Classic watches, watchmaking, antique tools, history, vintage ephemera and more!

Learn about mechanical timepieces and how they work, the history of the American watch industry and especially all about the Elgin National Watch Company! Check back for new content daily.

Although this is technically a blog, the content is not generally in a time-based sequence. You can find interesting items throughout. Down the page some is an alphabetical word cloud of keywords used here. A great way to dig in is to look through those topics and click anything you find interesting. You'll see all the relevant content.

Here are a few of my favorites!

There are some large images on some posts, so that might impact your load times, bit I think you will find it worth the wait. Thanks for visiting!

Time and The Amondawa

Amazonian rainforest, upper Amazon basin, Lore...Image via Wikipedia"...a team of researchers from University of Portsmouth and Federal University of Rondonia claim that the Amondawa, a small Amazonian tribe, speak a language with a very uncommon conceptualization of time."


The tribe is claimed to have no words abstracting time into physical phenomenon or time periods, such as "year."

"Rather than having a time-space metaphor, the Amondawa conceptualization of time is based on “social activity, kinship and ecological regularity."

The very idea of a clock is the approximation of time as a mechanically controlled release of kinetic energy.  If a culture truly had no concepts relating time to physical experience, could they ever invent a clock?
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New Variations in Electric Clocks?

Brockhaus-Efron Electric Clocks 3Image via Wikipediahttp://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43532031/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/

In between the purely mechanical era and quartz becoming common, clocks that based time on 60 cycle household current were very common.

"Since 1930, electric clocks have kept time based on the rate of the electrical current that powers them. If the current slips off its usual rate, clocks run a little fast or slow. Power companies now take steps to correct it and keep the frequency of the current — and the time — as precise as possible."

In fact, electric clocks can be more accurate than quartz timers.  This type of clock still exists, but is much less common than it used to be.  Increasingly, consumer devices get time from a cable or phone service, or via the internet.

Power companies are now expected to begin experimenting with reducing the corrections that currently keep the power system's frequency steady.

"wall clocks and those on ovens and coffeemakers — anything that flashes "12:00" when it loses power — may be just a bit off every second, and that error can grow with time."
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Elgin Advertising, 1929

Internationally famed Paris creator now designs six new cases


Now Lelong puts into watches that same chic you find in a frock that bears his noted label.  The same flair for style, the same air of worldly charm.  And the vast efficient ELGIN factory makes a stylist's dream a reality to gleam upon your wrist.

And such versatile watches, these Lelong models.  Harmoniously in the picture, whether the golf course, or the tea table is your background.  Then, too... it's so simple to have extra ribbons to match the colors of your evening gowns and your Parisienne watch will give a true Parisian flair to your formal hours.

Three are plain; three are inlaid with lustrous hard enamel.  And all are brilliantly smart.  Ask any jeweler to show you hos sparkling tray of ELGIN Parisiennes.  And not only Lucien Lelong, Agnes, Jenny, Premet, and a group of equally prominent leaders of the Paris Grande Couture are represented.

A Parisienne costs but $35, there is no duty on designs.  Style genius pays no fees at the customs house.  Paris style... at a truly American price!

Elgin Grade 454, Father Time

This is a 16 size Elgin grade 454. It is a 21 jewel railroad grade watch made about 1921.

It is in a swing-out style case.

These movements were used for marine navigation right up into the 1960s.

"Just" Work

Servicing a watch is labor intensive and requires years of training and practice and an array of specialized tools. The majority of people that send me watches know this well.  But the cost of watch service is sometimes a surprise to potential customers.  I have been told it should cost $X where $X would not cover the cost of the oil.

Now and then a customer will say something like "This watch runs fine, it just needs Y," Y being anything from a mainspring, to a crystal, to a hand, to a time adjustment, a stem adjustment, or anything else. Watchmakers sometimes call this "just work," as in "just do this," and watchmakers typically don't do it.

There's good reason for this. For one thing, as soon as a watchmaker touches the watch they will be responsible for anything that is already wrong.  The owner may think it "just" needs a jewel, or a hand, but what is really wrong?  The watchmaker will likely end up doing the whole service anyway, but for free.  The watchmaker can not stand behind the work if the entire service has not been done so as to make sure the entire watch is entirely in good condition.

Another thing is that a watch may "run fine," but that's in the same way a car may "run fine" if it's oil is never changed. Yes, it will run fine. Until it doesn't.

Over at chadthewatchguy.com there's a nice set of photos showing just one of the reasons an old watch should get complete service at least once before beginning a new life as a family heirloom, and why any watch in regular use needs regular service.  It's what happens when slight damage, too slight to directly impact time keeping, gets started. Debris, from anything, gets into pivots, stuck in the oil, and acts as an abrasive. In pretty short order, a part is ruined. Ruining a part on an antique is a real shame. It's one less spare part that exists in the world.

Check in out here:

When you hear someone say that a watch that hasn't been cleaned in decades "runs fine", or you're browsing eBay for old watches that "run", think of those pivots.
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Elgin Veritas Wheels

Here's the wheels of an Elgin Veritas, definitely one of the best American true railroad pocketwatches ever produced.
It's always nice to see one of these.

A Long Way

I received a pocketwatch in need of service today all the way from Croatia.
Plus a bonus shell, thanks!

Elgin Part Numbers

The parts inventory numbering systems used by old watch companies are quite interesting, and confounding to the modern way of thinking.  But their systems were devised without computers, in fact even before what we would think of as common sense filing techniques.  It is odd to think that "modern" numbering and organizing systems were "invented", but it's true.

