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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.

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Reply to Silbert's Letter

From The American Horologist and Jeweler magazine, February, 1942

Reply to Silbert's Letter


Received the copy of Mr. Silbert's letter and article. My articles were not written with any smug satisfaction, but for the purpose of bringing forth the ills of our business. Commenting on Mr. Silbert's article is as follows: My articles have covered the entire jewelry trade and not only trade shops. My statements were learned through experience and from men who earn their bread and butter at the bench, the hard way to make a living. The watchmaker is the one who knows the conditions in our trade better than the jeweler or trade shop employer.

The watchmaker is the only one who knows if the watch was done properly, the jeweler and customer assumes that it has been done. The jeweler is not always the best judge of proper watch work if he does not do the job. Therefore it is a matter of believing and not knowing. Under our present methods of today a watch can be cleaned and made to go for whatever price the jeweler demands that it be done for, and not according to what it needs or how it should be done. It is always a matter of price.

The jeweler does keep the trade watchmaker in business., His purpose for this is for a lower cost to have his watches cleaned. Usually it is a lower cost, which is today considered good business, but in watch work it is only a lower cost in proportion of what or how it is done.

It is true that too many jewelers and so-called watchmakers scout around to get a job done that he is not capable of doing himself, but we have as many watchmakers who claim they can do it. The majority of trade shops or any shop is run on a business basis, which is profit, but whether or not all are run on a scientific basis is a big question, if by scientific it is meant a watch put in order properly.

It is unusual to hear of or know very many repair departments where the work is done first and the charge based on this for the price to the customer, although you state there is a flat rate charge for labor this is not consistent. The general jewelry trade charge the customer less for a watch repair than the maker of the watch. This certainly is a mystery with the majority of us until the jobs are compared and then we find the difference in cost is the difference in work not done.

Consumer and jeweler alike want the watchmaker to do things that would only be possible to a magician, yet the majority of watchmakers promised to the customer things that he would have to be a magician to do. 

Elgin Grade 181

This is an Elgin grade 181, 18 size, 21 jewels, made about 1898

Elgin's high-end 18 size movements often have these huge screws on the barrel bridge.
The secondary serial number stamps on this watch are prefixed with a sort of sideways 'V', with serifs.

The decorative finish on the plates is called damascene. On this movement the specific pattern is very unusual among Elgin watches. Extra work went into these.

Elgin Grade 207

This is an Elgin grade 207. It is 18 size, 7 jewels, lever-set, and this one was made about 1902
This watch had a lot of problems running in different orientations. It's one of those cases I see a lot, where prior repairers have significantly tweaked the balance cock to move it up and down by using a graver to raise divots in the top plate.

Also, of note is the serial number prefix symbol on the underside of the balance cock.  It looks like Pac-Man!

The underside of the balance cock is badly filed away to allow the balance wheel to clear, rather than to fix whatever the trouble was that caused it to rub in the first place.

With all this, it's nearly impossible to get the parts back into shape so the balance cock securely fits right as it needs to be. In this case, I also discovered that the lower balance jewel was not a correct Elgin part, but something else. That was likely at least one of the things that lead to all the trouble in the first place.

Here's a detail of the lever pulled out to engage setting mode.

Elgin Grade 504

When this movement arrived, the stem was broken.  But it broke inward of the detent (odd), so although winding/setting would not work correctly, the stem did not come completely out of the watch. Having removed the outer portion, with the crown, I was a little worried about getting the clutch apart and out. There is quite a lot of thick lubricant sloshed around in this one. Fortunately, the broken bit of stem slid out fine.
This hairspring looks like it has problems, but turned out to just be dirty. At first it seems like the coils were out of shape and touching each other.
But with the old oily dirt removed, it shaped right up.
Here's the mainspring, cleaned and installed in the barrel.

This watch stayed on the bench for awhile. I found a replacement stem, but the real problem turned out to be that there is not smooth action in and out of the stem. There is too much play in it, and it tends to pull to one side or another. Also, if not pulled perfectly straight out it was possible to pulled the stem right out of the movement.

