Thursday, June 9, 2011

My Great-Uncle’s Pocket Watch

Apparently my great-uncle (my father’s uncle on his father’s side) worked for the railway (I am presuming Canadian Pacific because there is a history of investment in that company by my paternal family). I believe my great-uncle drove the trains. I know this because I recall having been told that he crashed one of them.

My father inherited from his uncle a National Watch Co. pocket watch, a mass-produced American watch of good quality. Based upon the serial number I have been able to ascertain by some sleuthing on the internet that the watch was likely made in 1867, not long after the company (which was sometimes known as the Elgin Watch Co. because its plant was in Elgin, Illinois near Chicago) was founded in 1864. Typical of railway watches, it is rather large. It is unreservedly in excellent condition. I suspect my father harboured it in the top draw of his bedroom dresser for my entire life and never used it. When my father gave it to me last year it looked quite uninviting (seriously tarnished)and didn’t work. I brought it to Birks in Ottawa, and they sent it to their craftsmen in Montreal, where it remained for the better part of five months before it was returned to me. It now not only looks lovely (gleaming silver) but keeps excellent time. I am also attracted to its noticeable ticking which is slightly musical, like the sound fine silverware makes when struck together.

An unusual feature of this watch (the case of which we know to be silver not steel - because one of its hallmarks inside the case identifies it as “coin” silver) is that it is wound with a small key (possibly made of steel because it has a bluish tinge). The case was made by Keystone. I understand the “coin” silver was indeed the product of melted silver coins, the silver content of which was slightly lower (say 90%) than sterling silver. Because coin silver was by design cheaper than sterling silver the products tend to be heavier than things made of sterling silver. The keystone icon is embedded onto the inside of the back case with the letter “C” set inside the icon. The keystone image (surrounded by some leafy work) is also inscribed on the back (outer side) of the case.

Inside the case inscribed on the works in a flourishing font are the words “B. W. Raymond”, an allusion to Benjamin Wright Raymond who in 1864 was the Mayor of Chicago. Raymond was approached by the founders of the watch company as an investor. The first movement of the watch company was called the "B. W. Raymond 18 size, full plate design". Some watches are 20 size, but 18 size was about the biggest of the more popular watches. The founders of the National Watch Co. were renegades from the huge Waltham Watch Co. in Boston. National stole many of their best watchmakers by promising them $5,000 per annum plus bonuses which in 1864 was nothing to sneeze at!

The front and back of the case are secured by hinges. By contrast I have seen other similar pocket watches which have front and back plates which screw on and off. The copper colour of the hinges leads me to believe that they are made of 8K or 9K gold which contained a high copper alloy for strength. The stem (which is at the top of the watch, not at three o’clock as some of them are) is for appearance only; one does not press it to open the case, for example. Looped through the stem is a thick ring of silver. I suspect the proper attachment for the case would be a leather band which might attach to a belt. Somehow the thought of attaching a silver chain just doesn’t seem appropriate. Given the large size of the watch it really is a pocket watch, not one that would be carried in a small vest pocket where it would cause the textile to bulge unbecomingly.

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