Cases were made out of various materials. In North America, they were almost all made of metal. The more common ones are explained below:
Base MetalStarting in the late 1920's or early 1930's, inexpensive base metal cases started appearing. These were made out of a white or brass colored metal and were usually screw-back & bezel style cases. Frequently, they would be chrome plated. Base metal cases were usually marked as such, either on the inside of the back, or on the outside bottom edge of the center-ring that holds the movement.
NickelNickel cases, sometimes referred to as nickel-silver cases (but not actually containing silver), were relatively inexpensive and are durable. They were in fact a nickel alloy, not pure nickel. When polished up properly (Caution: This wears away case material and is not recommended for engraved or engine-turned cases. Many collectors advise not polishing any cases.), they attain a nice luster, appearing like silver, but not quite as "white." American watch case companies produced nickel cases under various trade names including,
Trade Name Case Manufacturer Alaska Metal Sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co., circa 1908 Alaska Silver Philadelphia Watch Case Co. Argentan European case makers. Argentine Bay State Watch Case Co. Oresilver or Ore Silver Joseph Fahys & Co. Nickeloid Keystone Watch Case Co. Nickel Silver American Watch Case Co. (Toronto) Nickel Silver Illinois Watch Case Co. Silvaloy South Bend Watch Co. Silverine Dueber Watch Case Mfg Co. Silverode Philadelphia Watch Case Co. Silveroid Keystone Watch Case Co. Silveroid American Watch Case Co. (Toronto) Silverore Joseph Fahys & Co.
SilverThe watch case companies offered silver cases as a step-up from nickel cases, but at a cost well below those cases containing gold. Silver cases were available in various qualities, Sterling (.925 Fine) silver and Coin silver. European Coin silver cases tend to be .800 (or perhaps .825) Fine, while U.S.-made Coin silver cases are .900 Fine. They have the classic attractive luster of silver when polished properly. There are some silver-filled cases, made from sheets of inexpensive metal sandwiched between thin sheets of silver, but these aren't too common.
Gold-FilledA large proportion of movements are housed in gold-filled cases. These cases are made of a sheet of inexpensive, "composition" metal (brass), sandwiched between two thinner sheets of gold by applying heat and pressure. This produces a much heavier layer of gold than electro-plating, typically 1/10 the weight of the case material (less crystal, steel parts, etc.). Page 378 of an 1897 Sears, Roebuck Catalog, posted by TimeAntiquarian on 19-Nov-16, has a good description of the way they were made. One process of doing this is defined by the term, "rolled gold-plate" (see below). The gold sheet that becomes the inside of the case is thinner than the gold sheet that becomes the outside of the case. Frequently, the purity of the gold used in the sheets, expressed in karats, is stamped inside the back of the case. Some case companies indicated the thickness of the outer layer of gold by using different trade marks for different thicknesses.
Before Federal Regulations Outlawed the Practice, it was common for case companies to indicate the quality of the case (the thickness of the outer layer of gold) by the number of years during which the case was guaranteed not to wear through. Not all case companies were forthright about marking the cases or honoring the warranty. One example of outright fraud appeared on a 1907 Jos. Brown & Co., Chicago, IL catalog page (reproduced on page 39 of Foreign & American Pocket Watch Identification and Price Guide - Book 3, Roy Ehrhardt, Heart of America Press, Kansas City, MO, 1976) which offered complete watches housed in "10-Year Cases Stamped 20 Years." These abuses were perpetrated by the makers of the cut-rate cases, bearing names few of us recognize, the surviving examples of which are almost always badly worn. Such practices are possibly what gave rise to the federal regulations although some researchers believe that the outlawing of the guarantees was orchestrated by the case companies, who were desirous of ending the practice.
The subject of gold-filled cases wearing through to the brass had been a subject of much concern at the end of the century. Gold-filled cases had been sold with twenty year guarantees back in the 1880s and they were beginning to come back to retail jewelers who had to deal with them. And in 1898, case companies started extending their guarantees, such as Joseph Fahys & Co., whose Montauk cases had been guaranteed for fifteen years, were now guaranteed for twenty; the Wadsworth Watch Case Co. whose Pilot cases started the year guaranteed for fifteen years and were upgraded to twenty years ( and were later extended again, to 25 Years); or Bates & Bacon whose Royal (and other) case guarantees were similarly extended. The Canadian case companies felt forced to follow suit.
