Collectors all over the world love Elgin pocket watches for their classic, timeless design and precision engineering. The company, founded in 1864, quickly became one of the largest and most successful watch manufacturers in America. The company stopped production in the 1960s, because of the increasing popularity of wristwatches.
But it’s not just their rarity that makes them so desirable – Elgin pocket watches are known for their reliable accuracy and durable construction. Many of these timepieces are still perfectly functioning decades later. Elgin’s commitment to innovation and accuracy earned them several patents, including a unique self-setting feature that automatically adjusts for daylight savings time.
Whether you’re a seasoned collector or just starting out, an Elgin pocket watch is the perfect addition to any vintage enthusiast’s collection. Not only are they visually stunning, but their precision and reliability make them a functional and valuable piece.
In this article, we’ll explore the history and legacy of Elgin pocket watches, as well as offer tips on how to find and care for these treasured timepieces. So, sit back, relax, and let’s journey through the fascinating world of Elgin pocket watches.
The History of Elgin Pocket Watches
Elgin pocket watches were first produced in 1867, using top-of-the-line technology and skilled craftsmanship. Their iconic designs combined with their reputation for accuracy earned them the nickname “The Watch of Railroad Accuracy.”
The company quickly gained a reputation for producing reliable and accurate timepieces, and even supplied watches to the US military during both World Wars.
In addition to their functionality, Elgin pocket watches also boast a beautiful aesthetic. Their designs range from simple and elegant to ornate and decorative, with gold casing and intricately engraved designs on the face.
Many Elgin watches feature ornate gold or silver cases, with intricate engravings and designs. The faces often have a classic Roman numeral or floral design. Elgin even produced special edition watches, such as those commemorating the 1939 World’s Fair or featuring images of famous American presidents.
At the height of their popularity, Elgin produced over 50 million pocket watches. But as wristwatches became increasingly popular in the mid-20th century, production slowed and eventually ceased altogether in 1968.
Today, Elgin pocket watches are highly sought after by collectors all over the world. Their classic design and precision engineering make them both a beautiful and reliable addition to any collection.
The Decline of Elgin Pocket Watches
Despite their popularity and success in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Elgin’s production of pocket watches came to a halt in the 1960s when wristwatches became more popular. Wristwatches became the preferred choice for their convenience and practicality.
Elgin continued to produce wristwatches until the company closed its doors in 1968. However, many of their pocket watches are still functioning perfectly today – a testament to their durability and precision engineering.
Despite the closing of the company, Elgin pocket watches are still highly sought after by collectors. Their classic design and reputation for accuracy make them a valuable addition to any collection.
Editor’s note: Elgin watches produced after 1968 have nothing to do with the original company — the brand “Elgin” was sold to a different company that continues to produce watches under the same name.
Evaluating an Elgin Pocket Watch
When evaluating an Elgin pocket watch, there are a few key factors to consider. First, learn what is the clock’s grade. Grades in pocket watches were assigned by the companies themselves, and unlike with other collectibles, do not indicate the condition of the watch.
Instead, they refer to the level of decoration and complexity in its inner workings. Elgin produced over 60 grades of pocket watches, ranging from simple and functional models to ornate and decorative ones with additional features such as alarms and chronographs. For example, a pocket watch with a higher grade may have a more intricate and decorative design on its case or face, or offer additional features such as an alarm or chronograph.
You can think of grades like trim levels on a car – they indicate the level of features and decoration, but not necessarily its condition.
Editor’s note: each company had their own grading system, with Elgin using the strictest one.
In addition to the grade, also consider the watch’s overall condition. Look for any damage or missing pieces to the case and crystal (the glass covering the face). Make sure all of the buttons and dials are functioning properly.
Next, inspect the movement of the watch – this refers to the inner workings and mechanisms that keep the time. Elgin pocket watches were known for their precision and reliability, so a smoothly functioning movement is a good sign.
Finally, consider any unique features or special editions the watch may have. This can add to its value and collectability for enthusiasts. For example, a pocket watch with a commemorative design or engraving may be of particular interest to certain collectors.
Another important thing to learn is how to recognize a fake Elgin watch. Unfortunately, counterfeiting is a widespread practice when it comes to valuable collectibles. Thus, it is important to understand if you’re dealing with a genuine or a fake.
