When it comes to American watchmakers, few names can boast the kind of renown associated with the Elgin Watch Company. This brand got its start just a couple decades after the end of the Industrial Revolution and operated through 1968.
Let’s take a look at how this brand developed and talk about some of the most beautiful and distinctive timepieces the company developed.
Elgin Was Born as the National Watch Company
Originally, Elgin wasn’t known as Elgin. It was incorporated first in Chicago as the “National Watch Company” in August 1864. There were some pretty big names among the founders. Benjamin W. Raymond, for example, had served two terms as Chicago’s mayor. Another founder, Philo Carpenter, was the first pharmacist ever in Illinois. George Montague Wheeler was a famous explorer and mapmaker. Other founders included Howard Z. Culver, Thomas S. Dickerson, and W. Robbins.
Within a month of the company’s inception, the founders travelled to the town of Waltham in Massachusetts. You may know Waltham as the home of the Waltham Watch Company. After they made their pitch, seven expert watchmakers who became known as the “Seven Stars” accompanied them back to Illinois to work at the burgeoning company.
The National Watch Company needed somewhere to locate their factory, so they set their sights on Elgin, Illinois. The owners of the estate they were interested in set up some roadblocks to purchasing the property, but they did eventually end up acquiring 71 acres at a cost of $3,550.
The Elgin Vision: Uniting Quality Craftsmanship with Mass Produced Parts
The reason for emphasizing that the Elgin brand came into being not long after the Industrial Revolution is because this played a role in the company’s unique approach to watchmaking.
Elgin was looking to answer a key pain point in the watch market. For almost their entire history, individual crafters made individual watches. There was no mass production involved.
While this did result in stunning timepieces, it could shorten the lifespan of a watch, or greatly inconvenience its owner. There was no way to order a pre-existing replacement part if something busted or got lost. An entirely new part had to be handcrafted. This could be time-consuming and pricey.
Elgin’s purchase of a large plot of land meant that it could focus on machined, interchangeable parts. Indeed, there was no larger watchmaking worksite anywhere on the planet for almost a century.
The National Watch Company’s Early Watches
The earliest timepieces produced by the company were named for its founders. These included the 1867 “Benjamin W. Raymond” movement, which was Elgin’s first, as well as the 1867 “H. Z. Culver” watch. Subsequent watches that year and the next also were named for board of directors members. The original Lady Elgin 10 size movement released in May of 1869.
Why the Name Change?
Why did the National Watch Company ultimately end up changing its name in 1874? The reason is that a lot of people didn’t bother to refer to it by its proper name. When its watches were spoken of, people simply called them “Watches from Elgin,” or “Elgin Watches.”
Rather than fight against the current, the company decided to capitalize on this, and officially renamed itself to “The Elgin National Watch Company.”
Wartime Watches and Activities
The Elgin National Watch Company played a role in both WWI and WWII. During the First World War, workers at the Elgin manufacturing site were tasked with teaching hundreds of soldiers repair techniques. Over the course of the Second World War, Elgin switched from manufacturing watches for the general public to crafting timepieces and other parts for the military.
One famous example is the Elgin Military Ordnance Wrist Watch. With its canvas strap and its precision design, it delivered both comfort and accuracy to US troops. Today, you can pick up one of these in the $100-$300 range.
Art Deco Watches
You will notice while researching Elgin watches that quite a few of the company’s timepieces featured the streamlined forms of Art Deco design work.
One example would be the Art Deco Lord Elgin 559 watch. This timepiece features a rectangular face—common with men’s Elgin watches. Only “12,” “2,” “4,” “8,” and “10” are inscribed, leaving ample space between the numbers (wide spacing like this is a common element in Art Deco).
Another famous example is the Lelong Lady Tiger. This watch is a breathtaking piece of art, also featuring a rectangular face and frame. Along with a gorgeous typeface for the brand name and the numbers, it features engravings on the frame with the streamlined curves of a woman and tiger in profile. Needless to say, this watch would be quite the acquisition. If you manage to find it for sale, of course.
The End of the Elgin Brand
With around a century of quality, stylish watchmaking to its name, you may wonder why the Elgin brand no longer exists today. The answer is complicated, but involves the rising popularity of Swiss watches in the 1950s in combination with government contract issues.
You may sometimes stumble across a watch which bears the Elgin name and which is dated sometime after 1968. This is because the company sold the trademark, which exchanged hands repeatedly. The bottom line is that only Elgin watches manufactured prior to the original company’s demise are “true” Elgin timepieces.
Elgin Watches Today
Most Elgin watches today which are in good working condition can be purchased for anywhere from $50 to $300. Some of the more luxurious or rare pieces may run you more than $1,000. Watches which are damaged in some fashion may sell for significantly less than $100.
This is quite cheap compared to Swiss vintage watches, and even to other American brands such as Waltham or Hamilton. Why? I really like the explanation that GeneJockey (who runs a blog about Elgin watches) gave:
Elgins back in the day were good, solid, quality watches. They were priced a little below Hamiltons, and they sold a hell of a lot more. But Hamilton had always marketed its watches as premium products and Elgin made a broad range of watches from very affordable 7j watches to very expensive 19-23j ones cased in solid gold, even platinum. Elgin was THE biggest producer of jeweled watches in the world, which means they’re more common by far than Hamiltons.
My take on it is that collectors don’t want what their Dad owned. They want what their Dad WANTED. Everybody’s Dad had an Elgin watch, and Ford or Chevy sedan. But everybody’s Dad WANTED a Hamilton watch and a Thunderbird or Corvette. So, Elgins are like the Ford Galaxie or Chevy Impala, and Hamiltons are like the T-birds and Corvettes. Collectors want the T-birds and Corvettes.
Makes a lot of sense to me.
If you do purchase an Elgin watch or movement, you will own a piece of American manufacturing history. Elgin was one of the first brands to really see the potential of industrialization when it came to watchmaking. With its reputation for consistency paired with its stylish Art Deco designs, Elgin created a legacy which will long outlast the company’s 105-year history.