Sunday, June 16, 2013

Elgin's Swiss Automatics

As I've noted elsewhere, Elgin's Bumper automatics were already obsolete by the time they were introduced in 1950.  By this time, the Swiss were already making smaller automatic watches with 360 degree rotors.  The 607 and 618 were large, literally clunky, and though I have no data to prove it, I suspect they did not sell as well as Elgin hoped.  In 1953, Elgin introduced the first Elgin watches with imported movements.

Elgin created a booklet for their jewelers, explaining the change as a result of the dedication of Elgin's resources to defense efforts, which they claimed was using up all their R&D efforts.

Elgin claimed that although these movements were imported, they'd been upgraded to Elgin's standards.  Indeed, although the movements were largely off-the-shelf A. Schild movements, at first there were a significant number of parts that were exclusive to Elgin.  No, not just the rotors!

Elgin claimed they were 'Lord Elgin' quality, built and timed to that standard.  Looking at the ad, you can see they certainly priced them like Lord Elgins!  The $71.50 for the Shipmate was the same price as the Lord Elgin Clubman!  That's about $625 in today's money, a substantial sum!

The first three movements to be imported were the 643, 644, and 645.  The 643 was a 5/0 (11 1/2 ligne) movement with directly-driven sweep second hand.  The 644 and 645 were 11/0 (9 3/4 ligne) movements.  The 645 had an indirectly-driven sweep second hand, while the 644 had a subsidiary seconds hand - an oddity for automatics, but sometimes seen on automatics in the 1940s and 1950s.

This week, I finally completed my collection of the first 3 imported movements.  

If you check out ad, you'll see the one on the left is a 'Shipmate', and the one on the Right is a 'Windsor'.  Note also that the Shipmate and Windsor are labeled 'Elgin Automatic', while the middle watch is labeled 'Self-Winding'.  The original 607/618 Bumpers were also labeled 'Automatic', and the watches in the introductory ad are also labeled 'Automatic'.  Presumably Elgin later started labeling them 'Self-Winding'

The movements in these three, from left to right, are a 643, 644, and 645.  See below!

By 1958, only 5 years later, Elgin was importing a larger range of movements with fewer and fewer 'Elgin-specific' parts.  From 1953, until the introduction of the 760/761 Durabalance automatics in 1960, all Self-Winding Elgins were imported. By that time, Elgin wasn't even making any men's movements with fewer than 19 jewels. 17 jewel watches were all imports, which had started with the 'Elgin Sportsman' series, introduced as a bargain line.

The writing was on the wall.  Elgin could not produce watches in America that competed with the cheap Swiss imports, and as if that weren't bad enough, Timex had sufficiently improved on the old 'Dollar Watch' that it was now a reliable, accurate timepiece that cost about 1/4 the price of the cheapest American-built Elgin. 

Elgin was also unable to compete at the top end of the market.  Elgin had never had the prestige that Hamilton had, and Hamilton was already losing out to the even more prestigious Swiss makers - Omega, Rolex, IWC and others.  Elgin was rapidly being squeezed out of the market entirely.

Over the next four years, Elgin continued importing more and more movements - manual wind, self winding, calendar watches, even an alarm watch.  In 1964 Elgin stopped making movements in America altogether, closed down the Elgin IL factory and move to South Carolina, where a town had obligingly renamed itself  'Elgin'.  Elgin watches were now all imported movements, cased here in America, but by 1969 even that business had failed.

Though they're arguably a dark piece of Elgin's history - the first hint of surrender to the inevitable - still Elgin had tried to make these imported movements into real Elgins, and I'm happy to have them in my collection.


  1. Like this one, I now want to buy a Wristwatch,swiss watches liked, but I do not know that a good pick , you help to the point.

  2. Hi. Sorting through my "reject" boxes I find an Elgin 645, running but lacking a rotor retaining screw. Which is the equivalent AS movement (if that's what it is!)