Bringing Out the Big Guns (and your wallet)

Part of my retro watch obsession is cleaning and refurbishing my project watches. Disassembling a watch takes different tools depending on the watch case type and size.

I have a 1970 Bulova project watch that is large and has a screw down back. This is a new vintage for me to work on as my collection is typically pre-1970s. Found it at a local antique store and decided I liked it; out came the wallet. This type of watch requires a special wrench to remove the back along with a larger movement holder/vise in order to cradle the watch and be able to put torque into the wrench in order to unscrew the case back.

My 1970 Bulova Project Watch

1970 Bulova Project Watch Movement

Until recently all of the watch holder movements I've had (all 2 of them) have been for small movements typical of pre-1950s wristwatches.

While not in the same number as watches in the world, there sure seems to be a lot of different watch movement holders. Check out just two pages of a tools catalog of mine. Holders of all shapes and sizes to hold a corresponding number of watch shapes and sizes. Bring out your wallet when you open up this catalog!

My 1970 Bulova project watch is quite large and when I first tried to disassemble it I was using a small holder and was unable to get enough torque with my case wrench to open the back. I even tried putting the small holder into a bench vice in order to stabilize it so I could add some torque to the wrench. The bench vise didn't work. As a matter of fact, the watch and holder flew out of the bench vise and landed across the room onto the shop floor - no worries, nothing damaged but my pride.

When I went online to see how you get a stubborn case back off, one of the techniques was to epoxy a bolt to the back and use a standard socket wrench. Apparently the epoxy comes off with acetone.

Well, I didn't need to use an epoxied bolt, I simply pulled out my wallet and bought a new extra large vise that you see below with the my Bulova watch in it.  Enter the Big Guns.

Bergeon "Jaxa" Case Vise with my 1970 Bulova Watch

The great thing about the new vise above, it also properly fits into a bench vise to give you extra stability to torque those most stubborn case backs - no more flying watches. That being said, if you look closely above you can see one of the orange pegs got damaged from my wrench slipping - gadzooks, damage to a brand new tool no less!

To give you some scale to the different size watch cases and corresponding holders/vises, check out the picture below of the 1970 Bulova sitting side by side with a 1950 watch movement from a Gruen project watch I'm working on as well.

The two pictures below show 3 different size and shaped holders along with a case wrench in the background. BTW, not all case backs are threaded and come apart using a wrench, many are snap back that use friction and small dimples to hold the back and the front (called the bezel) together. To open those a simple pocket knife will do (or you can do what I did and opened my wallet and bought an expensive case back opener).

I'll let you know how the 1970 Bulova turned out once serviced and cleaned in a future blog. For now, I brought out the big guns with this extra large case vise so I can start the disassembly process - it worked.

Time Less

Some say (or at least I do) that the earliest wristwatches were those made for women exclusively. And these were generally made with hour and minute hands and were void of the small seconds hand; these watches were time, less.

Take for instance the Bulova "Miss America" I blogged about previously. It is void of a seconds hand and given the size of this watch, if a seconds hand was incorporated, you'd likely need a pair of opera glasses for it to be functional.

1928 Bulova "Miss America"

I'd suggest that a great number of vintage wristwatches that did use a seconds hand used if for more decorative than practical purposes. The seconds hands on many wristwatches are so small you'd be hard pressed to time a 90 yard dash. Functionally, a more practical approach was the sweep seconds hand like that used on my Hamilton Sea Rover II below.

Hamilton Sea Rover II c. 1964

Or, looking at an older wristwatch than my Sea Rover, the practical seconds hand was incorporated as a distinct feature used in the wristwatch like the Hamilton Seckron featured in the 1935 Hamilton dealer catalog below. I love the catalog descriptor "and others requiring split-minute precision". BTW, I'd love to have a Seckron but they sell for much greater than my weekly allowance (however if I could get a Seckron today for $55 like the price in the catalog, I'd have many).

1935 Dealer Catalog with the Hamilton Seckron courtesy of Vintage Watch Forums

Still, as a decorative feature, the use of the seconds hand in pre-1950s wristwatches was used in very interesting ways and added to the overall aesthetic appeal of a retro watch. Check out the following watches in my collection that incorporate a seconds hand beautifully.

