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Vintage Watches: Art Meets Technology

by Mark Jaffe (12/15/08).

A Coca-Cola vending machine on the fritz, a misfiring auto engine and an 18th-century pocket watch in need of restoration may share one thing in common —Dave Mycko, WorthPoint’s expert on antique and collectible watches.

Before setting up his watch-and-clock repair business in Miami in 1976, Mycko had paid the bills fixing cars and Coke machines. “I have this overall fascination with gears, pinions, main springs and power supplies,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to see how mechanical things work . . . I am a gear freak.”

Gears to watches

The watch, however, has been a lifelong passion. The first one Mycko worked on as a boy was his father’s Gruen wristwatch, which he took apart and put back together. And it still worked.

As collectibles, the watch has two faces—the technological and the artistic. “Rolex is technically oriented,” Mycko said. “Rolex’s goal has been to produce a high-quality watch that is ‘chronometer accurate’ and can withstand all temperatures at high altitude or under deep ocean pressure.”

Howard & Rice key-wind pocket watch made from defunct-Boston Watch Co. parts

The handmade 18th- and 19th-century pocket watches—with enameling and fancy engraved gold cases—are the art. “They are like snowflakes, no two are alike,” Mycko said. “No gear is interchangeable with another watch. When I have to repair one of these, I have to make the parts myself.”

There are many approaches and kinds of watches to collect, Mycko advised. There are the 19th-century decorative antique pocket watches—multicolored gold and finely engraved, which can run from hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands.

There are 20th-century “railroad watches.” These were an exceptional product of the Industrial Age and now fetch $100 to $10,000. “Railroad watches are appreciated and collected from the inside out,” Mycko explained. The precision and technical beauty went into their internal parts, and then they were housed “in high-quality, durable and functional but low-cost metal cases.”

A burgeoning market sprang up in wristwatches soon after the fall of gold in 1980. “This is an example of how the market swings,” Mycko said. “When I got into the business, it was all pocket watches, no one bothered with wristwatches.” Now there’s a broad array of interests. One interesting, but confounding area is the “comic-character watch.”

Dudley Masonic pocket watch, circa 1928

The idea of a Mickey Mouse watch was hatched in 1932 when a buyer for Montgomery Ward suggested to Disney’s merchandising mastermind, Kay Kamen, that a watch with Mickey on its face could be a big hit. Kamen then commissioned preliminary sketches from Disney artists and brought them to the Ingersoll-Waterbury Co.

In 1933, the first watches went into production, and their success was unprecedented. In one day, 11,000 were sold at Macy’s.

By June 1935, more than 2.5 million Mickey Mouse wristwatches had been sold. Several other watch companies jumped on the comic-watch bandwagon, and soon nearly every popular comic character was on a pocket watch or wristwatch. In 1989, Mycko co-authored “Vintage American and European Character Wristwatch Price Guide 1989” with Roy Ehrhardt, the leading watch-book author of the time.

Mickey Mouse #1 still rules

But the advent of the color copier has made it too easy to counterfeit character watches. “That really killed the market,” Mycko said. Although people are still in the hunt for a “#1 Mickey Mouse,” which can still bring $300-$500.

Character watches remain a fluky market, Mycko said, because certain watches can cross over to other collectibles markets. “A Popeye collector is going to want that Popeye wristwatch and will pay $1,500, which makes no sense to a watch collector,” he said.

All those 1930s-, ’40s-, ’50s-style Benrus, Bulova and Hamilton watches are now highly collectible for their retro styling and innovations that made them popular when new. Even Seiko and Timex (remember the “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” ads?) form another market with prices ranging from $50 to $1,000. There is “something for everyone,” Mycko said.

Hamilton 21-jewels railroad pocket watch with white-gold filled open face

At the top of the market are the expensive watches Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet, followed closely by Cartier and Tiffany. These watches were expensive when new, and in many cases, their values have soared.

Production-made watches like Rolex, Longines, Omega and LeCoultre that catered to a lesser-priced market are highly collectible today. But, with few exceptions, these lesser watch companies along with the styles of watches produced have had their day and have lost their cachet as the collectible-watch market changes. Consider an Omega watch made in the 1920s, with a curved back and Art Deco numbers. For a while, those watches commanded prices of $2,000 to $5,000. Now, Mycko said, they are “hard to sell at $1,500.”

