Popularity isn't everything

Before World War II Elgin was the most popular watch in the world if popularity is measured by units sold. There are websites and books devoted to the history of Elgin, so I won't drone on about that. I want to dwell on hinge moments, moments and events that seem ordinary at the time, but given the lens of history take on more importance.

Elgin continued to be popular after the War and sold more watches than any other American producer. I bought the above pictured Sportsman model because I am interested in the decline and fall of many things, especially the American watch industry. This watch is symbolic of the changes beneath the surface that were about to shake up the industry. The history doesn't need quartz.

Elgin had always appealed to sportsmen, or at least tried to.

1937 Ad Elgin Sports Man Fisherman Winding Wrist Watch - ORIGINAL SPM1 –  Period Paper Historic Art LLC

But the watch in that advertisement (1937) could not be submerged and had no shock protection. Like all early "sports watches" it was no more sturdy than any other watch, it just had less gold plating.

In 1959 Elgin debuted the Sportsman model. It included shock protection, a screw down case back, and limited lume. That's what constituted a mass produced sports watch in 1959. If you are paying attention the advertisement has a tell or two.

Antiques, Art, Vintage

First of all, these are young people. Even in 1959 the young were not the ideal watch consumer: low price, low margin. Also, this is advertised as 17 jewel. This was in the era of jewel inflation when everyone "knew" that more jewels were better (see the Bulova 23 for example). 17 jewels was a hint that Elgin would be importing these watch movements. Tariffs made importing higher jewel movements uneconomical.

The Sportsman was Elgin's attempt to stave off Timex who was eating into their market share from below. Timex low cost watches were gaining popularity with budget conscious consumers. And frankly, they had a tag line that could not be beat. Elgin never had a clever ad that I have seen.

Elgin outsourced movements to PUW in West Germany and various producers in France and Switzerland, bypassing their own plants in Illinois, Nebraska, and South Carolina. Mine has a French movement. Elgin had put A. Schild movements in watches as early as 1953.

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(Had to ditch the expandable. It was good for an expandable, however.)

The Sportsman was an extremely popular watch, perhaps Elgin's most popular named model. It was made until 1974, six years after Elgin's bankruptcy in 1968. It didn't save Elgin. It was the last gasp of an industry that provided mass produced well made watches to the middle class. 1968 is before the Astron. Quartz didn't kill Elgin. Did it jump or was it pushed (to paraphrase Richard Thompson)?

But it was popular.

In the last fifteen years or so the GShock has sold more units than any other watch. The Apple watch may take that lead. In the 1980's Citizen sold more watches than any other. We all know that Rolex leads the industry in value of watches sold at retail. Popularity may not save them.

All of this is to say that the harbinger of change is probably apparent in the industry if you can just see it. Elgin could not. Acquiring a Sportsman is my way of pouring one out for a late, great company.

Pour-one-out GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

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Definitely old school classy! An excellent read as expected, thanks🤝

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Cool watch, and thank you for the write-up! I have a post-bankruptcy Elgin that belonged to my girlfriend’s grandfather that I really need to get serviced. There’s hardly any info about the brand after the name was sold, but I’ve seen some pretty interesting models from that era. Love the good old American stuff like yours, though.

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Interesting read and a great point about popularity not guaranteeing continued success or even survival. 

A cultural shift in the way people perceive conspicuous wealth could be damaging for luxury goods in general, but particularly the hyped brands of today. 

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Love your write up, man!

You make a brilliant point:  It is fascinating to look back in time, and to see what contemporaneous reporting was fixated on.  Today, we look back, and we're utterly mystified.  "How could they not have seen X coming???"  And, yet, I'm 100% positive that 10 years from now, I'll look back and say, "How in the world did I get blindsided by that?"

  • "Japan is set to take over the world!"  Remember this movie?  Came out two years into Japan's 3-decade-and-counting recession!  Posited that Japan would soon be the largest economy in the world and take over the planet!
Rising Sun - Rotten Tomatoes
  • "Bees everywhere are dying off due to cell phone towers, and soon all of our horrible monoculture crops will fail!"  Turns out that it was varroa mites, and the number of honey bee colonies today is something like ~30% higher today than it was before colony collapse disorder came on the scene in 2007
  • My favorite are all the "this spells the end of the world" reporting.  Y2K!!!  Every decade there seems to be some massive thing that is going to result in all life on planet earth ending.  And if you go back through the decades and read some of the reporting, it's absolutely hilarious - like something Ed Wood conceived of.  And, yet, every decade, there's the new disaster on the horizon!  WTF???
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Great post! I’m a huge fan of Elgin. This was my dad’s watch. He doesn’t have any idea when or where he got it and it’s so unique I can’t seem to find any info on it. 

