The watch case is a separate part of the pocket watch. Until the mid-1920s, it was mostly sold separately, selected by the consumer at the time of purchase of the movement.
Pocket Watch CasesOnly a small percentage of American watches (or Swiss watches for the North American market) were cased at the factories prior to the mid-1920's (even then, uncased movements were furnished to the trade at least until the 1960's). Most watch companies just made movements (the "works") in industry standard sizes. These were shipped to jobbers, distributors and retailers in various tins and other containers. The case companies made cases in those same sizes. The practice at that time was to go to a jeweler, select the quality of the movement and then pick out the desired style and quality of case. The jeweler would then fit the movement to the case in a matter of moments.
Or, watches were sold by mail-order. Large outfits such as Sears, Roebuck & Co., Montgomery Ward, or T. Eaton (in Canada), would offer the movements in a variety of cases of different design and quality in their catalogs. Smaller mail-order retailers would case the watches, typically in a 20-year gold filled case and offer it only that way, with the buyer not having a choice of cases.
Information about case manufacturers can be found in a link listed in the References section, below.
Case Serial Number vs. Grade and DateThe full case serial number is stamped into the back, cuvette (inner back cover - if existing) and lid (front cover of a hunting case). Frequently, the last four or five digits, or occasionally the full serial number, is stamped on the back rim of the case center ring. The last four or five digits are also scratched, in Roman numerals, on the inside hollow of the bezel (which may be hard to decipher). All of these match on a completely original case. Hand-scratched characters on the inside of the back of a case are probably watch repairers' marks and have nothing to do with the case or movement manufacturer.
Although a lot can be learned about many American watch movements by knowing the movement's serial number, the same cannot be said about case serial numbers. While movement serial numbers were used to assist in, and track, production; they also needed to be maintained and published for the purposes of movement grade identification, primarily for the obtaining of correct replacement parts. On the other hand, the function of the case serial numbers seems to have been for internal uses only, primarily to keep the major pieces together during production and to track the disposition of expensive materials and finished product. Thus, there were no published lists of case company serial number vs. grades. Also, there do not seem to be any surviving records from watch case companies linking case serial numbers to specific cases, their grades, sizes and etc., nor are there tables that relate the case serial numbers to dates. Having stated that, there are limited instances of collectors having gathered case serial number vs. date data for a very limited number of factory-cased, 1920s-plus Illinois, Hamilton and perhaps Ball watches. This data has yet to be published.
So, other than studying the style of the case and making an educated guess as to which era it belongs, it is extremely difficult to trace the case's production date. If the case still contains the movement it originally housed, an approximate date (within a year or three) can be assigned to the case. Other than having whatever information that is stamped into a specific case's back, about the only way to find out more about that case's style, grade or engraving, would be to go through old jewelry trade magazines, ads and catalogs, hoping to find a picture of one that matches, or an explanation of what the trade mark(s) stamped inside of the case mean. Places in which to find this information are listed in the References section, below. Although they may not be not very extensive, new information is being added as it becomes available.
Case TypesThere were many different pocket watch case types. These are discussed in the "Case Type" Encyclopedia article.
Case GradesMost case companies offered different qualities of cases, independent of the style or type of case. For convenience of discussion, these different qualities will be referred to as grades, although it's not clear how these were referred to in the trade (at the time) and even now there is little discussion of the subject.
The grade of a case reflects the quality of the case material and work that went into it. Each case grade was offered in many different styles and engraved designs. It should be noted that some styles or types were only appropriate for certain grades of cases. The different watch case companies promoted their cases under a variety of names, probably as great as the variety of watch movement grades. For information about the different watch case companies and their products, refer to the information listed in the References section, below.
Case StyleAmerican pocket watch cases started out with a fairly high pendant with large, circular bows. With the advent of stem-winding and stem-setting in the post Civil War era, the winding stem and crown were added to the pendant. This case style persisted through the 1880s, the 1890s and well into the first decade of the new century.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close and the new century began, the pendant became a little shorter and variations of the bow and crown were becoming stylish; the oval bow and; the antique or French bow began to be frequently seen. The styling stayed pretty much the same up to WWI, with perhaps the pendants starting to get a bit shorter and the circular bow just about disappearing.
