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Wristwatches Worth Collecting
by Bob Brooke


The wristwatch has been around for nearly 150 years. For much of that time, they’ve represented some of the world’s most accurate timepieces. Today, the function of the wristwatch has been taken over by smartphones and fitness bands, but the beauty of those old watches remains and in many cases they’ve kept on ticking.

The wristwatch originated in 1868, when Patek & Philippe of Switzerland modified a tiny pocket watch for the Hungarian Countess Koscowicz. However, it took several years for Philippe, or any other watchmaker, to make anything other than the popular pocket watch—plus several more before any of them produced a wristwatch that could be priced reasonably enough for people to buy.

As the 19th century progressed, women's miniature pocket watches were often attached to a decorative bracelet or leather strap, to be worn on the wrist as a fashion accessory. In a 1891, Audemars Piguet of Switzerland created an 18mm minute repeater movement, one of the smallest of its kind.

By the 20th century, several other manufacturers introduced wristwatches, and while ladies bought them, men didn’t because they considered them to be effeminate.

But World War I changed all that. During the first decade of the 20th century, Robert Ingersoll designed a line of ladies pocket watches for the Waterbury Company. The “Midget” was both tiny and inexpensive, and the U.S. Armed Forces ordered thousands for use by their troops, requesting that the winding crown be moved from the 12 o'clock to the 3 o'clock position. After soldering a pair of wire loops at 12 and 6 o'clock, they attached the Midget to a band, creating the world's first inexpensive wristwatch.

Now Ingersoll also invented a luminous paint called Radiolite, a radium compound, which when applied to the watch's hands and numerals, allowed them to glow in the dark. Not only could soldiers now tell time in the dark, they also began to appreciate the convenience of a wristwatch over the traditional pocket watch. By the end of the war, the modified Midget had changed men’s perception of the wristwatch.

In 1920, only 25 percent of the watches exported by Switzerland were wristwatches; by 1934, the figure had risen to 65 percent.

Fashion and technology were also rapidly changing. Between 1915 and 1940, watch companies introduced thousands of unique styles for both men and women, each vying for their share of a burgeoning market. By the late 1920s, automatic self-winding and water-resistant models were in production, and by the late 1930s,shock-resistant movements were in the works.

Collectible Character Watches
The 1930s would also introduce the character watch. In 1933, the Ingersoll-Waterbury
Company, under exclusive license from Walt Disney, produced character watches and clocks featuring Mickey Mouse. The watches retailed for $2.98. Macy’s Department Store in New York sold over 11,000 on the first day of their release. Not only was Ingersoll-Waterbury saved from the financial ruin of the Depression, after eight weeks of production, they added 2,700 employees to their 300-person work force. By 1935, more than 2.5 million Mickey Mouse watches had been sold.

The success of Ingersoll-Waterbury encouraged other watch companies to begin producing collectible character watches in the 1930s. Examples include Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Donald Duck and the Lone Ranger. Ironically, while World War I brought wristwatches to public favor, it would be World War II that would all but curb production, as watch factories reorganized for the war effort.

After World War II, people had a renewed interest in character watches, a trend which has continued to the present. Unlike watches made in the 19th century, character watches are relatively inexpensive, so more people can buy them, especially online. For example, a 1978 Registered Edition Bradley 50th Birthday Mickey Mouse watch can still be found for $75.The same holds true for many watches from the 1950s. A 1950s U.S. Time Zorro watch will cost around $125, and a 1951 Ingraham Dale Evans sells for about $75. There are exceptions, but even these aren’t completely out of reach. An example would be a Roy Rogers, mint in box, which sells for about $400.

While character watches may be fun to collect, there are some who prefer to collect premium vintage watches. Gruen watches are especially popular. What separates true antique watches is that all of them are mechanical—that means they need to be wound each day. It’s because they’re mechanical that many people shy away from them. Today, people live in a battery-operated world and they don’t want to have to remember to wind their watch.

What separates one vintage watch from another is the brand. Younger collectors tend to favor stainless steel watches over gold or two-tone and look for names like Omega, Breitling and Tag Heuer. The older crowd gravitates toward the traditional elegance and style of Rolex, Patek Phillippe, and Vacheron Constantin.

Unfortunately, the luxury wristwatch market has been overrun by fakers. While the Internet has opened the selection of watches to people all over the world, it has also opened the floodgates for every crook and con artist. Because these watches cost so much, most buyers are looking for bargains. If the price seems too good to be true, then the watch is probably a fake. Like luxury cars, luxury watches hold their value. Being an antique just adds to it.


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