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Glossary: Serial Number, Grade, Model, Class, etc.

From the very beginning, Elgin was finishing and selling over 100 watches per day and were working on thousands more. So, it isn't surprising that they needed some way of organizing and classifying these watches to make it easier to manufacture, for marketing purposes and for watchmakers to order parts to repair them. These three needs overlapped, and in some cases conflicted with each other, more over, things changed as the decades went by. The result is the somewhat complicated and confusing set of systems we find today.

Over the years, Elgin used the following systems to classify their watches:

If you are interested in more details on this subject, see the Technical Discussion on Watch Classifications.

The Serial Number Classification

Movement serial number is highlighted
Originally used by:
Manufacturing and later by watchmakers for repairs.
Today's use:
Required to correctly identify the grade and to estimate the age of a watch.
Summary:
Elgin placed unique serial numbers on their watch movements. The serial numbers were allocated in "runs" or blocks of identical grade watches. Starting in the late 1930s, Elgin added a letter prefix to the serial numbers of some watches and around this time, Elgin also started to mark the grade number on some of the movements in addition to the serial number. In the late 1940s, Elgin started to sell Swiss made watches and around this time, Elgin stopped placing serial numbers on some watches they made in the USA. The Swiss didn't place serial numbers on any of the watches they sold to Elgin. By the late 1950s, Elgin had pretty much phased out the use of serial numbers.

The Grade Numbers Classification

Movement grade number is highlighted
Originally used by:
Watchmakers for repairs, manufacturing and, when first introduced, for sales.
Today's use:
Used to identify the quality and rarity of a watch.
Summary:
You can think of the "grade number" is being a product code. Watches with the same grade number were almost always manufactured exactly the same. Generally, any time the slightest thing in a watch changed, Elgin would change the grade number, but in a few cases, Elgin changed minor things such as added jewels, or changing how closely a watch was adjusted. In a handful of grades, there were radical changes, but these watches were generally manufactured before grade numbers were introduced.

After a somewhat chaotic start, Elgin assigned grade numbers sequentially with little regard to how the grade numbers related to each other. So, knowing what a grade 273 watch looks like won't help you to figure out what a grade 272 or a 274 watch is like. Well, other than knowing that those three grades were probably created around the same time.

The Grade Name Classification

Movement grade name is highlighted
Originally used by:
Sales, and initially watchmakers for repairs.
Today's use:
Similar to the grade number, the grade name can be used to identify the quality and rarity of a watch, but it is often too general to be as useful as the grade number.
Summary:
Certain grade numbers were also given a name, such as G.M. Wheeler, Lord Elgin, B.W. Raymond, or the watch could be "nameless" with just the Elgin name placed on the movement. For sales, these names were used to target customers, for example the B.W. Raymond was the Railroader's watch, while the G.M. Wheeler was the Gentleman's watch. Before grade numbers were introduced, names were used by watchmakers to order parts.

Most of the time, all watches of a certain grade would have the same name, but sometimes a grade could be marked with one of several names, for example, either "Veritas" or "Father Time". The names generally implied a certain level of quality. For example, the "G.M. Wheeler" grade was used by Elgin for their gentleman's watch, while the B.W. Raymond was used for their railroad watches. As the standards required by the railroads changed, Elgin created new grades with the B.W.Raymond name to match these standards. Likewise, not all G.M. Wheeler's were the same quality, but they were usually higher quality than nameless grades. In any given year, the G.M. Wheeler's that were made were always of lower quality than the B.W. Raymond's. Most names were used on several different grades, and could be found on watches of several different sizes and models.

The Watch Size and Model Numbers Classification

Originally used by:
Watchmakers for repairs, and probably manufacturing
Today's use:
Used when describing a watch, identify if a watch was a men's or a women's watch, and to determine which cases will fit the movement.
Summary
Elgin made quite a few sizes of watches and in each size, there were different models. The model numbers determine things such as the general plate layouts, whether the watch was made for an open face case or a hunter case and the thickness of the movement. Between sizes, the model numbers are unrelated, so a 12s model 4 has no relation to an 18s model 4 (which was created decades earlier).

The Class Numbers Classification

Originally used by:
Watchmakers for repairs
Today's use:
Rarely used to today, but can be used to estimate the quality of a grade based on other grades in the same class.
Summary
The "class number" was a way of grouping grade numbers together. All the grades in a particular class would have the same quality of parts, both in terms of materials used (brass, gold, steel, etc.) and in finish and tolerances. The "class numbers", somewhat like the "grade numbers", were created sequentially and you couldn't tell much about the watch grades in class number 32 by knowing about class number 31.

Other Classification Systems

Originally used by:
Sales
Today's use:
Little understood and rarely used today.
Summary:
Elgin used several other systems to classify watches for sales, most of these are not well understood.

One of these was the Streamline series of factory cased pocket watches, and the related Crusader and Corsican watches. These names appear only in marketing literature and watch case, not on the watch movements. The Streamline series started to show up in ads during the 1910s, while the other two show up in the 1920s. It appears that these are all 12 size model 4 watches. Similarly, Elgin appeared to have created a "Parisienne" series of lady's wrist watches in the mid 1920s that were all 18/0s watches.

Later, with their wrist watches, they started to use "case style numbers", but other than a few cryptic references in their 1958 Service manual, I have found no more information on this system.

While I'm not an expert, I believe the information on this page is correct. Please send suggestions and corrections to the webmaster.
This web site runs on 100% Open Source Software. This web page was last changed on 10/04/2002 at 00:50:52.