After the war and into the 1920s, the pendants became noticeably shorter. By the middle 1920s the pendants significantly changed such that the bow straddled the crown instead of encircling it. The bow was fastened to the sides of the pendant alongside of the crown, instead of beneath it. This general style continued in use through the 1950s and 1960s.
Some depression era styles had shrunk the pendant so much that the crown was almost, but not quite, sitting right on the case center ring. The pendants had just about been reduced to being a couple of stubs sticking up alongside of the crown, existing only to anchor the bow. This style also stayed around for decades.
It should be noted that, up to the depression, the case companies were still making a few cases of the older styles for those customers who preferred them. However, starting with only a small percentage to begin with, these were made in ever decreasing quantities.
The Diminishment of the Watch Case MarketIn the 1920s, the trend shifted for the watch companies to furnish complete watches. Some watch companies, such as the Ball Watch Co. (for watches sold in the U.S.) or the E. Howard Watch Co., had been only selling complete watches for decades. Others offered complete watches, but these were only a small proportion of their output. It was during the 1920s that the rest of the industry changed to market most of their movements fit into factory-signed cases. That would be Waltham watches and those made by the Hamilton Watch Co., the Elgin Watch Co. the South Bend Watch Co. and the Hampden Watch Co. All of these watch companies continued to supply movements-only to retailers, mostly large mail-order companies, but the lion's share of their output went into cased watches, sold in factory sealed packages, not requiring the "completion" of the watch at the local retail level. The watch case companies' market essentially shrank to those same watch companies and large retailers.
Replacement CasesDuring the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and later, cases were marketed to use on older movements, as well as for use on a decreasing percentage of new movements. These cases are frequently referred to as replacement cases. A lot of movements ended up in these cases as the original cases worn out (cases were considered to be expendable parts, albeit on long term basis). In the 1930s, replacement cases were made by the Star Watch Case Co., the Keystone Watch Case Co. and the Illinois Watch Case Co. They, like all earlier cases, were made in a variety of grades; white or yellow-colored base metal; chrome-plated base metal (one of the most common of these cases); yellow rolled gold plate; gold-filled; and solid gold.
Another group of replacement cases was made in the 1970s by the Star Watch Case Co. They had obtained the tooling for Hamilton and Ball (and other) cases and produced them. Looking very much like the original cases, as this 1977 ad posted by Jerry Treiman shows, they may fool novices (and even more experienced collectors) into thinking that they are original cases. The subject is discussed, along with the means to distinguish these so-called "re-strike" cases, in this 2012 Message Board thread.
During the depression, the solid gold cases on old watches were sold, by people in need, for their scrap value and the movements were recased into one the less expensive of the replacement cases. This continued to be done and is still being done today (in 2009) due to both economic need and the high value of gold.
Watch collectors and dealers add another reason for using replacement cases. That is to house a movement whose case has been removed for use on another (presumably more valuable or desirable) movement. Such actions destroy the originality of both watches, a very important consideration. A number of collectors feel that this originality must be preserved in all instances. However, an equal, or perhaps greater, number of collectors feel a little bit differently about this. Their equally valid point is that, since there is nothing linking a non-factory cased movement to a case other than the whim of the buyer at the time of initial retail sale, there is nothing historically significant about the combination (if the initial retail buyer isn't historically significant). In replacing a worn our, or damaged, case, they feel that it is sufficient that it the case be of the same era as of the movement. Their goal is a combination that could have initially existed. A number of these collectors take care to use a case that previously held the same make and model series of movement so that the case screws of the movement being cased match up to the case screw marks left by the previous movement.
This has also been done (and continues to be done) to factory-cased watches with the end result being that a movement, even one that was originally factory-cased, ends up in a replacement case. The factory-cased watches being discussed are Ball or Howard, or late Hamilton, Elgin and Waltham movements.