There's a little part called a detent that acts as a lever when the stem is pulled. One part of this part "snaps" against a spring so as to stay out when pulled. It is actuated by a pin at one end that sits in front of a shoulder on the stem. When the stem pulls out it pushes the pin and moves everything to setting mode. This pin also hold the stem in.

But on this watch the plates themselves are so worn that the stem can move around too much and get out from behind the pin, and thus come all the way out of the watch.

To attempt to fix this, at least as much as possible for an antique, I first made the detent thinner by removing metal from the underside. This way when it is installed it sits lower down, and the pin end then protrudes deeper against the stem.

Secondly, I filed away a minuscule portion of the lever end so that slightly less pull is needed to snap it into setting mode.

I don't yet know if this will work. If it doesn't, I'm not sure there's any other possibilities. When the body of the movement is worn and distorted, there's few options.

This is a 20/0 size watch; almost as small as they get. I should note that one of these photos above shows two of these parts. One in in place in the movement and the other loose. I tried replacing the detent first, but no luck there fixing the trouble.

 Interestingly, instead of dial foot screws, this watch has two screws, at the top and bottom respectively, holding the dial on.
The movement runs quite well. But the stem remains an issue.

On Broken Balance Staffs

Q: I was looking at the pictures you posted today on Google+ and made we wonder. About how many of your jobs are to replace broken or damaged balance staffs? Seems like a lot based on the number of repairs you post. This seems like a design flaw in watches? I can imagine back in the day those repairs kept food on the table for watchmakers?

A: Replacing a balance staff is the most common repair, outside of the normal maintenance process. The balance pivots are very, very small rods of hardened steel, running in jeweled bearings. This arrangement creates a bearing that, when properly cleaned and oiled, will last pretty much forever without wear. But the hard steel balance pivots are also very brittle, so any sharp shock will break them. I've never kept track, but probably 1 out of 4 or 5 watches I see needs a new staff.

My Grandfather told me that at one of hos first jobs the shop owner insisted that the balance staff get replaced on all the watches that came in for service, regardless. And they charged for it! This is pretty extreme, not to mention unscrupulous. He didn't work at that place very long.

But anyway, I suppose one could call it a design flaw. Then again the top speed of a Model T is only about 40 mph too. These watches were designed and built using the best technology of their time.

The only other thing that eventually breaks or wears out on a watch that is otherwise perfectly cared for is the mainspring. The old steel ones in particular eventually go, no matter what.

Unfortunately almost all of these parts - balance staffs and mainsprings - have not been manufactured for many decades. Because those parts were the ones most often needed, the watch companies left us with mountains of them. But we're running out. It is going to be a lot more expensive to repair watches in the near future.

New Arrivals

Three hunter cased watches in for service...

Elgin Grade 145

These are "before" images, the watch has not been fully disassembled. But there a couple interesting things to point out. First, this watch likely has it's original screws, and they are in good shape. One clue is that one of the screws has an unpolished head.

There are three plate screws on this watch. One of them sits down flush with the face of the upper plate, while the heads of the others stand up. This is because that flush screw is covered up by the barrel bridge when it is in place. That screw is supposed to be the unpolished one. But on this watch, the unpolished head is the next screw over - one that does shows. The screws are reversed.

My photos of the polished screw don't really show its shine, but the dull one is pretty clearly a plain steel finish even in these images.

Here is the whole train, well aside from the mainspring barrel anyway. And there's another interesting find.
The inner pin on the regulator has been replaced with one that is way too long. That is probably a dial foot pin, or just a replacement regulator pin that for some reason was not neatly trimmed down like it is supposed to be.

The two pins on the regulator arm are what cause the hairspring to be effectively longer or shorter as the regulator arm is moved. These pins should be just two tiny, parallel pins of brass. There's no reason what we find here wouldn't function, it's just rather untidy.

My Grandfather always said that you never know what you will find when you get into a watch.

See more of what I like to call "creative repairs" here.

The secondary serial number stamps on this one are prefixed with a sort side-ways delta like symbol. The full number is 7941863.

This watch is an Elgin grade 145, which is a little rare among Elgins. It is 18 size, 15 jewels, made about 1899.

Click "Older Posts" just above for more, or use the archive links right here.

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