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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!

The Elgin Grade 760, 761 Service Bulletin


The Elgin grades 760 and 761 are automatic (self-winding) watches, designed and built in America by the Elgin National Watch Company between 1958 and about 1960. These movements are believed to be the only automatic movement ever made in the United States. Other Elgin automatics from this era are Swiss imported movements. These watches are relitively rare and parts are very hard to find.

The 760 is the base grade. It is a 30 jewel model. The 761 is a 27 jewel variation. Most parts interchange between the 760 and 761, but not with other Elgin models. Both movements feature sweep seconds, a Dura-Balance, and a unique non-regulator beat adjustment device.

In many ways, the Elgin grades 760 and 761 were the last gasp of the Elgin company which was in decline in the face of mounting Swiss competition. Rather than create "cheap" watches in large numbers, the company created a new pinnacle of technology and proudly printed "American Made" on the dial. But these were among Elgin's final products. The company went out of business in 1968.

The 760 and 761 movements include many innovation features and are often refered to as forgotten masterpieces.

The Elgin Service Bulletin, 1960:
http://www.rdrop.com/~jsexton/watches/museum/760/760.html

An Elgin Grade 315 With a Unique Case

Here's another Elgin Grade 315m 12 size, 15 jewel model.  This one has a very unusual oval case, with a snap front and back.


It's worth mentioning here that Elgin never made pocketwatch cases.  In those days, the common practice was that a customer would pick out a movement and a case separately at the shop and the watchmaker or jeweler would assemble them together.


Made about 1916...
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Another Elgin Grade 291

This 16 size, 7 jewel pocketwatch has an unusual case.

It's a plain material, and a typical threaded front and back construction, but there is a sort of chamfer and cove detail around the bezel and edge of the back.

The back has a unique pattern as well. I've never seen anything like it.

This movement was made about 1917.

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Elgin Grade 221

Here's another 16 size Elgin, similar to those in recent posts.


This is a 15 jewel model, this example made about 1904.
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Elgin Grade 210

The 210 is another 16 size, 7 jewel Elgin variation.

This one has roman numerals and a plain nickel case. This would have been a common watch in 1900, when it was made.

The 16 size designs were simple and practical, and more suitable to everyday use and clothing than the earlier 18 size models.  These are the watches that really grew the Elgin company.
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Elgin Grade 290

The grade 290 is a simple model, 16 size, 7 jewels.

This is a particularly good example, made about 1915.
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Elgin Grade 108

The grade 108 has a few interesting features.  The plate layout is unusual for an Elgin movement of this size, and the regulator has a micro adjustment design that Elgin did not commonly use.  The "damaskeen", the decorative finish, is also unusual.

This is a 16 size, 15 jewel movement.  The gold-filled case on this example, made about 1889, is quite worn but the decoration is still visible.

Unusual hands also...


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Elgin Grade 494

The grade 494 is quite a nice 16 size pocketwatch movement.  It's a 23 jewel design, lever-set, with a motor barrel and an up/down wind indicator.

The wind  indicator shows power remaining, in the form of run-time, on the mainspring.

This watch was made about 1934.

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Elgin Grade 312

Here's an especially good grade 312 movement, made about 1908.



It's a 15 jewel, 16 size watch, with a micro regulator.
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Another Elgin Grade 454


This watch is very similar to this one, but was made two years later in 1920.

It's another Father Time model, 16 size, 21 jewels, lever-set and the same double-sunk dial.

This case is threaded front and back though, and has no decorative design.
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Elgin Grade 454



Here's a nice one.  This is an Elgin grade 454, Father Time model; 16 size, 21 jewels.  This is one of the best watches of its era, no matter how you look at it.

This one has a 20 year gold-filled, swing-out, open-face case with engine turned details.  It's as near to new condition as you're likely to find.

It was made about 1918.
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Vintage Parts

The other day I needed a mainspring for a watch.  It wasn't an unusual watch so I didn't think much of it, I have quite a few such parts.  I did in fact find the right part without any trouble also, but it turns out that it was the only one I had.

This particular watch has two variations and the mainspring is one of the differences.  I have quite a few of the other type, but I only had one of he type I needed.  When this happens, I try to get on the computer and see if I can locate some more parts.  But in all the usual places, I could only find one single example available.  Plenty of the other style, but not so much of these...

These parts were extremely common as late as a year ago.  But things are changing fast.  In this particular case, I doubt I would have any trouble locating more spares given a little time and more hunting.  I may even have more on hand that I have not sorted through.  But it's getting harder.

