A Time Before Rolex

By Josh Fox

If a random person ever walks up to you on the street and asks you to name the first brand of watches that comes to mind, assuming that your first instinct isn’t to simply run away from him, you’d tell that person Rolex. Go back in time fifty years or so, and the answer you would’ve given is completely different. Back then, the first brand of watch that would’ve come to mind for someone would be Elgin.

Under the original name of the National Watch Company, the Elgin National Watch Company was founded, naturally, in Elgin, Illinois in 1864. For the first few years after the company’s conception, it focused mainly on just building the actual factory and facilities for the workers to live in, but in 1867, it released its first watch, the B.W. Raymond.

Named after one of the company’s founders, the B.W. Raymond was an eighteen-size (one and 23/30 inches in diameter), fifteen-jewel, full plate with straight-line escapement. It was the first quick-train American watch, changing the balance wheel vibrations from 14,000 to 18,000 vibrations per hour. This permitted the use of a balance wheel smaller in diameter and lighter in weight and allowed a weaker and longer mainspring, which reduced friction. In layman’s terms, it was a really good watch.

From that point onward, the National Watch Company became a massive success. By 1870, it had 525 employees producing 130 watches a day, and by 1872, it was averaging 125,000 watches a year. Everyone and their mothers wanted one of the watches to the point that, in 1874, the company changed its name to match the public nickname of Elgin, making the company’s official name Elgin Watch Company.

After that, the company maintained its dominance in the field for the rest of the nineteenth century until well into the twentieth century. However, the company was eventually shut down in the 1960s, and today, any Elgin-brand watches made have no connection to the original Elgin Watch Company.



Alft, Elmer C. Elgin: An American History. 3rd ed., Crossroads Communication, 1985, www.elginhistory.com/eaah/.

“Brief History: Elgin National Watch Company.” Pocket Watch Repair, Renaissance Watch Repair, www.pocketwatchrepair.com/histories/elgin.html.