Original Non-Factory Cased, 1930s-Plus WatchesIt should noted that some of the not-so-late Hamilton, Elgin and Waltham watches were originally sold in cases resembling the replacement cases, as seen in a 1938-1939 Montgomery Ward catalog listing for a Waltham Vanguard in which Style A is a chromium plated case and Style C is a Gold-Filled case. Similar Rolled Gold Plate cases were also used to originally case movements at that time (1930s-1950s). Also, a small percentage of cases like these, possibly available in the late 1920s, may have originally been used to originally house a few South Bend and Hampden movements.
Again, these mid-1920s and later replacement cases can be distinguished by having a very short pendant with the crown almost sitting right on the edge of the case center ring. However, they were never used to originally house Ball movements sold in the U.S., or Howard movements. Additionally, Swiss-made movements from the depression and post-depression era many have been originally placed in these cases, but this discussion is really about American-made movements.
Novices may not be aware that these cases are appropriate for (could have originally housed) only the certain makes of watches mentioned above and only in certain serial number ranges. Virtually any other American-made watch contained in one of these cases has been recased.
How to Identify a True Factory Case.Since a number of 16-size replacement cases of the 1930s-1950s) resemble Waltham, Ball (furnished on the 435 series Record-Ball movements), Elgin or Hamilton factory cases, a novice may be confused and believe that a replacement case IS a factory case. One strong indicator of a case being a replacement case and not a factory case, is if there are two setting-lever slots, one at the 6 minute position and the other at the 56 minute position. Factory cases, even those offered by Waltham and Ball, some of whose movements had their setting-levers at the 56 minute positions, only had the one lever slot required by the movement. Or, if the movement was pendant-set, there was no lever slot at all. But then, some Waltham factory railroad cases had two lever slots to easily facilitate casing whichever movement they desired.
Canadian CasesPrior to transition from retailing movements separately from cases, to selling complete watches, most movements were placed into the customer's choice of case at the time of sale. Domestically produced cases were available as well as imported, U.S. produced cases. However, even then there were some manufacturer marketed complete watches offered in domestic Canadian cases. One example was the Ball Official Standard. Another example is a railroad movement in a Canadian-made, Elgin B.W. Raymond Model case. After the change to marketing complete factory-cased watches, there developed a long-standing, industry-wide practice of just importing movements into Canada and assembling them into cases (either domestic or imported) once they arrived.
This was done for several reasons. One, many Canadians preferred to support their industry by purchasing domestic products. Not having a watch industry, the best they could do was to insist on a domestic case. These were made by a number of companies, one of which was the American Watch Case Co. Another reason was order to pay a lesser import duty on "watch parts" than would be charged for "complete watches." As an example, one Canadian Pacific Railway Time Service official (Peter Kushnir of Montreal, PQ) once described packages of U.S. movements arriving with their U.S. cases in the same package, but not assembled together. Frequently, movements only would be imported, to be cased in Canadian-made cases such as Empress or Fortune. As an example, a 1953 T. Eaton (Toronto) catalog shows both Waltham and Hamilton watches, only available in the U.S. as complete watches in U.S.-made cases, being sold in Canada in Canadian-made cases.
Photographic Images on Watch CasesFor information on this subject, refer to the Encyclopedia article: Images on Cases or Dials.
Re-plated CasesThere are several reasons for re-plating a gold-filled, or rolled-gold-plate, case that has been badly worn, through to the underlying composition metal (mostly brass). The first, is that the owner may wish for it to look nicer. Another reason might be to enhance its value for sales purposes - being able to state that there is "no brass" usually justifies a higher price. This is a deceitful practice that is frowned upon. Sadly, re-plating a case is not a satisfactory endeavor. Frequently, the resulting color looks "wrong." Also, depending upon the composition metal, the gold alloy used in re-plating, and the thickness of the plating, the spots that were worn through appear as a different color of gold. Another issue is that even if the color of the re-plated gold appears correct, it will have filled in any engraving or edge pattern, softening the appearance of the cuts and look "funny" to the experienced eye. Then, the case will have the incongruent appearance of a badly worn case without the gold being worn through on the high spots. Finally, this last condition may only be a temporary situation since after being carried for a short while, the re-plated gold, being only a very thin layer, will again wear off of the high spots of the case. The general consensus about re-plating is, don't do it and beware of cases to which it has been done!