Every time a watch is handled, there's a chance of dropping it.  But spare parts for even common vintage watches are getting much harder to acquire, really fast.  This I can't stress enough, I don't think people appreciate how quickly the day is coming when repair will be very difficult.  More parts are going to have to be fabricated, where that is possible.  And that is going to change the cost and time required a great deal.

Elgin Grade 312

This is a popular 16 size model, 15 jewels, made about 1918 in this instance.




Nice open-face case on this one too.




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Hugo


I recently watched Hugo, the 2011 film directed by Martin Scorsese (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0970179/).  This film has a theme roughly relating to watchmaking, in the form of automatons, mechanical toys and large clocks.  It has a nice story, excellent performances and completely enjoyable visual effects.

It also provides provokes some thoughts on something that is often on my mind about watchmaking, perhaps particularly in the day and age.

The film explores the life of a young boy living alone in a 19th century train station.  We learn, he has an aptitude for mechanics and he uses his skills, secretly, to maintain the clocks in the train station.  He fixes things.

As the story unfolds we learn further that the boy is haunted by what’s “wrong” with his role in life, he is specifically troubled by the death of his father.  The boy sees the world as a vast clockwork, each tiny piece, or person, serving a function.  But his life, his own role, it seems, is as something like a left-over part, something that should not exist.  The desire to fix broken things, as a hunt for answers about his own life, is set up as the motivation for the boy’s mechanical skills, the desire to understand the death of his father, and this provides the spine of the film.

It’s the stuff of good story-telling.  The film sets up a number of characters, each with their own troubles in life, and the thread of the film is the way the boy, unknowingly at first, takes up a role in “fixing” these things.

This is what watch and clockmakers do, they fix broken things - they make each part function toward the overall design, and put each piece right, with none left over.  The personal tales in the film nicely hang on this theme.

I liked the film.  But it does fall into a trap that illustrates the view of watchmaking in popular culture, today certainly, and maybe always to an extent.  The boy’s skills are displayed in the film with a sort of magical quality.  In montages, he reaches for mystery tool after mystery tool, fitting odd bits of gears and springs together, and with a wave of the hand (or a few cuts anyway), the clock, the wind-up toy, the automaton all come alive and perform amazing feats.  In the world of this film, mechanics play a critical visual role.  But it’s also a world where a random handful of gears and pinions can be quickly transformed into some amazing machine, as if by the magic; clockmaking  becomes magical, almost literally, in the supernatural sense.  A couple of scenes even go so far as to directly associate clock work with sleight of hand (literally card tricks).

Yet something I find personally enjoyable about watchmaking is that is is nothing like this.  In fact it is completely the opposite!  There is no magic.  None, at all.  Mechanical watches work by virtue of a little straightforward Newtonian physics and a whole lot of high school geometry.  And that’s it.  Everything going on in a watch is completely understandable.  There are no magic parts.

In this day and age very few things are like that.  A computer programmer, for example, may know a good deal about a computer language, but not the operating system.  Even if they do know a lot about the operating system, there’s sure to be “magic” a little further down toward the computer hardware.  

Automobiles are an extremely common mechanical thing in our world.  And yet, virtually no one can claim to really understand all the construction of all their components right down to the most basic.  In most things, at some level, the knowledge of a domain expert reaches a foundation layer.  What is below that, must be taken for granted - it’s magic.

Not so in a mechanical watch.  It’s all right there in plain sight.  It only works one way, as designed. And it all must be exactly right for this to happen. It is not encumbered with anything magical.  Hugo, and popular culture, notwithstanding, a random handful any old unrelated of gears can not be assembled into a mechanical device that does anything at all, any more than a heap of random scrap iron can be assembled in a weekend into a replacement for your car’s transmission.

There’s a few minor problems in the film also.  Some of the events seem not well grounded.  A couple of things seem to happen for the sake of the film, and not because the character has a clear motivation.  Those are small issues.  Hugo is a good film and well worth a view, even for a watchmaker.  But, it is the order and strict “sense” of clockworks that colors and troubles the boy’s world in Hugo.  Yet the tendency to slip into clockworks as “magic” ironically undermines that theme.   It makes the difference between a very good movie and a great one.

Elgin Grade 387

This is another Elgin model that's not hard to find.  It's a 16 size, 17 jewel, pocketwatch, this one made about 1914.

This example is a particularly clean movement with a double-sunk dial and a case hinged both front and back.


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