Here’s a pocket watch I picked up after having a day that was so bad it kept me up at night. Instead of a restful sleep, I found myself perusing the classifieds in the early morning for interesting antiques and stopped myself when I came across the advert for this fine piece.
The watch was made by the Hampden Watch Company of Canton Ohio in about 1902. It’s a large size 18 pocket watch with a full plate movement (giving it a bit of heft) and a lever setting mechanism. It’s also fully jeweled (17 to be precise) which means it’s a high quality movement. Naturally it was non-running when I purchased it but because of this the price was right.
Now I’ve only worked on one American pocket watch prior to getting my hands on this and unfortunately I was unsuccessful in getting that one up and running. That experience left me a bit cautious when it comes to antique pocket watches despite the fact that I absolutely adore them.
When it comes to pocket watches the United States was in a class of it’s own during the late nineteenth century. Companies such as the Waltham Watch Company, Hamilton Watch Company, and Illinois Watch Company were tasked with producing precision timepieces for the conductors of the transcontinental railroad. These companies created massive factories with thousands of employees turning out millions of timepieces. The Elgin National Watch Company, Hampden Watch Company, and Rockford Watch Company got in on the action too. This Hampden was produced right at the tail end of the era of US timekeeping dominance and it appears to have been well kept by it’s owner.
With the open face design, access to the movement was provided by unscrewing bezel from the nickel case. It came away with the crystal and the movement was then turned out via on a hinged ring set within the case. Immediately two problems were apparent. Firstly, the lid was no longer seated on the Mainspring Barrel and having come free, it was pressed against the Balance.
I removed the Barrel Bridge and Mainspring Barrel and a second problem became apparent- the Roller Jewel (Impulse Pin) had come lose from the Roller Table. Luckily for me, the jewel was still floating around in the movement. It would need to be re-seated with a bit of shellac.
Both of these are issues are fairly straight forward fixes. The Mainspring Barrel comes out simply by removing two screws and lifting away the Barrel Bridge. Once out, I snapped the lid back on the barrel with my brass tweezers. Job done.
Replacing the Roller Jewel is a bit more finicky as you need to re-seat it in the roller table, then warm the table to melt the shellac which will secure the jewel. The correct way to do this is by removing the Balance from the Balance Cock, then removing the Roller Table from the Balance Staff. The jewel is set in the table, the table heated, and shellac carefully applied (Mark Lovick, an exceptional watchmaker, has a video detailing this exercise here).
Since this method requires breaking down the Balance into its constituent parts, I like to take a shortcut and try to re-seat the jewel without removing the Roller Table from the Balance Staff. I use a soldering iron to precisely apply heat to the table then apply the shellac before the table cools. It’s not always possible to do it this way- touching the iron to the Balance Staff pivots, Hairspring, or Balance Wheel arms could anneal (soften) the metal and ruin the whole assembly. This being a large pocket watch movement, the Balance was quite large providing greater area to maneuver iron.
Having corrected the two issues already identified, I reassembled the watch, gave it a good wind and set it on the timegrapher. The amplitude displayed (218 degrees) was impressive and although it was running slow, I expected a good cleaning would set it right.
I commenced breaking down the movement for a run through the cleaning machine. Typically this would involve removing the Mainspring Barrel for cleaning and replacement of the mainspring itself but instead I set them aside as I don’t have the proper mainspring winder needed to replace the spring.
I didn’t take any macro pictures but there were a few jewels with hairline cracks in them- if I recall the jewel for the Fourth Wheel and that for the Center Wheel. I don’t have the tool needed to replace these types of jewels so I left them as they were; however, they should be replaced down the road.
A run through the cleaning machine cleared the old sticky oil from the pivots and bearings and readied the movement for assembly. I used primarily Microgliss D5 oil (it’s a thicker watch oil) and Moebius 9501 grease during assembly since the movement isn’t a high beat engine and the gears are quite large.
A quick test on the timegrapher indicated the cleaning had done some good. The amplitude isn’t great but the movement does need a new mainspring. I’m happy with the current state of it considering I don’t have the tooling necessary to improve upon it.
With the movement done, I moved onto the case and decided straight away to replace the scratched crystal. It’s a mineral crystal (glass) and it had suffered a few knocks over the years. This resulted in small chips on the beveled edge and scratches upon the surface. The crystal was glued into the bezel too, which isn’t really the correct way to secure mineral crystals on pocket watches.
I sent the case off to White’s Crystal Manufacturing in San Francisco to have a new crystal cut and fitted. He does a fine job of producing replacement crystals for vintage watches and will properly fit them as well if you send him the watch. The new crystal has the same dimensions as the old one and is 2.5mm thick (I think thick crystals on pocket watches look fantastic).
When the case was returned I gave it a good polish to spruce it up before refitting the movement. The two piece case with a screwdown bezel secures the movement tight as a drum. It’s not quite waterproof (there’s always the pendant tube for entry) but it’s a good design which should keep the dust out.
As usual, I’m pleased at how this one came out (I probably should post some of my spectacular failures to balance things out). This watch is a small piece of mostly forgotten American history and as such functions as much more than a timekeeper. I do enjoy winding it every morning and cherish the gentile beat of the escapement; it’s much more pronounced than that of a typical wrist watch and on my workbench doubles as a metronome.
It’s hard to fathom this little machine was assembled more than a hundred years ago and still functions quite so well. When disassembling the movement, I noticed the serial number inscribed on all the bridges and balance wheel matched, confirming nary a piece has been replaced during a century of use. It really is a special piece and although I know I’ll part with it, I’m not looking forward to that day.