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"SOUTH-BEND WATCHES, A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE COMPANY AND THEIR PRODUCTS"
© 2002-2015 by Lindell V. Riddle, all rights reserved worldwide
The Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company was founded in South Bend Indiana back in 1852, later becoming the Studebaker Corporation which built Studebaker Cars and Trucks until May of 1966. At the turn of the twentieth century Studebaker was the world's largest manufacturer of wheeled goods, and the Studebaker brand was world-famous. In May of 1902 members of that same Studebaker family, Clement Studebaker Jr. along with his brother George and their uncle John Mohler Studebaker bought the financially troubled Columbus Watch Company and began moving it from Ohio to Indiana along with much of the work force. They constructed a state-of-the-art watch-making facility with such advanced features as sprinkling systems and huge, fully fire-proofed walk-in vaults. The name became the South-Bend Watch Company and they would eventually build 71 different grades of watches in the 5 most popular sizes. The official opening in March of 1903 was with a great deal of fanfare.
A full line of movements...
The first South-Bend watches were 6-size movements and the numbers started at 380501 which is about where regular Columbus production left off. In fact a number of these earliest South-Bend watches were actually finished in Columbus, Ohio and sent along to retail jewelers as samples. Although there may be one or two lower numbered examples in existence, I have number 380689 the 189th South-Bend watch in my personal collection. It is worthwhile to point out that during their nearly three decades in business South-Bend kept an inventory of parts and supported the maintenance of all Columbus Watch Company products. South-Bend built many memorable and important as well as some fascinating and little-known grades. It would be fair to say that all South-Bend watches represented a good value then and now, some just happen to be better than others.
The South-Bend Polaris is usually recognized as the highest quality South-Bend movement. South-Bend Polaris watches were specially finished, fitted with a "South-Bend Polaris" dial and cased in one of three distinctive styles of South-Bend marked solid-gold cases, then shipped in a natural maple finish presentation box. Just about 500 Polaris movements were made by upgrading the now little known grade 295 which was a premium Railroad (RR) Grade 16-size 21-jewel movement. Today, a complete Polaris is difficult to find, highly sought after and may prove to be a very expensive acquisition.
We must also mention the 12-size high grade 431 which is truly a work of art. The 431 was beautifully finished and many were shipped in solid-gold South-Bend marked cases. All eight of their slightly oversized 12-size grades were factory cased and timed. One of the most unusual of all South-Bend watches was also a 12-size, but this amazing example of watchmaking artistry was never offered for sale to the public! This one which we call “The Director's Watch" was made in late 1923 from specially hand finished 12-size Studebaker mail order grade watch movements marked only as "South-Bend" and bear little relation to their humble origins. These exclusive ultra high grade 21-jewel movements were equipped with huge "pigeon-blood" jewels and presented very handsomely cased to various company executives, dignitaries and friends of Company President Clement Studebaker III. The exact number built is uncertain, estimates run from as few as twenty-three to as high as 96 and whatever the actual number may be, this one is exceptionally rare and very desirable. There were several case styles in Solid-Gold with South-Bend markings.
South-Bend made watches in 0-size as well as 6, a slightly oversized 12 and of course both 16 and 18-sizes. Their grades are very conveniently numbered with 0 and 6-sizes starting with a "1" then 16-size begins with a "2" the 18-size with a "3" and finally the 12-size has a "4" as the first digit. The final digit of the stated grade number will always be an even number for Hunter Case (HC) and odd numbered for Open Face (OF) grades. The only exceptions to this are are some early 0-size 7 and 15 jewel movements simply designated as "HC" or "OF" in company records. An example of the designated 0-size hunter movement would be "150" and some 0-size hunters were cased as wrist watches. All the 12-size watches were open-faced and all 6-size were hunter only, whereas the other South-Bend sizes were made in both open and hunter varieties. South-Bend marked cases were not made "in-house" but rather produced for them by various well known case makers in a number of styles. They were available through retail jewelers for most movement sizes, even the 12-size Hunter for which South-Bend never supplied a watch movement. It is not uncommon to find other makes housed in South-Bend marked cases, and you may find originally cased South-Bend movements in practically any brand of case that could have been chosen from the jeweler's inventory at time of sale.
