WHAT IS A PRIVATE LABEL?
A private label watch is a watch made by one of the large watch manufacturers, like Illinois, Hamilton, Elgin, or Waltham, for an individual, or re-seller. Some would call the one-off watches, made for individuals, "vanity watches" but for the sake of this site, I will lump them all together as private labels.
Manufacturers have produced private label watches almost since the beginning of watch making. It was fairly easy to put the name of a customer on the dial and or movement of a watch, and if it would help sell watches, it was OK with the factory. Private labelers ranged from individuals, to jewelers/railroad watch inspectors, to wholesale distributors, to retail mail-order houses. One of the most famous private labelers of American pocket watches was Sears & Roebuck company, which started out in business selling Illinois Watches. Montgomery Ward was also a large private labeler.
I believe private label watches can tell us a lot about the marketing practices of the manufacturer. For instance, there are a lot of railroad named private labels Illinois watches that came from the Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland area at around the mid 1890s. Most famous among these are the B&O Standards, C&O Specials, and Southern RR Special. I would be willing to bet that this means that a clever Illinois salesman made a lot of money promoting this idea in the area.
Private labels can also tell us something about the customer for whom the watch was made. If the private labels made for so and so were all of a high grade, he was probably a high end jeweler, catering to a wealthy clientele.
Anyway, I think private label watches are a great collectable. You have to know what you are looking for to tell if a private label is high grade or not, but if you take the time to do your homework, you can find some pretty nice, affordable watches. CLICK HERE or on "GO TO PRIVATE LABELS" above to see some examples.