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Watch Grades

What Is A Watch Grade?

The grade of a movement is the identification of the level of quality to which it is finished. This can get confusing because although some manufacturers assigned a grade name or number to a movement of a specific size, jeweling and finish, other manufacturers assigned a name to a whole range of movements of various sizes and jeweling, but finished to the same level of quality. Still other manufacturers did this, but then assigned individual grade numbers to movements of each different size and jewel count, assigning different numbers as improvements were incorporated. To confuse things further, the quality of a grade may have been upgraded (or downgraded) as the years passed by. This is similar to what was later done by the auto industry, wherein a specific make and model would be upgraded over the years.

Watch movement grades reflect the amount labor that went into them. There is some relationship to the cost of materials, but the greater cost was the labor to finish and adjust the parts to the precision necessary for good timekeeping and, to a lesser extent, the pleasing appearance of the movement. For cases, the value of the material was a much greater proportion, with some extra labor going into engraved designs.

Thus, a number of different quality grades can be created within a single model design. One way to do so is to add jewels. Starting with seven jewels, generally the least number used in what is considered to be a jeweled watch, jewels are added up to twenty-three, and sometimes more. The jewels provide long-wearing, low-friction surfaces for the pivots and adding jewels, up to nineteen, demonstrably improves timekeeping. The actual timekeeping improvement in going from nineteen to twenty-one jewels is debatable and improvement from additional jeweling beyond that is almost purely theoretical. The jewels themselves have little value, being industrial jewels, not at all gem quality. The real cost of adding jewels is in the labor required to shape and drill them, and to mount them in the plates and other parts of the watch.

Higher grade movements can also be built on the same model by adding to the level of adjustment. The more finely a movement is adjusted, the more labor is required. Finer adjustment can be to more positions, or to a tighter rate tolerance. A micrometer regulator (sometimes referred to as a "Patent Regulator"), necessary for providing a precise means for which to set the overall rate, is another expense (albeit a smaller expense) that goes into higher grade watches. Usually, watches that are adjusted to temperature, or to temperature and positions, are fitted with a patent regulator.

Additional labor is also required to improve the aesthetic appearance of higher grade watches. People who pay for more expensive watches expect them to look better than cheaper watches. This was done by American watch companies using nickel, or nickel plated, plates in lieu of gilded plates, however many high grade European watches (intended mostly for non-American markets) had gilded plates; by damaskeening the plates, or using more extensive damaskeening; by providing raised gold jewel settings in lieu of flush, composition settings; by using gilded screws, regulators, and other minor parts; and by furnishing a double-sunk dial in lieu of a single-sunk dial (one exception being the Ball Watch Co., who furnished single-sunk dials on its watches, except it placed double-sunk dials on its lower grade of Official Standard watches). Sometimes, the gilding of screws and other steel parts is done on watches of lesser adjustement to give them an ambiance of quality, but the parts aren't finished as finely (to keep costs down) and the result is somewhat garish-looking compared to high grade watches.

Examples of Various Grades Of The Same Model

All of these means of creating a higher grade can be built upon the same model which was used to make the least costly jeweled watch. Thus, a 21-jewel railroad grade movement (adjusted to temperature and 5 or 6 positions) typically cost twice as much (or more) as a 17-jewel movement of the same model that was only adjusted to temperature. A good example of this is the variety of different grades of 18-size Illinois movements shown on page S-2 of the 1917 Oskamp-Nolting Co. catalog.

Why Isn't The Grade Marked On The Movement?

It was common for watch manufacturers to Not Mark the Grade Identification on many of their watches during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. As perhaps more clearly explained in this 1894 A.C. Smith Watch Co. ad, this was mainly so that customers of the discount houses (and perhaps the discount houses themselves) couldn't be certain that the watches being offered were the same grades being sold at higher prices by jewelry stores. Serial number vs. grade lists were considered confidential and weren't widely available. Thus it was difficult to look up the grade using the serial number.

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