Elgin Watch Mini-FAQ

Tips and Information on Vintage Elgins and Other Pocketwatches


Do you have a vintage Elgin watch to be serviced?
Maybe I can help. Take a look here for information.


Q: Can my vintage pocketwatch be repaired and made to run again?

A: Probably. If you have an antique pocketwatch that you would like to have running again, I may be able to help. I specialize in the early models of watches from American makers such as Elgin, Waltham, Hamilton, and many others. You'll find more information about pocketwatch service here.

If you have questions about your watch, you will find some information right here on this page. Feel free to email me also, jsexton@elgintime.com.



Q: Is watch X better than watch Y? What is the best watch to purchase? What type of railroad watch is the best?

A: I'm surprised at how often I'm asked this. It's not possible to make such a general statement about antiques. During the "golden age" of true railroad grade watches, meaning watches approved by various railroads, the most advanced and expensive movements of the time were things like the Elgin Fathertime, Elgin Veritas, Waltham Vanguard, the Hamilton 992b, among many others. But we're talking about antiques here. Today, any given specific watch may be more reliable and/or accurate than any other given specific watch, regardless of what it is. So it depends on what one means by "best" and compared to what, and by what criteria? Watches are found in many different types of cases for example, ranging from very plain, to highly decorative, and in many materials from gold and silver to base metal. Does this make one better than another? It clearly depends on what the buyer wants.

Many watches are more expensive because collectors desire them for some specific reason. For example, some models are especially rare, or somewhat experimental, or they include an odd feature or marking. Sometimes a watch gets a high price even though it doesn't run well. Is this a "good" watch? When it comes to accuracy, no antique really performs like a modern watch anyway, there's just no comparison... But if use, is a criteria, I usually recommend basic Elgin 12 and 16 size models from the '20s and '30s and on. These are nothing fancy, typically. They are stable workhorses for which parts can still be found without too much trouble, and they don't cost much (but I don't recommend antiques for actual everyday use, unless it's well understood what you're getting into).



Q: Aren't Elgin clocks and watches still made?

A: No.
The Elgin National Watch company, once one of America's largest industrial operations, went completely out of business in 1968. Since that time, the Elgin name has been used by a variety of watch and clock makers. Items bearing the name are still very common, which is a remarkable testament to the reputation of the Elgin old brand.

The original Elgin company never made clocks.



Q: What is my antique Elgin pocketwatch worth?

A: This book is the place to look; The Complete Price Guide to Watches, by Gilbert, Engle and Shugart. This is a very widely used price guide that also contains quite a bit of general information on vintage watches, watch terminology, the history of watch companies and more.



Q: What is the difference between an "Elgin" and a "Lord Elgin" watch?

A: "Lord Elgin" is not a different company. The Lord Elgin and Lady Elgin lines began in 1937. They were generally higher end wristwatches.



Q: What is an "automatic" watch?

A: A manual watch is one that is wound by turning the crown. This coils up the mainspring inside and provides power to run the mechanism. An automatic is, typically, a wristwatch that has a weight inside designed to swing around as the watch moves, and thus turn a mechanism that winds the spring. Thus so long as an automatic is worn, and moved, it will not need to be wound. Left sitting still, an automatic runs on "reserve" until the spring runs out, typically 24-40 hours.




The Elgin grade 761


Q: How should I wind a vintage watch?

A: Firstly, a watch does not "need exercise" (see below). An antique is best stored in a clean and dry manner and enjoyed just occasionally. Other than that there's no real tick to it. People often ask if the crown should be turned just one way, or turned back and forth, both ways, or does this matter. The mechanism turns the mainspring arbor when turned forward, thus pulling the spring tighter around the middle. The mechanism just ratchets and does nothing when turned the other way. The watch is designed to do this so that the crown can be turned either way. However, when we're talking about a watch made 150 years ago, ratcheting the mechanism is obviously just one more way to wear the parts. So just one way is better on real old pieces.

It's not a good idea to turn the body of the watch with the other hand at the same time as turning the crown. This is a more important point. It can cause the balance to move out of sync with the pallet, causing "over banking" and stopping the watch. On a old watch, the whole train of the movement is experiencing the extra force of winding. This same problem can happen if a watch is jolted while it is ticking.



Q: What is "hunter" style?

A: Hunter style pocket watch cases have a lid that covers the dial. The lid is released by pressing down on the stem. If you have a hunter style case it is important to always press the stem down when closing the watch lid as well, rather than "clicking" it closed. The catch on a hunter case wears out very quickly otherwise. If the catch wears down, the watch case will no longer stay closed.

