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Columbus Watch Co.

The Columbus Watch Co. started in 1882. It went through reorganization and then lasted until 1903 when it was sold to several of the Studebaker brothers. During its existence, it produced a number of high grade watches.

Columbus: A Thumbnail Description

The Columbus Watch Co. grew out of an earlier endeavor by Dietrich Gruen and William J. Savage, the Columbus Watch Manufacturing Co. The two established the Columbus Watch Co. in 1882. It continued for about 11 years when, apparently, the panic of 1893 drove it into uncertainty and financial problems leading into 1895 when the company was reorganized as the New Columbus Watch Co. This firm lasted until 1903 when it was purchased by some of the Studebaker brothers (those not engaged in the wagon and automobile business). The company was then moved to South Bend, Indiana to become the South Bend Watch Co.

Early Columbus

The Columbus Watch Manufacturing Co. had its origins in 1874. Dietrich Gruen started, and was the sole proprietor of, a firm in Columbus, Ohio finishing movements imported from Switzerland. Gruen had made a trip to Switzerland to direct how the watches were to be manufactured, the first watches being 18-Size with the Gruen Patent Safety Pinion. Almost all the movements were engraved with CWCo or Col Watch Co. The dials all had similar markings. In 1878, D. Gruen convinced his banker friend William J. Savage to join with him as full partner. However, there are no known watches marked Gruen and Savage. Sometime around 1883, Gruen and Savage convinced others to incorporate the Columbus Watch Co. to make American-made watches. However, Gruen was still supportive of his Swiss friends and ordered more Swiss watches, made in 1885. This led to his walking out of the Columbus Watch Co. in a "tiff," taking his patents with him, leaving copies for the Columbus Watch Company. The early Swiss movements are all serialized to ~20,000 and only a handful have been identified in the 80 to 90 thousand range.

Columbus Production

The Columbus Watch Co. produced a full line of movements, from modest 7-jewel watches to medium grade, fully jeweled (15-jewel) gilt and nickel damaskeened movements having patent regulators and adjusted to temperature. At the top of the line were high-grade movements that would be accepted into railroad time service. These high-grade watches were 16-size and 18-size, nickel damaskeened, 15-jewel and 16-jewel movements, fitted with a patent regulator and adjusted to temperature and positions. Eventually, these would be built with 17, 21, 23 and 25 jewels.

The Railway King - 16 & 17 Jewel

In its earliest years, Columbus used numbers to identify its watch grades. Then, by 1890, it introduced its one of its earliest named grade, the Railway King. The Railway King was a high grade, 18-size, 16-jewel movement, furnished with a micrometer patent regulator and adjusted to temperature and positions (although it is only marked "Adjusted"). It was a handsome movement, damaskeened in gold on nickel (referred to in the table below as Tu-tone) and fitted with an enamel, double-sunk dial signed "Columbus Railway King." Dials could be had bearing a picture of a locomotive in black, or less often, in blue or (more rarely) red.

By the summer of 1899, the Railway King had been upgraded to a 17-jewel watch. This was at a time when 21-jewel watches were being promoted for railroad time service and just before Columbus brought out the 21, 23 and 25 jewel Railway King grade (Columbus' 21-jewel, 18-size Time King and 16-size Ruby had been out since about 1895). Also, within a year, Hampden's exclusive right to the use of the word "Railway" on watches was granted by the courts. Consequently, only a rather small number of the 17-jewel variety were built. Novices experience some confusion between these early 16-jewel watches and the later 17-jewel version, since some disassembly of the watch is required to see that the lower center hole isn't jeweled (it is in the 17-jewel version). However, the simple determining factor is that if the Railway King movement isn't marked "17 Jewels" then it isn't a 17-jewel watch. The 17-jewel version came fitted with a dial marked "Columbus Railway King - 17 Jewels" but since dials are frequently swapped around, this is not a reliable sign that the movement itself is fitted with the 17th jewel.

Trading On The Name: The R.W.K. Special

After a few years, Columbus brought out a watch grade named the R.W.K. Special. Although it, too, was fitted with a micrometer regulator, was marked "Adjusted" and was finished in gold on nickel, most were only 15-jewel watches (a small number of 16-jewel R.W.K. Special movements have been reported) indicating that the R.W.K. Special was not quite as fine of a grade as the Railway King. Nevertheless, it was still suitable for entering railroad service when it was built in the mid-1890s. The estimated number of 16-jewel movements built is based upon this small number of reported examples. Nowadays, some dealers like to refer to the R.W.K. Special as the Railway King Special. As this connection was never alluded to in Columbus literature, it is incorrect to do so. However, a good part of the blame for the confusion belongs to Columbus for (probably intentionly) choosing the misleading R.W.K. designation in the first place. The R.W.K. Special came with its own dial bearing the grade name.

