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Why does my antique pocket watch stop?

Last updated on February 3, 2024

If your antique pocket watch suddenly stops working, it is generally an indication that it is due a service or repair. Servicing, if done regularly, will keep your antique watch in good running order. For modern mechanical watches, it is generally recommended that they are serviced every five years if they are in constant use. If a watch is worn less frequently, for instance, on rotation in a collection, the service period can be extended. Likewise, antique watches will need servicing based on the level of use. Generally, a good indicator is the timekeeping of the watch. Once the antique watch is losing or gaining more than 5 minutes a day of accuracy, it will be time for a service. Listed below are the most common reasons why your antique watch might stop working.

The antique pocket watch does not wind fully

There are two common reasons why a pocket watch will not wind fully. The first is due to a broken winding mechanism, which should be repaired by an experienced watchmaker. The second reason is a broken mainspring. If it is the mainspring there will be a feel slight resistance as the watch is wound. Periodically, there will be a slight ‘click’ or ‘pops’ that releases the tension. In this case, the mainspring needs to be replaced.

The antique pocket watch starts ticking, but then stops

If your pocket watch is fully wound, starts ticking, but then stops working there are several possible causes. If the watch is working correctly in certain positions, but stops in others, the issue is likely to be in the balance. The balance staff pivots could be bent or broken. Alternatively, the hairspring could be in contact with another part of the watch. If this is the case, it needs to be examined by a watchmaker.

Cracked, broken or shattered jewels can also be responsible for the watch not moving. Sometimes, jewels will remain in place even when they are broken. This allows the watch to run for a short time before stopping. The damaged jewel(s) will need to be replaced by a watchmaker.

Escapement issues can also cause a watch to stop. An improper alignment could cause the watch to become overbanked and stop after running for a short period of time. The movement will need to be examined by a skilled watchmaker.

Escapement image from Wikipedia.
English and Swiss lever escapements.

The watch can also stop if the lubricant within the movement becomes gummy. This can cause the pivot points to seize and the watch stops ticking. In this instance, the watch requires a service, including new lubricants, by an experienced watchmaker.

Crossed or bent hands can also cause the watch to stop. If this is the cause, the hands will be in close alignment. This is particularly likely to happen on key-set movements because the key can often come into contact with the hands. It is also possible that the hands have come in contact with the underside of the crystal. In either case, it is worth taking the watch to an experienced watchmaker to have the hands straightened and re-seated. 

Is my antique pocket watch “overwound”?

This is a common misconception. There is really no such thing as an overwound watch. You should be able to wind a watch until it comes to a stop. At this point, the mainspring is unable to wind any further. However, if you use a lot of force and continue to wind it past the normal stopping point, then yes, you can do damage to the watch mechanism. If your watch has been wound but still does not tick, it’s more likely that it is one of the other scenarios within this page that caused the problem.

My antique pocket watch winds fully, but does not tick

If your antique pocket watch is fully wound, but doesn’t start to tick there are several possible causes. Sometimes, a gentle shake can set the movement in motion. However, a watch really should start to tick once there is sufficient power stored in the mainspring.

Check to see if the balance wheel is swinging freely. Also, see if the impulse jewel is intact and engaging with the pallet fork. The pallet jewels also need to be intact to interact correctly with the escape wheel. If the balance is functioning then the issue is going to be further up in the gear train.

The balance wheel.
Balance wheel.

Overall, the watch may need servicing if the lubricants have condensed and seized the movement. Additionally, there may be bent gears or pinions within the gear train, which can cause the movement to seize. Cracked, broken or shattered jewels can also be responsible for the movement seizing. The train should be tested for faults by an experienced watchmaker with replacements to components as needed.

If the balance wheel does not swing freely it could indicate a broken balance staff, a collision issue or a disengaged hairspring. A broken balance staff would need to be replaced. Collision issues can occur when the hairspring, balance wheel, or balance screws are rubbing against another part of the watch, preventing the balance from moving freely. If the hairspring is damaged or disengaged from the balance mechanism, it will also stop the balance from working correctly. All of these issues would need to be resolved by an experienced watchmaker.

Antique watch servicing

First, the antique watch is completely disassembled. The components are then treated in an ultrasonic cleaner. An ultrasonic cleaner is a tool for cleaning watch parts using ultrasound to agitate a solution to clean the component. The cleaner creates waves of ultrasound, and the vibrations cause cavitation, where tiny bubbles form and disappear. This movement of the solution helps remove and dissolve the dirt, leaving the component clean. Cleanliness is critically important to the proper operation of any antique watch. The components are left to completely dry after the cleaning process.

Once clean, the components can be reassembled. Each part is carefully inspected, adjusted, and lubricated before being added to the movement. Broken or damaged components will be replaced. The final assembly consists of re-attaching the dial and hands and re-casing the watch. Each watch is then timed on an electronic watch timing-machine for best-possible timekeeping. The watch can be regulated and it is possible to achieve a high level of accuracy even on an antique timepiece. An accuracy of 1 – 2 minutes a day is considered respectable and reliable for an antique watch.

Related content

The Escapement at Wikipedia.

A list of additional posts regarding antique watches can be found on the Guides page.


  1. Raul Raul

    I have an antique pocket watch that I wind, but it won’t start ticking until I shake it. Then it works and keeps good time, but randomly stops until I shake it again. What is wrong with it? Thanks, Raul

    • Jason Jason

      Hi Raul, the fact that it works at all is a good sign. It probably stops because the movement is in need of a service, which will include cleaning of all components and relubrication. The oils in the movement dry out over time and friction increases, causing the watch to stop. Find a good watchmaker and get your antique pocket watch serviced. Thanks for commenting, Jason.

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