and setting.
·       Certain Brands and / or makers.
·       Type of case and the material used.
·       A hunter or half hunter will cost more than a comparable open faced watch.
·       And did I mention condition?

This watch ticks many boxes, it is by J.W. Benson a top London maker
much collected, it is one of their higher grade watches, it is rare and in
first class condition. It is also a half hunter. It sold in a few minutes even
though it is one of the most expensive watches I have put on my web site,
even including most solid gold watches.
Of course a very old watch in awful condition is not going to be as valuable as a slightly younger one is excellent condition and it is the balance between these factors which is often so difficult to assess.
Other factors are more subjective such as:

·         Clear vs signed faces.
A bespoke 3 piece dial as on this Waltham will make it a bit more expensive
but it will also sell more quickly.
·         Flamboyant decoration of movements vs elegant simplicity.
·         Ornamentation and dedications on cases (can go either way).

A rare case like this will certainly add value, especially on a high grade
watch such as the 23J Waltham1899 Riverside Maximus in this one.

Types of popular movement:

In ascending order of value, other things being equal:
·         Going Barrel Pin Lever
·         Going Barrel Cylinder
·         Going Barrel English or Swiss Lever
Fusee Lever movements are likely to be old and fragile, a basic one will generally are not as desirable as an equivalent going barrel but good ones can get expensive. Verge fuse movement will be early 19th century or earlier and in good condition can get very expensive. You will not find any pin lever watches on this site and very few cylinder watches, there will be the odd fusee but no Verge Fusee as they are too expensive for me to play with.

English Lever escapements come in two flavours, the true English lever with its “spiked” or “horned” escape wheel and a variation of the Swiss Lever which is laid out as an English lever but has a “Club tooth” Escape and which was normally described as an English Lever even though technically it wasn’t. There is not a lot of difference in value between them although many prefer the true English as being traditional although the Swiss variant is more efficient. True English Lever watches are rarer after about 1900 although companies such as Rotherham and J.W. Benson stuck with them into the 1930s.

Features for accuracy that add value:

·       Generally the more jewels the more expensive with good jewel placement also being a factor – see more detailed notes in this post.
·       Adjustment (see this nawcc wikki on the subject) for temperature, isochronism and / or in multiple positions. 
·       Screw set jewels tend to lead to higher prices than hand or machine set.
·       A cut compensating balance (mentioned in coverall or the Elinvar hairspring) is better than an early screwed balance without an Elinvar hairspring, is better than a solid balance but age and other factors muddy these waters.
·        Breguet sprung balance is generally preferred to a “standard” over-sprung or under-sprung balance.
·        Geneva Stop Gear, if still functional, is a plus point on early going barrel movements.

Can I engrave a watch?

Moved from the web site.

With solid Gold, Silver, Nickel and alloy cases such as Silveriod then the answer is yes but be aware that dedications will generally decrease the value of a watch.

The example here may be one of the exceptions, it reads “Presented to my stepson, F. Cavalier, March 23rd 1899 in recognition of his dutiful perseverance and honourable conduct in my business. W Cockerton”.

Gilt or electro plated surfaces cannot sensibly be engraved.

Engraving Gunmetal is probably not a god idea.

Gold plated watches can be a problem: A Dennison rolled gold (Star Grade) case started life with about 0.036mm of gold on the outer skin and were electro plated on the inside, so after years of wear and polishing the outer skin is probably going to be too thin to take an engraving without going through to the composite core, and an engraving on the inner skin would definitely go thought to the core.

A Dennison Filled gold case started off at 0.072mm of 10 carat (Moon grade) or 14 carat (Sun grade) gold on both sides of the composite. Clearly having double the thickness to begin with means that these cases are more amenable to engraving but remember that 14 carat gold will wear quicker than 10 carat so a Moon case will be the best bet – although still risky, particularly on the back.

I assume, but can’t find a definitive statement to support, that the dust cover was of similar thickness and without pocket wear should be able to take an engraving, this is also the place to do it to minimise the reduction in value caused.

I don’t have information about cases from other manufacturers but guess they would be much the same when from reputable manufacturers.

To sum up, my personal view is do not engrave a watch case! Think about a personalised box or an inscribed watch fob medal to be worn on the chain which could be engraved without endangering the watch.

Finally I am not able to get engraving done and any you have done is at your own risk!

