Pocket watches, once a staple of a gentleman’s wardrobe, are making a comeback. Maybe it’s the cottagecore movement, or that fashion truism that everything old is new again, but pocket watches have become more than a novelty item or a groomsman gift. If you’re interested in collecting the best men’s watches, you can’t ignore the best pocket watches any longer.
But what exactly constitutes a pocket watch anyway? In short, pocket watches are a timepiece with a chain that’s attached to a belt loop, waistcoat or lapel and kept either in the front of your pants, your suit, or your jacket. But there’s a lot more to learn about pocket watches and, surprisingly, some great options that you can buy right now.
There are two types of pocket watches: Lépine (open face) and Hunter. Hunter has a spring-loaded cover and acquired the name by fox hunters who needed a closed pocket watch that would survive galloping through the woods. It’s also sometimes called the Savonnette as it resembles a round bar of soap. The Hunter has a secondary sub-type, the Half-Hunter or Demi-Hunter. It’s a watch case that has a glass window or hole that shows the watch’s hands when the cover is closed.
Diving into the pocket watch world after 100+ years of wristwatch dominance can seem strange. In an effort to impart the sophistication and elegance of a pocket watch, we’ll cover the following:
- The history of pocket watches
- How to wear a pocket watch
- The best pocket watches to buy right now
- Luxury gold pocket watches
History of the Pocket Watch
Clocks first made the transition to wearable items sometime during the 15th century. One of the famous clockmakers of that time was Nurenberg’s Peter Heinlen, and although he’s credited as the inventor of the watch, there were other German clockmakers at that time who were also experimenting with miniature clocks. These early timepieces were worn around the neck and called ‘clock-watches,’ and they were powered by small springs. Clock-watches were massive, heavy devices, usually measuring several inches in diameter. They were made up of brass and metal with a heavy grate over the face of the watch. They only possessed an hour hand and were more wore for status than for usage.
These large pendant watches got smaller and more sophisticated over the next century until making their way into gentlemen’s pockets in the 17th century. During this time, pocket watches were very expensive accessories reserved for the upper class. But despite their premium price tags, the watches themselves were abysmal timepieces by today’s standards. They used what’s called ‘verge escapement’ movement that often gained an hour a day. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a small, but choice collection of very early watches and watch cases. They also have a few decorative clocks as well as this traveling clock watch and alarm, circa 1680, that is attributed to a famous watchmaker who made great strides in timekeeping, Thomas Tompion.
It looks vaguely like the now-familiar pocket watch. Tompion (1639-1713) called the “Father of English Clockmaking” due to his, ahem, tinkering with how watches were made. The above traveling clock watch utilized a balance spring, a device he created with scientist Robert Hooke, that made the watches more accurate than in the past. He also created a cylindrical escapement, and this invention allowed for the creation of flat watches.
Watches got a major upgrade in 1755 with the invention of lever escapement by Thomas Mudge. This type of movement made watches far more accurate and is still used in most mechanical watches. Lever escapement didn’t become popular until the mid-19th century, which is when pocket watch production got cheaper, and everyone started to buy. As watches became popular, wristwatches were considered only for the purview of ladies as they were worn on the wrist and were aesthetically viewed as a bracelet. Now-famous brands such as Heuer, LeCoultre & Cie, Cartier, and Ulysse Nardin are some of the companies that came out of this pocket watch boom.
Pocket watches were a staple of men’s everyday carry and were part of the railroad expansion in the United States. In fact, railroad pocket watches are a big collectible item. Railroad grade watches as they were known were either Ball (Webb C. Ball was the railroad industry’s official timekeeper and jeweler), or Massachusetts’ Waltham Watches.
During WW1, officers found that having to constantly pull out a pocket watch to tell time hampered their efficiency, and with the advent of Cartier’s masculine design for their Tank Watch (named after a tank’s tire tracks), pocket watches slowly fell out of fashion. Men of a certain class still wore pocket watches through the 30s’, and there are square-shaped Cartier Art Deco (breathtaking) pocket watches whose design aped the decorative trend at the time, but men began to rely more on the wristwatch. During the mid-60s and through the 80s when three-piece suits came back in fashion, the pocket watch made a brief resurgence, as what else could you accessorize well with a vest?
Today, you can find pocket watches from luxury watch brands like Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Frederique Constant. In fact, the high-end watch companies never stopped making them. And as the style’s becoming more and more popular, other good watch companies are increasing production of this style.