The market, however, is filled with surprises. A self-winding enamel dial wristwatch from the ’60s by Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe used to run $2,500 to $3,500. The very same watch now commands $25,000 to $35,000. A Rolex Cosmograph that Mycko said he had trouble selling for $600 to $800, now sells for up to $55,000.

Rare Waltham Masonic Dial hunting-case pocket watch with a painted porcelain dial

“There is a lot going on at this upper end,” Mycko said. These are the big investment bets and also the ego buys. “What you wear on your wrist tells a lot about your station in life. It’s like driving around in a Ferrari. The world knows you have arrived. And, it most definitely is a macho thing.”

“I call it organized insanity,” Mycko said. “They may be collectibles, investments or the stuff of dreams.”

WorthPoint—Get the Most from Your Antiques & Collectibles

13 Responses to “Vintage Watches: Art Meets Technology”

  1. Laura McCauley says:

    I have a box of old watch and pocketwatch parts that I am selling, just havent found the right buyer. If interested please e-mail me at
    lauramccauley2000@yahoo.com
    Sincerely
    Laura

  2. [...] Vintage Watches: Art Meets Technology A Coca-Cola vending machine on the fritz, a misfiring auto engine and an 18th-century pocket watch in need of restoration may share one thing in common. [...]

    • gsdguy88 says:

      I also have one of these Hamilton Mickey watches, as does my sister. My Grandmother worked at Hamilton. I got it in the early 70′s. The story I heard was that Disney ordered a bunch of these watches from Hamilton, they were produced and for some reason the deal fell though. So Hamilton offered these watches to their employees to purchase. These watches were never available to the public. I wore my watch as a young child. It was water proof, so I wore it while I swam all the time. My mother took it in for repairs, the person did not seal it properly and it leaked. It now sits in my jewelry box rusted. So every once in a while I search the web for a replacement. It has “Disneyland” above his ear in the 12 o’clock position and “17 jewels” at the 6 o’clock position. The crystal is about 1 1/8″ in diameter. I no longer have the strap.

  3. Jim wright says:

    I was given a 17 jewel mickey mouse watch made at hamilton watch in Lancaster PA when my Uncle worked there as a present. it has a black nylon fabric type band and I have kept it in stored away-unfortunately the box is long gone. I am having a hard time finding what it value might be-any help would be appreciated-just wondered if it was valuable to a collector or not?

  4. David Mycko David Mycko says:

    Hello, You have a rather scarce Mickey! I have only seen a few of these Swiss Hamilton Mickies. Most Mickies are low quality pin lever watches made by Bradley and Ingersoll in large quantities. You have a high quality 17 jewel Hamilton with limited production. Unfortunately the comic character watch market is in a downturn. Making it difficult to place a value on your watch, but I would think that $100-$300 would be possible. Shame you don’t have the box, sometimes the box is worth more than the watch!

  5. Interesting, I have not heard about this

  6. Jennifer Hudson says:

    Hi, I have a vintage mickey mouse watch made by ingersoll?. The minute and second hands are “mickey’s” hands. Its wind up and runs good and even keeps good timing. The band is one of those metal type elastic ones. Its in VERY good condition, nothing broken. The inside of the band is marked USA on each piece of the band all around. I was wondering what this might be worth. And how can I find a date of when it was made? Thanks!

  7. P Thomas says:

    I have an Ingersoll Childrens Mickey Mouse watch(has elastic strap) circa
    1940′s in original box (some damage to box)Watch works
    Any idea on what value might be?

  8. Sarah Martin says:

    Hi, I have a mickey mouse watch that I cannot seem to find any information on the internet at all about. It is a vintage Bradley Swiss made disco mickey watch. The number on the back of the watch is 015. The back also says “base metal swiss made”. The background of the watch is black with mickey wearing a white disco outfit and his hands move to tell the time. At the top front of the watch it says Bradley. Next to Mickey it says Disco Mickey and at the bottom it says “Swiss made” and under that it says Walt Disney Production. Any info on this watch would be great!

  9. Judy Greer says:

    Is the dudley watch for sale?

    • dan solley says:

      I have a Dudley Model 1 gold flipback for sale for $5,000.00
      I will send photos if you will provide an E-Mail address.

      Sincerely,

      Dan

  10. I also have a rare Masonic pocket watch made by Waltham, with almost the exact face as the picture from above.
    Could you tell me how rare it actually is and if it has a good value?
    I could always send you a picture of it.. Im thinking of selling it.
    Thank You: Bill in Arizona…………..

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