1933 Hamilton Putnam

1931 Elgin Avigo
Hamilton Endicott c.1940

Whether the vintage wristwatch is void of a seconds hand, or incorporates one for pure aesthetic and design, or is incorporated for split-minute precision, all of them are truly Time Less.

To Much Time On My Hands

Disassembling and reassembling watches is not an easy task for a seasoned watchmaker let alone an amateur hobbyist like me. Part of reassembling a watch after a cleaning includes not only putting the movement back together with it's tiny intricate parts, but also placing the hands back on.

This blog is about the challenge I had realigning the watch hands during the reassembly process. The watch hands themselves sit on posts by friction with the posts being attached to an elaborate series of wheels.

One of the last steps of reassembling a watch is putting the hands back on these very fragile posts and ensuring that the hands rotate freely over (or under) each other.

My latest find, a 1949 Elgin wristwatch, had its parts go through a cleaning in my ultrasonic machine, including the hands. Like the other parts, the hands were corroded and needed a good cleaning. What I didn't know is that while the hands were vibrating in the ultrasonic cleaner, they likely banged around and being fragile as they are, became a bit bent here and there.  Well, these hands had to much time in the cleaner (have you got it yet? "To much time on my hands" - in the ultrasonic). When I was putting hands back on the movement, the hands didn't clear each other and required some fine tinkering (a watch technical term) so that they would clear each other when they rotated.

The close-up shots of the movement above show how the hands are sitting on their posts and that they need to rotate freely of each other. When I reassembled this watch, I had to remove the hands several times to reshape them so the minute hand rotated freely under the hour hand and the second hand rotated freely under the minute hand. Just one of the many steps in the reassembly process.

My 1949 Elgin, model 6717

If you were wondering, the watch hands belong to the watch above. It cleaned up really well and with a quick polish to the case and a new watch strap, was ready for my wrist.

Here's an original ad showing my "handsome" watch.
An original ad showing my watch. It is indeed "handsome".

Another Time - When is a Romanesque S not a Romanesque S?

When it's a Hamilton "Trent".

Like my box o' chocolate post, this one is about a watch not being what it seemed. Like many of my watch projects, I pick them up on eBay. This past month I picked up what I thought was a c. 1960 Hamilton "Romanesque S". I'm really not sure about these model names, but that discussion will have to be saved for another post.

With an eBay description like "SUPERB 1960 Hamilton 22J Adjusted Gents ROMANESQUE S Art Deco RUNS! L@@K!! N/R" wouldn't you want to buy it? I've bolded and capped the words the way they were in the eBay listing.

1960 Hamilton Dealer Catalog

I obviously didn't pay much attention to the listing as I was probably caught up on what I thought was an incredible bid price for this model. The catalog page above clearly shows the difference between the Romanesque S and Trent - the dials (i.e. watch face) and markers. The Romanesque S dial has a textured dial (the "Romanesque" finish). The catalog picture of the Trent does not properly highlight the four-quadrant bevelled dial. This bevel plays with light and depending on how light hits it, looks darker and lighter in each of the quadrants.

My Hamilton Trent

The Romanesque S has black numerals and markers while my Trent above obviously has gold. You can see in the shot of my Trent above how the light hitting it at the angle in the picture that there are four distinct quadrants.

In addition to the watch case similarities between the two models, they both came with a 22 jewelled movement although the Trent also had a 17 jewel movement available (likely older model years during its long production time). The Romanesque was only produced for a single year in 1960 while the Trent was produced from 1955 to 1969. I suppose if I had indeed bought a Romanesque it would have been somewhat rarer than the Trent.

Some research on Vintage Watch Forums and from the newly released book "Hamilton Wristwatches, A Reference Guide" by Bruce Shawkey, I was able to determine that my Romanesque S was rather a Trent and indeed from Another Time. If you are interested, Bruce's book can be obtained by following this link: Bruce's Website.

A Celebration of Time

Seems that our obsessions are often supported by our significant others (in my case, enabling is a better way to describe my wife's tolerance for my watch obsession). But in this blog, my wife and I having celebrated our wedding anniversary recently, it's apparent that our "Celebration of Time" with the exchange of watches on our anniversary this past month seems more like love than anything else. She is after all the light of my life.

The morning of our anniversary we both surprised each other with two great watches. A 1928 Bulova "Miss America" with a vintage watch box for her and a 1931 Elgin "Avigo" for him.

