South Bend Sources for South Bend Watch Company Information

Discussion in 'American Pocket Watches' started by Lindell V. Riddle, Oct 3, 2002.

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  1. Phil,

    I was involved in launching the Studebaker Driver's Club in the early 1960's... I am a Life Member and have taken an active role in the Studebaker National Museum as well over the years. We have discussed from time to time displaying a selection of various South-Bend Watches even if only on loan from private collections. The upcoming year 2003 would be the perfect time as it will represent the Centennial Year, the South-Bend Watch Company having been organized in 1903.

    I have long been puzzled by the dearth of information around South Bend, but some of the reason is the simple fact we don't seem to take seriously what is in our own back yard. For example I live not far from Cleveland Ohio's "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum" but I have yet to visit the facility that people from all over the world anxiously come to see. The Studebaker National Museum you mentioned is dedicated to the preservation of the Studebaker and Packard transportation vehicles and related materials.

    My love of South-Bend Watches grew out of my fascination with the Studebaker cars and trucks, so perhaps I can help you with a brief history of the relationship between the two and particularly the South-Bend Watch Company products...

    In 1903 members of the same Studebaker family that previously founded the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company back in 1852 bought the Columbus Watch Company and moved it from Ohio to South Bend Indiana along with much of the work force. They constructed a state-of-the-art facility with such advanced features as sprinkling systems and huge, fully fire-proofed walk-in vaults.

    Their first products were 6-size watches and the numbers started where Columbus regular production left off at 380501and although there are one or two lower numbered examples known, I have number 380689 in my collection in case a picture would be of interest. It is to their credit that throughout their 26 year life South-Bend kept an inventory of parts and supported the maintenance of all Columbus Watch Company products. South-Bend built many memorable and important as well as some fascinating and little-known grades, the Polaris is usually recognized as their top grade. The South-Bend Polaris was specially finished, fitted with a "South-Bend Polaris" dial and cased in three styles of South-Bend marked solid-gold cases, then shipped in a natural maple finish presentation box. Just about 500 Polaris grade were made by upgrading the now little known grade 295 which is a premium 21-jewel movement. I can e-mail you a picture of a Polaris with box and papers if that would be of interest.

    They made watches in 0-size as well as 6, a slightly oversized 12 and of course both 16 and 18-sizes. Their grades are very conveniently numbered with 0 and 6-sizes starting with a "1" then 16-size starts with a "2" then 18-size beginning with a "3" and finally the 12-size having a "4" as the first digit. Examples of an 0-size would be 150 and the best 12-size being the grade 431. The final digit of the grade number will always be an even number for Hunter Case and odd numbered for Open Face grades.

    The best known S-B Watches are "The Studebaker" which came in three 18-size and two 16-size grades. The 18-size consists of the 323 OF 17-jewel, the 328 HC 21-jewel, of which we believe less than 200 were made, and the 329 a 21-jewel OF design. In 16-size the 223 is the 17-jewel and the grade 229 is the 21-jewel. All South-bend watches represented a good value then and now. Some were just better than others. The best 16-size HC is the nearly unknown 21-jewel 294 grade. A practically unknown S-B watch is the RR grade 327 of which no more than 300 are believed to have been produced. All "The Studebaker" movements were RR grade, as well the 21-jewel grade 227 grade which we will discuss further below. Other RR grades are the 19-jewel grades 292 and 293. The 12-size grade 431 is a work of art, many were cased in solid-gold S-B marked cases, and all 12-size were factory cased. The rarest S-B watch was never offered to the public. The watch we call "The Director's Watch" was made in late 1923 from specially finished 12-size Studebaker movements equipped with 21 massive "pigeon-blood" jewels and given to various executives, dignitaries and friends of Company President Clement Studebaker III.

