The first Elgin watch (a pocket watch) dates to 1867. The last Elgin movement made in America was produced in 1968. In between, pinning an individual Elgin down to a specific year and model can be a bit of a chore. We are severely handicapped by both the lack of legacy production records and by Elgin’s policy of not giving names to models. Starting around 1932, Elgin used model numbers to identify unique case designs. In the 1950s, the use of model numbers was supplemented by individual model names. (The model numbers remained, however, and are the key to finding replacement parts for Elgins of the period.)
Identification of a watch is a process, typically done as follows:
- First, establish that the watch is, in fact an Elgin.
- Second, attempt to identify the model by matching the case to known examples (or to identification resources).
- If that fails, identify and date the movement to narrow your search and try again to identify the case.
We look at each of these issues, below.
Is it really an Elgin?
Until the late 1960s, all Elgins are marked clearly on the dial with the word “Elgin.” In the late 60s and thereafter, a few models reduced the brand mark to the Elgin “E” logo, but the mark still always appeared on the dial. The only exceptions to this are the related or subsidiary brands, (discussed further on the “About Elgin” page).
The case back can also provide insight into the manufacturer. Prior to the 1960s, the inside of the case back will typically be marked with “Cased and Timed by the Elgin National Watch Co.”
Signed crowns can also be useful. The presence of a signed crown will add another piece to the puzzle, however, they were not used for all, or even the majority, of models.
- Watches with dials that state “Elgin movement” are not Elgin watches; rather they are watches that have been created by taking Elgin movements and putting them into third party cases.
- Elgin made a very large number of private label watches, that is, Elgins released under different brand names, typically with difference cases. Your best bet for verifying whether you have a private label Elgin is to search or browse the NAWCC’s Private Label Database.
Identifying a Model
When it comes to identifying the model of a particular Elgin, the bottom line is: It’s all about the case — movements don’t determine model, case designs do. The key to the identification process is to pay attention to details. All watches of a particular model had the same case style (though the material may vary, i.e., yellow gold vs. coral gold). Pay close attention to things like the shape of the lugs, or the lines (or lack thereof) on the case. To a lesser extent, dial features, like the placement of the second hand and the shape of the sub-seconds (if any), are also very useful indicators.
Model numbers were typically stamped inside the case back, as you can see in the picture at left. Model names were not stamped on the watches and our only clues to these is through other collectors, or through visually matching watches with advertisements and (scarce) catalog materials.
Dating, based on Dial Markings
Dial markings can help narrow things down, but they don’t provide much help with model specifics.
- A star first appeared on Elgin dials in August, 1933, and ceased appearing in the late 1940s.
- The DuraPower logo first appeared in 1946.
- The Shockmaster logo first appeared in 1951.
- The DuraBalance logo first appeared in 1958.
Dating, based on Movement Serial Number
Movement serial numbers provide useful insight in the manufacturing date of the movement. This is possible because Elgin watch movements were numbered sequentially. We know the sequence numbers with confidence up to the end of 1955; these numbers are presented below. To establish the manufacture date of your movement, simply obtain the movement number then check it against the table, below.
Limitations of this identification method
- Elgin stopped including serial numbers on their movements around 1956.
- While we may be able to establish the date the movement was manufactured, it does not tell us when the watch was assembled. Sometimes movements sat on the shelf for years before being inserted into a case and put into distribution. In other cases, a movement may have been replaced in the intervening years. (There is no way to correlate movements to particular cases.)
Table: Movement serial numbers, by year