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Elgin National Watch Company

In the spring of 1864 half a dozen ambitious Chicago businessmen decided that if Massachusetts could build a factory that built watches – Illinois could, too. Harper’s magazine summed their sentiment perfectly: “It was the genuine, audacious, self-reliant Western spirit.” By August of that year this consortium, including then-Chicago mayor Benjamin W. Raymond, purchased an abandoned farm 30 miles north of Chicago and built a watch factory there. After a year of designing and building the lathes and machines to achieve seemingly impossible levels of precision, a team of watchmakers and mechanical engineers produced their first pocket watch movement, named for mayor “B.W. Raymond.” The watch was exquisite: Elgin National Watch Company was born.

By 1910, word of Elgin’s obsession with precision had spread around the world. Elgin engineers built their own Observatory to maintain scientifically precise times in their watches. Later, their accurate “wristlet” watches proved to be vital to the WWI war effort, helping to fuel a craze back in the states for something called “The Wrist Watch.” By the opulent Jazz Age, if you weren’t displaying the exuberant symmetry of an Elgin wrist watch or carrying a svelte, distinctive Elgin pocket watch, then who were you? Elgin had helped define the American pocket watch as unsurpassed in “Railroad Accuracy.” By 1930, the post Civil War dream factory imagined by a handful of American entrepreneurs had produced 32 million “time machines.”

During World War II, all civilian manufacturing was halted and the company moved into the defense industry, manufacturing military watches, chronometers, fuses for artillery shells, altimeters and other aircraft instruments and sapphire bearings used for aiming cannons.

While their altruism was vital to the war effort, Elgin’s patriotism ironically opened an opportunity for the Swiss. By 1964, after a Mid-Century decade that saw the rise of the elite “Lord and Lady Elgin” series, the original Elgin factory closed. Over the course of a century, the dream factory just north of Chicago had produced half of all jeweled pocket and wristwatches manufactured in the United States.

The legendary Elgin watch has become woven into the fabric of America:

  • Robert Johnson, pre-eminent Delta bluesman, sang “She’s got Elgin movements from her head down to her toes” in his 1936 recording of “Walkin’ Blues”.
  • NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor was named after the Elgin National Watch Company.
  • Daniel Beard’s sketches of an angel at the end of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court are based on the Elgin National Watch Company’s logo.
  • The Steeleye Span album Bloody Men contains a track titled ”Lord Elgin”: ostensibly a love song, it is, in fact, about the Lord Elgin Watch.
  • Elgin Watch Company is referenced in the video game L.A. Noire, which takes place in post-World War II Los Angeles.
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