Whether you have a simple antique pocket watch, railroad watch, or an elegant Waltham, Hamilton, or Elgin pocket watch, this post will set out some guidelines for you as you clean your watch at home.
For this job, I recommend having Hagerty’s purple silver polish and their dry silver polish in an aerosol can on hand. Cleaning a pocket watch is entirely a dry process to protect the movement.
Decide how polished you would like your watch. If you want to keep it looking aged, then leave tarnish in the recesses of your watch design. Polish slowly, stopping when you reach the look you like.
Carefully open your watch; do not force it. Typically, watches pry off (look for a small lip), screw off, or have a small catch that need to be pressed for it to spring off.
Take the watch apart into pieces so you can see the movement. This would be a great time to write down your watch’s serial number to research your watch’s manufacture year. We do not recommend cleaning the movement yourself. Usually cleaning it is not necessary, as they are well protected within the watch.
Opposite of the movement, you will have the dial. The hands of the dial must be treated rather tenderly. Dab a Q-Tip in Windex and carefully clean the dial. If you have painted numbers of any sorts, do not use this method. I cleaned a Tiffany & Company piece once that had a painted repair to its dial. The repaired numbers washed off! Most watches do have enamel over the dial and can be cleaned. If you must move the hands to clean the dial, only move them clockwise. You can use the same method for cleaning glass. If your dial has any hairline cracks in it, make this as dry of a process as possible.
To clean the case inside and out, work slowly with a ventilated area, spraying the dry polish on a small, clean rag. Then work it into the gold or silver. Do not spray the polish directly on the watch. As you clean, put the watch back together.
Looking for a great way to get the outer rim of the watch polished? Take an old, clean towel and fold it several layers thick on your counter top. Rub some of Hagerty’s wet purple silver polish into the towel. Then rub the outer edge of your watch on the towel. This is a great, dry way, to clean the sides of the outside of your pocket watch. This method can be used for almost all pocket watch edges, but only use this method on the cover of your watch if your watch is thick and there is no possibility you with dent in the cover as you rub. The art of cleaning precious metals is in weight distribution. Make sure you only apply pressure when you are holding the watch in such a way that your weight will not dent the metal. The higher carat gold your watch is, the more careful you must be.
As a general rule, you do not want to use toothbrushes for gold polishing (even very soft ones). Especially on large flat areas like pocket watch cases and monogram cartouches, light scratches will show.
Once finished, leave it open to dry for at least several hours. Keep the hinge down against the counter top and not in the air to keep it less vulnerable to being accidentally damaged by weight. Once it’s dried thoroughly, you’re ready to use it or display it.