Case Screw MarksIf there are case screw marks in the case rim other than those made by the case screws of current occupant (such as this one, pictured by Jerry-JB1), then you can know that it held another movement at one time. If not, the case may be original to the movement, or perhaps it held a movement of the same make and model as the one that's in it now (which would have the case screws in the same position). By the way, just because there are a second set of screw marks in a case, it doesn't mean that the movement wasn't originally placed in that case. Take a look at this February 1917 Hamilton Ad and notice that Hamilton accommodated placing a new watch movement in the trainman's existing case. South Bend also accommodated fitting a movement to an existing case.
How to Open A Stem-Wind Case.There is almost an infinate variety of pocket watch cases. However, the vast majority of cases produced to fit stem-wind, American-made movements fall into only a few categories, for which the information in the Encyclopedia article entitled "How To Open A Pocket Watch Case" should be helpful.
Removing A Movement From A Case
For information on this subject, refer to the Encyclopedia article entitled "Removing A Movement From A Case."
Information about case manufactures can be found from links listed in the NAWCC Encyclopedia: Watch Case Makers Category.
The following books and back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin and the Watch & Clock Bulletin may be available to members on loan by mail from the NAWCC Lending Library, using the Lending Library Form.
Trade Marks Of The Jewelry And Kindred Trades, Second Edition, Jewelers' Circular Publishing Co., NY, 1904, Pp. 111-123 (found online by Askbart).
Sample Styles of Watch Cases, Booz, Hagstoz & Thomas, Philadelphia, PA, 1875
Catalogue of Crescent 14 K. Gold Filled Watch Cases, Crescent Watch Case Co., 1891, reprinted by Greg's Clock Shop, Lima, OH, 1998.
History of the American Watch Case, Warren H. Niebling, Whitmore Publishing, Philadelphia, PA, 1971.
Illustrated Catalogue - Louie DeTice, Ellenville, NY,1889, Reprinted by Warner D. Bundens, Woodbury, NJ, 1974.
S.F. Myers & Co. Illustrated Price List No. 31 1890, S.F. Myers, New York, NY, 1890, Selected sections reprinted by Fifth Annual Midwest Regional, Chicago, IL, 1976.
Watch Case Makers of England, Philip T. Priestley, NAWCC Bulletin Supplement 20, Spring, 1994.
"How Gold Filled Cases Are Made," Sears, Roebuck and Co., Inc. Catalogue No. 104, Chicago, IL, 1897, reprinted by Chelsea House, Philadelphia, PA, 1968, page 372.
"How Gold Filled Cases Are Made," Sears, Roebuck and Co., Inc. Catalogue, Chicago, IL, 1897, page 378.
"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, page 27.
In addition to borrowing back issues for the NAWCC Bulletin and the Watch & Clock Bulletin from the NAWCC Lending Library, they are available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in.
"A History of the American Watchcase, Part 1," Warren H. Niebling, NAWCC Bulletin No. 141, August 1969, pp. 1002-04.
"A History of the American Watchcase, Part 2," Warren H. Niebling, NAWCC Bulletin No. 142, October 1969, pp. 1158-61.
"A History of the American Watchcase, Part 3," Warren H. Niebling, NAWCC Bulletin No. 143, December 1969, pp. 28-30.
"A History of the American Watchcase, Part 4," Warren H. Niebling, NAWCC Bulletin No. 144, February 1970, pp. 167-71.
"A Pictorial View of American Watchcase Factories," Andrew H. Dervan, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin No. 396, March/April 2012, pp. 177-184.
"The Keystone Watchcase Company," Warren H. Niebling, NAWCC Bulletin No. 138, February 1969, pp. 773-78.
"The Rolex Screw Down Crown (and its antecedents) A Tale of Three Patents, and a Few More!," David Boettcher, Watch & Clock Bulletin No. 389, December 2010, pp. 677-688.
"Practical repair and Restoration - Watch Cases and Their Accessories, Part 1," Archie C. Perkins, NAWCC Bulletin No. 318, February 1999, pp. 89-93.
"Practical repair and Restoration - Watch Cases and Their Accessories, Part 2," Archie C. Perkins, NAWCC Bulletin No. 320, June 1999, pp. 353-357.