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!

Daily Use Watches

Want to use your great-grandfather's watch everyday? I hear this a lot. Just about every single day in fact...

I have many regular customers that use antique watches everyday. And that's why they are regular customers. They understand that antique watches require care and feeding.

They also are willing to pay the ever increasing cost of the parts they consume. I wish I could impress upon more people the spare parts situation. Parts for these watches have not been made for decades, or even a century. Every time something is broken that is one less factory part that exists in the world. We're running out, fast. I notice this almost month to month now. For example, in full plate 18 size American watches, the pallet arbor pivots are often broken. On Elgins, as recently as a year ago I could still buy this part NOS. As of a few months ago, they are now gone. Completely. The next time someone sends me a watch with that part broken, they are in for a surprise at the cost of repivoting, or making a new part from scratch.

And some parts can't be made, at least not by me.  A few years ago, the last major maker of mainsprings discontinued a vast array of springs.  They still make the very most common ones, but for most, we are burning through the remaining inventory.  Than that's that.

Also, no matter how much you think it won't happen, every time a watch is handled, there is a chance of dropping it.  It happens.  Believe me.  I get watches from experienced collectors, watches that I worked on before, and they have to send again because they dropped it.  When that happens, the balance staff, at least, is almost always broken - and that's one less part in the world.  Elgin, Waltham and Hamilton staffs are still pretty common.  But it's getting to be tough for others.  When a replacement is not available, it has to be fabricated, from scratch, by hand.

Antique watches also have eccentricities and issues, and accuracy is just the beginning. When the sort of watches I work on were originally made it was not uncommon for people to walk around with watches that ran 10 minutes off per day, or more. People expect me to get to under a minute a day, and mostly I do. But what many people do not realize is that on many watches, that adjustment will not hold over time, particularly in low jeweled movements. Also, people don't realize the degree to which the rate fluctuates during the day, and due to temperature changes and motion - especially on the older pieces. It's not magic, I can't make them not have problems that are inherent to the early designs.

Antiques can be hard to use too. I've been asked all sorts of things, like can I make a watch not tick so loud? Can I make it easier to wind? One person complained to me once about key-setting being awkward. "Why on earth did they make them like this?" I was asked. I had to gently point out that it was 150 years ago and better designs had not been invented yet.

My Grandfather told me that in such situations, it was a good idea to point out to people that in the 19th century the pocketwatch was considered a technologically superior alternative to the sun dial.

There's something about watches that doesn't seem to apply to other antiques. No one inherits their great-grandfather's Model T Ford and immediately expects to drive it to work everyday as a regular commuter vehicle. Yet people do exactly this with watches all the time!

I own a lot of watches... I have quite a few basic, reliable, not especially valuable, antiques that I cycle through occasional use, especially if I am going to be someplace where it might come up and I can talk to people about watches. But my true everyday watch is a cheap-ish Seiko 5 automatic wristwatch. And when I need to know the time, accurately, I use my phone or my computer, both of which get their time online.

Just as another example, early American pocketwatches use the English style tangential lever escapement, which is unstable when moved around. Around 1900 or so, American makers switched to the superior Swiss style lever which operates perpendicular to the escape wheel. The technology changed, and improved, like anything else.

It's worth pointing out a basic fact that an early pocket watch would have never been carried in a pants pocket, way too much motion. It would have been chest level in a watch pouch most likely.

Around WWI we begin to see the very first men's wristwatches. These are the very first attempts to design and market such a thing. And like anything else, the very first, "bleeding edge," examples are not all that great. They used their basic ladies pocket watch movements (7 jewel models at first), and the same stem setting mechanisms used in pocket watch cases. These are fragile and pron to wearing out. And the cases have no protection - none at all - from dirt or moisture. The movements tend to be under powered anyway, and are slower beat than later wristwatches, so the error rate goes up. They were never intend to be swinging around at the end of an arm. They'd require frequent service, and part replacements.

So there you have it, my rant about antiques... Of course you can carry your antique watch, so long as you know what you're getting into. Please just understand the limits of an old watch's performance.

Elgin Grade 171 and Safety Pinions

I am often asked what "Safety Pinion" means.  I have some information about that here.

The Elgin grade 171 is an 18 size, lever-set movement with 7 jewels.

This example was made about 1899.

Elgin Grade 466, In Motion

Here's an Elgin grade 466 movement, animated by Google's auto-awesome.  This is a 16 size movement, 17 jewels, this one made about 1921.

Elgin Grade 269 Detail

This is a detail of an Elgin grade 269.  It's a 0 size movement, with 7 jewels.  These are common in smaller ladies' watches, and early wrist watches.

This example was made about 1903.

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