How to Wear a Pocket Watch
Pocket watches are an undeniably old-school menswear accessory. Outside of steampunk cosplay, which we won’t endorse here, you need confidence and a certain sartorial flair to pull them off in 2021. That being said, for the right kind of guy, they can be the perfect finishing touch for your outfit.
There are five ways to rock a pocket watch in 2021. The first is the classic look, with the pocket watch attached to a waistcoat. Of course, most of us don’t wear waistcoats unless we’re getting really dressy with a three-piece suit, but it can be fun and stylish if you’re a sharp dresser and you have an important event to attend. For this look, attach the watch chain to a button on your waistcoat and drop the watch in your waistcoat pocket.
Second and thirdly, you can wear it cottagecore style; slip a vest over either a buttondown or long sleeve tee shirt, and then pop the pocket watch in the vest’s pocket. Another cottagecore way to wear a pocket watch is to either slip it into a blazer or cardigan pocket.
The fourth and easiest way to wear a pocket watch in 2021 is in your front pants pocket with the chain or fob attached to your belt loop. It introduces a little metal glint to a normal outfit and maybe even some 90s biker vibes. Lastly, turn the pocket watch into a necklace. Worn over the shirt, it’s a fashion-forward option for daring guys who aren’t afraid of a more androgynous look. Tucked under your favorite flannel, it’s a practical EDC item for your next camping trip.
However, some of the best pocket watches are made from gold, feature complex inner workings and come with a four-figure price tag, so you’ll want to make sure your luxury timepiece doesn’t accidentally slip out of your pocket.
The Best Pocket Watches to Buy Right Now
Below you’ll find some of the best pocket watches that you can buy right now. There are one-of-a-kind pocket watches from antique retailers like 1st Dibs, as well as modern pocket watches from brands like Bulova and Tissot. We’ve included a wide selection for every style and price point, including affordable sporty picks, chic everyday watches and heirloom-worthy gold watches.
1. Tissot Unisex Savonnette Pocket Watch
Our favorite modern pocket watch is this Tissot Savonnette. It checks all the boxes of a great pocket watch with brand reliability, style and functionality. Blending a classic design with modern timepiece technology, this is the best pocket watch of 2020 by a mile. The watch’s case is made of a durable brass that features gold and palladium tones and a sophisticated face that modernizes classic sensibility. Tissot’s Swiss quartz movement means you won’t have to worry about missing a second. And at $330, the watch doesn’t cost too much either — although it looks like it does.
2. Frederique Constant Hand Wind Movement 700MC6PW4
Frederique Constant is a luxury Swiss watch company founded in 1988 by Peter Constant and Aletta Francoise Frédérique Stas-Bax, a married couple who used their grandfathers’ names for their company. Constant Stas founded a watch dials company in 1904 and Frederique Schreiner. In 2016, they sold their company to Citizen Holdings. Frederique Constant is based in Plans-Les Ouates and produces thousands of watches a year. They create everything from smartwatches to tourbillons. Their silver-tone pocket watch has a 45mm case and is water-resistant to 30 meters. It is automatic and the chain is included. The case and chain are rose gold tone, and the dial is a silvery-white.
3. Stuhrling Original Mechanical Pocket Watch
This Stuhrling Original pocket watch nails the vintage vibe on the outside and inside. It uses mechanical (a.k.a. manual) movement, which you rarely see today (especially under $100). The power reserve is rated at 30 hours, so you should hand-wind this watch each day before slipping it into your pocket. Don’t worry; winding a watch is a quick, meditative process, not a chore. The watch also boasts a beautiful antique look with a skeletonized dial and exhibition case back to see the watch’s inner gears and workings. It also features a desk stand on the back, making the watch a great timekeeper at work.
4. Bulova Silver Tone Pocket Watch 96b270
BEST AMERICAN BRAND
Bulova is an American heritage watch brand, the company was founded in 1875 and while they were headquartered in New York City, their watches were created in Biel, Switzerland and also manufactured in Woodside and Flushing, New York. If you watched The Queen’s Gambit, Beth received a Bulova (model American Girl K) watch as her graduation gift. For generations owning a Bulova was a pretty big deal, and it still is. While Citizen bought the company in 2018, their watches and watchmaking is still stellar. This pocket watch is currently on sale, normally it’s much higher. The 50mm case holds a quartz movement watch that’s battery powered. Made from stainless steel, the covered face has a date complication at the three. And yes, it comes with a matching chain.
