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Founded in Elgin, Ill. in August of 1864, the Elgin Watch Company grew to be the most prolific of American watch manufacturers. Originally known as the National Watch Co., it was founded by former employees of Waltham who felt that a watch factory in the nation's Midwest would be beneficial in distributing goods to America's rapidly expanding West.
It had a long and illustrious history as a manufacturer of pocket watches, and the company's railroad-approved pocket watches continue to be classic collectibles. Elgin made its first railroad pocket watch in 1867 and its last in 1965, just shy of a century. But what many people may not know is that Elgin led the way in wrist watch production during the 1920s, while other American makers continued to treat wrist watches as a sideline to pocket watches.
In 1920, wrist watches comprised 48% of Elgin's output (compared with 4% for Hamilton and 28% for Waltham). The company produced more than half the watches made in America (both wrist and pocket) from 1920 through 1928. An Elgin advertisement in 1928 claimed there were more than 14,418 retail jewelers in the United States, and all but 12 of them carried Elgins.
During the '40s and '50s, Elgin not only dominated the United States market, but held a stronghold in Mexico and Latin America. Print advertisements containing testimonials from such American actors as Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Fonda proclaimed Lord and Lady Elgins were, "Exactos como las estrellas!" (Exact as the stars!)
Starting in the mid to late 1930s, Elgin introduced a new line of wrist watches called "Lord Elgin." They were designed to compete with other manufacturers whose watches were perceived as "premium." They are a step up from the regular Elgins in a couple of respects:
* They were almost always fitted with 21-jewel movements rather than 17- and occasionally 19-jewel movements for the regular Elgins.
* Gold-filled cased Lord Elgins were usually had gold-filed tops and backs, compared with stainless or base metal backs for plain Elgins.
Elgin made watches for the military, from WWI past WWII. WWI-era watches are usually seen with wire lugs. WWII models came in hack and non-hack variety, as well as a "canteen" case with screwdown crown that is particularly valuable.
Some of the most desirable Elgins are:
* Enameled cases from the 1920s;
* Doctor's duo-dial models from the '30s and '40s;
* The 50-millionth anniversary watch produced in the '50s. They are cased in a massive 18kt solid gold case with movable lugs. They are serial numbered 50 million to 50,000,999.
* The Lord Elgin direct reading watches from the 1950s. They come in three varieties: rectangular case, round case with plain bezel; round case with dimpled bezel (also called the "golfball watch."
From that illustrious and prolific history, the watch company fell victim in the '50s and '60s to cheap imports and the success of "throw-away" watches from Timex. In 1965, Elgin's main plant in Illinois was closed. A South Carolina plant was phased out in 1967. Rights to the name have bounced around from owner to owner since then, and it is possible to see the Elgin name in modern times. Of course, these modern Elgins are of little interest to collectors of vintage wrist watches.
The fact that Elgin wrist watches are so plentiful makes certain collectors turn up their noses. But many people collect them for just that reason. They like them because they can acquire many specimens at a reasonable cost and know that replacement parts are readily available. And case styles can be anything but boring. A variety of deco, retro-modern, and long-cases exist that can be purchased for quite a bit less than the price of similar styles found with the
Hamilton or Waltham names or expensive Swiss labels.
By: Bruce Shawkey
Additional text and images by Don Baker