The Various "Studebakers"...
Today it is difficult to realize just how famous the "Studebaker" name was around the turn of the twentieth century. Studebaker was at that time the world's largest manufacturer of wheeled goods, and the Studebaker name was associated with high quality and dependability, in fact it was literally a household word all around the world. I have an advertising watch fob from that era that was engraved simply "Buy it because it's a Studebaker" which is but one illustrative example. In that climate it made perfect sense to capitalize on the family name for use on watches which were to be sold to hard-working Railroad men who already respected the Studebaker name. Even now, some 100 years after their introduction, the best known and most popular South-Bend Watches are "The Studebaker" movements. They were eventually produced in three 18-size and two 16-size grades. Handsomely damaskeened and marked "The Studebaker" in fancy script on the movement they are considered by collectors to be among the best looking RR watch movements ever made.
"The Studebaker" grades of 18-size watches consisted of the 323 OF 17-jewel, the 328 HC 21-jewel, of which we believe less than 200 were made, and the 329 a 21-jewel OF design, all three were Adjusted to 5 Positions, Heat, Cold and Isochronism which were the exacting Railroad Grade Specifications of that time period. In 16-size "The Studebaker" Grade 223 was their 17-jewel and their grade 229 was their 21-jewel. As mentioned above, there were a total of five grades of "The Studebaker" and all of them were accepted in Railroad Time Service. A practically unknown 18-size South-Bend Adjusted 5 Position RR Grade watch is the Grade 327 of which little more than 300 were likely produced. In fact the 327 grade is so very uncommon, not many years ago some collectors tended to question their existence!
Additionally, both 16-size "The Studebaker" movements were RR grade, as was their Grade 227 which was a lower priced Railroad Standard Watch.
South-Bend Railroad Grades, those specifically marketed as such are the total of four discussed previously in the 18-size, including all three 18s "The Studebaker" and their 327 Grade. In addition to the two 16-size "The Studebaker" described above in this article and the similarly configured 21-jewel Grade 227 we have five others. The highest grade 16-size HC is the nearly unknown 21-jewel 294 which was a RR grade movement at the time and is the Hunter version of the Grade 295 on which the Polaris is based. These and two other little-known RR grades, the 16-size 19-jewel grades 292 and 293 are also worthy of mention as they are not at all common but would be great additions to your South-Bend Railroad Watch Collection.
Mail Order and the "Studebaker Watch Company...
There is much confusion over the South-Bend re-organization that took place in the early 1920's and certain products that resulted. In 1923 the Studebaker Watch Company was put together in order to market pocket watches, wristwatches and jewelry of all kinds along with silverware, china and radios sold directly to the public through mail order advertising and jewelry catalogs. Since these watches were shipped direct, the buyer chose the case-style, movement and dial combination from mail order offerings. As the mail order Studebaker watches were launched in Pendant-Set "8-adjustment" versions of both 12 and 16-size, sales really took off, and nearly 95,000 were sold. However, the mistake of marking these watches with both plain block lettered "Studebaker" and "South-Bend Watch Company" on the movement effectively ruined their relationship with retail jewelers due to similarity of design and deep discounting to the mail order trade.
These mail order watches were sold on "easy credit" plans, with no real security. The, confusion associated with them and the way they were marketed would prove to be a factor in the eventual demise of the company, and for several reasons they continue to cause no end of confusion for inexperienced watch collectors and the uninformed public even today.
Additional confusion about the markings have inexperienced collectors, traders and writers mis-understanding "8-Adustments" which is the usual 5 Positions explained previously in this article, plus Heat, Cold and Isochronism totaling "8-Adjustments" but some mistakenly say "8-Positions" a designation which does not exist on any South-Bend watch.
