Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Whole 'Nother Size of Elgin

Prior to 1938, Elgin wrist watches simply had 'Elgin' on the dial.  There was no way, short of knowing the models or peeking inside the back to know whether it was running a 7, 15, or 17 jewel movement.

In 1938, Elgin introduced the Lord Elgin series of wrist watches.  These were a premium product, with 21 jewel movements, and cased in 14k gold filled or solid gold (and a few in platinum).  As I've shown in previous entries, the finish on the movements was also of a higher grade.  Elgin continued to sell the 7, 15, and 17 jewel watches as well, taking no effort to distinguish them from each other.  It wasn't even always clear from the ads what the jewel count of the movement was.

(The Lord Elgin name had previously been used on some of Elgin's pocket watch movements, but only on the movement, not the dial.  In their 12s 'Streamline' series of watches, for example, there were two different Lord Elgin movements, the 450 and the 451.  These were 21 and 19 jewel movements, with gold trains and jewel settings. 
This is a 19j 451.  Note 'Lord Elgin' on the train bridge.

Prior to that, some of the first watches cased at the Elgin factory seem to have been the 'Lord Elgin' series, which were 14s, and thinner than others.  I believe there were even earlier examples as well.

In 1941 (as near as I can figure it), Elgin introduced the 'Elgin DeLuxe' wrist watch line, and I believe they also stopped making 7 jewel watches (apart from those made for the Gov't.).  They now had three levels of quality:  Elgin, which denoted a 15j watch; Elgin DeLuxe, which denoted 17j; and Lord Elgin, denoting 21j watches.  I'm in the midst of either collecting or cleaning the first series of Elgin/Elgin DeLuxe/Lord Elgin groups in the wrist watches, so I have no complete series to show...yet.

But!  At the same time Elgin introduced the Elgin/Deluxe/Lord division, they also introduced a new line of 10s pocket watches.  These contained newly designed movements, rather than reengineering old ones. These watches were smaller and thinner than 12s watches that had previously dominated the 'dress pocket watch' market.  And Elgin made them in the same 3 levels as the wrist watches.  Curiously, they did not carry this through to their 16s watches.

The movements were the 15j 546 in the 'Elgin' line, the 17j 542 in the 'Elgin DeLuxe' line, and the 21j 543 in the 'Lord Elgin' line.

Here's a 546 from 1941-42, in rose gold.

A 17j 542 Elgin DeLuxe, also from 1941-42

And here is a 21j Lord Elgin 543, from 1949.

The 543 may have continued production beyond 1955.  I have seen two examples without serial numbers, and Elgin stopped putting in serial numbers after 1955 or so, when they reached 56,000,000 watches.

The difference in finish among the 3 movements is more apparent in this picture...

Here you can see that the 546 has a flat, brushed finish, whereas the 542 and 542 have a brighter satin finish.  Each grade has its own distinctive finish on the ratchet wheel as well.  And of course, the 21j 543 has a cap jewel on the escape wheel and pallet, and a micrometric regulator.  Note the cutout in the case to the right of the balance cock for the adjusting nut.

There's another salient fact about this series of movements.  They are not so much pocket watch movements in the vein of Elgin's long line of pocket watches.  They have more in common with Elgin's wrist watch movements.  If they look familiar to any of you who have ever worked on an Elgin 8/0, it's for a reason.  Allowing for the different layout (open face for the 10s vs hunter for the 8/0) they're essentially the same, on a larger scale! 


This is even more clear at the level of the parts.  Not only are all the same parts there in both, they are all almost the same SHAPE!  It's like the 10s PWs are just overgrown 8/0 wrist watches!

NOTE!  I inadvertantly left out the clutch spring on the 8/0 (the smaller shepherd's crook-looking thing under the pillar plate), but trust me, it's the same thing in miniature.

These watches are a bargain these days, as are most 12s and smaller pocket watches.  BUT, they fit the watch pocket in a pair of Levis perfectly, and they keep excellent time.  And since they have all the same bits in the same places as an 8/0, they make excellent practice watches, to build your confidence before tackling a wrist watch.  On the other hand, if you've been working on wrist watches, these are EASY!