Watch Case Materials and Hallmarks

Originally on my web site and moved here with other faqs.
English cases, in descending order of value will normally be:
·         Gold, 9 carat and up
·         14 carat “Filled Gold” (25 year)
·         Stirling Silver (0.925)
·         10 carat “Filled Gold” (20 year)
·         10 carat “Rolled Gold” (10 year)
·         Nickel or other base metal

Under British law only solid gold & silver can be described as “gold” and “silver” and each part must be hallmarked by an Assay Office. This rule is sometimes circumvented by using terms like “Yellow" or "White metal”.
All British hallmarks include a date letter so the case, if not the movement, can always be dated but be warned the date letters were different for each office! This web site gives some good detail. The marks shown on the case lid shown to the right (click on it for a larger view) has the following legal marks:

·     Anchor = Birmingham Assay Office
·     Lion = Sterling (0.925) Silver,
·    The shape of the cartouches together with the date letter font and case indicate the Birmingham year letter sequence, in this case 1925/26 through 1949/50.
·    The Date letter K for 1934/35
·     An optional special mark for the Silver Jubilee that year
·     A.L.D., The makers mark of the Dennison Watch Case Company (A.L. Dennison).

Watch Case makers marks can be very confusing (they change all the time) and difficult to track down, the best reference work is “Watch Makers of England, A History and Register of Gold and Silver Watch Case Makers of England: 1720-1920” by Philip Priestly, 1994.

Essentially all English Gold and Silver case will have been assayed in Birmingham, London or Chester. Imported cases can be submitted for assay and will have a different stamp than English silver, almost all came in through London.

Like watch movement making case making was a fragmented industry in England with hundreds of small independent operations, some for instance just making pendants or carrying out a limited number of operations which is why you frequently find a different hallmark on the pendant to the rest of the watch case.

A case by the Lancashire Watch Company but with the
hallmark of the retailer - J.G. Graves.
Some of the bigger watch makers had in-house case making operations, at least for some of their output, but you cannot necessarily tell from the hallmark as the real maker could submit the case for assay on behalf of his customer, so for instance the Lancashire Watch Co could and on occasion did have cases stamped with the Graves “makers” mark which in reality is a sponsors mark which is what it is officially called today.

Similarly many silver cases carry a Waltham hallmark (A.B for Albert Bedford), but Waltham did not make them but bought them in from their contracted supplier A.L. Dennison, one of Waltham’s founders who had left under a cloud and who subsequently set up the eponymous British company, probably with some financial help from Waltham and from Alfred Wigley who’s mark [AW] is on some Dennison made pieces.

Swiss Silver 
Hallmarked Swiss 0.935 Silver.
Watch cases were hallmarked in Switzerland (if not in London), in fact the only silver items that had to be, but they can only be dated as being from before 1882, after 1934 or between those dates. There is no makers mark and the purity standards are different to English, most watch cases are 0.800 or 0.935 although 0.875 is occasionally seen.

US Silver is a mess with no legal definitions until 1906 but most cases stamped “Coin Silver” were between 0.892 and 0.930 as used in US coinage which was frequently melted down for watch cases, as English currency was for English cases.

Rolled gold is usually a plate of gold c 0.036mm thick(Dennison cases) pressure welded to a brass composite core and with the inner surface electroplated. Filled gold has a plate on both sides of the core and it's usually thicker, about double. The warranty period was mainly a marketing ploy to distinguish good quality watch cases from cheap electroplated imports and it was never made clear who was standing behind the warranty! The gold is usually 9, 10 or 14 carat. More detail on filled and rolled gold are in this separate post.
American rolled gold cases are much the same.

Silveroid, Silverine 
A Keystone "Silveroid" case, many of this type are
marked "Guaranteed imitation silver".
and similarly named metals were alloys , frequently of Nickel, made to imitate silver at a fraction of the cost, very popular in America they were less common in Europe, at least under the trade names.

Probably a significant majority of good quality keyless Pocket Watches in this country from after the mid 1890s were originally in rolled or filled gold cases with most of the rest in Sterling Silver or gold. Many Rolled & Filled gold cases will have the plate worn away (often referred to as brassing) and so there will usually be more silver ones on this site and the respective values do not necessarily reflect the intrinsic value of the material.

The majority of good quality full plate, key set watches were in Silver.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Gold Plated Watch Cases

The gold plating of watch cases can be rather confusing, this post is an attempt to demystify what should be something quite straightforward, unfortunately there are, as ever, some wrinkles often caused by unscrupulous makers and resellers, normally at the lower end of the market and by the lack of legislation on the subject nationally and internationally at the time pocket watches and their cases were being made..

I will be looking at the manufacture of the fabric of the case, not the gilding of silver and other processes used for applying ornamentation of a case (or movement). So only two processes need to be considered, electro plating and pressure welding of solid gold to a brass or composite substrate or core.

Electro plating using a number of different processes was only used on the outside on very cheap cases as being very thin it goes not wear well, but is was used on the inside of cases in combination with pressure welded plating on the outside.

Pressure Welding.