Our Anniversary Gifts for Each Other.

The 1928 Bulova Miss America was marketed as a ladies "sports" model. The sports model was supplied with a leather strap as opposed to a silk grosgrain ribbon with clasp. A grosgrain ribbon strap was more typical of women's watches of the era. My wife's Miss America below is awaiting a special leather strap. The watch was produced through the 1930s and prior to 1928 the watch was marketed as a "Vassar"; seems the model name was simply a marketing decision as the two watches are identical.

My Wife's Anniversary Gift, the Bulova Miss America

The Miss America watch above features a beautiful intricate designed dial (watch face) along with coloured enamel and filagree work around the watch case.

1928 Bulova Watch ad with a Miss America (bottom row, third from left)

During the late 1920s and 1930s aviation was beginning to peak the interest of the public and aircraft flight was a new exciting transportation wonder. In recognition of the growing interest in aviation at this time, Elgin Watch Co., like many watch manufacturers of the day, began producing and marketing watches related to air travel. The Elgin Avigo is a product of that era.

My Anniversary Gift, a 1931 Elgin Avigo

The Avigo above is a great example of design during this era not only reflecting aviation but also with the embellishments of black enamel and engraved filagree on the watch case.

Elgin Avigo Watch Ad

The Elgin Avigo watch dial (the face of the watch) was also designed to resemble an Elgin aircraft instrument clock like the vintage one below they manufactured during the same period. 

Elgin Aircraft Clock

A happy anniversary to my wife, I love you very much.

Rhyme or Reason

I suppose there is rhyme and reason for my interest (obsession) with retro watches.

Perhaps the rhyme and reason is that I like watches from the 1930's like the Hamilton's below.

1930's Hamilton Watches (well actually the far left one is from 1929, the rest '30s)

Perhaps the rhyme and reason is that I collect Hamilton watches in general, like the ones below.

Some of my Hamilton collection 1930-1960

Perhaps the rhyme and reason is that I collect Bulova watches, like the ones below.

Some of my Bulova collection 1930-1960
Perhaps the rhyme and reason is that I collect Gruen watches, like the ones below.

Some fo my Gruen collection 1920-1960

Or perhaps there is no rhyme or reason, I just like retro watches.

Oh, by the way, that dealer catalog page I posted in my preview to this post, there was reason. Part of my Hamilton collection includes the Lindsay shown in the add and shown second photo from above, third from the left. It is my most recent "acquisition".

1953 Hamilton Lindsay, bottom right

Watch Finding is Like a Box of Chocolates

You never know what you're gonna get.

Many people ask me: "How do you source your great watches?" (well, if people did indeed ask me, then I'd tell them the following).

Sourcing is one of the funnest parts of my obsession. The box of "chocolates" below are sourced, like many, from vintage shops. In this particular case, from not a box but a basket of 30 odd new, old and in between watches. But like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get and what you think might be something great on the surface, well, it turns out not to be.

The watches from the basket o'watches I found. 3 Gruen, 3 Bulova and a Wittnauer.

Last week I returned to a vintage shop where I had previously seen a watch I thought I recognized but at the time decided to go back home to my computer and confirm my suspicions before purchasing. The day I first looked at it I didn't have a loupe (magnifying glass) with me and that would have made a world of difference to see the stamping on the outside of the watch case. Strangely, the vintage store had the worst loupe you could imagine - it didn't have much magnification power and it was so scratched up it was worse looking through it than using the naked eye.

So, as it turns out, I did some internet search and determined that the watch I had looked at was likely 14k solid gold. For me, this would be a great addition to my collection considering solid gold watches for a person with an obsession can become expensive quickly. And the best part, the watches in this basket were all for $25. Yes, $25.

So the next week I went back, I asked the clerk to look at the box of chocolates, errrr....basket o'watches and did not see it. While I was sorting through the watches the clerk said to me, "hey, there was a guy in here a couple of days ago and found a solid gold watch in there". Gadzooks, when you see it folks, buy it!

Which brings me back to the chocolates in the picture above. I haven't felt comfortable bringing my loupe and watch case opener with me when looking (but now I will) so these particular watches in the picture I was taking a chance on. As it turns out, one of the watches (top row far right) was only a Bulova watch case and dial that had a replacement movement, one watch appears to have been in water for a very long time, and yet another is working beautifully and has watchmaker marks all over the inside of the case back indicating to me it was a well looked after watch.

