Elgin Private Label Research

By Fogarty, John

I've recently updated the Elgin private label database, which now lists about 500 watches, covering some 200+ different label names. The database is located as part of the AWCo archives, and Tom McIntyre has added some search functions to make it easier to look for particular names or features. Thanks again to everyone who's contributed to this effort.

A few notes and observations about what's been pulled together to date:

First, the venerable Chicago jeweler C.D. Peacock - founded in 1837 and still in business today - seems to have been Elgin's longest-standing customer for private label watches. There are over 40 C.D. Peacock-labeled watches in the database, spanning a 35+ year period starting in the early 1890s and covering a wide range of grades, from common 7 jewelers to relatively uncommon (for Elgin) high grade watches. All are marked on the dial only.

In addition, some of the observations made earlier (this was originally discussed here and here) still hold true, and have been reinforced by new finds. In particular, early Elgins are more often seen marked only the movement - marking both a dial and movement seems to be more the exception rather than the rule up until about the 1880s, when labeling both dial and movement seems to have become more common.

Of course, this could also be the result of the original dial on these earlier watches having been damaged and replaced at a later date - without knowing the provenance of a particular watch, there's no way I know of to know for certain. However, there are a number of movement-only marked watches in the database that have an Elgin dial that is correct for the era of manufacture, so at this point it seems a reasonable inference that movement-only private labeling was a standard practice early on.

Labeling the dial only starts to appear with some frequency around the turn of the century, and sometime after the mid-1910s dial-only marked private labels seem to be the norm. The C.D. Peacock watches are a good example of this practice, although there are some notable exceptions, such as the Transit, Strand and Elite marked watches, which are marked only on the movement and date from the 1914-1916 time period.

In general, early private labels tend to be seen on Elgin's higher grades. Toward the late 1890s and thereafter, many more are seen on lower grades (lots of 7 jewel examples out there), or if higher jeweled they are more common movements (the 12 size, 17 jewel grade 345 was a popular choice). However, this could just be a function of the survival rate.

Another earlier observation that still holds is that the use of a balance cock with a "heart shaped" cutout (such as John Cote's Sweetser and Tom McIntyre's Kratzer) seems to be limited to a relatively short time period, mostly the 1870s. The earliest example is from 1869, and the latest from 1882. These don't seem that common (I can account for just 15 of these), and I have yet to see a cutout on the balance cock that wasn't also a private label. All are 18 size, full plate and gilt. Two in the database are from the same jeweler, Alexander Brattin in Green Castle Indiana, and are just a couple of SNs apart (75618 and 75620, c. 1869).

So, as a gross overgeneralization, the trend in Elgin private labels seem to be from relatively higher grades marked on the movement only, to lower grades marked on the dial only (though there are some obvious and notable exceptions). Does anyone know if this is unique to Elgin, or if the same sort of apparent pattern is also observed in private labels from other companies?

There's a couple of categories or types of watches for which there's some question in my mind whether they're private labels or not.

The first is a number of "dual" marked watches, in which both a "private" name and "Elgin" appear on the dial. These tend to be from 1910s and thereafter. Many have names that sound like they might be a line of Elgin-named watches, such as those that have "The Boulevard," "Columbia," "Director," and "Paramount" on the dial in addition to "Elgin." I am unaware of any Elgin advertising that would confirm this, however.

There are several other "dual" marked Elgins that are clearly not like this, such as those that carry names such as "Hausermans," "Rothsteins" and "G.W. Harbaugh" in addition to "Elgin" on the dial, among others. I'm not sure of the reason(s) behind this practice of showing both a private label name and the manufacturer's name on the dial, so for now it's still a bit of a mystery.

Another type for which there's some question about whether they're a private label or an Elgin name are the afore-mentioned "Elite," "Transit" and "Strand" marked watches. These typically have a fancy damaskeening (the Transits are two-tone, for example) and other features (16s Strands had a 3 finger bridge movement), and were limited to just a few runs in 1914 and 1916. As noted above, all are marked on the movement only (harkening back to earlier days, I suppose).

An anomaly here is that I have found a single "Strand" marked watch outside of this range - on a relatively common 12 size movement from 1923, marked on the dial only (but with the same typeface as those dating from 1916 marked on the movement only). Interestingly, this 1923 Strand is a "dual" marked watch, with both Strand and Elgin on the dial. Jury's still out on what these really are.

This post has gotten a lot more lengthy than I'd anticipated, so I'll wrap up with one of the more unusual ones I've run across, which is also a bit of a mystery to me. It's a 6 size from 1895, marked "Rovelstad Bros, Elgin Ill." on the dial, and "Johan Sverdrup, Elgin Ill." on the movement. My initial thought was that this was a frankenstein, in which a Rovelstad dial had been added to a Sverdrup-labeled watch. My thinking changed the day I got an email from a older gentleman inquiring about an identically marked watch. His was unlikely a put-together, as the provenance was known - it had been his father's, which had been given to him by his father's grandparents as a gift when his father was a just young man. The kicker is that this Rovelstad-Sverdrup marked watch was not an Elgin, but an 18 size Hamilton. So who was Johan Sverdrup? A master watchmaker working in the Rovelstad shop? A Rovelstad customer who wanted his own name on the movement?

There's other mysteries in these Elgin private labels, but I reckon this is enough for now. I haven't yet done any kind of analysis of serial number runs to see if there's any sort of pattern, nor have I tried to compare any of these names against lists of known RR inspectors. Those are other projects for other days.

Submitted by: Samuel Kirk (2006-07-03 12:58:29)