The Jewelers' Circular, one of the major trade periodicals, sent out letters to jewelers posing the question of what should the case manufactures do when a case failed to live up to the guarantee:
1) Provide a new case of the same guarantee?
2) Provide a new case having a guarantee of the shortfall (if a 20 year case wore though in 16 years, provide a 5 year guaranteed case)?
3) "Repair" the case (with the exact nature of the repair undefined)?
4) Provide a new case, charging the customer a prorated amount?
The responses seemed to be overwhelming and were published week after week for months. The general impression was that the guarantee situation was unsatisfactory and that the guarantees ought to be cut in half (but keep using the same amount of gold), or eliminated altogether.
In 1908, the subject came up again when the Vreeland bill appeared in Congress, "Forbidding the importation, exportation or carriage in Interstate Commerce of Gold-filled or Gold-plated Watch Cases bearing words or marks importing a guarantee of wear for a specified time and for other purposes" The watch case companies were against the Vreeland bill and, again, the trade press carried letters to the editors on the subject. The Vreeland bill didn't pass, apparently being about fifteen years ahead of its time.
Nevertheless, like any product that carries a guarantee today, case guarantees from the reputable companies were in effect, within their specified time, as long as those companies stayed in business. Crescent, Philadelphia, Fahys, Illinios, and quite a few others, were companies who would replace the cases if the gold wore through to the brass within the guarantee period. The watch companies who furnished factory-cased watches, such as Hamilton, Keystone-Howard, Illinois, Elgin and others also probably stood behind their cases, to not do so would seem to have been unthinkable to them. It wasn't unusual for these replacement, or exchange, cases to be marked as such. Although documentation hasn't been seen yet to confim this, Keystone seems to have marked these cases "EXC".
The watch case companies guaranteed their best gold-filled cases to wear permanently. The case would be replaced if it ever wore through to the brass. Examples of these are the:
Crescent Extra grade,
Fahys Permanent grade, and
Illinois (Watch Case Co.) Elgin Pride grade.
Frequently, the color of the gold (imparted by the metal with which the gold is alloyed) is expressed in conjunction with the term, "gold-filled." Thus it is not uncommon to see terms such as "yellow gold-filled," "white gold-filled," "green gold-filled," and so forth, used in case descriptions.
Stiffened GoldStiffened gold is another term for gold-filled. Its use came about in describing the situation in which a solid gold case, in order to be strong enough to resist flexing and denting, thus protecting the movement, had to be fairly thick. This necessitated a substantial amount of gold, incurring cost and resulting in a heavy case. By bonding a layer of gold, only thick enough to permit the deepest of engravings, to a stiffer metal, nickel for example, a case could be made at a significant savings in both weight and cost. Such cases were described by their manufacturer (the Ladd Watch Case Co.) as "stiffened gold cases." Insofar as this is essentially the same thing as a gold-filled (the gold is "filled" with a composition metal - brass), one wonders if the distinction between the two is made primarily to avoid patent or trade mark infringement.
Rolled Gold PlateRolled gold plate cases are made in the same manner as gold-filled cases, the difference being in the amount of gold used. It is said that at one time use of the term "gold-filled" was restricted to articles of which 1/10 of the weight or more was gold of the stated karat, while use of the term "rolled gold plate" was applied to articles of which only 1/20 of the weight was gold. This is obscured by modern definitions of "gold-filled" which place the minimum amount of gold in the weight to be 1/20. It is also somewhat confusing due to the occasional use of the term "rolled gold plate" in the late 1800s to refer to gold-filled cases. The was done by the Dueber Watch Case Manufacturing Co. in its 1887 trade mark application for the Gladiator cases, which stated in part, "...rolled-gold-plate watch-cases, or, as they are more commonly called, "filled cases."
Gold Double StockThe term "Double Stock" used to describe a case means whatever the case manufacturer said it means. The Illinois Watch Case Co. marked their gold-filled Ramona grade case with the term "Double Stock." A description of what Illinois meant by the term "Double Stock" has yet to be seen. On the other hand, the Brooklyn Watch Case Co. described their Granger and Wheat grade cases as "Double Stock," being made of two layers of gold of different purity.
