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Keystone Watch Case Co.

The Keystone Watch Case Co., itself a successor to a number of other watch companies, was the surviving name of a conglomerate of case companies brought together by Theophilus Zurbrugg by 1904. Keystone stayed in business long past the end of the American-built pocket watch.

The J. Boss Case and the Beginning of the Keystone Watch Case Co.

All cases marked "J. Boss" or "Jas. Boss" or having a balance (scale) as a trade mark (indicating that it is a J. Boss grade case) are gold-filled cases. The following chronology and information is from History of the American Watch Case, with additional notes in purple based upon an article in an 1889 issue of The Keystone, posted by Greg Frauenhoff, 30-Apr-04 and quotes in green, based upon the online article Decorative Aspects of American Horology" (which seems to be no longer available):

1853 - Randolf & Reese Peters were making cases in Philadelphia, employing James Boss.

1859 - J. Boss received a patent for "spinning up" cases made of "gold-filled" type material. That is, material made of a sheet of composition metal (usually brass) sandwiched between two thin sheets of gold. Boss formed cases by rolling sheet metal as opposed to the traditional method involving soldering and cutting. Rolling increased the molecule density of the metal. His patent, No. 23,820 of May 3, 1859, revolutionized the watch case industry by enabling the production of not only less expensive, but considerably stronger cases. ... Unlike gold washed cases, which were made using electroplating, cases produced by means of rolling had much harder gold surfaces and were thus less apt to wear.

1871 - J. Boss sold patent rights to John Stuckert of Philadelphia.

1875 - T.B. Hagstoz & Charles N. Thorpe formed Hagstoz & Thorpe, purchasing the manufacturing facilities (within which, 12 employees produced 6 cases per day at 618 Chesnut St.) and "J. Boss" patent from the estate of John Stuckert. Hagstoz & Thorpe seems to have made only gold-filled cases using the J. Boss patented method.

1876+ - ... orders increased so rapidly that larger quarters became necessary immediately. The landlord of their first premises, 618 Chestnut Street, was George W. Childs, ... When Childs’ learned of his tenants’ need for more work space, he offered $100,000 and became a silent third partner. A new plant on Brown Street was erected ...

1877 - E. Tracy, a manufacturer of solid gold and silver watch cases, was acquired.

1880 - the company moved to a six story building on Nineteenth St., with an equal-size annex on Wylie St.

1883 - 1885 - T.B Hagstoz withdrew from the company which became C.N. Thorpe Co. and shortly thereafter it was reorganized as the Keystone Watch Case Co.

1887 - the Nineteenth St. building was almost doubled in size and a four story adjacent building was occupied by Keystone.

1889 - the firm was producing 1,500 cases per day.

The Acquisition of Case Companies

To quote from Warren H. Niebling:
"In 1904 this man managed a series of mergers, which brought together his own Philadelphia Watch Case Co., Bates and Bacon, Crescent and the Keystone Watch Case Co."
History of the American Watch Case, page 48, describing the actions of (Theophilus Zurbrugg).
However, the flurry of acquisition seems to have occurred a few years prior to 1904.

The T. Zurbrugg Co., which had moved to Riverside, NJ in 1898, was producing the Crown and Lion case grades (formerly made by H. Muhr's Sons, from whose successor the case business was acquired by Zurbrugg in 1898). The company turned out to have the same ownership as Keystone. The T. Zurbrugg Co. was apparently absorbed by the Philadelphia Watch Case Co. when it was incorporated by Zurbrugg and others in 1899. This is indicated on Philadelphia's letterhead which included a small banner reading "Successors to T. Zurbrugg Co." That letterhead can be seen in an open letter to the trade, published when Philadelphia bought Bates and Bacon in January 1901. What appeared in the trade press and what the actual ownership was may have been two different things. For example, "... the history provided in legal documents for the anti-trust case against Keystone ... states that all of the capital stock of a newly organized Philadelphia Watch Case Co. (August 1900) was owned by Keystone." (Jerry Treiman in a message board thread about a U.S. Watch Co. Watch)
Regardless of ownership, the cases continued to be marked with the familiar trade names and trade marks, and made by their respective companies, under their own management, in their existing facilities. Nevertheless, a hint of the common ownership was shown to the general public in a 1911 Keystone ad in a popular magazine which showed both Keystone and Crescent trade marks

Thus, Keystone become the largest case manufacturer in the country. During and after its growth period, it was involved with the large movement factories in a number monopolist activities generally described as the Watch Trust. It was continually being sued by other case companies, such as the Dueber Watch Case Manufacturing Co., and by the U.S. government, due to its violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In the midst of this, the combined company built a large factory in Riverside, NJ in 1907. The completed building appeared in postcards as a Riverside, NJ attraction. Keystone stayed in business long past the American-built pocket watch era.

