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“They were like the iPhones of the day—everybody wanted one,” says Bill Briska, watch curator and treasurer of the Elgin History Museum in Elgin, Illinois.
Briska is an expert on the history of Elgin watches (he even co-authored a book about the company) and he makes this curious (and probably accurate) comparison on the popularity of Elgin timepieces while he discusses how the Illinois-based company, which shut down in 1968, created a product so covetable in the late 19th and early 20th century (even John F. Kennedy had one) that it remains an object of desire for collectors even nowadays.
The secret, as it turns out, was pure American ingenuity. At the time the company started producing watches back in the 1860s, most timepieces in the US were being imported mostly from Switzerland and England. Elgin was one of the first watchmaking companies that developed the technology to mass-produce the parts as well as to assemble good quality watches in their factory. That gave the company a leg up in the competition with its European counterparts.
“[…] whereas the Europeans were still kind of doing it in a handcraft, small shop kind of environment where they have people making parts, but then somebody had to, at the end, kind of tweak it all together,” explains Briska.
During its one-hundred-year history, Elgin produced around 60 million timepieces—ranging from military and pocket watches to exquisite art deco pieces (“Style was really an important factor in sales by the 1920s,” says Briska)—that today still fascinate some collectors.
“There's something about that American engineering and being able to mass-produce a quality item, even during a war where there are shortages, that is still appealing today,” says James Lamdin, founder and CEO of Analog/Shift, a vintage watch retailer based in New York City.
He explains that because the market has been dominated by “oversized steel sport watches” for the past few decades, some collectors are going back to wearing thinner (a typical watch from that era had a 32mm case compared to 40 mm today) and smaller timepieces that have more flair.
“It's a little bit of a counterculture thing to be interested in and collecting these smaller American dress watches which sort of fly in the face of the popularity of the oversized steel Swiss sports watches,” Lamdin says.
But he also acknowledges that style, while important is not everything. Even though Elgin watches were mass-produced in a factory, which usually conjures up an image of something quite disposable and of low quality, Elgin watches were actually pretty accurate and well-made.
He says that one of the most popular Elgin styles is the A-11 watch that was built for military use during World War II.
“There are certain models be it the military ones or some of their more artistic art deco designs that are probably going to continue to increase in value,” predicts Lamdin.