It is important to understand the great difference between "The Studebaker" high-grade RR movements and "Studebaker" were produced by South-Bend from 1923 through 1929 and released to the public with "Studebaker" printed on a metal dial. These will have movement numbers consisting of 7 digits and beginning with a "1" in every instance. They were good watches, but not considered RR grade due to their being pendant-set. Although plate layout is similar and they are all marked as South-Bend products, be careful not to confuse "mail-order Studebakers" with the far higher grade "The Studebaker" movements discussed above. Occasionally watch sellers have taken a mail order "Studebaker" and swapped dials with another South-Bend watch to "create" two "Studebaker" watches. One would of course then be marked "Studebaker" on the dial, the other on the movement, and thereby ably fool two unsuspecting buyers into believing they are purchasing a far more valuable "The Studebaker" grade, which of course they are not. One of the best known authorities in watch collecting some years ago published erroneous information calling the mail order "Studebaker" a RR grade, and even referring to a falsely configured "227 Studebaker" which only proves nearly anyone can be fooled by a slick seller!
To state it succinctly, genuine "The Studebaker" movements will have "The Studebaker" in fancy script on the movement and serial numbers consisting of only 6 digits behind a "South-Bend" porcelain-enamel or metal dial. A correct mail order "Studebaker" will have "Studebaker" in block letters on the movement, we expect to find a "Studebaker" in block letters marked metal dial and no other type of dial was originally considered to be correct for those watches. The grade 227 was the most popular South-Bend RR grade movement with some 45,000 produced, and they should front a "South-Bend" dial. Beginning as early as 1910 some grade 227 movements were shipped with a metal "South-Bend" dial to cut costs, the 227 was for many years marketed as "Americas Lowest Priced Railroad Watch. But they were not with "Studebaker" on the dial, there was really no such thing as a "227 Studebaker" watch. There are some original South-Bend porcelain dials around to which a few years ago "Studebaker" was added. To test these porcelain dials for authenticity, simply try flaking off "Studebaker" with your finger nail or a sharp blade. Conversely, metal dials have been repainted with both names on them so be very careful. I hope no one reading this overpaid for a misrepresented watch, but the good news is they can be corrected. Those of us who value South-Bend watches will usually replace an incorrect dial with we believe to be the proper one.
The End of the Line...
After nearly 28 years in business and producing some 850,000 movements South-Bend watch production ended suddenly as the "Great Depression" hit hard and the factory work-force was laid-off on November 29, 1929. Simultaneously the banks called in the loans on the company and real estate, at the very same time that monthly payments stopped coming in from the thousands of mail order buyers. It could be said today with our hindsight that much of the time the marketing decisions of the South-Bend and Studebaker Watch Companies were the wrong ones. Long ago I interviewed a former employee who said that every time those in charge came to a fork in the road, they chose the wrong one and not only failed, but stubbornly refused to ever turn back. Even today there are important lessons to be learned from that.
But for all their managerial faults, they ran an honorable operation. Many years ago I was shown a letter received by a customer who had returned his mail order Studebaker watch to the factory in January of 1930. Although he was completely satisfied with the watch, being out of work he could no longer make the agreed monthly payments and he felt it would be wrong to keep it. Upon receipt by those who were in the process of shutting down the Studebaker Watch Company, the watch was cleaned, oiled, adjusted and sent back to this unusually forthright buyer with a letter stating that his debt had been erased and that..."an honest man deserves to own an honest watch" ...which is inspiring to contemplate. Such was the level of integrity, fairness and decency long associated with the name "Studebaker” which we are striving to continue. That is part of why since the 1990s I have retained and proudly used the name "Studebaker Watch Company" in my watch collecting and trading.
After the company closed down much of the material and history went to the City Dump to be plowed under. Practically everything we would so treasure today was either sold for scrap or became land fill in the early 1930's. But this once great watch company died slowly. For a while, several employees were kept on by the liquidators to case leftover movements and ship them to big city jewelers who sold them at bargain prices. Interestingly, some of the South-Bend 12-size movements and cases ended up being modified and put together as curious looking and exceptionally rare fully digital watches by an outside company in New Jersey, today these very unusual watches are prized by collectors. A few of the former factory workers even serviced South-Bend Watches out of their homes well into the 1950's by which time both interest and replacement parts had both all but disappeared.