Keystone's Watch Companies

The Keystone Watch Case Co. also owned several watch companies. One of these was the New York Standard Watch Co., a manufacturer of inexpensive jeweled watches which Keystone, or at least the same people who were the principles of Keystone, bought during the era in which the case company consolidation was occurring, in 1899). NY Standard's "New Era" labeled movements were bundled with inexpensive cases and marketed under the Philadelphia name.

In another transaction, "In 1901, the Keystone Watch Case Co., successor in 1885 to C.N. Thorpe and Hagstoz & Thorpe before it, acquired Suffolk Watch Co. - itself the successor to Columbia Watch Co. in 1899."
John F Message Board post 12-22-2004

Another watch company came under Keystone control through that company's ownership of the Philadelphia Watch Case Co. Philadelphia had acquired the United States Watch Co., Waltham, Mass. in April 1901. Watches started being manufactured in this plant under the E. Howard Watch Co. name, following Keystone's purchase of the rights to use the Howard name on watches from E. Howard & Co. in 1903. United States Watch Co. movement production ceased around this time. This operation, referred to by collectors as Keystone-Howard, existed at the opposite end of the spectrum from the NY Standard-Philadelphia combination. As a top tier supplier selling only complete watches at premium prices, the E. Howard Watch Co. served as an outlet for the best grades of cases manufactured by Keystone, under the Keystone and Crescent names.

The Cases

Keystone produced a full line of cases, from top of the line solid gold cases to the least costly silveroid (nickel) cases. In between these two ends were a variety of case grades spanning a range of quality. Representing this variety, some of Keystone's trade marks, and descriptions of their meanings, were shown in a 1888 Ad.

"J. Boss" or "Jas. Boss" cases, what might have been Keystone's most popular gold-bearing cases, are gold-filled, guaranteed for 15 years when so marked in case (discontinued in 1898), 20 years or 25 years. A 1907 Keystone Ad shows their balance (scale) & crown trade mark used on their 25-year Jas. Boss (J. Boss) cases, and the plain balance trade mark identifying their 20-year J. Boss cases, as of that date.

Coin silver cases were widely used in the second half of the nineteenth century, so much so that the silver watch had become an icon of quality. Acknowledging that fact, one is pictured in an 1888 Keystone ad in one of the railroad brotherhood journals (where Keystone advertised heavily). Interestingly, the ad carries a wealth of information beyond the fact that a coin silver case is pictured. First, the cases are promoted as being dust-proof by virtue of containing a dust band. Second, a hunting-case is shown. Hunting-case watches were highly popular at the time of the ad, and it was more than a decade later before a change to a clear preference for open-face watches became evident. Third, the Keystone Watch Case Co. stated that it made only cases and rejected the possibility of any connection to " ... any other concern of similar name." This disclaimer was perhaps necessitated by the existence of the Keystone Watch Co., whose cased dust-proof movements were promoted by the Keystone Watch Club Co. (the cases of which may have been made by the Metropolitan Watch Case Co., a firm having trade marks of a horseshoe with - or without - three acorns, or perhaps just the three acorns). As company names go, it'd be hard to imagine any that were more similar than these.

The Non-Pull-Out Bow

In 1891, Edward C. Chappatte, was awarded a patent for a watch bow fastener. This was assigned to the Keystone Watch Case Co., who was probably his employer. This seems to have been the basis for what Keystone marketed as the Non-Pull-Out Bow. For those who missed the major selling point of cases having the Non-Pull-Out bow, Keystone's ads were quick on the spot with what today would be termed "in your face advertising." The advertising campaign continued for a year. Then, the concept seemed to slip away for about thirty years until a similar bow fastening method appeared on the "Safety Bow" case made for E. Howard (see: "Keystone-Howard & Their Standard Watches," Ed Ueberall & Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 319 (April 1999), pages 201-202).

Case Grades

Case GradeCase Material
"Keystone" name in arch over "18 K" & Keystone Trade Mark (in back), "Warranted .750 K.W.C.Co." & Keystone Trade Mark in cap18K Solid Gold
"Keystone" name in arch over "14 K" & Keystone Trade Mark (in back), ".585 Fine" in cap14K Solid Gold
Keystone ExtraGold-Filled, Higher grade (thicker gold) than J. Boss
J. Boss, Jas. Boss Balance (scale) & Crown Trade MarkGold-Filled, guaranteed for 15, 20 or 25 years
J. Boss - Balance (scale) & Crown Trade MarkGold-Filled, guaranteed for 25 years
J. Boss - Plain Balance (scale) Trade MarkGold-Filled, guaranteed for 20 years
J. Boss - In oval, Keystone Trade Mark10K Gold-Filled, guaranteed for 15 years, discontinued in 1898
"Keystone" name in arch over Keystone trade markGold-Filled, guaranteed for 15 years
"Keystone" name in arch over Star & Keystone Trade Marks10K Gold-Filled
"Advance" (posted by yaya*)Most likely Gold-Filled or Rolled Gold Plate, No documentation has yet come to light
"Victory"Rolled Gold Plate, guaranteed for 10 years, a grade obtained from H. Muhr's Sons via the Philadelphia Watch Case Co.
A stylized "C" and serial number only, or "Keystone" name in arch over "Watch Case Co." & "C" under Keystone Trade Mark (in back) or CycloneRolled Gold Plate, guaranteed for 5 years (discontinued in 1898) or 10 years when so marked.
"Bee Hive" w/ beehive image, or just imageRolled Gold Plate, guaranteed for 5 years (discontinued by 1904 - Re-registered 1905)
GoldoidImitation Gold
"Keystone" name in arch over Keystone Trade Mark & "Sterling" or "Sterling" in an oval (posted by nik0lai)Sterling Silver (.925 Fine)
NielloSterling Silver w/ Niello-decorated finish
"Keystone" name in arch over "Coin" & Keystone Trade MarkCoin Silver
"Keystone" name in arch over "Leader" & "Coin"Coin Silver w/ Albata (nickel) Cap
Silveroid (posted by Robert Sweet)Nickel w/ imitation gold joints

