Elgin Aviator's Watch

Elgin Aviator's Watch

The 19th Century is without question the dawn of the Golden Age of American watchmaking. There were giants on the Earth in those days—giants of industry, paving the way for the age of mass manufacturing in which we live. Elgin was one of them. 

Though founded in Chicago as the National Watch Company, the company soon became known as Elgin, the name of the city in which its factory was located. It was there that Elgin churned out high quality pocket watches—by machine, with interchangeable parts. Since most watches were made by hand in those days, the notion of mass machining—with each part precision-engineered according to strict standards of quality control—was revolutionary.

It allowed companies like Elgin and Waltham (who envisioned this American system of watchmaking) to produce thousands of watches a year, when their Swiss competitors only made hundreds.

And Elgin’s strict standards meant that accuracy wasn’t compromised by such a high output. Like Bulova, Elgin timed its watches from readings taken in its observatory. Soon the brand became known worldwide for the precision of its pocket watches, particularly the “railroad chronometers” that were used throughout the American railway system.

It was this reputation for accuracy that would be carried “over there” as American doughboys went to fight in World War I.

Though soldiers were strapping watches to their wrists as early as the 1880s, the idea of a “wristwatch” was deemed to be too feminine. But as warfare changed, a need arose for watches one could strap to the wrist. These “trench watches” were often uniform in design, with large numerals coated liberally in Madame Curie’s discovery: Radium.

Brands like Omega and Longines produced watches for the European Allied powers, while Elgin answered the call sounded by the U.S. Army; soon, Elgin would be manufacturing over 1 million of these wristwatches a year, according to Army standards issued in 1914 and 1916.

Unlike those watches, the watch that we offer here was most likely not meant to be worn by those fighting in the trenches, but by pilots.

Almost from the first time man took flight, a watch has been a pilot’s indispensable tool. The Cartier Santos is generally deemed by historians to be the first of its kind, made in 1904 for Louis Cartier’s friend, aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. And as aviation became militarized, pilots took to the skies with watches strapped to their wrists or mounted in the cockpit of their biplanes.

Like many watches of its era, the pocket watch movement is housed in a sterling silver case with fixed lugs. The serial number puts the watch’s production to 1917, the year America entered the war. With its black-and-white dial and large luminous numerals, it’s not hard to imagine it being worn by a flying ace engaged in a fierce dogfight high above the battlefield.


SKU: AS02258

Stirling silver case is approximately 40mmX49mm. World War I-era.

Overall Condition: Case is in good condition overall, showing some oxidation throughout. Dial is in good condition, showing some signs of age, including heavy patina to the luminescent elements. Scalloped crown.

Includes one 16mm one-piece military-style nylon strap.

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