"Swiss Fake" Pocket Watches

Swiss Companies Produced "Counterfeit" American Pocket Watches!

In the mid to late 1800s, American watch companies were producing the finest watches in the world, and American railroad-grade watches, known for their reliability and accuracy, were in high demand. They were also very expensive: a high-grade American railroad watch could cost the equivalent of a month's wages, and for many the price was simply out of reach.

In an effort to earn a share of the lucrative American watch market, Swiss watch manufacturers began producing watches which superficially resembled American railroad-grade pocket watches, but which were of lower quality and sold at a much lower price. Many of these watches had names which closely resembled the names or initials of American manufacturers and watch models. These name choices were not coincidental... they were quite deliberately chosen to be deceptive, and were often engraved in lettering that copied the style of the original.

For example, the American Hampden brand was copied with watches marked "Hampton" or "Camden", Elgin was copied as "Elfin", the Marion Watch Company became the "Maroin" or "Marvin" Watch Company,and Waltham's "A.W.W.Co" became "B.W.W.Co" as in the photo below. And not just the names were similar, as many of these "counterfeit" watches used designs and plate layouts which were nearly identical to well-known American brands.

Typical Swiss Fake pocket watch. If it seems like the maker was "trying too hard" to make the watch look like an American Railroad Watch, then it might well be a Swiss-fake. Waltham watches from this time-period were marked with the letters "A.W.W.Co" which stood for "American Waltham Watch Company". The watch pictures above uses the similar name "B.W.W.Co". Pictures of trains on the dial or movement (or both!), or slogan's like "Trainman's Time Keeper" are clues that you've found a Swiss-fake!

Country of Origin Markings on Watches

In 1871, Congress passed a law requiring that all watches be conspicuously marked with the country of origin, a law which remains in effect to this day (revised and extended in 1930). Swiss manufacturers tried to push the edges of this law by printing the word "Swiss" in very tiny letters on the watch, or disguising the "Swiss" marking amidst other ornate engravings on the movement. These watches were of inferior quality to the American brands they were intended to imitate, and It seems clear that the intent of the Swiss manufacturers was to deceive the watch buyer into thinking they were buying an American railroad-grade watch when, in fact, they were not.

(Some would argue that deceptive practices by Swiss manufacturers toward the American watch consumer continue to this day. Read here to learn more).

Swiss Fake Identification:

Illinois Santa Fe Special, a beautiful example of a railroad-marked pocketwatch.

Dial of a typical "Swiss Fake" pocketwatch

There are no definitive rules for identifying a Swiss fake, as details varied from one manufacturer to the next. Any watchmaker who specializes in vintage American watches should have no difficulty identifying a Swiss fake, but for the average consumer it can be a difficult task. Some keys to look for:

Names which closely resemble the company or watch model names of well-known American manufacturers (of course, this requires a familiarity with the real names of American manufacturers and watch models).

Blue or purple-blue cap-jewels on the balance, often these were flat jewels and larger than typical American cap-jewels. In this watchmaker's experience, these jewels are often not as hard as "real" jewels and the cap jewels are usually pitted on the pivot-side.

Uncompensated balance. Most American watches of the period used a compensated "cut-rim" balance. Swiss balances were typically solid-rim. Sometimes the solid rim on a Swiss Fake would be "notched" to resemble a cut balance.

American dials were attached to the watch movement with 3 dial-feet, while Swiss watches typically used 2 dial-feet.

The level of finish (plating, polishing, engraving, damaskeening) were of inferior quality to American-made watches. Damaskeening, if used at all, was more crudely applied, and engraving tended to be more coarse than that found on typical American movements.. The finish on a Swiss Fake just looks a little rough compared to a good-quality American watch.

The most common Swiss Fakes were 18-size stem-wind and key-wind watches. They are often marked with a jewel count (usually 21 jewels) on the dial. The number of jewels and/or adjustments marked on the movement may or may not be an accurate representation of what is really contained in the watch. Often, the dials were marked with "21 Jewels" in red or black letters in an arc just above the seconds dial.

The Evolution of Swiss Fakes:

As American watches evolved, so did Swiss fakes. By the late 1800s, the quality of these imitations had improved and some were decent watches in their own right, but they continued to closely mimic the style of successful American watch brands. For the most part, Swiss fakes were not successful, and by the early 1900s, the American consumer had become more aware of the deception and Swiss fakes ceased to be sold.

While Swiss Fakes started out copying the look of American railroad-style pocket watches, they evolved to other watch styles over the years. Another distinct style that we see quite a few examples of is the overly-ornate "fancy" pocket watch. Sometimes called "Boston Watches," these watches are, in this writer's opinion, a natural continuation of the Swiss-Fake phenomena. Just as early Swiss-Fakes were "trying too hard" to look like American railroad pocket watches, these fancy watches were "trying too hard" to look like a high-end timepiece. Dials tend to be overly-ornate and excessively decorated with flowery script lettering, often in unusual colors. Elaborate descriptions with superfluous adjectives abound and movements are boldly marked with claims of superior superiority and extra-special specialness.

Example of overly-ornate "fancy" pocket watch

Some tell-tale signs to look for when encountering one of these watches are: non-split balance (solid rim), Swiss-style positive-setting movement with a small screw to release the stem (most American watches were negative-set), little or no damaskeening but often coarse engraving, and the required country-of-origin marking is often hidden within the other markings on the movement.

Collecting Swiss Fakes:

Don't be disappointed if you discover that you have a Swiss Fake watch. Today, Swiss Fakes are considered an interesting area for watch collecting in their own right, and a collection of Swiss Fakes can present a fascinating picture of a time when American watches were considered the best in the world! After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!