Elgin Watches: Prices for Antique Wrist and Pocket Watches

American gold huntingcase watch, Elgin, 1887. Sold for €350 via Cortrie Spezial Auktionen (September 2015).

By: Tom Mulraney

Elgin watches, some of the most in-demand antique watches in the market today, are a perennial favorite among watch collectors. If you’ve always wanted to own a piece of functional American history, without breaking the bank, then a wrist or pocket watch from the Elgin National Watch Company may just be exactly what you’ve been looking for.

Elgin Watches: The Rise of an American Watchmaker

Founded in 1864 in Elgin, Illinois, just as the American Civil War was coming to an end, the company released its first watch to the market in 1867, an 18 sized BW Raymond railroad grade pocket watch, which took six months to complete and sold for a whopping $117 (several years ago, it was purchased at auction by the City of Elgin for $15,000). By way of context, pork chops were selling for three cents a pound at the time. Back then, the business traded under the name “National Watch Company,” but this would later be changed to the “Elgin National Watch Company,” as most of the watch trade and public referred to its products as “watches from Elgin.”

As one of the few true American watch manufacturers, the Elgin National Watch Company produced around 60 million watches over the course of its 100-year history, making it the largest American watch manufacturer in terms of total production volume. The underlying idea was to mass produce high-quality pocket watches using machine-made, interchangeable parts. By today’s standards that seems like a completely rational, if not obvious approach, however it should be noted up until around 1850, watches were made mostly by hand. If one part of a watch broke, someone with the right tools and skill-set to make a replacement would need to fix it, a potentially time-consuming and expensive process.

The founders of the Elgin National Watch Company recognized that there was a need for good quality, reliable watches that could be sold and repaired relatively inexpensively using factory made replacement parts that didn’t require hand adjusting. The goal wasn’t to produce the best watches, or the cheapest, but rather to dominate the substantial middle-ground of the American watch market, which they did successfully, enjoying something of a duopoly with Waltham Watch Co. – America’s other watch-making powerhouse at the time –  for a number of decades.     

That’s not to say the Elgin National Watch Company wasn’t innovative, as it most certainly was. For example, the company produced its first wristwatch around 1910, many years before most other American watch companies. Likewise, Elgin designed its products to be easily repairable and with so many spare parts produced over the course of its 100-year history, its watches can still be bought and fixed reasonably easily even today, making them popular collectibles for enthusiasts. Plus, the high-volume of production has meant that the prices for collectible Elgin watches have stayed relatively low, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on the make and model.

Here are some broad recommendations and past prices of Elgin watches to help you get started on your collecting journey.

Elgin Pocket Watch

As Elgin produced pocket watches for over half a century, there are a variety of styles to choose from based on the decade that the watch was made and its original purpose. Many were Railroad Watches or “standard watches,” as they were often called in the railroad industry, designed to meet railway standards. A railroad pocket watch was generally considered to be one of the highest grade watches available at the time, responsible for ensuring the burgeoning railway system ran on schedule. Depending on your preference, you can choose between open face pocket watches or hunter pocket watches, the cases of which generally cover the entire watch face. There are a few half hunter watches that allow viewing of the clock when the face is closed, however, these are less common. The pocket watches often have engravings on the bezel or hunter case, which not only look nice but also help to determine the era in which they were made.

Depending on the material the watch is made of, as well as the year of production and the significance of the particular model, prices for a railroad pocket watch generally tend to range from anywhere from $200 to $5,000. It’s worth noting here that only about 10% of cases ever sold were solid gold.

1: 14K Gold Elgin Watch Co. Pocket Watch
Cottone Auctions (November 2016)
Estimated Price: $300-500
Realized Price: $1,495

2: Elgin 14K Gold Pocket Watch
Cottone Auctions (September 2016)
Estimated Price: $200-300
Realized Price: $748

3: Elgin Men’s 14K Gold Pocket Watch
Auktionshaus Eppli (November 2015)
Realized Price: €650 (~$730)

4: Antique Elgin Pocket Watch, 14K Gold
Vickers & Hoad (June 2014)
Estimated Price: AUD120-160
Realized Price: AUD300

5: Elgin Pocket Watch
Kaminski Auctions (May 2016)
Estimated Price: $200-300
Realized Price: $175

Elgin A-11 Military Ordinance Watch

During World War II, all civilian work was stopped and Elgin focused on making chronometers for the U.S. Navy, fuses for artillery shells, altimeters and instruments for aircraft and sapphire bearings used in the aiming of cannons. The company also produced military watches under the A-11 production standard, along with other American watch manufacturers such as Hamilton and Bulova. The “official” version of the A-11 was the one made by Elgin, as documented in TM 9-1575 from the War Department. This is the ordinance maintenance guide for wristwatches, pocket watches, stop watches and clocks, published on April 6, 1945.

The design was fairly standardized: black or white dial with contrasting hands, a hand-wound, hacking movement with a center second hand, hour numbers from 1 to 12, a second scale with smaller minute/second numbers in increments of 10 on the outside edge of the dial and same-type minute and hour hands. These watches played a critical role in helping the Allies to victory and the Elgin Company was awarded ten Army-Navy “E” awards, for fulfilling contracts ahead of schedule.

Today, prices will vary depending on the age of the model as these watches continued to be produced for the U.S. Military until they were superseded by the A-17 around the time of the Korean War. Expect to pay between $500 to $1,500 for a good quality example from the mid-1940s.

6: Elgin Military Deck Watch, Royal Navy, c. 1943
Auctionata Paddle8 AG (November 2015)
Estimated Price: €300-390
Realized Price: €563 (~$633)

7: American Military Centre Seconds Pocket Watch
Bonhams (March 2004)
Estimated Price: €300-400
Realized Price: €509.64 (~$573)

8: Military Navigation Centre Seconds Keyless
Tennants (June 2014)
Estimated Price: £200-300
Realized Price£400 (~$515)

9: Elgin National Watch Co. Aircraft Time Piece
R.O. Schmitt Fine Arts (October 2010)
Estimated Price: $150-250
Realized Price$270

10: Elgin Gentleman’s Midi-Stainless Steel Military Watch
Dreweatts & Bloomsbury (November 2013)
Estimated Price: £150-200
Realized Price
: £149 (~$192)


Lord Elgin Watch

The Lord Elgin collection were classic dress watches made for men, often with gold plated cases and leather straps, perfect for office wear with a suit or an evening out at a matinee. Produced over a number of decades, the Lord Elgin watch came in several different forms, including square, circular, and rectangular cases, and the general style was always one of elegance and refinement. What is perhaps most interesting about these watches from a collector’s point of view is the  variety of examples available. You can literally have a collection solely of Lord Elgin watches with no two models being exactly the same. Best of all, they are very accessible watches, particularly for novice enthusiasts, with prices starting at around $200.

11: 18k Lord Elgin Commemorative Wristwatch
Heritage Auctions (December 2010)
Estimated Price: $3,000-4,000
Realized Price: $2,390

12: 14K Gold Lord Elgin Ladies Watch
Morphy Auctions (November 2013)
Estimated Price: $500-800
Realized Price: $840

13: Lord Elgin Vintage Wristwatch, c.1950
Auctionata US (January 2015)
Estimated Price: $320-400
Realized Price: $384

14: 14K Yellow Gold Lord Elgin Wristwatch
Crescent City Auction Gallery (February 2016)
Estimated Price: $300-500
Realized Price: $300

15: Lord Elgin Watch
R.O. Schmitt Fine Arts (October 2013)
Estimated Price: $200-300
Realized Price: $275