Elgin Pocket Watch Values: A Collector‘s Guide to These Precision Timepieces

Elgin pocket watches are prized by collectors around the world for their classic designs, precision engineering, and rich history. Founded in 1864, the Elgin National Watch Company quickly became one of the largest watch manufacturers in the United States, known for producing reliable and innovative timepieces.

While Elgin ceased production in the 1960s due to the rising popularity of wristwatches, the pocket watches made by the company during its century in business remain highly sought after by enthusiasts today. Many are willing to pay significant sums for the rarest and most unique models.

Whether you‘re an experienced collector or just appreciate the craftsmanship and beauty of vintage watches, Elgin pocket watches are a fascinating area to explore. In this guide, we‘ll delve into what makes these timepieces so special and offer expert tips for identifying, evaluating, and caring for them.

The History and Significance of Elgin Pocket Watches

The Elgin National Watch Company was founded in 1864 in Elgin, Illinois, about 35 miles northwest of Chicago. The company‘s first watch was produced in 1867, and they quickly gained a reputation for manufacturing reliable, high-quality timepieces using efficient, state-of-the-art production methods.

In 1910, Elgin was producing half of all pocket watches made in the United States. Throughout their history, the company was known for innovations like their unique motor barrel design and precise "micrometric" regulator. They even supplied watches for the military during World War I.

Some key things that made Elgin pocket watches popular during their heyday include:

  • Accuracy and reliability: Elgin emphasized precision engineering and was known for extremely accurate watches, even earning the nickname "The Watch of Railroad Accuracy."
  • High-quality craftsmanship: Each tiny component was made with skill and care. Elgin developed their own tools and machinery to enable mass production without sacrificing quality.
  • Beautiful designs: From simple and elegant to ornate and heavily jeweled or enameled, Elgin made watches in a range of attractive styles to suit different tastes and budgets.
  • Innovative features: The company held many patents and was always working to improve their products with things like sturdier mainsprings, easy-to-read dials, and more.

By 1958, the Elgin National Watch Company had produced half of all jeweled pocket watches ever made in the United States — around 60 million in total. However, the rise of wristwatches and changing consumer tastes eventually led to the company‘s decline and closure in the 1960s, despite efforts to shift production.

Today, the storied legacy of Elgin lives on through the cherished vintage pocket watches still treasured by collectors. The top-notch craftsmanship and innovative designs of these pieces make them not only functional timepieces but also unique pieces of history.

Did You Know? The famous Elgin National Watch Company observatory in Elgin, Illinois was the first non-governmental astronomical observatory in the United States. It was used to time the highly accurate watches and make astronomical observations.

What Makes Elgin Pocket Watches Valuable?

Not all antique Elgin pocket watches are hugely valuable — you can find some for under $200. However, many are worth much more due to factors like age, rarity, condition, and unique features. Generally, serious collectors are willing to pay a premium for:

  • Gold or silver cases in excellent condition
  • Watches with an unusual complication like a chronograph or repeater
  • Ornate, jeweled, or highly detailed dials and engravings
  • Watches connected to a historical event or figure
  • Watches in mint or near-mint condition with original parts
  • Very early or first-run models from the 1860s-1880s
  • Rare railroad-grade watches

One important thing to note is that the "grade" of an Elgin pocket watch (often engraved on the movement) refers to the specific model, not to the condition or quality, as with some other collectible grading systems. The grade essentially indicated things like the jewel count, adjustments, and materials used.

Examples of different Elgin pocket watch grades engraved on movements

For example, a high-grade Elgin "Father Time" pocket watch might have a beautifully engraved gold case, a porcelain enamel dial, and 23 ruby and sapphire jewels, while a lower-grade model might have a plain silver case, simple printed dial, and 7 jewels. A higher grade with more jewels often commands a higher price from collectors.

However, a rare or early low-grade Elgin could still be more valuable than a common higher-grade model in some cases. It really depends on the specific watch.

Tips for Identifying an Authentic Antique Elgin Pocket Watch

Because of the value and collectibility of Elgin pocket watches, there are unfortunately quite a few convincing fakes and "frankenwatches" (watches cobbled together from various unoriginal spare parts) on the market.