One way of permanently bonding two metals is to put two or more plates together and then to put them through a rolling mill which as well as reducing the thickness and the great pressures involved will cause the surfaces to become welded together.

Filled & Rolled Gold.

Although, at the time, there was no legal definition of these terms - in UK a proposal was made but the legislation never materialised - it was generally accepted that Filled Gold was made by pressure welding a plate of solid gold to each side of a core which was normally a composite / alloy of brass.

Rolled Gold was a single plate of gold pressure welded to one side of  a core with the other side electro plated.

Case bows and links of watch chains were made by a similar process with gold wrapped around a central core and then pressure welded, this was classified as rolled gold, even if the watch case as a whole was "filled" gold.

The thickness of the gold plate was a determining factor in cost and durability. Higher quality gold, normally 14 carat, being softer would need to be thicker to give the same durability as a 9 or 10 carat plate.

Dennison Cases

The Dennison Watch Case Company, based in Birmingham, was second to none worldwide in the volume production of watch cases and fortunately some of the technical specifications of their cases are known:
  • The Rolled Gold "Star" grade had a 9 carat gold plate thickness of  0.036mm and were "warranted" to last 10 years.
  • The Filled Gold "Moon" grade in 10 carat gold had a plate thickness of 0.072mm and were warranted to last 20 years.
  • The Filled Gold "Sun" grade in 14 carat gold also had a plate thickness of 0.072mm so it is little odd that these cases had a 25 year warranty being softer than the 10 carat Moon and of the same thickness. But of course all three grades normally outlasted the warranty and if a Sun grade lasted only 20 years I doubt the owner would have been perusing the issue after all that time.

Silver marks - don't let the pendant maker fool you.

This post was inspired by an item incorrectly described on eBay where someone had got confused between the maker of the pendant and the case.

Pendant making was a trade in its own right and some case makers did not want or were unable to make their own so bought them in from specialists who might put there own mark on the pendant even if the finished item was to be submitted for assay by the case makers or a third party.

The example shown has the mark "C.H" on the pendant but  another example from the same case maker has the mark "WN".

Saturday, 13 August 2016

J.W. Benson movements in Dennison cases.

Large numbers of Benson cases were made by Benson Bros[i] (no relation) of Liverpool, but carried the J.W. Benson mark and for solid gold and silver the London assay marks.
A witness mark (just to the left of the case screw hole)
showing that the movement does not belong in this case.
Note the Dennison safety bow on the case.
Benson watches from the 1930s with “standard” sized movements by Tavannes are frequently seen on eBay in silver cases by Dennison, most of these are marriages probably using movements that originally had a solid gold case. These frequently have witness marks from other movements visible on the case as illustrated here (I don’t buy these watches except for spares so the example shown is the movement from the watch below placed in a case from a Waltham watch).
Some however do not bear witness marks but could still be marriages with cases originally from Tavannes watches.
A 1933 Tavannes movement for J.W. Benson in
a Dennison silver case hallmarked 1933
Whilst Benson could have used Dennison cases when short of their own, for quite a while I considered that the majority of these Dennison cased watches were marriages but then saw some with provenance covering 40 or 50 years and I began to wonder, whilst I am very sceptical[ii] about family history, a relatively recent history (when the owner was not trying to sell) probably precludes a watch having been recently re-cased.
Having done some research[iii] I found that the Benson Bros business, including the contract with J.W. Benson, was purchased by Dennison in the early 30s, case making was transferred to Handsworth whilst the original Benson Bros operation was turned over to repair work.

This makes more sense of watches from the 1930s occasionally having Dennison hallmarks. The date of the transfer is not known but was certainly complete by 1934. All of those that I have handled without witness marks showing re-casing, are hallmarked 1933 apart from one, the only datable Swiss Benson I have had from from 1934. So probably these watches came during the transfer of the business.
The back of the watch shown above.
The Dennison case shown here is confirmation of this as the date of the movement (from the serial number) matches that of the case. Also the case is not typically Dennison of the period as it lacks their normal patented “Safety bow”, as do all of the gold and silver cases in my mid 1930s J.W. Benson sales catalogue.
It is also possible that the case was originally made for Benson but was sent to Birmingham for assay due to a queue at London or it was made for another third party and diverted.

[i] Previously the business founded by of R. Samuel, Benson Bros from c1894 and from 1902 owned by J.B. Eastham.
[ii] Well justified I think having been told several totally implausible histories saying for example that a hallmarked watch from the 1920’s was 19th century and the hallmarks were wrong, a London assay having been stamped with Birmingham date marks, because “it has to be that as it was definitely Great Gt… Grandad's 21st Birthday present” - although not engraved as such .
[iii] Primarily from Priestley “Watch Case Makers of England”, NAWCC Spring 1994.