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Gold, Silver Prices Endanger Future of Antique Watch Collections

by David Mycko (03/21/11).

This high-quality, 18k gold pocket, made by little-known watchmaker H.L. Matile in a small town in Switzerland, is a fine example of a “technical watch.” But its day may be numbered, simply because it contains about $4,300 worth of gold. More and more gold watches are getting sold for scrap, melted down and disappearing from the collectibles market forever.

The gold and silver markets have been doing a steady rise for the last year or more, bringing on the demise of literally thousands of gold and silver collectibles and antiques of all nature. But watches have been hit particularly hard. I just returned from a National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors‘ Regional Show in Daytona Beach, Fla., and witnessed a scene that would sicken any serious collector.

A gentleman I had never seen before at any of these shows was buying gold, silver and even gold-filled watch cases for scrap. He was rapidly up filling a showcase with his purchases for all to see. His obvious aim was to buy as many cases as he could and take them to a smelter to have them melted down into an ingot, assay it and sell it to one of the many gold buying organizations that deal in precious metals for a profit. With the price of gold on the date of this publication is $1,434, you can see why he was busy for three days as collectors and dealers alike lined up to sell their watches.

The process is quite simple, if not brutal. Many of the watches had already had their movements and crystals removed, but there is almost always a non-gold part that needs to be removed, via a pair of pliers or a hammer. Watches—a complex compilation of different metals and parts—are in some cases, of dubious karat. The process involves chopping and filing into the covers and applying aqua regia acid to ascertain the actual gold content. This is almost always a callous and brutal process, but it doesn’t really matter, because you’ve already made the decision to destroy and melted down the watch in the end. The only thing that really matters here is the almighty dollar—how much you can get for the gold or silver content.

Now, I have been a professional watch dealer for more than 35 years, and I have scrapped my share of watch cases, jewelry and silver objects, so I’m no saint and I really don’t mean to sound sanctimonious, but God Almighty, there’s got to be a limit! At this rate, there won’t be any watches left to trade, and that will be the demise of the watch collector’s hobby!

The dial of this watch is made of three pieces of high-quality porcelain enamel work of art, precision-fitted to each other perfectly, and the beautifully detailed second and minute track, topped off with Breguet-style blued-steel hands.

As a watchmaker and watch dealer, I have put together an extensive collection of watch movements and parts (sorry, not for sale!). Now, I’m talking about a huge pile of watch movements here, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg; there’re many more folks out there just like me. It is true, all these now-defunct watch companies like Waltham and Elgin made millions of watches, but there is an end. Mr. Jon Hansen, Esq., founder of NAWCC Chapter 149, has been exposing for years on the evil of dismembering watches for parts and profit. He is RIGHT! There has to be an end to this practice of destroying these mechanical works of art simply for an immediate profit.

I have pictured in this article a fine, high-quality but very heavy 18k gold pocket watch as an example. While it is a great watch, it is a “technical watch.” In other words, it is more of a complicated mechanical wonder than an artistic diamond-studded beautiful work of art. Its beauty is intrinsic and lies in its mechanical achievement and high quality. Its maker was a little-known watchmaker located in a small town in Switzerland devoted to the watchmaker’s art, Locle. His name was H.L.Matile, and he made very fine watches—his devotion and passion is evident in this very fine example bearing his name. Every part is quality and finished to near perfection. No expense was spared in the production of this watch: solid pink gold jewel settings; pink gold gears; beautiful and detailed damascene pattern on the bridges; mirror polish on the steel parts; beautiful ruby jewels. The chronograph mechanism is located under the dial and is a mechanical wonder! Even the steel parts under the dial are polished and finished perfectly. The dial is a high-quality porcelain enamel work of art comprised of three parts, precision-fitted to each other perfectly, and the beautifully detailed second and minute track, topped off with Breguet-style blued-steel hands.

The chronograph mechanism is located under the dial and is a mechanical wonder! Even the steel parts under the dial are polished and finished perfectly.

The crowning achievement to this fine watch is the case, although Matile probably didn’t make it, (few watchmakers made their own cases or dials), but there was no expense spared here. In total, it has a very-high gold content of nearly 3 ounces of 18K-gold! That translates to almost $4,300 of scrap gold in today’s market! The value of the raw material will most certainly ring a death knell to this very fine watch. Watch collectors will only pay so much for a simple gold chronograph pocket watch, and $4,300 is nearly three times what the collector market will bear, especially with a little known maker like Matile.

I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and purchased this fine watch before a scrap dealer could put his pliers and hammer to work. But I am a dealer, and my investment can only sit for so long. I will try my very best to place this watch with a watch collector or investor, but I have bills to pay and limited capital to work with. How long can I tie my money up in a watch that simply won’t sell for more that it’s gold content? To add insult to injury, this fine watch has provenance: it was presented to its first lucky owner in 1882 from his father, then passed on to his son in 1910. This very fine family heirloom has been in the family for three or possibly four generations, and was a treasured for decades until just recently, when it was sold for scrap metal to pay the bills. What a shame, and a sad, sad, sad state of affairs.

David Mycko is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in antique and vintage watches.