To avoid getting duped, it‘s important for collectors to carefully authenticate any antique Elgin before making a purchase. Here are some tips:

  1. Check for the Elgin signature. Authentic dials, movements, and cases should be clearly marked with the Elgin name. The famous cursive "Elgin" logo is hard to miss.
  2. Verify the serial number. You can look up the approximate year a watch was made by its serial number in online Elgin serial number tables. The number on the case and movement should match.
  3. Examine the overall quality. A genuine Elgin should have a high level of craftsmanship and detail throughout, with no sloppy engravings or crude parts.
  4. Beware of anachronisms. Check that all components make sense for the watch‘s age indicated by the serial number. Certain features and materials wouldn‘t be period-appropriate.
  5. Consult an expert. When in doubt, have the watch authenticated by a professional horologist or reputable antique pocket watch dealer before buying.

Pro Tip: You can identify many individual Elgin pocket watch models by looking up the "grade" number engraved on the movement in an online database or reference guide. The grade can tell you the specific name, jewel count, size, and other attributes.

4 of the Most Valuable and Collectible Elgin Pocket Watch Models

Elgin made thousands of pocket watch variations over their century in business. But here are a few extra-special ones known to be among the most valuable and prized by collectors today:

1. Elgin Veritas Model

The Elgin Veritas was made in the late 1800s and early 1900s and was known for its superior accuracy and delicate, ultra-thin movement. An 18-size Veritas with a beautiful gold case in excellent condition sold at auction for over $10,000.

2. Elgin Father Time Multicolor Gold Box Hinge Model

Dating to around 1894, this stunning pocket watch features multicolored 14k gold casework with detailed, high-relief engravings depicting Father Time. The 18-size watch with a 21-jewel movement is valued at around $6,000-7,000 at auction.

3. Elgin 18-Size 8-Day Convertible "Tractor Watch"

Manufactured around 1917, this large, 8-day convertible pocket watch was marketed to farmers and tractor drivers. With an impressive 240-hour power reserve, lever-set winding indicator, and bold Arabic numeral dial, one sold at auction for nearly $5,000.

4. Lord Elgin 14k Gold 23-Jewel Model

Made in the 1930s, the elegant 14k gold Lord Elgin was the company‘s "supergrade" watch, with 23 jewels and an ornate dial. Models in excellent condition can fetch $3,000-5,000 today.

Collage of photos of the 4 valuable and rare Elgin pocket watch models described

Of course, there are many more rare and valuable Elgin models sought by collectors. The value of any particular piece depends on its unique attributes, condition, and relative scarcity on the market at a given time.

Buying and Caring for an Elgin Pocket Watch Collection

Building a collection of high-quality antique Elgin pocket watches takes some research, patience, and care. Here are some tips for collectors:

  • Buy from reputable sellers. Established dealers and auction houses are generally a safer bet than anonymous online sellers. Check a seller‘s reputation and return policy before buying.
  • Handle with care. Pocket watches are delicate instruments. Always handle them gently by the edge of the case, not the bow or glass. Avoid dropping, playing with, or over-winding.
  • Keep them clean and dry. Wipe watches down carefully with a soft, lint-free cloth to remove dust and fingerprints. Avoid submerging them in liquid and store them away from humidity and heat.
  • Don‘t overwind. Wind an antique pocket watch gently until you feel slight tension, then stop. Over-winding can damage the mechanism. Let a professional handle any repairs.
  • Have them serviced regularly. Like a car, an antique pocket watch should be professionally cleaned and oiled every few years to keep it in top running condition and prevent damage.
  • Store them properly. Keep pocket watches in a soft cloth, pouch, or lined box when not in use to protect them. Store them flat to reduce stress on the delicate components.

If you‘ve inherited some old pocket watches or are considering starting a collection, it‘s worth checking to see if you have any valuable Elgins. With some luck and a keen eye, you may discover a real treasure.

But beyond their monetary value, antique Elgin pocket watches are a joy to own and collect simply as fascinating pieces of history and superb craftsmanship. The classic designs and vintage charm are sure to spark conversations whenever you take one out.

Whether you‘re drawn to their brilliant artistry, amazing precision, or nostalgia factor, Elgin pocket watches are endlessly captivating. With the proper knowledge and care, they can enrich a collection for generations.

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