See the Case Material Encyclopedia article for an explanation of the terms.

A number of Keystone's trade marks (but not all) may be seen on page 118 of the book Trade Marks Of The Jewelry And Kindred Trades, Second Edition, Jewelers' Circular Publishing Co., NY, 1904.

Promotional Giveaways

Many companies distributed promotional giveaways and Keystone was no exception. Ads ran in the brotherhood journals in the Spring and Summer of 1888 urging the readers to send for a free 'splasher' and watch case opener. Many have seen watch case openers, but the splasher is a bit more obscure. Those desiring to know what it is are urged to read the description in one of the ads. A picture of a case opener, apparently attached to its original tag and having a significantly different appearance from the one shown in the ad with the splasher, was posted by John F. The back of the tag dates it to 1892 by the promotion of the non-pull-out bow (see above)


Online Information

A number of Keystone's trade marks (but not all) may be seen on page 118 of the book Trade Marks Of The Jewelry And Kindred Trades, Second Edition, Jewelers' Circular Publishing Co., NY, 1904 (found online by Askbart).

Keystone case designs may be seen on pages 318 - 348 and 354 (although not on all of the pages) of the 1897 Lapp & Flershem Twenty-first Annual Illustrated Catalogue.

The following books may be available to members on loan by mail from the NAWCC Lending Library.

History of the American Watch Case, Warren H. Niebling, Whitmore Publishing, Philadelphia, PA, 1971.
Souvenir - World's Columbian Exposition - Chicago, 1893, Keystone Watch Case Co., Philadelphia, PA, 1893, reprinted by NAWCC Chapters 3, 66 & 47 for the 1977 National Convention.

Back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin and its successor, Watch & Clock Bulletin are available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in. They are also available to members on loan by mail from the NAWCC Lending Library.

"The Keystone Watchcase Company," Warren H. Niebling, NAWCC Bulletin No. 138, February 1969, pp. 773-78.

"A Pictorial View of American Watchcase Factories," Andrew H. Dervan, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin No. 396, March/April 2012, pp. 177-179.

"A Group Of Trusts And Combinations," submitted by Larry Treiman, NAWCC Bulletin No. 194, June 1978, pp. 271-274. Non NAWCC members can read this portion of it: "A Group Of Trusts And Combinations: II. The Keystone Watch Case Co.," Quarterly Journal of Economics, April 1912, Pp. 602-608.

"Decorative Aspects of American Horology," by Philip Poniz, which had been posted on The Antiquorum Magaizine Website
Categories: Category Watch case makers

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Current Discussion: Main discussion

  1. kent

    kent Registered User
    Gibbs Literary Award NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Member

    Aug 26, 2000
  2. kent

    kent Registered User
    Gibbs Literary Award NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Member

    Aug 26, 2000
    Adding material to Message Board
  3. kent

    kent Registered User
    Gibbs Literary Award NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Member

    Aug 26, 2000
  4. Kent

    Kent Registered User
    Gibbs Literary Award NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Member

    Aug 26, 2000
    Fixing link disrupted by move to current Message Board

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  5. Tom McIntyre

    Tom McIntyre Technical Admin
    Staff Member NAWCC Star Fellow NAWCC Ruby Member Sponsor

    Aug 24, 2000
    retired SW dev
    Philip Poniz wrote the article on decorative aspects of American horology. Antiquorum Vox apparently died in the struggles between the various incarnations of Antiquorum. If Philip owns the copyright, perhaps he would republish it here.
  6. Kent

    Kent Registered User
    Gibbs Literary Award NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Member

    Aug 26, 2000
    Adding an image documenting use of simply "C" to denote Cyclone grade case:

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  7. Kent

    Kent Registered User
    Gibbs Literary Award NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Member

    Aug 26, 2000
    Posting Bee Hive

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