A pocketwatch that does not have a lid over the face is called an "open face" watch.



Q: What is "railroad grade"?

A: "Railroad grade" refers to watches that met certain requirements and standards for accuracy and design as set down by the railroad industry. One of the main things about railroad grade pocketwatches is that they are lever-set, not stem-set. It was thought that stem-set watches were too easily reset by accident.

Elgin made many railroad grade watches and proudly promoted this in their advertising.



Q: What is "over-wound"?

A: There is no such thing.
Many times old watches are described as "over-wound". But all this really means is that the watch is wound up all the way, but will not run. Technically, you cannot over-wind most mechanical wrist and pocket watches. The use of force in winding, when the watch will wind no further, will break something, and the spring will give way. A mechanical watch is designed to wind up all the way, until you cannot easily wind it up further. When a watch is described as "over-wound", it just means that it has a problem causing it not to run. It could be that it needs routine maintenance, cleaning and oiling, or it could be more serious, like a broken part.



Q: Can a vintage pocketwatch be used as a daily watch?

A: Perhaps.

It's up to you. I sometimes wish people wouldn't though. There are two reasons. One is that every time you handle a watch, there's a chance to drop it. No matter how careful you are, it happens. I have regular customers that are watch experts and collectors, and even to them, it happens.

The other reason is that every time a watch needs a part, due to damage or ordinary wear, then that's one less spare part in the world. These parts are not made anymore, not for many decades. We are running through the supply left by the old timers, and what we salvage. When they're gone, they're gone. Parts have gotten more and more scarce over then past 10 years. Big estates and old long closed shops are not so common anymore. Some parts can be made, but this is a significant amount of work.

That said, if you do want to use a vintage pocketwatch everyday, a classic Elgin, 12 or 16 size, from the 'teens on up into the '40s and '50s is a good choice. These are solid and reliable products, well made, without being real high end, and they made a whole lot of Elgins. Parts for most of these watches are not hard to come by (yet). But you can expect costs of service to go up over time, if your watch needs parts. If it's kept clean and dry and is well cared for, it could never need parts other than the mainspring. Jeweled bearings with hard steel pivots will last just about indefinitely if no grit gets in there, and the lubrication is good.

Personally, I own a number of antique watches, many of which are "carryable" in that they run well and are not exceedingly rare, fragile or super valuable, and I know I can fix them if need be. I rotate these around. I also own modern watches, and I use those. For special occasions, I get out the more special watches. Or just because I feel like it. I sometime use 2 or 3 watches in a single day. But I avoid using an antique on a rainy day, for example, and take other precautions too.



Q: Doesn't a watch need to run for "exercise"?

A: No.
Or at least that is the short answer. When mechanical watches were in daily use they were designed to be wound fully once a day at around the same time, in the morning for example, every day. One reason to do this was that the organic oils used in the past would become gummy if they were not regularly compressed, such as by the action of the watch movement. This is in fact a common reason that very old watches do not run; nothing is actually broken, but the old oil has gone bad. Modern synthetic oils on the other hand will last almost indefinately. So once a watch has been restored, all it will need is a clean, dry environment.

I suggest running or carrying an old watch now and then for pleasure. The watch will be fine otherwise.

Looking for more?

* ElginTime Home
* A virtual Watch Museum
* Lookup an Elgin watch serial number
* Visit the ElginTime Watch Blog



Q: What is "lever set"?

A: Most watches we know today are "stem set". A stem set watch is set to correct time by pulling the stem out by the crown and turning it to move the hands. A lever set watch does not change to its set mode by pulling the stem out. Instead, there is a small lever to be pulled out from behind the dial. It generally requires removing the bezel to access. Pulling the lever out allows the crown to be turned to set the watch. When the lever is in it's normal, retracted position then turning the crown winds the watch (unless the watch is key-wind of course). The pictures below show a setting lever. Note that the bezel has been removed.

Lever-set watches are, usually, among the older models and can be otherwise quirky. It is usually best the set these first, from stopped, then wind.

Lever Retracted
A grade 82 Elgin, G. M. Wheeler model made in 1883, showing the setting lever retracted.
Lever Out
Lever extended, ready for setting.

There is more information and another example of a lever-set watch here: http://elgintime.blogspot.com/2012/03/lever-issues.html.
And here: https://plus.google.com/104405056094644812060/posts/apVSAdAuiNe.

There's many examples of lever-set watches, with more photos, at the ElginTime Watch Blog.



Q: My watch is lever-set, why does the crown pull out to a second position?