The mailing address of the South-Bend Watch Company was advertised as being a number on "Studebaker Street" and the complex was located essentially between South Bend and Mishawaka facing what is now Mishawaka Avenue. It is the present-day site of Indiana University at South Bend, and across the street is located the John Adams High School. Yes, the factory buildings are long gone, it's called progress or more aptly "urban renewal" but the history lives on and a few of us continue to piece it together day by day. We seem to discover a heretofore unknown fact about the company and it's products on a fairly regular basis. Often we have far more questions than answers but our fascination continues to grow as does the number of those who enjoy collecting these very interesting watches.
Today as collectors we have some often amazing, always interesting South-Bend watches and material that has been left behind, it is our responsibility to preserve everything we can for future generations. But try as we may, "The Complete South-Bend Story" will probably never be written, so much was either purposely destroyed or simply lost over the years. Everyone who was there and could have recited the important events are now gone. There are differences of opinion on exactly how many of a certain grade may have been produced and even as to when, but here I have tried my best to piece together some of the most basic facts. The story we have here is a work in progress and we learn a little more each day, so constructive comments and additional information are always of great interest. I can also supply pictures most South-Bend grades from my collection for anyone who might find them of use for research, study or exhibition. Feel free to contact the undersigned at your convenience.
Hopefully this proves to be helpful and perhaps will serve as the basis for further research.
"And the beat goes on!"
Lindell V. Riddle
Life Member, Founder and President of Internet Horology Club 185
Life Member of the Studebaker Drivers Club, Inc.
Owner: Studebaker Watch Company
Lindell, This is the best history I have ever read on South Bend watches. They are truely a work of art. Regards Ted
Lindell, I enjoyed reading the South Bend history, sad these companies created by great visonaries had to pass away...
Thanks guys! Check this for more about "South-Bend Polaris" watches...
What a wonderfully concise, and to-the-point history of the South Bend company! It says so much, so well. Thanks a lot, Lindell.
|IHC Member 234|
...am currently looking for a representative South Bend watch for my collection and often refer to this masterful treatise on the subject...thanks Lin!...
That was definitely a fantastic piece of writing regarding the history of South Bend Pocket Watches!
IHC Life Member
Reading Lin's story made me go find one. I bought one of those mail order Studebakers, however it is a beautiful watch and I am as proud of it, as any I have.
|IHC Member 644|
Lindell, An excellent piece on South Bend watches. I found it very interesting and informative. Good job! Tom
Thanks Lindell, Very interesting history, I enjoyed reading it.
|IHC Member 328|
Fun read. Years ago, I came across one of those dollar down, dollar a week ads and framed it and gave it to my brother. Until now, I did not know it wasn't an ad for a quality RR watch.
|IHC Life Member|
I have to agree with others who have read this piece. There is so much to learn in this hobby and by reading Lindell's History of South-Bend Watches, I feel like I'm "up to speed" much quicker than I otherwise would be. For example, just knowing the difference between "Studebaker" and "The Studebaker" is invaluable and can save you from making an easy yet costly mistake.
The watches from South-Bend Watch Company are certainly underappreciated and undervalued compared to Hamilton and Illinois watches. After reading this history, I was inspired to collect these watches and and have added five pieces so far to my collection, all under $250.
Thanks again Lindell for sharing your knowledge and experience with all of us.
|IHC Life Member |
Here is some additional information that might help supplement Lindell's excellent history of the South Bend Watch Company.
We have determined there is a definite correlation between the runs of different grades and the cases they were cased in. The South Bend 12s case is also unsuitable for any movement except one of its own. Also, many of the 16s and 18s watches were sold cased and timed from the factory and these are often the ones that show up in the South Bend or SBWCCo cases. The amount of 16s and 18s watches sold cased from the factory is a murky subject but the circumstances surrounding their 12s watches are quite clear, they were all sold cased and timed from the factory. The cases associated with certain time periods track very nicely and in about 70% of the examples it is possible to give an informed opinion whether the watch is likely to be a correct, perhaps original example.
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