How old is my watch? This is probably the most common question watch collectors have. Sometimes it is easy to answer, and sometimes it is impossible. The reason: There have been a lot of watch manufacturing companies that have come and gone over the years. Many have gone out of business, while others destroyed records to save space. Some companies (as with the Gruen Watch Company), even lost rocords to fire or other natural disaster. The companies are not to blame. I am sure they had no idea that their timepieces would someday be collected. There are several ways to get an idea of when your watch was made.
I am slowly adding serial number tables to this site. Serial number records are available for many of the old pocket watch companies like AM Waltham, Elgin, South Bend etc. but not so common for wrist watches..
If serical number records are available for your watch, here's how to use them:
You will notice that there are many numbers stamped at various locations inside and outside your watch. They all mean different things. (See my section on OPENING A WATCH to learn how to get inside your watch). With the exception of BULOVA, the numbers on the inside and outside of the CASE ITSELF are ONLY for identification purposes - they mean nothing. The number you need is the serial number stamped on the MOVEMENT (i.e the inner workings). Write this number down and compare it to the charts on this website. This will give a good idea of the manufacture date. It will NOT tell you the actual date the watch was acquired... many watches spent years in warehouses before being sold... keep this in mind.
If there are some letters incoroporated in the serial number (common with Hamilton and Elgin) your watch was probably made AFTER the last date on the chart. Both companies went to a different serial number system and the date of manufacture is not determinable by these letter & number serials.
BULOVA: In the 1950's Bulova incorporated a symbol system to date the watches they manufactured. These numbers are stamped on the back (outside) of the case. If there is no two symbols, it could be that your watch was made before 1948. The code is very simple.. L=50, M=60, N=70, P=80, T=90. The code was usually stamped on the back of the watch case. For exabple, If you have a Bulova watch with the stamp M3 then it was made in 1963.
So, How do you determine the age of all of the others? Quite often it comes right down to what the watch looks like. Here are samples of the styles that each decade offered.
Note the thick hands, engraved patterns and bold design of all of these watches. These watches are typical of the "Deco" style of the teens and 20's. The Elgin and Hamilton were dated by serial number, while the Gruen was dated by an inscription on the back. The "New Haven" was dated by looking at the style of the watch. It looks very similar to the styly of the others. Therefore I think it is from the 1920's.
In the 1930's there was a style change from highly engraved cases to smoother cleaner lines. Notice that the watches from the early 1930's still have engraved cases. By the late 1930's mens watches were more masculine. Thin tank watches became fashionable. This was made possible by the advent of square movements. Until then all movements were round, limiting the designs. The Bulova and Hamilton stepped cases shown here on the left are a perfect example of this. Men were preferring tank watches, however only round movements were available, therefore the case was stepped to accomodate the movement and make the watch APPEAR to be square.
1957 Longines Automatic
MINT 1952 Hamilton "Brock"
(part of my personal collection)
1957-58 Hamilton "Pacer"
First battery operated watch!
1929-1932 Hamilton "Putnam"
The 1940's watch styles were very similar to the styles of the 30's. With only a few suttle changes. The lines were fairly rigid and angular. Even though watches were fairly small back then, the designs were bold and more masculine than before. Hour markers became less fancy.
A few words that sum up the 1950's are Futuristic, Automation, and expressive. A few years following the end of WWII america entered a period of prosperity, economic growth, and technical advancements in electronics and science. It seemed that all eyes were fixed on the future. Many (but not all) watches were affected by the vision of the future. As you can see from some of these examples, bold and fancy was back in style!
Also, round watches were once again in style. During the 50's round watches and "Tank" watches were evenly fashionable... but that was soon to change.
60's Benrus "3 Star"
1968 Omega Constellation
Most watches from the 60's were round. The style was fairly modern, and bold. 1960's watches were a little bigger than they had been before. Hands got a little wider and came to a sharper point. Dials were larger while the cases were made to be less of a focal point... looking straight at a watch from the 60's, you will many times notice that not too much of the case is visible. The dial and crystal go right to the edge and the lugs are smaller.
The 1970's... what can I say... These pictures sum it up perfectly. Bell bottoms, Disco, and big gawdy watches with thick heavy cases, wide square hands.