What do you consider a Private Label Watch?

Jim Haney

NAWCC Member
Sep 21, 2002
Decatur, TN.
This question came up in another thread and there are different opinions on the subject so I thought it would make a good topic for discussion.

This is the link to our discussion and after post #7 Jerry, Larry & I got off topic from the original poster inquiry and ended up with a discussion on Private Labels.



Registered User
Dec 16, 2008
I need to start by saying that the term "private label" was a very poor choice by someone a long time ago. It is etymologically meaningless, so naturally I assume that it was an American invention :D I suspect was never intended to be used in the ways in which I now see it being used.

I have always used the term to refer to a watch in which the manufacturer has inscribed the name of the retailer in place of their own name.

It's a practice which was (I think) invented by supermarkets, where the retailer bought sufficient of a product to be able to persuade the manufacturer to forego using their own name, and where the volume justified the manufacturer printing and attaching special labels. The purpose was twofold - firstly to fool the public into believing that the retailer had their own manufacturing operation, and secondly to enable the manufacturer to alter the recipe/contents of the package without taking responsibility for the product. Once upon a time, it also enabled the retailer to sell the product below the minimum price stipulated by the manufacturer. This process is called "own labels" in the UK and has been going on for 50 years.

Probably the two best known UK "private labels" are J W Benson and Thomas Russell. A very large proportion of their watches were made by other makers, often Swiss, but signed Benson or Russell on movement and dial.

Robert Sweet

Registered User
Apr 29, 2004
"A complete watch or movement requested by a client with exclusive characteristics not found on a standard model or grade."

"These exclusive characteristics may include but are not limited to a personalized case, movement, and dial."



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Aug 26, 2000
I consider any watch that has a name or grade marked on it (or its dial), other than the manufacturer's name or standard (manufacturer's factory-cataloged) grade to be a "Private Label Watch." I consider this term to be interchangable with "Contract Watch." However, I admit that only the name on a dial may be questionable.

These may be just the standard grade (of the run from which the serial number indicates it came from) with a different name on the movement, or they may have one or more features (i.e., damaskeening or plate design/shape) or adjustments different from that of the standard grade. For example, for movements only marked "Adjusted," only the retailer's description of the watch can be relied upon to determine if the movement is adjusted to the same level as the factory standard grade. This is what eventually caused railroads to prohibit private label watches (not bearing the manufacturer's name and grade) from entering service.

Insofar as many of these were still cased in the customer's choice of case at the time of retail sale, I don't consider the case to necessarily be a part of a private label watch. Nevertheless, there are certain watches which were only sold in the retailer's marked cases. Those watches (i.e., Ball, Santa Fe, Burlington, Ariston, etc.) need the correct case to be complete.

... It's a practice which was (I think) invented by supermarkets, ...
I don't know how things occurred across the pond, but in the U.S. the first chain store (which grew up to become a supermarket) was Piggly Wiggly which started in 1916. Private label watches predated this by several decades, at least.
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Jim Carroll

NAWCC Member
Aug 27, 2002
Inverclyde Scotland
Firstly I feel as others have stated that the term Private Label is not the perfect description to cover these watches.
· Some consider factory named and cased grade watches as Private labels.
· Then you get the named dialed watches, with the Watch Co. named movements.
· Next you have the large department stores that sold their own named watches.
· Then you have the mail order companies that sold thier own named and cased watches.
· Finally you have the small to medium jewelry stores that have their own name, town or state on their watches.
It’s all very confusing to say the least.
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Tom McIntyre

Technical Admin
Staff member
NAWCC Star Fellow
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Golden Circle
Aug 24, 2000
You also have personalized watches that were ordered for an individual with that persons inscriptions on the dial and/or the movement.

When the retailer is very small it becomes difficult to distinguish between private label and personal. The presumption is that if the name belongs to a retailer of some sort it is a private label.

Actually the names on both these watches were jewelers, but I believe the Herman Hewett would be called a personal watch rather than a private label. Perhaps if it is only the dial that is marked it is nothing special.:)


Jerry Treiman

NAWCC Member
Golden Circle
Aug 25, 2000
Los Angeles, CA
I love private label watches and am collecting and researching a few of these. As others have noted, there is a broad spectrum of what have been called private label watches, but I have no problem with this.

The simplest are the standard model/grade movements that might have a jeweler's name applied to the movement and/or dial. Most watch companies would do this for free with a minimum order. Sometimes it is a jeweler brand or special name for that jeweler. Illinois seemed to do this most aggressively, with countless custom names, such as Chronos, Patrician, etc. These can be supplied to jewelers or jobbers.

The next level would be where the movements also had a special finish, such as custom damasceening or gilt steel work. Waltham had the Crest and Elite movements with special finishes. The Elite name was also used on Elgin and Illinois movements. Waltham's Cronometro Victoria and Cronometro Supremo were made exclusively for R.R. Fogel who distributed them to South America. These often have gilt screws and Fogel's rising sun trademark. These are among the very few private labels that were separately listed in the Waltham serial number list. Sometimes the watches in these first two groups carried the real manufacturer's name, but sometimes they did not.

The third level of private label watches include special milling or construction details in addition to finishing details. These often do not indicate who the real maker was. Again, Illinois was in the forefront, with the Ariston line for Marshall Field & Co., the Washington Watch Co. line for Montgomery Ward & Co., the mail-order Burlington Watch Co. and others. Hamilton had their special movements for Hayden W. Wheeler. Waltham did this rarely, but they did make special movements for Bigelow, Kennard & Co (a prominent Boston jeweler) that included a patented recoiling click not found on any other Waltham watch. I don't think I would include Waltham's Equity Watch Co. watches as these were for an anonymous arm of the Waltham Watch Co. rather than made for another retailer.

A fourth level of "private label" movement might be defined with considerable controversy. Here I refer to contract watches made to very strict specifications and giving the strong impression of being made by someone else. These seem to have custom plate designs. In this group would be Ball Watch Co. watches (not those merely jeweler-labeled for Ball's store), and the special movements that Waltham made for E. Howard & Co. and later Keystone-Howard.

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