The Bulova with the mystery movement

The Bulova pictured above had the mystery movement. I should have known by looking at the dial that said "self winding". A self winding watch has a rotor that moves back and forth from the motion of being on your wrist and winds the watch automatically. You can usually feel the rotor going back and forth if you have the watch in your hand and you rock it back and forth. Suppose that's what I should have done when considering buying this watch because as it turns out, it did not have a self winding movement inside the case. But, hey, at $25 I have a half decent case and a set of spare hands. I haven't been able to identify the generic movement.

Original Bulova crown

Like the Bulova with the mystery movement, the one above has an original Bulova crown (the knob you grasp to wind the watch). Depending how old the watch is, finding one with the original crown can sometimes be hard to find as they wear and are often replaced. This particular watch from my box also has a decent watch case and the movement seems to be in good shape. A parts watch or a contender for restoration. Again, not bad for $25.

The two shots above are from one of the Bulova watches. You might be able to make out "L3" stamped on both the case back and the movement. Bulova used letters to date the decades of their watches. L, M and N for 1950s, 1960s and 1970s respectively. For this watch, L3 represents 1953. For many collectors matching the case date and movement are important as this likely indicates that the watch and case were put together at the factory and sold as one. Add the original crown, and collectors feel that the watch is more complete.

The term Frankenwatch (you know, Frankenstein) is used when the case, movement, dial and other parts aren't original but assembled from a bunch of watches. For more expensive and collectible watches, a buyer has to be careful that it isn't a Franken. The one Bulova with the mystery movement would be a Franken.

The picture above is from the inside of the case back. With Gruen watches like this one the series of stamped numbers tell you the watch style (and often associated with a name Gruen marketed it by) and the watch movement caliber. You can also see etched numbers in the photo. These numbers represent dates a watchmaker worked on the watch. This particular watch appears to have been cared for with all of the watchmaker marks. Should I restore this particular watch, my mark will be added to the history of the watch.

This appears to have been exposed to moisture

The Bulova in the picture above is a shot of the dial and hands. There is corrosion on the dial and hands indicating moisture likely got into this watch.  Interestingly, the movement didn't seem corroded though. Cleaning the dial is a tricky undertaking and often results in making it worse. You can however get a dial refinished to make it look new like it was when it left the factory. This one I'll see if it can clean up a bit. BTW, with vintage watches, even if they say "waterproof," keep them away from water. Vintage watches were not manufactured like modern waterproof watches today.

So in my box of chocolates I had six dating from the 1950s and one watch, the Wittnauer, from 1964.

In all, at $25 dollars each (if the $ is what its about and really, it isn't for me) I still came ahead out of the group. Some will likely be candidates for restoration so a quick cleaning of the movement, case and dial, and voila, a resurrected watch waiting for another 60 to 70 years of great enjoyment.

This box of chocolate when I think of it, provided some fun, a bit of disappointment when I cursed that I didn't buy the watch when I first saw it, and I found seven new watches to work on or use for spare parts on future watch projects. Not a bad day.

The Bulova Watch Co. and the Bulova Rite Angle

A Brief History of the Bulova Watch Co.

Bulova Watch Co. began its history with its founder Joseph Bulova, a Czech who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1875. From a humble beginning as a retailer to founding the watch manufacturing company with his son in 1923, Bulova Watch Co. has an interesting history that is still alive today with the parent company Citizen Holdings Co., Ltd., a Japanese company producing watches and other products.

Joseph Bulova

While Bulova Watch Co. has its roots in the U.S., the watches, for all intent and purposes, have always been manufactured in Switzerland with some R&D, assembly and testing done in the U.S. over the years. In 1927 Bulova moved to a New York skyscraper and created the Bulova Observatory on its top for taking sidereal time (this is the relation to earth's orbit around the sun which is not always the same as clock time). Today, Bulova maintains its U.S. headquarters in New York in the Empire State Building. 

Bulova has had some interesting highlights over the years with it's watches. The "Lone Eagle" wristwatch of the 1920s and its connection Charles Lindbergh, the "Academy Award" line, the "Accutron Spaceview" and one of my favourites, the "Rite Angle".  Each of the different models had several versions over their production years with the Academy Award line having several dozen versions.