    There is much confusion over the re-organization that took place in the early 1920's and certain products that resulted. In 1923 the Studebaker Watch Company was put together in order to market watches and jewelry through mail order advertising and jewelry catalogs. Today I retain the Studebaker Watch Company name. As the mail order Studebaker watches were launched in Pendant-Set "8-adjustment" versions of both 12 and 16-size, sales took off, and nearly 95,000 were sold. However the mistake of marking these watches as both "Studebaker" and South-Bend on the movement burned the companies bridges as it were with retail jewelers due to using a similar design and price-discounting to mail order trade. They also sold them on "easy credit" plans, with no real security. These watches and the way they were marketed eventually ended the company, and they cause no end of confusion for watch collectors even today.

    It is important to understand that no South-Bend Watch was ever produced with "Studebaker" on the dial except for the inexpensive metal-dialed "8-adjustment" mail-order "Studebaker" watches produced from 1923 through 1929. These will have serial numbers consisting of 7 digits and beginning with a "1" in every example. They were not in any way RR grade due to being pendant-set. Unscrupulous persons have for years taken a mail order "Studebaker" and switched dials with another S-B watch to "create" two watches and thereby fool an unsuspecting buyer into believing they are purchasing a "The Studebaker" grade. One of the best known authorities in watch collecting some years ago published erroneous information calling the mail order "Studebaker" a RR grade, and even referring to a "227 Studebaker" which only proves nearly anyone can be fooled by a slick seller.

    To state it succinctly, genuine "The Studebaker" watches will have serial numbers consisting of 6 digits behind a "South-Bend" dial and only a marked "South-Bend" dial. A correct mail order "Studebaker" will always have a "Studebaker" marked metal dial and no other style is correct. The grade 227 was their most popular RR grade with some 45,000 produced, and should always front a "South-Bend" dial. There are some South-Bend porcelain dials to which "Studebaker" was added by an opportunist. To test for authenticity, simply try flaking off "Studebaker" with your finger nail or sharp blade.

    South-Bend production ground to a screeching halt as the "Great Depression" hit hard in late 1929. Simultaneously the banks called in the loans on the company and real estate, as time payments stopped coming in from the mail order buyers. It could be said today with our hindsight that much of the time the marketing decisions of The South-Bend and Studebaker Watch Companies were the wrong ones, like coming to a fork in the road, choosing the wrong one and failing, even refusing stubbornly to ever turn back.

    When the company went under much of the leftover inventory and history literally went to the City Dump. Everything we would treasure today became land fill in the early 1930's. For a while, some of the employees were kept on to case watches and ship them to big city jewelers who sold them at bargain prices. A few of the workers even did service on S-B Watches out of their homes well into the 1950's when interest and replacement parts both faded.

    Today we as collectors have some amazing, and always interesting watches and material that has been left behind. The Complete South-Bend Story will never be written, so much was either purposely destroyed or simply lost over the years. Everyone who was there and could have recited the events are now gone. There are differences of opinion on exactly how many of a certain grade may have been produced and even exactly when, but I have tried to put together some of the most basic facts above.

    The factory is long gone, it's called progress or more aptly "urban renewal" but the history lives on and a few of us continue to piece it together day by day. It is rare to not discover a heretofore unknown fact about the company and it's products every week or so. Often we have more questions than answers but our fascination only grows. You asked about a factory picture, I would be happy to send you one by e-mail or regular mail if you contact me as shown below. The address of the company was always advertised as a number on "Studebaker Street" and the plant was essentially between South Bend and Mishawaka from what I've been told.

    I hope this brief history proves to be of interest and perhaps serves as a basis for further research.

    My Best to You and Yours,

    Lindell V. Riddle
  2. towrope

    towrope Registered User

    Jun 6, 2002
    I recently spoke to my wife's uncle who has lived in South Bend for many years. He said that he worked for a company called Heat Treat,Inc. that started life in one of the old South Bend Watch Co. buildings. He also said that the South Bend campus of IU now occupies the space where the S-B Watch Co. was. I believe he said it was on Mishawaka Road. I am not familiar with this area at all and have no way of confirming this information but I thought I would pass this along.

    Jay Thomas
    NAWCC member #0156966

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