A: The stem pulling outward is actually a function of the watch case, not the watch movement itself, inside. Many cases have this feature since they would work with both lever and stem set watches. On a lever-set watch, with such a case, the outward stem position does nothing. The watch will wind or set either way, according to the position of the lever. Likewise it is common to see a stem-set watch in a case that has the notch cutout in the case edge for a lever (see the photos above) even though the movement does not have one.



Q: How old is my Elgin watch?

A: Elgin movements are stamped with a serial number. Elgin watch serial numbers can be used to determine their grade and the approximate year of manufacture. The year is not exact though since it was not usual for watches to leave the factory out of sequence, and because Elgin frequently made plates that were stockpiled and not actually used for years after they where originally engraved.

The following table of Elgin watch serial numbers originally appeared in the Northwest Jeweler, December 1947. The information was provider by Mr. L. L. Doty, Assistant General Time Inspector for the Ball Railroad Time Service.
YearMovement Number
194239,147,000
194138,777,000
194038,410,000
193938,400,000
193837,000,000
193536,000,000
193033,000,000
192528,000,000
192023,000,000
191515,500,000
191015,000,000
190512,000,000
19009,000,000

Note that this number is on the works of the watch itself, and not on the inside of the watch case. Watch case makers also numbered their products. But the case number is not of much help in determining the age of an Elgin watch.

If you know the serial number of your watch movement, you can look it up here for more information.



Q: Is there a way to look up where and when my Elgin watch was originally sold and who purchased it?

A: I am asked this quite a lot... No. Tens of millions of Elgin watches were sold over the counter, at retail outlets all over North America, Europe and beyond, over a 100 year period. Much like any other consumer good today, there is no way, in general, to know who bought one or where.



Q: 12s, 16s, 18s, What is the deal with watch sizes?

A: The Lancashire Gauge for determining watch sizes is of English origin, although its exact roots are not known. In this system, 1 5/30th of an inch is taken to be a base figure of zero. The measure is across the narrowest part of the dial-side of the movement, and is thus used for round and non-round movements. Sizes smaller than zero are designated with a slash or a comma and numbers ascending. For example 6/0, 8/0 and 20/0 are decreasing watch sizes.

Some common Elgin pocketwatch sizes are 18, 16, 12, 8 and 6 size. Here are some examples of the sizes.

Watch Size Inches mm
18 1 23/30 44.87
16 1 21/30 43.18
12 1 17/30 39.79
6/0 1 25.4
8/0 28/30 23.71
10/0 26/30 22.01

There's more details about watch sizes here.



Q: What are "Sun Dial" and "Atlas" watches?

A: For some years in the late 1890s, it seems Elgin made a series of watches marked "Sun-Dial" , "Acme", "Solar" and "Atlas". The name Elgin does not appear on these watches. Watches sold under these names are notably lacking in certain features and refinements. It's safe to assume that their price was coorispondingly lower. Little is known about exactly why Elgin did this.



Q: How accurate can a vintage watch be?

A: That's a good question - it depends. Take a look at two Elgin Time blog entries with some information on vintage watch accuracy, one here and also one over here.



Q: What is a "Safety Pinion"?

A: The amount of potential energy in the coiled mainspring of a watch, particularly a large pocketwatch, is enormous. If the spring should break, the barrel containing the spring may turn with great velocity in the opposite direction of its usual motion. This would be almost certain to damage the train of the watch in any number of ways.

Many vintage American watches include the words "Safety Pinion" or "Safety Barrel" on the movement. The safety pinion refers to a pinion on the center shaft of the watch, which engages the mainspring barrel, and which is fitted to the center shaft with course threads. These threads are usually "left handed" meaning they tighten in the opposite direction of a usual screw. By being threaded in this way, the normal force of the wound watch holds the pinion tight and this drives the watch. But if the mainspring barrel moves the other way, the pinion is unscrewed. It will thus move rapidly down the shaft and disengage from the teeth of the mainspring barrel, saving the watch from damage.

The safety pinion is an American invention patented in 1857

Q: What are some books and resources fo learning more about vintage pocketwatches and watch repair?

A: I have a few book links and other items listed here on the Elgintime blog.
You can also follow along with watch projects on Google+.



Do you have a vintage Elgin watch to be serviced?
Maybe I can help. Take a look here for information.


* A virtual Watch Museum
* Elgin watches restored, cleaned and serviced
Regarding the care and cleaning of pocketwatches
* More About Elgin Watches
* Pocketwatches For Sale!
Check the Elgin Time online marketplace for various items. Feel free to contact me, jsexton@elgintime.com, for information on other watches that may be available, if you are looking for something specific, or just have questions about vintage watches.

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