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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
My sister is getting married this year, and her future husband is a railroad and history buff. I was interested in finding him a vintage railroad watch from an American company such as Hamilton.

-I'd like to get a wristwatch, but from the little research I've done, it seems that most of them are pocket watches. Am I better off going that route? I think a wristwatch would be more useful, but I want something authentic with a bit of history.

-I'd like to keep it around $100, but I'd go up a bit from that if I need to to get something good. Is that even in the ballpark of what I'd need to spend?

-Are there any good shopping guides? I have no idea how to spot something genuine, with the correct hands/face, etc etc.

Thanks!
 

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Oh dear...Let's see now...

-I'd like to get a wristwatch, but from the little research I've done, it seems that most of them are pocket watches. Am I better off going that route? I think a wristwatch would be more useful, but I want something authentic with a bit of history.

Wristwatch? Nope. There WERE railroad wristwatches, but these didn't come in until the late 1950s. And by then, railroad watches on a whole were almost obsolete. Their heyday was during the 1890s-1940s where they were EXCLUSIVELY pocketwatches (wristwatches were not considered accurate, durable or large enough to be useful). If you want an AUTHENTIC, period railroad chronometer watch, it pretty much HAS to be a pocketwatch. I'm not saying you can't get a wristwatch, just that these weren't as common.

-I'd like to keep it around $100, but I'd go up a bit from that if I need to to get something good. Is that even in the ballpark of what I'd need to spend?

Add another $100 and you MIGHT get close. I purchased a top-notch railroad pocketwatch for $180. And I considered that cheap. Most of them go for hundreds of dollars because they are considered among the best watches in the world.

-Are there any good shopping guides? I have no idea how to spot something genuine, with the correct hands/face, etc etc.

There is no guide for railroad watches SPECIFICALLY (at least, not one that I've found), but the basics are...

- The watch must be 16 or 18 size.
- It must be open-faced, with the crown at 12 o'clock.
- It must be lever-set.
- It must have all hours and minutes marked on the dial.
- It must have large, bold numbers.
- It must have a micrometric regulator.
- It must have at least 5 position-adjustments + temperature & iscochronism.
- It must be at least 17 jewels (this gradually went up to 21 and 23 in later years).
- It must be American-made.

This is my railroad watch from the mid 1950s...



It's a Ball 435C, and was one of the last major-production railroad watches ever made, from the 1940s to the mid 1960s.



Photo of the movement, displaying the various mechanical details.

Although this is an older model railroad watch, the basic guidelines as you can see, have barely changed since the 1890s.
 

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Unless you buy something with papers, the best you can really get is something that <could> have been used on a railroad, on account of it meeting the Railroad Standards. The trick there is that the standards changed from year to year, and from railroad to railroad. For instance, most people will tell you that a RR watch has to be lever set, but some of the most famous RR watches in Canada (the CPR Time Office watches) were stem set. (to be fair, these weren't actually used on the railroad itself, they were carried by the watch inspectors). But it does illustrate the point.

With watches in general, you pay for condition. It's not impossible for you to get a RR grade watch for around $100, but it probably will be in rough shape, in a well-brassed replacement case, and not working consistently.

Your best bet is to find a store that repairs watches (one that <actually> repairs watches, and doesn't just ship them) and ask them questions. In the meantime, Google is your friend; particularly in understanding exactly what the words "railroad watch" actually mean.

I'd also recommend seeing if there's a local chapter of the NAWCC (National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors). The NAWCC is probably the best source of information on American watches, particularily RR watches, and they have their own eMart filled with quality watches that are all probably WAAAY too expensive for you.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Thanks to both of you for the info. I'll check out what you said. I tried some google searching, but I didn't know specifically what to search for. There is a lot of useless stuff out there when you search for railroad watch.

Unless you buy something with papers, the best you can really get is something that <could> have been used on a railroad, on account of it meeting the Railroad Standards.
I don't necessarily need to get one that was documented as used on the railroad by a train conductor, but just one that is period correct for the style. Thanks!
 

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Unless you buy something with papers, the best you can really get is something that <could> have been used on a railroad, on account of it meeting the Railroad Standards. The trick there is that the standards changed from year to year, and from railroad to railroad. For instance, most people will tell you that a RR watch has to be lever set, but some of the most famous RR watches in Canada (the CPR Time Office watches) were stem set. (to be fair, these weren't actually used on the railroad itself, they were carried by the watch inspectors). But it does illustrate the point.
Good advice.

