Watch Serial Number Information
A lot of information can be determined about your Elgin watch
from just the serial number on the movement (where the
gears are). For example, at the bottom of this web page is a
table that can tell you approximately what year your watch was
made. It is very important to not use the serial number on
the case because that is completely unrelated to the movement
Table of Contents
How to Open a Watch Case
Why the Movement and Case Serial Numbers Are Unrelated
Are Case Serial Numbers Useful For Anything?
What About Numbers Scratched in the Case? "Jeweler Marks"
Accuracy of the Estimates of When Watches Were Made
The Better Way to Determine the Date
Serial Number Data Table
While opening a watch isn't rocket science, a watch can
be damaged if you try to open it incorrectly. Never use
a screwdriver to try to open a case. If you really aren't sure
what to do, take it to one of your local jewelers and ask them
to show you how to open it. While it is open, make sure you
record everything written on the movement of the watch
and the watch case. These details can sometimes be important.
A good description of how to open a pocket watch case and
background information can be found here,
thanks to the work of Kent Singer. Opening wrist watch cases,
especially ones made after around 1950, some times requires
special tools. Earlier wrist watches are often similar to
Watch movement made by Elgin National Watch Co. of Elgin Illinois
Inside a watch case made by Illinois Watch Case Co. of Elgin Illinois
The reason that the movement and case serial numbers are unrelated
is because up until the 1920's, almost all American watches were
sold separately from the watch cases. People would go to the
local jewelry store, pick out a watch movement that they liked,
and then with the money left over, they would pick out a watch
case. Or, if they were more interested in fashion than the
watch's time keeping ability, they would pick out a case they
liked and used the money left over for the watch movement. The
jeweler would then put the movement and the case together. With
only a few exceptions, the watch companies and watch case
companies were completely unrelated business.
In addition, watch cases tended to wear out much quicker than the
watch movements. So, the owner would sometimes go through two
or three cases over the life time of the watch. Obviously, these
later cases can't be related to the movement serial number.
Even after the 1920's, when watch companies started selling cased
watches, the watch companies still bought the watch cases from
outside sources and the serial numbers were still unrelated.
Case serial number is highlighted
For the most part, case serial numbers only server to confuse
people about what kind of watch they have. To the best of my
knowledge, there are no records from any case manufactures that
can make these case serial numbers useful. There are a few minor
things you can use case serial numbers for:
All of these are rules of thumb, not absolutes, there are many
exceptions, especially for rule 2. Again, for the most part, case
serial numbers just serve to confuse people.
- The case serial number is printed on several parts of the
watch case. You can usually tell if you have a complete watch
case by seeing if these serial numbers match.
Sometimes, the watch case companies would mark the bezels with
the last few digits of the case number using Roman numerals.
Usually the Roman numerals are scratched in by hand. For
example, a case with a serial number of 153069 that has a
screw on bezel might be marked
"X VI VIIII". This code is
kind of strange since each digit is written as one block of
Roman numbers, the "X" is for zero, not ten, and the 9 might not
be written as "IX".
- For Elgin watches, case serial numbers on solid gold watches
will usually be only 10% or less of the serial number on the
movement. So, if someone is selling a watch as solid gold, and
it has a movement serial number of, say, 3,870,123 and it has
a case serial number of 1,073,678, a red flag should go up in
your mind and you should be even more cautious about the
claim. The reverse, however, isn't true, a small serial
numbers doesn't mean it is solid gold.
- Case serial numbers, if they are recorded, can help if the
watch is ever stolen. Both the movement and case serial
numbers should be written down, since the movement and the
case can be easily separated.
Jeweler marks are highlighted
There are often small numbers called "jeweler marks" scratched on
the inside of the case.
When a watch was brought in for repair or cleaning, the watchmaker
would often, but not always, scratch some kind of code into the
back of the case so that can tell if they have repaired a the
watch before. Sometimes these scratches would be some form of
date code, or maybe just the initials of the watch maker, often
just an invoice or repair number. There was no standard across the
industry and individual watchmakers may change codes over the
The table below with the serial numbers and years has be compiled
from many sources and I believe it to be reasonably accurate,
However, no table like this can be completely accurate because
Elgin didn't produce watches in sequential order. It was very
common for groups of watches to be set aside and finished months,
years, or sometimes as much as a decade later. After the watch was
finished, it might sit in a wholesaler's warehouse or a jewelry
shop for months or years.
About the best you can say that the watch was probably not
produced or sold as "new" before the date listed. High volume
watches will tend to be closer to the date listed, while
expensive, high quality watches will tend to be the ones that
have misleading dates. New models of watches may be released
before or after these general dates.
Finally, I can find no definitive source of official dates, and
there seems to be some disagreement between the various sources
that I've found. This is especially true for the earlier years.
The raw sources that I created this list from can be found
(Actually, it looks like I mostly used the first list...)
I recommend you use the Elgin
Online Database to learn approximately what year your
watch was made. It is quicker and less error prone.
This page is really only useful as background information on how the
Online Database determines the dates.
Movement serial number is highlighted
Elgin originally started out with just a number, but in the late 1930s
they started to use a letter prefix on some
of their serial numbers. Even later in the late 1950s, Elgin
phased out the use of serial numbers.
If your watch has a letter prefix, you must first replace that
letter with the two digit "millions" value from the following
table. For example, H632161 would be converted into 47,632,161
and N7193 would be converted into 48,007,193.
Serial Number Letter Prefix to Millions
||C, E, T or Y
||38 or 39
Now, find the first serial number that is larger than your
watches, and that will be the year that it was produced in.
| 31,000 ||1867|
| 71,000 ||1868|
| 101,000 ||1869|
| 126,000 ||1870|
| 152,000 ||1871|
| 176,000 ||1872|
| 210,000 ||1873|
| 310,000 ||1874|
| 410,000 ||1875|
| 510,000 ||1876|
| 552,000 ||1877|
| 601,000 ||1878|
| 701,000 ||1879|
| 801,000 ||1880|
| 1,000,000 ||1881|
| 1,440,000 ||1882|
| 1,650,000 ||1883|
| 1,850,000 ||1884|
| 2,000,000 ||1885|
| 2,550,000 ||1886|
| 3,000,000 ||1887|
| 3,550,000 ||1888|
| 4,000,000 ||1889|
| 4,400,000 ||1890|
| 4,890,000 ||1891||
| 5,000,000 ||1892|
| 5,500,000 ||1893|
| 6,000,000 ||1894|
| 6,550,000 ||1895|
| 7,000,000 ||1896|
| 7,550,000 ||1897|
| 8,100,000 ||1898|
| 9,100,000 ||1899|
| 9,350,000 ||1900|
| 9,755,000 ||1901|