Last updated on July 17, 2023
I have always owned a ‘nice’ watch, but in the last couple of years, I have been taking a much closer interest in the world of horology. I started collecting Swiss automatic watches, but then thought I would like to look for something different. For the last twelve months, I have taken an interest in antique watches. After all, there is far less chance of someone appearing in the office with an identical antique pocket watch than my Tissot automatic. Specifically, I collect watches that are at least 100 years old. I always want to see a hallmark on the case or movement which guarantees the age. I do the majority of research online when I’m looking for antique pocket watches.
Recently, I came across the Atlam Watches website. Their shop is located on the famous Portobello Road in London. I was looking for an antique silver watch chain and they had a good selection online, so I thought I would visit the store in person.
I have two silver pocket watches, a J W Benson silver fusee pocket watch (1883) and an English Lever pocket watch (1896), but neither has a watch chain. I was really looking for a single Albert watch chain dated to around the 1890s that I could use for both. Atlam’s had a good selection in that date range, so I noted the product codes and planned to visit on the following Saturday.
I am an introvert. I like people in small doses. In fact, I probably enjoy the company of watches more than people. It’s sad, but true, that sometimes I will sit in a quiet room and wind up one of my antique watches and listen to it tick. I much prefer that sound to the mindless drivel of small talk with people. I make this point because Portobello Road hosts a famous weekly antique market every Saturday. The one thing I wasn’t going to be able to avoid was people.
Portobello Road market
The train was crowded as I pulled into London Victoria and the station was heaving with tourists and their suitcases. I grimaced and ventured into the underground where the crowding got worse. When I emerged into the fresh air at Notting Hill Gate there was still no respite from the crowds. If anything, it got worse. The markets are famous and they bring hordes of tourists who are more interested in buying a plastic Portobello Road sign than looking at antiques. They lined the streets taking photos in the doorways along Portobello Road, an act which must thrill the residents.
I pushed my way through the crowd and made my way down the street and past the outdoor stalls. The permanent shops that line the roadside are where the true antiques are found. The market stalls in the street contain tatty tourist souvenirs and bric-a-brac, you would find better quality items in a car boot sale.
I made my way to the Atlam shop and walked inside. It’s not completely antique watches, these are contained in the glass-topped cabinets at the counter. The rest of the store contains silverware and decorative antiques. I was there for the antique watch chains so I made my way to the counter. The shop is quite small, so half a dozen customers make it seem busy. I found the watch chains under the glass cabinet and began examining them through the glass.
I was soon approached by a very helpful lady, Bettina, who is the owner of the store. She was very personable and happy to answer my questions about my antique pocket watches. She worked her way through the tray that contained all of the silver Albert chains, withdrawing the chains I was interested in according to the codes I had written down. The shop was busy and she was short-staffed, so occasionally she needed to see to other business, but she always came back to me with a smile. The customer service was excellent.
I learnt a number of things from Bettina in the thirty or so minutes we spent chatting.
- Acrylic lenses are warm to the touch compared to mineral glass. Acrylic wasn’t invented until 1928, so if your antique watch contains an acrylic lens it will certainly be a replacement. Mineral glass lenses are scratch-resistant, but shatter easily. Acrylic lenses are a little more resilient, but are more likely to scratch. Minor scratches can be polished out of acrylic.
- A decent power reserve on an antique pocket watch is 16-17 hours. My watches have a power reserve of approximately 24-29 hours, which is very good for an antique timepiece. The acceptable accuracy of an antique watch is between 5-10 minutes a day, so again I am lucky, with an accuracy with these two pieces of about 30 seconds a day. Update:17/07/2023 – all of the watches in my collection have a power reserve of at least 24 hours.
- Fusee is pronounced as it is written, fu-see, not fu-say. I wasn’t sure as I had heard both pronunciations from several dealers in online videos. I will take Bettina’s pronunciation as being correct as she has been in the business for thirty years.
- The chains on antique fusee watches can break if you wind them in the wrong direction, which can be a costly mistake. Fusee watches with the winding arbor on the back (English) of the case, wind anti-clockwise. Fusee watches with the winding arbor on the front (Swiss) wind clockwise. Be careful.
I can’t recommend Atlam Watches highly enough. Bettina spent a great deal of time answering questions from a complete novice, she was friendly, funny and I think she could talk watches all day. I bought the Albert chain shown below, which is the perfect match for my silver pocket watches. Bettina also gave me her office number and said she would be happy to answer any questions. In addition, she gave me permission to use Atlam’s images on my blog in return for a link to their website.
I will be back to Atlam Watches in the near future to purchase a double Albert watch chain for my collection. If you can bear the crowds of Portobello road, I highly recommend Atlam Watches.
Update: I made another great purchase in December 2021 from Atlam, a 19-jewel Limit pocket watch, c1910. It was a great addition to my collection. Due to the lockdown, it was purchased over the phone, all questions were answered and the watch was delivered in two days. This is a further example of the great service that Atlam provides.
A list of additional posts regarding antique watches can be found on the Guides page.