Do you want a railroad watch used on the railroads? Or a railroad watch used for the railroads?

Lots of people used railroad watches. Station-masters, dispatchers, engine-drivers, brakemen, firemen...the list is endless.

Engine-drivers, brakemen and firemen bought their watches to be used and abused. They carried their watches in the roughest conditions imaginable, being banged around, being exposed to flames, heat, dust, freezing cold and much, much more. These watches were often the more pedestrian-looking ones. No point in having a fancy gold case if it was being knocked and smashed around everywhere. Because railroad men bought their watches out of their salaries, an engineer would buy a good watch in a cheap case (say, nickel), since there was no point buying a fancy case.

Folks with the more cushy railroad jobs, like conductors and stationmasters would have the nicer (and better-condition) gold or gold-filled railroad watches, which were both functional and fancy, to go with their smart uniforms. These people could afford to buy nice watches in nice cases that looked presentable and respectable to the public. Unlike the engineer and the fireman who worked in hard environments with one hand on the throttle and one hand on their watch, these people could spend the money to get watches that looked nice.

---EDIT---

One of the BIG problems with railroad watches is that it's become a big marketing thing in the 21st century.

I've seen it on lots of watches. "Railroad Standard", "Railroad Grade", "Railroad Approved".

But are these watches actually railroad watches? No. So learn as much as you can, before committing to buying anything so you don't get swindled. Ask as many questionas you can and as many as you like. We're happy to help. Bugger knows, I asked a hell of a lot of questions. Drove the poor moderators on this board barking mad.
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Do you want a railroad watch used on the railroads? Or a railroad watch used for the railroads?
Just a watch that could have, or would have been used on the railroads. Similar to looking for a vintage pilot or military watch. One that is the correct brand and style.
 

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In the 1960s, the first wristwatches were approved for railroad service. Elgin's BW Raymond series, Bulova's Accutron 'Railroad Approved' model, and the Hamilton Electric 505 Railroad Model were among the first. For any of these, you're looking at $150 - $500. The Elgin has a mechanical movement, and thus the cheapest to service - any competent watchmaker can do it. The Bulova Accutron and Hamilton Electric were state of the art in 1961, but nowadays finding competent service for them can be difficult and expensive.

In pocket watches, the posts above are good leads. Hamiltons will probably be the most expensive, with Elgins and Walthams a bit less.
 

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I guess I have some knowledge on Railroad Approved wristwatches, since I collect them.....GeneJockey has good advice. The Accutrons are the most prolific, dozens are on eBay every day...Longines and Universal Geneve are the most rare.....then there are the Canadian RR Approved wristwatches.....there were dozens and dozens it seems. One of these even has a Zenith Movement....

I would suggest a Ball, Accutron or Elgin BW Raymond...but you won't find one for $100. $200-$300 seems to be the average on eBay for quality pieces, rare ones go for $500-$800 add to this the cost of service.....($85 to $200). Stick with mechanical movments if possible.

My watchmaker still services Accutrons and has parts if needed, but can't get parts for the Swiss made 'Accutrons' such as the Longines Ultronic or Eterna Sonic RR Approved.

Check out my collection https://www.watchuseek.com/members/sixtysix/albums/railroad-approved-wristwatches/

There are a few modern day ones Citizen and Seiko make them...including an Eco drive....this may be an option as well.
 

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Some of the best information about pocket watches designed for use on railroads is at NAWCC.org.

Railroad grade PWs in good condition are going for $300-$400 dollars and if you want to actually use them figure on another $100 dollars for servicing.

Some well known and common RR watches are Elgin B.W. Raymonds, Waltham Vanguards and Crescent Streets, Hamilton 992s and 992Bs and 940s and Illinois Bunn Specials.

Also consider the current Seiko and Citizen quartz wristwatches marked "Railroad Approved" easily obtainable over the web and close to your budget.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Thanks for the advice everyone. I've been looking around a little but, but the search continues.

Any other links or references would be appreciated, specifically wondering what to look for to determine value, how to spot real vs. fake/frankenstein, etc.