How to Recognize a Fake Elgin Watch
There are a few ways to determine if an Elgin pocket watch is authentic. First, check for any misspellings or incorrect information on the face or case. Genuine Elgin watches will have all spellings and details accurate and properly done.
Next, inspect the case back. Its inside should have an engraving of the serial number along with the words “Cased and Timed by Elgin National Watch Co.” Any misspellings or incorrect information here is a red flag.
The following step is to inspect the movement of the watch – genuine Elgin movements will have finely detailed and precise mechanisms, while fake ones may be clunky or rough. Additionally, the serial numbers on authentic Elgin pocket watches will match those listed in official company records.
You can also compare the watch to known examples and documentation from Elgin. Look up its grade and other identifying features, such as any special editions or engravings, in publications or online resources dedicated to collecting Elgin watches.
It’s also a good idea to have an expert inspect the watch for authenticity. A professional can offer their expertise and knowledge to confirm the watch’s legitimacy.
Overall, doing your research and taking the time to properly evaluate an Elgin pocket watch can ensure that you end up with a genuine, high-quality timepiece for your collection.
Elgin Pocket Watch Buying Guide (And 4 Most Valuable)
Now that you know how to recognize a genuine Elgin watch and what to look for in terms of its grade and condition, you may be wondering where to start your search.
One popular option is online auction sites, where you can find a range of pocket watches from various sellers. It’s important to carefully evaluate the listing, including any provided photos and information about the watch’s condition and history.
Another option is visiting antique shops or jewelers that specialize in vintage watches. These establishments may have a curated selection of Elgin pocket watches, and the staff can offer their expertise on the pieces they have available.
You can also attend watch collecting events or conventions, where you may be able to find a variety of Elgin watches for sale.
Surprisingly, yard sales are another potential source for finding Elgin pocket watches. Some people probably don’t know how valuable these can be, and just want to get rid of grandpa’s old pocket watch.
Let’s talk budget. Prices for Elgin pocket watches can vary greatly, depending on the watch’s grade, condition, and unique features. A lower grade model in good working condition may cost around $100-200, while higher grades or special editions can fetch thousands of dollars, especially if they are Railroad models.
For example, here are a couple of Elgin pocket watches that went for $500: 1 and 2. These usually come in smaller sizes or have a broken dial. For example, Heritage Auction says about the first watch: dial has a flake, hairlines and some discoloration on the bottom of the dial, crystal is missing, hour hand is broken, front lid hinge is sprung so the cover does not stay closed, broken staff.
If the watch were in perfect working conditions, it’d easily fetch a price in the thousands of dollars. But all of these issues prevent its price from being higher.
Of course, the prices mentioned above are just general estimates. Ultimately, the value of an Elgin pocket watch is determined by what a buyer is willing to pay for it.
Let’s now see some very rare and valuable Elgin pocket watches that sold for a lot of money at auctions.
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1. Elgin National Watch Co. Watch No. 4 Presented To F.F. Low The American Minister To China circa 1867 — $8,437.50
This model was made in 1867 and was presented to F.F. Low, the American minister to China at the time, as a gift from Elgin National Watch Company President Benjamin W. Raymond.
This coin silver Newport case is size 18, engine turned, and engraved with scallop frames. The white enamel dial has Roman numerals, sunk seconds, spade hands, and is signed “Presented by National Watch Co. To The American Minister to China, Hon. F.F. Low.” The gilt full plate movement has 15 jewels, bi-metallic balance with gold timing screws. The balance bridge (which is the part that holds the balance wheel) is engraved with Chinese sailboats and pagoda while the plates boast engravings of Chinese characters for No.# 4 as well as the company name: National Watch Co.
The watch’s history and uniqueness are what makes it so valuable. It was a gift that symbolized the growing relationship between the United States and China. The special engravings on the balance bridge add to the piece’s rarity, contributing to the overall price.
2. Elgin Mint Multicolor Gold Box Hinge With Fancy Dial, circa 1893 — $6,572.50
This watch is an 18 size, with a mint multicolor gold (a gold plating with a variety of colors obtained by heating in different atmospheres) box hinge case and a fancy dial. The yellow, white, and pink enamel dial is signed “Elgin National Watch Co.” with Arabic numerals, and the gilt full plate movement has 11 jewels.
The unique design of this watch, including the mint multicolor gold case and the fancy dial, adds to its value. The mint multicolor gold was a popular style in the late 19th century, and the Louis XIV hands and fancy dial add to the piece’s overall appeal.