The Columbus King

Another named-grade watch that appeared just around the time that the 17-jewel Railway King came out was the Columbus King. The fact that, within a year of this time, Hampden won the rights to the use of the word "Railway" on watches probably accounts for the much larger number of 17-jewel Columbus King watches than 17-jewel Railway King. Keep in mind that the term "larger" is a relative term insofar as the total number of 17-jewel Columbus King movements, both open-face and hunting, is probably less than 2,500. Some Columbus King movements have been sold as a Private Label Watch.

Estimated Runs of 16 & 17-Jewel Railway King, R.W.K. Special and 17-Jewel Columbus King Movements

From S/NTo S/NQtyJwlsGradeTypeSetComments
179,601179,90030016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
180,101180,20010016Railway KingOFPSTu-tone, Adj
182,101182,1505016Railway KingOFPSTu-tone, Adj
191,901192,10020016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
192,101192,1505016Railway KingOFPSTu-tone, Adj
194,201194,40020016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
201,801202,05025016Railway KingOFPSTu-tone, Adj
203,801204,00020016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
204,701204,80010016Railway KingOFPSTu-tone, Adj, Gilt trim
215,201215,40020016Railway KingOFPSTu-tone, Adj
220,901221,10020016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
224,201224,30010016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
224,301224,60030016Railway KingOFPS/LSTu-tone, Adj
230,201230,70050016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj S/N 230,269 marked "RR King - H.C. Taylor - Leadville, Colo."
230,801231,20040016Railway KingOFPS/LSTu-tone, Adj
231,201231,60040016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
238,151238,45030015R.W.K. SpecialOFPSTu-tone, Adj
238,501238,60010016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
239,501239,60010016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj, Gilt trim
239,801239,90010016Railway KingOFPSTu-tone, Adj
245,901246,10020016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
246,101246,30020016Railway KingOFPSTu-tone, Adj, Gilt trim
247,701247,80010016Railway KingOFPSTu-tone, Adj, Gilt screws
249,701249,80010016Railway KingHCAdj
252,401252,80040015R.W.K. SpecialHCLSTu-tone, Adj
254,101254,60050015R.W.K. SpecialOFPS/LSTu-tone, Adj
256,501256,80030015R.W.K. SpecialHCLSTu-tone, Adj
280,201280,30010016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
282,401282,70030015R.W.K. SpecialOFLSTu-tone, Adj
282,801283,00020016Railway KingOFLSTu-tone, Adj
283,001283,35035016R.W.K. SpecialOFTu-tone, Adj.
283,901284,30040015R.W.K. SpecialHCLSTu-tone, Adj
284,301284,60030016R.W.K. SpecialHCLSTu-tone, Adj
284,701284,80010016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
308,701308,90020016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj, Gilt trim
309,101309,20010016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj, Gilt trim
312,801313,30050016Railway KingOFLSTu-tone, Adj
317,701317,90020015R.W.K. SpecialHCLSTu-tone, Adj
338,701339,10040015R.W.K. SpecialOFLSTu-tone, Adj
344,201344,60040016Railway KingOFLSTu-tone, Adj
344,901345,30040016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
349,701350,50080016Railway KingOFLSTu-tone, Adj, Gilt trim
353,401354,4001,00016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj, Gilt trim
354,701354,7505016Railway KingOFTu-tone, Adj, Only one reported
356,251356,3005016Railway KingOFLSTu-tone, Adj, Only one reported
357,401357,4505016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj, Only one reported
362,601362,6505016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
363,101363,1505016Railway KingOFLSTu-tone, Adj, Only one reported
363,621363,6503017Columbus KingHCAdj, Only one reported
364,071364,1003017Columbus KingOFLSAdj, Dial "Columbus King 17 Jewels"
364,501364,80030016Railway KingOFLSTu-tone, Adj
365,001365,10010016Railway KingHCPSAdj
366,901367,45055017Columbus KingOFLSAdj, Dial "Columbus King 17 Jewels"
367,451367,75030017Columbus KingHCLSAdj, Dial "Columbus King 17 Jewels"
369,101369,20010017Columbus KingOFLSAdj, Dial "Columbus King 17 Jewels"
369,701370,7001,00016Railway KingHCLSTu-tone, Adj
370,851370,9005017Columbus KingOFAdj, Dial "Columbus King 17 Jewels"
371,201371,2505017Columbus KingHCLSAdj, Dial "Columbus King 17 Jewels"
371,351371,50015017Columbus KingOFLSAdj, Dial "Columbus King 17 Jewels"
371,551371,6005017Columbus KingHCLSAdj, Dial "Columbus King 17 Jewels"
371,901371,9505017Railway KingOFLSAdj
371,951372,0005017Columbus KingOFLSAdj, Dial "Columbus King" S/N 371,984 Dial signed "Wm. Nelson - Neenah Wis. - Columbus King"
372,101372,50040017Columbus KingHCLSAdj, Dial "New Columbus" Some reported as Tu-tone
372,601372,80020017Columbus KingOFLSAdj, Dial "New Columbus" Some reported as Tu-tone

Estimated Production Quantities

TypeRailway King 16JRailway King 17JR.W.K. Special 15JR.W.K. Special 16JColumbus King 17J

Table Notes

The runs listed in tables were generated from the movements listed in the data base created and maintained by Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer. The data was collected from internet listings, dealer mail-order lists, reports and personal observations, mostly at NAWCC marts. As such, it is subject to errors in listing, reporting or recording. There are a number watches reported outside of the runs shown in the tables, and there are watches reported within runs of a different series or size. These may represent individual watches, small runs, or perhaps more likely, they are errors in reporting or transcribing. Also, a number of top-center-jeweled Railway King watches were reported as being 17-jewel. In those instances, unless it was reported that the movement was marked "17 Jewels" or that the person actually saw the lower center jewel, the watch was considered to be 16-jewel.

