Of all the true American made wrist watch manufacturers, Illinois
probably attracts the most fanatical group of collectors. While the
company was in business for some 60 years, it only produced wrist
watches for a handful of those years toward the end of the company’s
existence in the 1920s amd '30s. Only about 800,000 wrist watch
movements total were ever produced, and of course not all those found
their way into cases. Those wrist watches are considered by many to be
some of the finest wrist watches ever made in America and certainly some of the most beautiful. The Piccadilly, the Ritz, the Marquis and other models reflect the height of art deco design, which was in full swing at that time.
The Illinois Watch Company was founded on December 23, 1870, in
Springfield, Illinois. John W. Bunn was one of the company’s founders.
His brother, Jacob Bunn, became president in 1878. Twenty years later,
Jacob Bunn Jr. took over and the ran the company until his death in
1926. The family name has become immortalized in the legendary Illinois "Bunn Special" pocket watch.
The passing of Jacob Jr. threw the company into disarray. In 1928, it
was purchased by the Hamilton Watch Co., of Lancaster, Pa., which
continued to operate the factory under the Illinois name and shifted the emphasis from pocket to wrist watch production. By 1932, the Great Depression forced Hamilton to close the Illinois
factory, though they retained possession of the brand name.
Most Illinois collectors agree there are four basic "periods" of watch
production. The first period from the 1910s to the early '20s. Most of
these are converted pocketwatch movements. Gent's military and
military-style specimens are seen, often featuring porcelain dials.
The second period -- from the early to mid 1920s -- includes movements
and dials which were sold to be cased by individual jewelers. These
were mostly 6/0-size movements with 6:00 or 9:00 subsidiary seconds.
Some were also cased at the factory using generic cases from a variety
of sources. Some of the better-known models from that latter category
include the Stephen, Canby, Bennett, Cushion, and Barrel. Also, 3/0-size movements were cased at the factory in this way -- the Champion,
Special, Maxine, Ronald, Pilot, Aviator, and Prince, for example.
In the late '20s, about the time Hamilton took over Illinois began
commissioning its own unique wrist watch cases. The company cased and
boxed its watches at the factory, marking the beginning of what many
collectors consider the company's golden era. Models include the
Piccadilly, Marquis, Chieftain, Ritz, New Yorker and Manhattan (the New Yorker has subsidiary seconds at 9:00; the Manhattan at 6:00), the Beau series (Beau Monde, Beau Geste, Beau Brummel, and Beau Royale), the Ensign, and the 14kt sold gold Council (also known as the Consul).
The fourth period begins in the early ‘30s, and is characterized by the Streamline Moderne influence on the styling of the cases. Many of these watches featured a new 207 movement, 12/0-size with 17 jewels (of which only 40,000 were made) and include such sleek designs as the Futura, Chesterfield, Wentworth, Andover, and the 14kt Rockliffe.
Some Illinois 12/0-size 207 movements were finished with the Hamilton
name and used in the 401 series of Hamilton wrist watches, which
premiered in 1934. Many Illinois collectors also collect these pieces
since they contain Illinois-made movements.
In the late early '50s, Hamilton offered a line of Illinois
and Hamilton-Illinois wrist watches with Swiss movements. These have
absolutely nothing in common with the "originals" except the name. They are not considered collectible by die-hard illinois collectors. (Caution should be exercised when buying Hamilton-Illinois off auction sites as many sellers mis-represent these 1950's models as examples of '30s Illinois produced by Hamilton. The only true models from this period contain the grade 401 movement, which is a rectangular formed movement. Watches with round Illinois movements are actually recased ladies' pocket watch movements, and were not manufactured by Hamilton. - DB)
Rare models included the Enameled Bezel, the Telephone Dial, he Skyway
and Off-Duty (3/0-size); the Southhampton, Townsman, Chieftain,
Metropolitan and the beautiful Enameled Bezel New Yorker (6/0-size); and the Chesterfield.
It is generally agreed that Illinois wrist watches are some of the most underpriced in the contemporary price guides. Don't be misled. Prices do not reflect reality. And in the case of the rarest Illinois watches, price is often determined by whatever the seller is asking!(The 2000 edition of the Shugart price guide reflects more realistic pricing, although conservatism continues to be the pricing key - DB)
As you'll soon discover if you become an Illinois collector, there is a dizzying amount of variation among models. Probably one of the best
resources available is an article that appeared in the April 1996 issue of the NAWCC Bulletin. If you are a member, you can at least obtain a copy of it.
We are still working on the individual histories of each manufacturer, as time permits. If you'd like to submit a manufacturer history, let us know and we will credit you as being a contributing author.