5. Speidel Classic Brushed Satin Engravable Pocket Watch
Speidel started out as a watchband manufacturer in 1867. They then branched out and started making women’s jewelry, but the spotlight didn’t hit them until 1951. They started manufacturing ID bracelets and it became a huge trend. The company was sold, went bankrupt and in 2009 they were bought by Cerce Capital LLC, and now they’re back to making watch bands and men’s watches. This closed face pocket watch has two subdials: day and seconds, and quartz analog movement. Speidel is offering a 30-day guarantee, if you don’t love your watch, you’ll be refunded 100%.
6. Antique Swiss Made Pocket Watch
MOST REASONABLE ANTIQUE
If you’re looking for a funcitonal antique pocket watch that really ticks and has that special aged patina, you couldn’t go wrong with this Swiss-made one. The case is silverplate and it does keep time. Made between 1900-1919, it does not have a magnetic lever. This watch is on 1stDibs, and they have a wide selection of antique pocket watches that range from a few hundred dollars to sky-high luxury prices.
7. Invicta 47m Objet d’Art Mechanical Skeletonized Dial Black Pocket Watch
BEST RULE BREAKER
Invicta’s known for their up-to-the-minute styles, and in the past, they’ve teamed up with Shaq and NFL’s Jason Taylor to create limited edition watches for men. Founded in 1837 in — where else? — Switzerland, the watchmaker’s current HQ is located in Hollywood, Florida. If you’re in the market for a nice-looking watch that does the job well, you can’t go wrong with an Invicta. They’ve come out with a few pocket watches in the past couple of years, and this is one nifty skeleton Lépine. It’s part of their broader Objet d’Art watch collection. This 47mm watch is surrounded by black plated stainless steel. It’s an analog watch with a hand-wind movement, and the chain comes with the watch.
8. 1940 Vintage Waltham Premier Pocket Watch
TRUE VINTAGE PICK
Waltham was based in Massachusetts and created watches until 1957, and they’re prized by collectors. This pre-war 10K and gold plate open-face watch, also called a Lépine pocket watch, has a seconds subdial. It’s a one-of-a-kind vintage pocket watch that’s for sale at 1stDibs.
9. Mount Royal Polished Chrome Mechanical Half Hunter Pocket Watch
COOL HALF HUNTER
This is a spiffy looking Half Hunter pocket watch that has engraving along the edges of the case. This 17-jewel mechanical watch has a skeleton or openwork dial, which shows the internal gears. The polished chrome case is 45mm, and it does come with a matching chain. Keep it in your pocket or attach it to your waistcoatt. Either way, it’s a classic timepiece and a great conversation starter.
10. ESS Black Dial Half Hunter Mechanical Pocket Watch
STEAMPUNK POCKET WATCH
This pocket watch has all sorts of decor flair including a border design on the case, roman numerals, a black exterior and gold and silver interior, and a long chain for hanging options. With a view showing the internal mechanics, it has a classic skeleton pocket watch look with a monochromatic design that you can easily match with neutral outfits for fall. If you love everything steampunk, then this is the pocket watch for you.
Luxury Gold Pocket Watches
Luxury watchmakers are still creating pocket watches, and you can find high-end pocket watches from Omega, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Frederique Constant, to name a few of the top pocket watch players. You can also find pocket watches from designer watch brands like Invicta, Bulova, Mount Royal, Jean Pierre of Switzerland and Tissot.
While there is a wealth of fine pocket watches to be purchased, the purpose of this article is to showcase timepieces most men can actually afford. Still, we can’t help ourselves. Below, you’ll find two luxury gold pocket watches that will set you back at least five figures.
The Audemars Piguet Classique Lépine is an excellent example of a luxury or fine watch brand pocket watch. Encased in 18K pink gold, the black dial creates an artistic contrast to the white and pink gold markers. The Lépine is a manual or hand-wind pocket watch with a 30-hour reserve, and it has a Grande complication movement with perpetual calendar, minute repeater, split-seconds chronograph, hours, minutes, small and small seconds. While you can view it and all its information online, it can only be purchased (price upon request) in store. Unless you have upward of $500,000 to burn, this watch is out of your price range.
At present, luxury watch brand Patek Philippe offers nine pocket watches; they vary from an open face to a hunter-moon case, and come in yellow, white and rose gold.
The Patek Philippe 973J Open Face Pocket watch has a 44mm gold case and is a hand or manual wind with a 50-hour power reserve. The watch has a seconds hand at the six-hour marking, and the hand-finished pocket watch comes with a matching chain. We’re guessing there aren’t many men who want to spend over $40,000 on a timepiece only to hide it away in their pocket, but if you want a truly exquisite gold pocket watch, Patek Philippe is the name to know.