How Do Pocket Watches Work?

No watch style has endured for centuries and is more iconic than the pocket watch.

It is a marvel of mechanical engineering that advanced transportation needs, kept the average folks on schedule, and relayed the status of the elites. Clothing was even designed to accommodate them.

And if you think pocket watches are outdated, then think again. They have always been fashionable and exude such dignity and class that sets the mood in certain situations. Most importantly, you can’t go wrong with pocket watches because they are always classic.

If you own a pocket watch or are planning to become a watch collector, it’s probably a good idea to learn how pocket watches work and how each part is related to the other.

However, to better appreciate how pocket watches work, one must learn the critical external components of a pocket watch and the different types of pocket watches. Let’s dive in!

External Parts of a Pocket Watch

  • The crown has the dual purpose of setting and winding.
  • The bow serves as the attachment point.
  • The pendant is the entire assembly of a watch that houses the sleeve and winding stem.
  • The bezel that holds the glass to the case protects the hands and the dial.

The primary mechanical components of pocket watches are a clock face, an escapement mechanism, a gear train, a balance wheel, and a mainspring.

Types of Pocket Watches

Although pocket watches are a single design with all those external parts mentioned above, they have a few different aesthetic elements that impact how the timepiece is displayed or used. 

The six main types of pocket watches are:

1. Open-face pocket watch

This watch is also called the Lepine and provides a cover. It is, by far, the most common type of pocket watch.

This pocket watch case comes with a metal cover that protects the glass. You can easily read the time without removing any obstructions.

Typically, open-face watches have a pendant at the 12 o’clock position and a sub-second dial at 6 o’clock.

2. Hunter-case pocket watch

You can find the stem of the hunter-case pocket watch at the 3 o’clock position. Its case has a front lid to protect the glass crystal and the dial, which opens by depressing the crown.

Additionally, it closes the crystal (snaps into place), protecting the entire face from damage that may result from debris or dust. Fox hunters commonly used this type of watch as it was easy to see the time without letting go of their horse’s reins.

This watch also comes in a variety, including full-hunter, double-half-hunter, and double-hunter pocket watches.

Related: What To Do With Old Watches?

3. Full-hunter pocket watch

The full-hunter pocket typically has an ornately engraved casing with a photograph displayed or initials on the inner. While it is visually appealing, time-telling this type of watch can become quite a hassle because you must open the cover each time the owner checks the time.

Hence, the half-hunter watch was invented.

4. Demi or half-hunter case pocket watch

This hunter-case variation features an outer lid containing either a center hole or a glass panel. The primary function of this feature is for a glance at the watch hands visible through the hole. 

In the outer lid of the hunter case, watches are the hours marked, usually in blue enamel, so the owner can see the time without opening the case.

5. Double hunter pocket watch

This watch is a combination of the half-hunter and double-hunter pocket watches. It has all the features of a double hunter. However, it has a window-like feature on the front lid. This difference shows the timepiece’s dial while enjoying the luxury of a protective covering.

Some double-hunter pocket watches have viewable mechanical movements at the back or front, adding a beautiful antique feel.

6. Nurse fob watch

Lastly, the nurse fob watch is considerably smaller than other types of pocket watches, up to a quarter or half the size of the traditional pocket watch.

This watch has a long history of being a woman’s watch style with a strap-like attachment. You’ll find a clip or pin at the end of the strap. This feature enables the timepiece to be attached to a piece of clothing, like a pocket or a collar.

So, How Do Pocket Watches Work?

pocket watch

Pocket watches are designed with five main mechanical components, as we mentioned earlier: a clock face, an escapement mechanism, a gear train, a balance wheel, and a mainspring.

The mainspring is the main element that operates it. Whenever the watch or other spring-driven parts is wound, the spring’s curvature is increased, and energy is stored. Hence, it wounds the timepiece and the mechanical energy powers it.

Pocket watches run on time between 26 to 30 hours per wind, while a few latest models can run for over 44 hours. Still, it is essential to give them a full daily wind. The best time to do it is in the morning.

Related:  How To Set Time On A Rolex Watch

This mainspring is also linked to the cylindrical barrel. The barrel’s gear teeth turn the gear train, comprising four separate wheels attached with additional gear teeth.

The gear train allows it to run. It transmits torque from the barrel to the escapement. This part of the watch comprises pinions and wheels arranged together in a multiplying gear train.

Imagine a bicycle to appreciate this part. One revolution of the pedal at a high gear results in many wheel revolutions. In a pocket watch gear, the first wheel’s torque is much higher than the last. Sapphire jewels are used at the watch pivots to reduce rotational torque loss.

This part is also responsible for dividing time into different segments: seconds, minutes, and hours. Beyond its function, a gear train is aesthetically compelling due to its constant movement.

The balance wheel is the heart of the timepiece’s oscillating system. The vibration in this part of the timepiece is one of the critical specifications of the watch movement. It keeps time for the watch.

A weighted wheel rotates back and forth toward the center position by the balance spring (also called the “hairspring” or final spiral spring). 

Then, there’s the escapement mechanism. With every balance or center wheel swing, it releases the hour and minute wheels to move forward in small amounts. This part of the pocket watch, or even in mechanical watches, makes the “ticking” sound.

Each time the balance wheel swings to the center position, the lever is unlocked, releasing one tooth of the escape wheel. The watch then advances in a fixed amount.

The cannon pinion is attached to the center wheel, which links the minute wheel. It works by driving a 12-1 gear reduction mechanism, which rotates the hour wheel every 12 rotations of the minute hand. The minute and hour wheels contain shafts that go through the clock face.

Meanwhile, the clock face displays the time through a fixed-number dial and moving hands. It is typically the symbol of recognition of most pocket watches worldwide. The dial is numbered from one to 12, indicating the 12-hour cycle. 

Although not included as the main mechanical component of a pocket watch, the watch jewels also serve an essential function in the timepiece.

One can usually determine the quality of a timepiece based on the number of jewels. These components are inserted into parts of the watch that have high mechanical movements to lessen wear and tear.

The lowest acceptable jewel count in a pocket watch. Most modern watches have 17 to 21 jewels. You’ll often see the jewel count engraved on the back or cover of a quality pocket watch.

Mechanical Pocket Watch

A pocket watch is also powered by mechanical energy, being a mechanical timepiece. Simply put, it comprises the same component consisting of the mainspring, the escape mechanism, the balance wheel, the gear train, and a clock face.

Most mechanical pocket watch movements are standardized. Most of the parts and techniques used are the same. The spring and wheel of the quality watch make up the harmonic oscillator.

Moreover, most pocket watches have a chain attached to them. The watch chain allows the timepiece to be secured in clothing items like a belt loop, lapel, or waistcoat. The main purpose of the chain is to prevent the watch from being dropped.

Pocket watches inherited from grandparents have a high vintage value because they depict a family history and come in a design that is often not for sale anywhere else. Still, the benefit of a new watch is it can work for a long time.

Related: Best Vintage Digital Watch

Pocket Watches: Forgotten, But Not Gone

pocket watch

Pocket watches are indeed an impressive and classy accessory. 

While many rely on modern wrist watches and smartphones to check the time, pocket watches will remain classics. Some watch companies are in the vintage-pocket-watch-sourcing game, restoring old pocket watches.

Patek Philippe, Seiko, and Tissot are only some of the brands keeping the form alive. Salute to them.

We hope you enjoyed this guide on how does a pocket watch work. Till next time! 

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