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13 Responses to “Gold, Silver Prices Endanger Future of Antique Watch Collections”

  1. John Syred says:

    Hi your comments regarding gold pocket watches being worth more as scrap,does this apply in all cases?I am about to sell an 18ct. gold watch complete with original gold chain large link,it is a double fusee, chain driven made by Fowler Liverpool or London?
    Working condition 1850????????

    John Syred.

    • David Mycko David Mycko says:

      Hi john, I would have to say absolutely! a fine old watch of this nature needs to be preserved for future generations to come. We don’t own these fine old treasures, merely temporary caretakers, as they will still be around long after we have all passed on. Unless they are destroyed whilst in our keeping! Then, they are gone forever! all the best, David M.

  2. LeeInOceanside says:

    In the 1980′s when the Hunt brothers bought up all the silver they could silver coins were sold to be melted. This, of coarse, made many of the scarcer dates worth more later on. This new run on precious metals will no doubt cause gold and silver objects that escape this destiny worth more in the years to come.

  3. Sabra Fawcett says:

    Can you tell me anything about our old family Elgin watch that belonged to my great-grandmother? Movement: Serial #5,612,354 (year 1894, I think). Case: Serial #2093118. Jeweler’s #16737

  4. Dr Roger Malebranche says:

    Unfortunately the best watch movements are lodged within heavy protective gold cases, and the value of the gold far outweighs most watch movements. And this is the problem. In our town, trawling outfits show up every 2 weeks, advertise heavily in local papers and net everything with promises of cash paid on the spot.These people are a combination of appraisers/buyers andself annointed saviours of the defenseless public. They keep coming, paying a fraction of the true worth of the pieces. Some entrepreneurs search the web and eBay 10 hours a day, buying gold watch for less than gold values and they make a living that way. The next generation will have to go to museums to see great watches in their native state. SAD, SAD, SAD.

    • David Mycko David Mycko says:

      How right you are Doctor! And thank you for your comments, you have certainly spoken the truth about these fortune hunters. Raping the poor ignorant people who simply by chance or inheritance happen to have posession of fine and rare objets de-art. What a sad, sad, sad shame, all the best, David M.

  5. David Mycko David Mycko says:

    Hello Folks, and thank you for all your comments! I have never had so many, so quickly! I guess i struck a nerve here. I will do a follow-up article. I am sorry I can’t answer all your questions through this portal, but Worthpoint has a valuation program for a mere $20, and I promise you I will give all your valuations my best attention with as many dollar figures and details as possible. Please contact Maggie Turnipseed with your valuation requests, and I will get right to work. thank you all once again, and all the best, David mycko

  6. jeanne says:

    I’ve an antique watch that I’ve been researching for a year now. Can’t find anything on it, except that the engraving matches that of the baseball player Hircher. If I can send a picture, can anyone help me?
    Thanks.

  7. Susan says:

    Too true. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve been asking people I know who scrap to save watch movements for me. I haven’t figured out what to do with them yet. I also list watches on ebay for other dealers as the last stop before the melting pot. Usually the watches don’t get the opening bid, because they are priced according to the estimated weight in gold. Which is too much for collectors. It seems like there are just way more watches than watch collectors. I have a friend who sells restored pocket watches at the Brooklyn Flea. There is definitely a demand for them. Another problem is that it costs so much money to start collecting watches. And so much knowledge. I’ve been buying and selling jewelry for 12 years, and I’ve only scratched the surface with watches. Crazy times.

  8. Carl Peterson says:

    Hi, your point is well taken. However, being in the business of buying and selling collectibles, I have had the expensive and time consuming chore of going to watch buyers with old gold watches to be offered a small percentage of the gold value. What I am hearing you say in your article is you want these watches at a price which is not consistent with the reality of the times.

    If antique, coin and collectible dealers want to preserve the items of their trade, they must offer prices that will keep the items out of the melting pots. In too many cases they are simply taking advantage of an untrained consumer.

    Or when faced with a consumer, who as you say is “trying to pay the bills”, and knows the precious metal value of the item they are selling the dealer will pass making the claim they cannot make money buying the item. The fault is not the consumer, it is the industry ignoring reality.

    When you the dealer is faced with purchasing a collectible involving precious metal, know how to determine the metal value and pay accordingly. This will in most cases save the item.

  9. Hi, I am one of those gold buyers you speek of. Have scrapped many through the years. Have also “collected” several, while I am not a collector. Most are not rare, some 14k, 18k, one in platinum. Also several wrist watches. Does anyone recomend an outlet to resell these, to keep them from being scrapped? My regular contacts, not interested.

  10. Jackson says:

    Dear Sir,

    I was reading your article and have in my possession a family heirloom

    It is a H.L. Matile pocketwatch circa 1845 Lot #639

    I would love nothing more than to repair this piece of family history but to-date any watchsmith or jeweler I have taken it to won’t touch it.

    Do you have any suggestions as to how I might be able to repair this.

    If interested I can supply professional quality photos of the watch and its mechanical workmanship.

    Any advice would be appreciated.

    Regards,

    Jackson

  11. Hi, I have a 1902 Elgin Hunter Pocket watch, but it’s rose gold-filled, I would prefer it to be 14k.
    Would it affect it’s value to put the movment into a same era gold case, or is ‘all original’ prefered in these watches?
    Thanks, Luis.

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