  1. Hey Doug, this is a nice post on the variety of Elgin movements (a bit of a mystery to me). I recently got a 546 rose gold pocket watch like above... I had read it was 14 size though when I looked up the serial number. Is there some debate regarding the "official size"?

    1. Hi Dan, Elgin designated them as 10s in their Service Bulletin.

      It's possible that the confusion comes about from the size of the dial, which is significantly larger than 10s, indeed larger than 12s, and a lot larger than the pillar plate

      In Elgin's 12s watches, the dials are either slightly smaller than (standard)or the same size as (Streamline) the pillar plate.

      Elgin also didn't stick with 3-piece, pocket watch-type cases, either. I have one in a 2-piece case, where the movement fits into the caseback and the bezel snaps on over it, like a wristwatch.

  2. Greetings Mr. Gene:
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  4. Can you recommend an Elgin watch repairman?

    I have a 542 that still looks great but does not run.

    Thank You

  5. Hi Curtis,

    The great thing about the later Elgin watches is that pretty much any professional watchmaker should be able to repair them. The American Watchmakers and Clockmakers Institute has a pweb page where you can search for a watchmaker near you.

    There is also a professional watchmaker online, who is another Elgin enthusiast. You can contact him through his website.

    He has an interesting blog on his repair work, too.

  6. Gene, can I interchange a 685 movement with a 687 or a 683 movement in a wrist watch. My 685 movement is toast but the rest of the watch is in excellent shape! Are there any movement that exchange with the 685 movement?

    Thank You,

  7. Gene any assistance with the Elgin 685 movement question would be much appreciated
    " can I interchange a 685 movement with a 687 or a 683 movement in a wrist watch. My 685 movement is toast but the rest of the watch is in excellent shape! Are there any movement that exchange with the 685 movement?"

  8. Any of the 8/0s will fit the same caseback, so that's pretty much anything in the 680 series. The 685 is a sweep seconds movement, though, so the dial won't fit any 680 series movement but the 685. The 647, the predecessor to the 685, is probably the best bet. I think the previous 8/0 sweep second movements, the 532 and 539, do not have beveled edges and MIGHT not fit where the 647 and 685 do. They're also associated with the WWII A-11 watches, so they go for quite a bit more than a 647 does. So, if you can't find another 685, look for a 647.

  9. I got my great grandpa elgin 543 21j 8 adj he got as his 25 yr annervery gift has his full name ingraved and also fisher body division master craftsman and also the start and end date on the back case last date was 59 and has lord elgin on front above the second hand and a fisherbody car under the number 12 at top and i know its a never been messed with and not a fake can anyone tell me if they have ever seen one like it 18 yrs ago my took it to get it fixed and the man said he would have to send it off and just to let her know that its a really rare piece and would have a high insurance policy on it but i got for christmas last yr and got it running really good didnt change nothing just oiled it with watch oil and reset the mIn spring from were someone in my family over wound it probly me 20 yrs ago but works good would like to know history and how man was actually made for fisher

  10. Fisher and at least two other GM divisions gave Lord Elgin watches as service awards. Usually one sees wrist watches, but also occasionally the pocket watches. It's not really rare, but since it belonged to your Grandfather, it's unique, to you. Because Elgin went out of business in 1969, after years of slowly collapsing, there's no source of records that would let us determine how many 543s were made for Fisher.

    If you look inside the caseback, it should specify whether it's gold filled or solid gold. On the movement itself, there may be a serial number above the 'Elgin 543', or there may not, if it was made after 1955.

    If you want to use it on a regular basis, it needs ot be professionally serviced. I can recommend Jeff Sexton (there's a link at the top right of the page). He specializes in Elgins, and does a good job. If the watch is running, it may not need any new parts, just complete disassembly, cleaning, reassembly with lubrication, rating and regulation. You will need to send it off, but I would trust him a lot more than I'd trust whoever a jeweler sends it off to.

    Watch collectors like me have found that the US Postal Service is highly reliable for shipping. They deliver anywhere in the US within a couple days, and you can track your package the whole way.