Those watches commented as being "Tu-tone" have what Columbus described as being a "damaskeened in gold on nickel" finish. When "Adj" appears in the comments, it indicates that the movement is marked "Adjusted." The actual adjustment is what Columbus literature described it as being, see the grade discussions above.

Total estimated production quantities are based upon the summation of the quantities of the runs listed in the tables. These are mostly rather conservative, rarely going much beyond the reported serial numbers. It is expected that the actual production quantities are more than those estimated, but it is difficult to say by how much This is due to the fact that, because of the relatively small quantities, the effect of gaps in the data may have a large impact in estimating the sizes of the runs. Members having examples from ranges other than those shown in the tables applying to their examples, or who believe they have not yet been otherwise reported and wish to do so, are encouraged to report these movements under the Discussion Tab at the top of the article.

The 21, 23 & 25 Jewel Railway King

The 21, 23 & 25 -jewel Railway King movements can be dated to late 1899 or early 1900. A 1899 Columbus Watch Co. ad, reproduced on page 177 of American Pocket Watches Vol. 1, Encyclopedia and Price Guide, Roy Ehrhardt, notes the availability of the 17-jewel Railway King and states, 'Our 21 and 23 Jewel "RAILWAY KING" will be ready in about ninety days.' This same note appeared in a September 1899 ad that is reprinted on page 32 of History and Products of the Columbus Watch Company. Then, this May 1900 Ad for 17, 21, 23 & 25 Jewel Railway King Movements appeared. A description of the 21, 23 and 25 jewel Columbus King grade is shown in an October 1900 Brown & Winterberg catalog page reprinted on page 35 of History and Products of the Columbus Watch Company. Shortly thereafter, it was decided in an interference suit that the rights to the Use of the Word "Railway" on A Watch belonged to Dueber-Hampden and Columbus had to drop the use of the name.


The following pages are from a catalog entitled "Price List of Movements Manufactured by The New Columbus Watch Company" August 1, 1895:

Page 12 16-Size, 21-Jewel Ruby grade.
Page 13 16-Size, 17-Jewel grade Nos. 11 & 12.
Page 14 16-Size, 16-Jewel grade Nos. 13 & 14.
Page 18 6-Size, 16-Jewel grade No. 100.

New Columbus movement descriptions and prices are shown on pages 14 and 15 of the 1896 A.C. Becken Jewelers' Wholesale Price List.

New Columbus movement descriptions and prices are shown on page 361 of the 1897 Lapp & Flershem Twenty-first Annual Illustrated Catalogue.

The following publications are available to members on loan by mail from the NAWCC Lending Library:

History and Products of the Columbus Watch Company, Greg Frauenhoff, Sedalia, CO, 2003.

The Complete History of Watch Making in America - Reprinted from the Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review 1885-1887, Charles S. Crossman, Adams Brown Co., Exeter, NH, undated, but probably late 1980's, Pp. 160-2.

The Watch Factories of America, Henry G. Abbott, Hazlitt & Co., Chicago, IL, 1888 (reprinted by Adams Brown Co. 1981), Pp. 115-7.

The Priceless Possession of a Few, Supplement (#10) to the Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Eugene Fuller, NAWCC, Columbia, PA, 1974, available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in.

American Pocket Watch Identification and Price Guide, Book 2, Roy Ehrhardt, Heart of America Press, Kansas City, MO, 1974, Pp. 104-110 (contains Columbus and New Columbus catalog reprints).

American Pocket Watch Encyclopedia and Price Guide Volume 1, Roy Ehrhardt, Heart of America Press, Kansas City, MO, 1982, Pp. 162-177 (contains Columbus and New Columbus catalog cuts, grade ddescriptions, pictures and advertising reproductions).

Back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin are available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in.

"Railroaders' Corner - High Grade Columbus Watches Part 1: The Columbus Watch Co.," Greg Frauenhoff, John Dimar, Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 342, February 2003, pp. 81-89.
"Railroaders' Corner - High Grade Columbus Watches Part 2: The New Columbus Watch Co.," Greg Frauenhoff, John Dimar, Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 343, April 2003, pp. 229-234.
"Railroaders' Corner - High Grade Columbus Watches Part 3: Columbus 500,000 Series," Greg Frauenhoff, John Dimar, Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 344, June 2003, pp. 360-367.

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