Company History Highlights
Elgin was a major American manufacturer. The company was first incorporated in August 1864 as the National Watch Company, in Chicago Illinois. Later that year, the founders managed to convince a number of key personnel from the competing Waltham Watch Company to leave Waltham and join the newly-formed company. The company developed their first movement in 1867 and named it in honor of the company president – B.W. Raymond. In 1874, the National Watch Company officially changed its name to the Elgin National Watch Company.
The company prospered during the pocket watch era and the facilities grew significantly. By the 1940s, Elgin claimed to have the largest watch manufacturing operation in America. During World War II, all civilian manufacturing was halted and the company moved into the defense industry, converting the factory into the production of military watches, chronometers and various other instruments for military use. At the height of the operation, the factory employed more than 5,500 people making, primarily, munitions timing devices. The company prided itself in domestic production, with ads over the years proclaiming “Thoroughly American!”
In 1951, Elgin produced its 50 millionth watch movement — a testament to the popularity of the brand.
Over time, Elgin opened a number of additional plants, mostly in Elgin, Illinois. Additional facilities were located in Aurora, Illinois, and Lincoln, Nebraska. The original, obsolete factory in Elgin closed in 1964 when the company relocated most manufacturing operations to a brand new plant in Blaney, South Carolina (a town near Columbia, South Carolina which later renamed itself as Elgin, South Carolina).
Timed to the Stars
The Elgin National Watch Company Observatory was placed into service in 1910 under the direction of William W. Payne. Before his position with the company Payne was a professor at Goodsell Observatory, and founder of Popular Astronomy magazine. The observatory’s purpose was to record precise time using astronomical measurement and to transmit the timing standard throughout the factory.
The Elgin Time Observatory was located on a hill a few blocks east of the main factory. The Observatory was opened in February, 1910, and provided a baseline timing standard for Elgin; all factory facilities had clocks synchronized to the Observatory. It was the only time observatory that was owned and maintained by a watch manufacturer in the nation. For many years Elgin ads trumpeted that their timepieces were “Timed to the Stars.”
In a 1924 print ad, Elgin explained:
The stars are the final arbiters of time – and by time almost all human destinies are governed. Every time you look at your Elgin Watch you come in contact with the stars. For Elgin maintains its own Time Observatory – in charge of astronomers of national prominence. It is in daily use, every working day of the year – practical use. Here the Elgin astronomers take the time direct from the stars. With star observations almost unbelievably exact they check the master clocks. And second after second, hour by hour, the master clocks send out the precise time to the Elgin work-rooms and timing laboratories to control every operation in making and timing your Elgin Watch.
Starting in 1935, a number of Elgin watch models displayed a star on the dial, to further symbolize the company’s astronomical roots.
Elgin maintained multiple product lines. The basic models were branded simply “Elgin.” The middle range was branded “Elgin DeLuxe.” The high quality range was labelled “Lord Elgin.” “Lady Elgin” is a brand used for women’s watches; it actually pre-dates the Lord Elgin line by several decades. While in the early days only the “Elgin” mark was used, the three-tiered product formula was adopted in the 1930s and used for decades. Typically the Elgin watches employ 15 jewel movements; Elgin DeLuxe run 17 jewels, while Lord and Lady Elgins employ movements running from 19 to 23 jewels.
Ownership Changes & The End of an Era
In 1968, all US manufacturing was discontinued and the rights to the name “Elgin” were sold and subsequently resold multiple times over the years. The rights to the name are currently owned by MZ Berger Inc. Elgin-branded watches produced after 1968 have no connection to the original Elgin Watch Company.