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Watch Runs

Watch factories made watch movements in groups, referred to as "runs." Collectors look at the number of runs, of a specific grade of watch, and quantities produced within those runs to determine the total number of that grade made.


Why Watch Movements Were Made In Runs

Like most factories, the operations (purchase of materials, scheduling of labor, etc.) had to be organized (by people functioning as schedulers) and the manufacturing machinery had to be set up to make specific parts and assemble them into movements. Once set up, one or more production runs of those parts and movements would be made and operations and machinery would then be set up to make similar, but different parts and movements. Higher efficiency is achieved when production is planned so that a smaller number of changes is needed to change from making one product to the making the next. So, in studying watch company serial number lists, it is common to see runs of the same size and model, but of different grades following one another.

An example would be the manufacturing of Waltham watches where a run would be set up for 18-size, Model 83, Crescent St. grade, Open-Face movements. The scheduler would then, based upon current and expected orders, plan a run of the same Crescent St. grade, except that it would be the Hunting-Case version. The next movements to be made might be two runs of open-face and hunting-case grade No. 35. This might be followed by two runs of open-face and hunting-case AT&Co. grade nickel movements, followed by two runs of open-face and hunting-case AT&Co. grade gilded movements. The change in material, parts, machine setup, fabricating and assembly procedures would be minimal between each run of watches.

The Size of a Run

The size of a run varied tremendously, both from factory to factory, and also within a factory. They could be as small as a single watch, or as large as ten thousand watches, or even more. For economy of scale, it was more efficient to make a larger number of parts at one time than a smaller number, regardless of how fast a particular grade of watch movement is selling. The factory managers determined the delicate balance of how many parts to make for orders and anticipation of orders, and passed those quantities down to the schedulers to find the best time to make them. Regardless of the size of the run, the parts, brought together for a single watch, moved through the factories in groups of ten, usually in wooden trays, each tray having ten sets of compartments for each watches' parts.

In discussing grades of a watch, occasionally collectors speak of how many runs were made and the total overall production quantity. For example, the Elgin B.W, Raymond, grade 590 was made in three runs, the first of 1,000 watches, the second having 4,000 watches and the third containing 3,000 watches. When discussing a specific watch, it might be useful to know which run it came from. Usually, because its from the first run, or the last. But sometimes, its because a specific run was known to contain watches having variations from the published details of what was supposed to have been made within that run.

Finishing a Watch

A large part of the nine to eighteen months normally needed to make a watch movement is a process known as finishing. In addition to time, a large part of the cost of a movement, especially a high grade movement, is the labor needed to raise it from set of parts to a smooth working, accurate, attractive movement, ready to case. This process is referred to as "finishing a watch" and it involves machining and polishing the critical surfaces (such as the pivots) for smooth running and other surfaces for decoration, adjusting it to temperature and positions as needed, bringing it to the level of watch adjustment specified for the grade.

The Time During Which a Run Was Produced

Like the size of a run, and somewhat in relation to it, the length of time during which a run was in production varied from factory to factory, and also within a factory. Once the size of the run and the time to make it was determined by the managers and schedulers, the parts were produced and brought together as semi-completed watches, waiting to be finished. Watches in this state are said to be "in the gray" reflecting the fact that the surfaces haven't been polished yet.

It was at this point that the production process was fine-tuned for economics. Movements not needed for current or foreseeable orders were held in inventory, "in the gray," thus holding back the labor cost of finishing the movements. The amount of time during which the movements sat in inventory may have been years. Higher grade (read this as "more expensive") movements were slower movers and tended to sit in inventory for longer periods of time - years in times of recession.

Dating a Run

In normal times, watch movements could take nine to eighteen months from the time the serial numbers were assigned to a run of parts until finished watches left the factory. Also, watches might not be sold right away and be kept, unfinished, in inventory for one or more years. Additionally, for one reason or another, although there might have been Press Releases to show when a particular grade was introduced, records may not exist that show when a particular run of watches was completed. Thus, for most American watches, when the approximate date of production is shown on a list, it may be in error one or two years, or more. The higher the watch grade, the more likely it is to have been built much later than the dates shown in tables derived from dividing the total number of serial numbered watches by the number of years of the company's existence. This is because very high grade watches were expensive and were usually slow sellers. Even short runs would be paced over years. Just to demonstrate how difficult it is to come up with an accurate production date based upon a serial number range, this Scan From A Hamilton Production Ledger Page shows that the 992s within the tiny range of 786001-786020 were finished and sold almost two years apart.

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