Here pictured are a couple of new old stock (NOS) Elgin wristwatch parts.  One package has a printed label reading "660 138 Lever Setting" and the other one reads "660 40 Clamp Minute Wheel".

The first package contains a setting lever and the second package contains a minute wheel clamp.  The back of the packages are transparent so we can see the parts.
So what do the numbers mean?
660 is the grade number of the watch this part will go with.
40 and 138 are the factory part number for this type of part.  Not a specific parts, but the type of part.  The number 40 is the number for a minute wheel clamp, while the number 138 is for setting levers.  You can find a list of these part numbers here: http://www.rdrop.com/~jsexton/watches/partNumbers1.html

But wait!  There's more!

Suppose you need to find a winding arbor for an Elgin grade 667 wristwatch.  The factory part type number for an "Arbor, Winding" is 3.  One might think you need to look for a package labled "667 3 Arbor Winding".  But this is not so.  First, one must consult the Elgin interchange tables.

Here we have part of a page from an Elgin Service Manual printed around 1960.  This section covers winding arbors.

Note that the forth column over has the number "660" in bold at the top.  The numbers below that include 661, 662, etc, and 667.  This tells us that a grade 667 watch will need a winding arbor labeled 660.

There is not an obvious system to these parts and numbers in the interchange tables.  The fact that a grade 667 watch takes the same arbor as 660, and others, tells you very little about what other parts are shared among those grades.  The "master numbers" if you will, such as 660 in this case, are not always the ones in bold for all parts.  For another part 660 may be listed in a non-bold column under some other main interchange grade.  To find the number of the package you want, you scan the entire section for the grade number and see what the main interchange grade is for that part.

Of course that are caveats.
  • The interchange information is not complete.  Very late grade are not there.  Early Elgin watches (pocketwatches) used a different parts system, although parts for early grade were made and sold using the newer system too.  Swiss import grade are categorized differently.
  • The interchange data is sometimes incorrect.  I have 3 or 4 of these Elgin manuals containing various updates mailed out by Elgin.  They are all sprinkled with their prior owners' handwritten corrections and notes.
  • Sometimes the part type number is not printed on the package.
  • Sometimes the part type number and the grade number are reversed. 
  • Sometimes the specific grade number is on the package, rather than the interchange grade.
  • Sometimes the number on the package is a "cabinet refill number," also called a "bottle number" (see below).
  • Lastly, this is not Elgin's only parts system, there are two others!
In earlier times Elgin devised a different system, and it's not as though they switched systems at some point either.  These two parts numbering schemes were both in use at the same time.  The other parts numbers are known as "bottle numbers", "cabinet numbers", "refill numbers", or sometimes "order numbers."  These numbers originate with Elgin parts cabinets, made early on the company's history as a sort of kit for watchmakers that repaired Elgin watches.

As an aside, it's worth mentioning that these parts assortments were an innovation on Elgin's part.  They had the watch college where the trained watchmakers in Elgin products, and they had a standardized kit of parts, which could be refilled.  It gave Elgin a distinct advantage in that their products were far easier to service, and easier for watch owners to find quality service for.  The standardized parts assortments were key to making Elgin one of the largest industrial companies in the world, in its day.

Here are some bottles from an Elgin parts assortment.  The key to these parts is a cardboard listing that came with the assortment organized by the type of part, and the watch size, keeping in mind that this system was developed at a time when the products were entirely pocketwatches, and there were relatively few grades.

Bottle numbers occur throughout various parts documentation, and are not limited to parts that were ever actually included in a parts assortment.

Just when you might think it's safe to leave this topic, there is one more set of numbers.

The labeling scheme and the cabinet number were both intended to aid in watchmakers or jobbers obtaining parts.  But there are also "factory numbers".  Factory number are part-specific numbers, largely used internally, for specific parts.  These numbers don't include a reference to the watch model, size or grade, nor do they relate to other systems.  Yet it is common to see original Elgin parts labeled with the factory number.  The factory part numbers that go with specific grades, by part type, are documented in the Elgin Genuine Materials Catalog (which is different from the Service Manual).

I find Elgin factory original mainsprings particularly annoying to organize since they are commonly labeled with a mix of either a bottle number, a factory number or both.  Also, factory numbers are sometimes more specific.  In other words there may be different factory numbers for a given cabinet number, at least for mainsprings.  And besides all that, the detailed dimension data on original mainspring packages sometimes varies within the same numbers.

I have never seen a complete cross reference of bottle numbers and factory numbers, but it is possible to map them using third party inventory systems, which many watchmakers used and continue to use today, as an intermediary - a topic for another day.

A Fine Longines Pocketwatch

This Longines is a bit larger than a standard 18 size watch, and its heavy silver hunter case case gives it an even more substantial feel.  It is stem wound and lever-set.  

My watch history knowledge is more limited when it comes to pieces like this.  I mostly stick to American makes.  So I can't say much about the lineage of this piece of the top of my head.  If I had to guess I'd put it in the ballpark of 1900.  Some of it's parts are somewhat roughly finished indicating early machinery and some handwork.

Perhaps someone with more information will comment.

I was unfortunately unable to do a repair on this watch.  It needs a part that in spite of all efforts could not be located.   It's mainwheel is all chewed up.  The watch as a result can not be wound or set.  This is a shame because it is in good condition otherwise.  I put just a little power on the mainspring and it ran nicely for about an hour.  
Really nice watch...

Tracey Appleton

Here's a real nice Waltham.

This is a Tracey Appleton model, with gold flashed plates, 18 size, 15 jewels, made about 1883.

It's very big, very heavy, and features an older style dial marking reading "American Waltham".

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