"Swiss Fake" Pocket Watches

In the mid to late 1800s, American watch companies were producing some of the finest watches in the world, and American railroad-grade watches were in high demand. They were also expensive: a high-grade American railroad watch could cost the equivalent of a month's wages in many cases, 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 closely resembled American railroad-grade pocket watches, but which sold at a lower price. Many of these watches had names which closely resembled the names or initials of American manufacturers and watch models. For example, the American Hampden brand was copied with watches marked "Hampton", Elgin was copied as "Elfin", and the Illinois "Bunn Special" might become the "Benn Special" on a Swiss fake. And not just the names were similar, as many of these imitation watches used designs and plate layouts which were nearly identical to well-known American brands.

In 1871, Congress passed a law requiring that all watches be marked with the country of origin... a law which remains in effect to this day. At first, the Swiss manufacturers tried to skirt 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).

As American watches evolved, so did Swiss fakes. By the late 1800s, the quality of these imitations had improved and many 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 "caught on" to the deception and the Swiss fakes ceased to be sold.

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. The Swiss balances were solid-rim.

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

The level of finish (plating, polishing, engraving, damaskeening) were of inferior quality to the best American-made watches.

The most common Swiss Fakes were 18-size stem-wind and key-wind watches. They are often marked with the jewel count (usually 21 jewels) on the dial. The number of jewels and/or adjustments marked on the movement may or may not be accurate for 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.

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!