Thanks!
 

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Real Vs. Fake? Huh...

RR watches were almost exclusively American. If it's not American, be weary.

RR watches were almost all mechanical. If it's quartz...look away now.

RR watch criteria changed through the years. So what was RR standard in 1895 might not be RR standard in 1925, but it's still a RR standard watch nonetheless. Just not as good a one.

Dunno what else I can tell you right off of my head.
 

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So what was RR standard in 1895 might not be RR standard in 1925, but it's still a RR standard watch nonetheless. Just not as good a one.
See, now that is interesting. When the RR watches started their jewel war in the 1890s, Waltham held out as long as they could with lower jewel counts, but lost market share due to the 'more jewels is better' idea. I recall reading that they bemoaned the change because the jewels that were added were of limited value other than for advertising, but to offset the price of the extra jewels in a competitive market - they had to skimp on other unseen areas of the watch. The net result was that they claimed the earlier 15J 1883 models were noticeably better than the later 17 Jewel 1883 variants. Now, I don't expect this continued to hold for later models, but it may have factored in all sorts of places. You get nothing for free, and tradeoffs happen.

A RR specification is a just one view of what is 'best'
 

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All true for pockets but not for wrist watches.....


Real Vs. Fake? Huh...

RR watches were almost exclusively American. If it's not American, be weary.

RR watches were almost all mechanical. If it's quartz...look away now.

RR watch criteria changed through the years. So what was RR standard in 1895 might not be RR standard in 1925, but it's still a RR standard watch nonetheless. Just not as good a one.

Dunno what else I can tell you right off of my head.
 

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I deliberately left wristwatches out.
 

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Really? I'm surprised. But no matter. A railroad watch is a railroad watch, whether it resides in a pocket or on a wrist.
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
Really? I'm surprised. But no matter. A railroad watch is a railroad watch, whether it resides in a pocket or on a wrist.
After your advice in your first reply, I thought that he would appreciate an authentic style pocket watch a lot more.

Shangas said:
Wristwatch? Nope. There WERE railroad wristwatches, but these didn't come in until the late 1950s. And by then, railroad watches on a whole were almost obsolete. Their heyday was during the 1890s-1940s where they were EXCLUSIVELY pocketwatches (wristwatches were not considered accurate, durable or large enough to be useful). If you want an AUTHENTIC, period railroad chronometer watch, it pretty much HAS to be a pocketwatch. I'm not saying you can't get a wristwatch, just that these weren't as common.
 

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See, now that is interesting. When the RR watches started their jewel war in the 1890s, Waltham held out as long as they could with lower jewel counts, but lost market share due to the 'more jewels is better' idea. I recall reading that they bemoaned the change because the jewels that were added were of limited value other than for advertising, but to offset the price of the extra jewels in a competitive market - they had to skimp on other unseen areas of the watch.
That makes the 'Waltham Centennial' 100 jewel watch kind of ironic, doesn't it?
 

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That makes the 'Waltham Centennial' 100 jewel watch kind of ironic, doesn't it?
That watch wasn't made by the real Waltham Watch company, so it's irony value is limited. :)

I remember reading that when the jewel wars first started, Waltham was forced to go into its inventory of 15j Vanguards and upgrade them to 17j in order to sell them. Not a cheap proposition given that they were still using real jewels at that time, and the center jewels are the largest jewels in the watch.

In later years, when the standards rose to 19j and 21j, they initially capped the escape wheel and lever, but they found it was cheaper to jewel the mainspring barrel. A few clandestine letters ensued between Waltham and Elgin, and all of a sudden everyone was jeweling the barrel instead of adding cap jewels.

The real irony is that to some degree, these addition jewels actually degrade the robustness of the watch, which ought to have been a negative for railroad use. The jewels on the center wheel do very little to reduce friction or wear (the center wheel only makes one revolution per hour!), but its large size makes it fairly fragile and more prone to crack then many other jewels in the watch.
 

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If you are lucky you can pick up a RR watch for about $100. Today I found a 1922 Ball 999 in fantastic condition for slightly over $100 out the door. It looks great, no brassing on the case and no chips or cracks in the dial and it seems to have been services sometime in the last 90 years. ;) It also came on a gold chain.

Chad
 
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