The Lone Eagle and Academy Award lines come with some interesting stories and associated controversies. I'll leave it up to to you research these stories.

1927 Bulova Lone Eagle
1938 Bulova Rite Angle
 Bulova Academy Award 
My 1938 Bulova Rite Angle features a stepped side engraved case with a raised gold numeral dial. There were several case variants and several dial options over several years. Like many watches, with several different versions and years of production, you could collect several Rite Angles.

Nice engraving on the case.

Check out the stepped sides.

Check out the angle.

The dial on mine is an older refinished one, still looking great though.

From Hamilton to Bulova

Stay tuned for my next blog on the Bulova Watch Company and the 1938 Bulova Rite-Angle wristwatch.

The Hamilton Watch Co. and the "Putnam" Wristwatch

My first post introduced you to my new blog by referring to my 1933 Hamilton Putnam but I didn't get into detail on that particular watch or the company that made it. This post is about the Hamilton Watch Company and the 1933 Hamilton wristwatch known as the Putnam.


The Hamilton Watch Co. was founded in 1892 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A watch manufacturer with it's origins making pocket watches known as the "watch of railway accuracy". Strap watches, or wristwatches, were introduced by Hamilton sometime around the first world war and many of them were worn by U.S. and allied troops. This would be repeated during the second world war where production for a number of years were dedicated to producing watches for service personnel. 

Hamilton did everything in their plant in Pensilvania. From manufacturing the tiny screws to the oils that lubricated the intricate wheels. If went into a Hamilton watch, they made it. Manufacturing in the U.S continued for Hamilton up until to the late 1960s when Hamilton moved their production to Switzerland, following the trend in watchmaking at the time. 

Vintage pocket and wristwatches were "mechanical" in that a spring was the power source that needed to be wound from time to time. Hamilton incidently introduced the first electric watch in the 1950s, an electric hybrid, using the principles of a mechancial watch powered by a battery instead of a spring. Modern watches are typically electronic, using a quartz crystal that is electrically charged by a battery.     

My 1936 Hamilton Watch Company share certificate

A vintage postcard showing the Hamilton watch manufacturing plant


The Putnam shows up in the 1932 Hamilton and Illinois catalog price list and was produced through 1935. We get a peak of the Putnam in the subsequent 1933 Hamilton catalog.

1932 Hamilton Illinois Price List Excerpt

1933 Hamilton Catalog Excerpt

The 1933 catalog showed that it came in both yellow and white 14k gold fill and a choice of a couple of dials - raised gold numerals or a luminous dial. My version below is yellow gold filled with raised gold numerals. During this watch obsession of mine I've noticed many collectors collect a certain model and all it's variations. When you think about it, watches came in white, yellow and green gold fill along with solid gold then you add three, four or more dial options, the permutations are overwhelming. 

My 1933 Hamilton Putnam

My particular 1933 version has a refinished dial (the face of the watch). Some purists might keep the original dial but this is how mine came to me and the original dial likely detracted from the overall watch and was redone. 

There are a number of ways to confirm a watches date, some of which I've mentioned.
  1. Catalog references
  2. Advertisements
  3. Movement serial number database (Movement Database)
  4. An obvious engraving on the back
  5. Original sales receipt
  6. Inner and outer boxes - both the presentation box and the box that that box was in.
Varying production dates at the manufacturer sometimes meant the case and movement are of different years. Some watch cases have a roman numeral engraved in them that can often match the movement serial number letting you know that the case and movement left the manufacturer at the same time. Catalogs mention the movement associated with the model so you can at least know they match. One caveat, watchmakers like Hamilton often "tweaked" their movements from year to year and simply added a letter after the movement number so you need to be aware when buying vintage watches. Confused yet? If you're a purist, it matters.

Other times, as a mechanical watch was often a lifelong timepiece, when it got serviced at the local watchmaker every 3 to 5 years the movement may have needed to be replaced just like the strap. 

A watchmaker plying his craft
Names of watch models in the Hamilton line over the years were derived in many ways, including the use of shapes (how exciting), great resorts and in the case of this Putnam, explorer names like David Binney Putnam.

To me the Putnam represents the quintessential "art deco" styling with its stepped case. I have a number of Hamilton watches from the 1930s and they represent to me the pride of my collection.