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Very nice, thanks for the article.  I have an Elgin (railroad style) pocket watch that has been passed down in the family; and it still works.

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Weren't they the first company that mass produced watches on an assembly line?

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Thank you for the info 🍻

I find it curious in the second advert you posted that they are stating the low price as a big selling point. I can't think of any watch company currently that specifically advertises itself as being the cheapest or cheaper than the competitors as a selling point.

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There is always so much to learn. Love this hobby! 

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Excellent article! Really enjoyed that Greg. More please.

I think this 1934 Elgin in my collection is very similar to the one pictured in your ad from 1937...

It was called the Elgin Moisture-proof Sport Watch, Model 1802, and it has a 15 jewel movement with the case made by the Wadsworth Watch Case Company. It's all original including hands, dial, crystal, crown, etc. It's far too petite for my 7.5 inch wrist at only 28mm diameter and 31.2mm lug-to-lug, but such a classic watch from the 1930s as you state in your article above.

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The Sportsman was Elgin's attempt to stave off Timex who was eating into their market share from below. Timex low cost watches were gaining popularity with budget conscious consumers. And frankly, they had a tag line that could not be beat. Elgin never had a clever ad that I have seen.  

Didn't Timex like, sold watches at...was it like a dollar or something during the time? Or was that a decade later? Cheap indeed. Timex was squeezing a lot of watch makers in America before they either immigrated to Switzerland or held on until the quartz wave killed them dead. 

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TalkingDugong

The Sportsman was Elgin's attempt to stave off Timex who was eating into their market share from below. Timex low cost watches were gaining popularity with budget conscious consumers. And frankly, they had a tag line that could not be beat. Elgin never had a clever ad that I have seen.  

Didn't Timex like, sold watches at...was it like a dollar or something during the time? Or was that a decade later? Cheap indeed. Timex was squeezing a lot of watch makers in America before they either immigrated to Switzerland or held on until the quartz wave killed them dead. 

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Not sure about a dollar (although the notion of the “dollar watch” was something dreamed up by the inventor of the pin-pallet movement), but competitively priced. Timex really did put a spanner in the works. The issue is that a Timex movement was a jewelled pin-pallet, and to compete companies were starting to import in lower jewelled Swiss ébauches in an era where everyone desired greater numbers of jewels. We’re talking 7J, an absolute bare minimum.

The above advert from Caravelle (pre-Citizen Bulova) shows what certain American brands were up against. For the same price they were offering Timex had managed to convince the public that theirs was the superior product, which we all know is bs.

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Thanks for an interesting and knowledgeble read👍Again! And your Elgin looks mighty fine.

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My word that is a classy watch. Fantastic read as always 

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TalkingDugong

The Sportsman was Elgin's attempt to stave off Timex who was eating into their market share from below. Timex low cost watches were gaining popularity with budget conscious consumers. And frankly, they had a tag line that could not be beat. Elgin never had a clever ad that I have seen.  

Didn't Timex like, sold watches at...was it like a dollar or something during the time? Or was that a decade later? Cheap indeed. Timex was squeezing a lot of watch makers in America before they either immigrated to Switzerland or held on until the quartz wave killed them dead. 

Not quite a dollar. "Dollar watches" were more along the line of Ingersoll and Westclox in the very early 20th Century. But cheap:

THE TIMEX TORTURE TESTS OF THE 1950s - Montres Publiques - The vintage  watch magazine
Timex Watch Vintage Commercial Videos –
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bulovas_and_bolt_actions

Timex deserves credit for designing a movement from the ground up to be as cheap and durable as possible, then tooling up to build them in huge quantities to keep the price down. Most other companies cost cut movements that were built using traditional methods, which was like squeezing blood from a stone. As the death of Elgin shows, there's only so much that could be done when facing that kind of price pressure without significant innovation and investment.

But you can go back even further and consider Elgin a good example of the American watch industry failing to innovate in broad terms. The American brands were built around pocket watches and adapted to wrist watches slowly. While the Swiss made movements progressively smaller, more efficient, and more feature packed, most American brands either moved slowly (Hamilton, which produced fine hand wound no date movements in the US until 1969) or didn't innovate at all (Elgin, Gruen, etc), with both importing stuff from the Swiss as they became increasingly uncompetitive. Bulova was the only US brand that really kept up with the Swiss in terms of quality and design, while Tim