Editor’s note: This watch’s last auction happened in 2009, 13 years ago. If the watch were to be sold again, its value would likely be higher. In addition, prices in general for vintage watches may vary greatly depending on the market and specific piece. As always, do your research before making any purchasing decisions.
Elgin Center Seconds Movement With Prototype Chronograph Attachment From The Elgin Museum
This is the least fancy watch on our list. This Elgin center seconds movement is from the Elgin National Watch Company Museum, and has a prototype chronograph attachment. That means it was potentially a test model, used to experiment with adding the chronograph function.
The watch features a very simple base metal case 16 size, with Roman numerals, and the word “Chronograph” engraved on the display. The movement is governed by a 3/4 gilt plate, 12 jewels, and a patent pinion (which is the part that connects the watch’s hands to its gears).
The fact that this watch was part of the museum’s collection and the potential history as a prototype adds to its value. It may not have a fancy design or gold plating, but it is a unique piece.
3. Elgin Gold High Relief Multicolor Box Hinge 16 Size, circa 1894 — $5,500.00
This is a 53 mm case (which translates roughly to size 16), made of 14k gold with a high relief multicolor box hinge design. The uniqueness of this pocket watch is in the design of the front cover. It represents a deer surrounded by trees with diamonds and gold accents, crafted in a high relief style (meaning it was created with depth and dimension). The back side features an inverted horseshoe and floral engravings, also in high relief.
The enamel dial is signed “Elgin National Watch Co.” with Roman numerals (but it also has Arabic numerals to indicate minutes and seconds on top of the Roman ones). The gilt 3/4 plate movement has 15 jewels. The intricate design of this case adds to its value as a collectible piece.
4. Elgin Unusual Scroll Box Hinge Heavy Gold Hunters Case, circa 1894 — $5,000.00
This particular watch features a four-body case, which means it has four separate pieces (front, back, and two sides) that come together to create the case. The Victorian design is a heavy gold scroll box hinge with a floral engraving on the back and front covers, as well as the depiction of a young girl in the front. The floral engraving encompasses the entire watch, including the back side.
The insides’ design is quite spartan — with Roman numerals, spade hands, and a nickel full plate movement. But the unique and ornate design of the outer case is what adds to its value as a collectible piece.
The case is an 18 size (about 58 mm), and it’s signed “Elgin National Watch Co.” on the enamel dial.
Now that you’ve seen some valuable Elgin pocket watches, you might remember you have one lying around. Or maybe you’re interested in buying one. Here’s what you should do once you have one in your hands.
Caring for Your Elgin Pocket Watch
As with any valuable collectible, proper care is important to maintaining the value and functionality of an Elgin pocket watch.
First, make sure the watch is stored in a safe and secure location to prevent damage or theft. That means not leaving it out in the open or in a loosely-closed drawer.
If you plan on wearing your Elgin pocket watch, make sure to have it serviced regularly to ensure proper functioning and prevent damage. Keep it protected from moisture and extreme temperatures, as these can harm the inner mechanisms. And if you do wear it, avoid rough activities or situations where it could get bumped or scratched.
Finally, keep your pocket watch clean by wiping down the case and using a soft cloth to gently wipe down the face of the watch.
If your watch is not running smoothly or keeping accurate time, take it to a qualified watchmaker for servicing or repair. It’s also important to have it cleaned every few years by a professional.
Finally, if you plan on selling your Elgin pocket watch, it’s important to have documentation such as a certificate of authenticity or previous appraisals to prove its value.
Also Read: Antique Pocket Watch: Identifying, Valuing, and Buying (2023 Updated)
Elgin pocket watches are a highly sought-after collectible, with some fetching high prices due to their unique design and history. Their value came from the ornate designs as well as the excellent engineering that went into them. But, as with any collectible, proper care and maintenance are important to maintaining their value and functionality. So, before you dismiss grandpa’s old pocket watch as just an outdated piece of junk, remember the potential value it could hold.
Imagine you’re out talking with friends and suddenly you pull out a pocket watch. That’s already weird enough to make you the center of attention. But if your pocket watch is a rare and ornate Elgin, you’ll have them all drooling with envy.
As with any other collectible, make sure you aren’t buying a fake. Do your research and only purchase from reputable sources. Happy collecting!
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