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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 serial number.

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

How to Open a Watch Case

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 pocket watches.

Why the Movement and Case Serial Numbers Are Unrelated

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.

Are Case Serial Numbers Useful For Anything?

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:

  1. 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".

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
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.

What About Numbers Scratched in the Case?    "Jeweler Marks"

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 years.

Accuracy of the Estimates of When Watches Were Made

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 here. (Actually, it looks like I mostly used the first list...)

The Better Way to Determine the Date

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.

Serial Number Data Table

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 Digits
Letter X C, E, T or Y L U J V H N F S R P K I
Millions Digits 38 or 39 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54

Now, find the first serial number that is larger than your watches, and that will be the year that it was produced in.

Serial Number Year
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
Serial Number Year
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
10,100,000 1902
11,000,000 1903
12,100,000 1904
12,500,000 1905
13,100,000 1906
13,550,000 1907
14,100,000 1908
15,100,000 1909
16,000,000 1910
17,000,000 1911
17,550,000 1912
18,000,000 1913
18,500,000 1914
19,000,000 1915
20,000,000 1916
Serial Number Year
21,000,000 1917
22,000,000 1918
23,000,000 1919
24,000,000 1920
25,000,000 1921
26,000,000 1922
27,000,000 1923
28,000,000 1924
29,000,000 1925
30,000,000 1926
32,000,000 1927
33,000,000 1928
33,300,000 1929
33,500,000 1930
33,700,000 1931
34,000,000 1932
35,000,000 1933
35,500,000 1934
36,200,000 1935
37,000,000 1936
37,900,000 1937
38,200,000 1938
39,100,000 1939
40,200,000 1940
41,100,000 1941
Serial Number Year
42,200,000 1942
42,600,000 1943
43,200,000 1944
44,000,000 1945
45,000,000 1946
46,000,000 1947
47,000,000 1948
48,000,000 1949
50,000,000 1950
52,000,000 1951
53,300,000 1952
54,000,000 1953
54,500,000 1954
55,000,000 1955

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 00:41:29.