GoldGold cases have a value that probably equals, if not exceeds, the value of the movement that they contain. Pure gold (24 Kt) would be too soft to make an adequate case. Most solid gold cases are 14 Kt, although the Europeans tend to favor 18 Kt cases, which were made in the U.S. as well. These cases usually state the quality of the gold in karats and may be marked with "U.S. Assay" (although this had to cease in a few years into the 20th century as directed by the "Hallmark Act of 1905") or with hallmarks (if European) or trademarks. Also, a small percentage of cases are of layered gold, also known as "Double Stock" gold. These are made of two sheets of gold that are bonded together, much as in a gold-filled case. A "Double Stock" case has a sheet of higher quality of gold, say 14 Kt, on the outside and a sheet of lower quality gold, perhaps 8 or 10 Kt, on the inside. However, the Illinois Watch Case Co. has marked some gold-filled cases as Double Stock (perhaps the best known of these is the Illinois Watch Case Co. Ramona Double Stock case) and it is not clear what is meant by that. Other case companies may have also used the Double Stock term for a gold filled case.
Gold Inlaid CasesEngraved inlaid gold designs on silver and nickel cases, such as this steam locomotive posted by Jerry Bryant, seem to have been popular for at least a 25-year period from 1885 to 1910 (a perhaps a greater span). Waltham produced a catalog of gold inlaid screw bezel cases prior to selling its silver case business in 1890. Sears, Roebuck & Co. was offering Fahys gold inlaid cases in 1902 and still offered some in their catalogs in 1909. Steam locomotives seem to have been a common design, but steamboats, sawmills, stags and a host of other designs were available.
Multi-Color Gold And Gold-Filled CasesMulti-color designs on gold and gold-filled cases, also known as "Raised Ornamentation", exhibit some of the best work of the case companies. For some, they are the basis for collections, all by themselves. A number of examples of these are pictured in these Message Board threads started July, 2010 and February, 2012. These cases were claimed to have been pioneered by Jeannot & Shiebler in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and since then were made by a number of case companies.
The colors of gold are created by the use of different materials with which the gold is alloyed. According to Warren Niebling's response to a 1975 Answer Box question (see References, below), pieces of the various colors were cut (or stamped) out, had solder affixed to their backs, were arranged in order of the design and clamped along with the case lid and/or back. Heat and pressure were applied soldering the design to the case back. The engraver then performed the work to finish the design.
Catalog descriptions and pictures of 6-size multi-colored cases may be seen on pages 323, 326, 342 & 343 of The Lapp & Flershem Twenty-first Annual Illustrated Catalogue – 1897, while 0-size multi-colored cases appear on page 347.
Enameled CasesEnameled cases were developed by the European watch industry and had passed its heyday long before the American watch industry came into existence. When the American watch case industry eventually applied enamel to cases, it was used mostly for detail work and the 'spiffing up' of monograms and lodge symbols. Nevertheless, some of the smaller case companies making high end cases did some outstanding work. Examples may be seen in the Message Board thread started by Jerry Treiman in February, 2019, entitled "Enameled American Watch Cases."
NielloThe Niello Encyclopedia article discusses this decorative finish applied to watch cases.
PlatoldPlatold is a name used by the Wadsworth Watch Case Co. to describe its 2-tone cases having a gold-filled center ring and a nickel back and bezel. Other companies marketed similar 2-tone cases, perhapse the best known being Hamilton's No. 3 case of the late 1940s. Although the catalog sheet lists the back and bezel as being stainless steel (which they may be), they're actually marked "Base Metal."
"How Gold Filled Cases Are Made," Sears, Roebuck and Co., Inc. Catalogue No. 104, Chicago, IL, 1897, reprinted by Chelsea House, Philadelphia, PA, 1968, Pg. 372.
"How Gold Filled Cases Are Made," Sears, Roebuck and Co., Inc. Catalogue No. 111, Chicago, IL, 1902, reprinted by Bounty Books, Crown Publishers, New York, NY, 1969, Pg. 27.
In addition to NAWCC members borrowing back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin, or the Watch & Clock Bulletin from the NAWCC Lending Library, they are available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in.
"The Answer Box: Multi-Colored Gold Watches," Warren H. Niebling, NAWCC Bulletin No. 174, February 1975, pg. 80.
"The Artistry of the American Multi-Colored Pocket Watch," Len and Penny Steiner, Watch & Clock Bulletin No. 407, January/February 2014, pp. 13-16.