Last updated on August 17, 2023
This month I am starting to look for a new antique pocket watch for my collection. Actually, I am always looking for a new watch, not just this month. I try to add to my collection every month. February, I am covered. I added a beautiful antique single Albert pocket chain to my collection. It’s silver and perfect for the two antique pocket watches I already have in my collection. Now I am looking for a full hunter case pocket watch to add to my pieces. I think the next one should have a gold case in order to diversify the collection.
I have been looking online at antique hunter case pocket watches, as well as being gold, I want a case where the lid will snap open with a single press of the crown. Many of the pieces I have seen so far require a little assistance when opening the cover. I am going to be patient and wait for one which will open with a simple press. One thing I have noticed is that a lot of the cases are made by the Dennison Watch Case Company, so I have been doing my research and this is what today’s post is all about.
Aaron Lufkin Dennison
Aaron Lufkin Dennison was an American, born in Freeport, Maine in 1812. The son of a boot and shoemaker, Dennison was apparently a hard-working child. He earned pocket money from a variety of menial tasks. In 1830 he was apprenticed to a clockmaker, James Cary.
At the age of 21, Dennison had completed his apprenticeship, declined the offer of a partnership with Cary and went to Boston to further his career. In 1834 he started his own business as a watch repairer. This only lasted two years before he joined Jones, Low & Ball as a watch repairer and learned about the English and Swiss methods of manufacturing.
In 1840, he was still repairing watches, however, he had begun to consider manufacturing his own watches. His plan was to make watches using interchangeable parts, rather than building each watch by hand. It took a few years for this idea to come to fruition. In 1849 he approached the company of Howard & Davis, with his idea of a mechanised manufacturing process for watches. Although Dennison was the only person with any knowledge of watchmaking, the offer was accepted and the business launched in 1850. The firm was called Dennison, Howard & Davis and a factory was built in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
Dennison travelled to England to acquire parts, knowledge and labour that was not available in America. On his return, he designed and constructed the machinery required to execute his plan. His first watch was a failure. It had a power reserve of eight days from a single mainspring barrel, but was it terribly inaccurate and unable to be sold. Dennison later admitted he had no ability as a machinist.
In 1852 the company hired a skilled machinist who rebuilt the machinery and a successful watch was made and sold. The company moved to a new factory in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1854, under the new name of the Boston Watch Company. Dennison remained with the company until it went bankrupt in 1857.
As a result of the bankruptcy, the company was split into two parts. Some of the machinery and skilled workforce returned to Roxbury and formed the Howard Watch Company. The buildings and immovable machinery were sold to a watch manufacturer by the name of Tracey Baker & Company. Dennison remained in Waltham, working for the new company as a superintendent. He remained there until 1861 when he was fired by the owner for meddling with other departments and neglecting his duties. Tracey Baker & Company and the factory in Waltham ended up becoming, after a few more mergers and renames, the Waltham Watch Company.
In 1864 Dennison set up another business, the Tremont Watch Company in Boston. His idea was to purchase the delicate components from Swiss manufacturers where labour costs were lower. The larger components he would produce in America. Dennison left a business partner in charge in America and moved to Zurich to oversee the Swiss operations. The Tremont Watch Company fell into financial difficulties in 1870 and failed. In 1871, Dennison moved to Birmingham, England, where he continued to be involved in watchmaking. In 1874, he identified a niche in the market for high-quality watch cases produced in large numbers and started a company. He patented many designs for air and watertight cases.
Originating from a small workshop on the side of the family home, the company was called Dennison, Wigley & Company and it grew to produce 100,000 high-quality watch cases per year. Dennison died in 1895, and he was succeeded in business by his son, Franklin Dennison. The company was renamed the Dennison Watch Case Company Ltd in 1905 and continued as a successful business until 1967. The Dennison Watch Case Company failed in February 1967 due to insolvency and the factory in Birmingham ceased production.
The company made cases from different materials including silver, gold. filled-gold and rolled-gold. Filled gold must include at least 5% of the total weight of the item in pure gold. Rolled gold contains less than 5% of pure gold, but is many times thicker than simple gold plate. The thickness of the gold determines how long the item will last in normal use before the gold wears through and the base metal shows.
Star, Moon and Sun
The Dennison Case Watch Company used specific grades to indicate how long the gold layer should last. A Sun grade indicated a case with layers of 14-carat gold, guaranteed to wear for 25 years. The Moon grade indicated layers of 10-carat gold, guaranteed to wear for 20 years. The Star grade indicated the outside of the case was a layer of 9-carat gold, guaranteed to wear for 10 years. The inside of the Star case, which naturally was subject to less wear, was electroplated with a gold plate to reduce costs.
It appears that Dennison started using the Star, Moon and Sun marks at the start of the 20th century. The earliest examples of these cases that I can find have been from Waltham pocket watches, dated by serial number, to 1901. There was a separate trademark that included a star, moon and sun that was stamped on watch cases, including those made of nickel. In this instance, it didn’t indicate quality.
Cuprel and Aquatite
Dennison Cuprel was a brand name registered by Dennison in 1920. I suspect the name is a derivative of cupronickel, which is a copper alloy. It was composed of 60% to 90% copper and the bulk of the remainder was nickel. Despite its high copper content, cupronickel had a silver appearance and was highly resistant to corrosion, especially seawater. It was used in marine and military applications.
The Dennison Aquatite was a brand dating from the early 1950s. As the name suggests it was an attempt at a watertight watch case. The watch case employed a straightforward, two-part construction, utilising specialised alloys that withstood both atmospheric and seawater-related corrosion. The case back was a screw-on version. The perspex glass crystal was strategically beaded, allowing it to create an effective seal when pressed in place under pressure. The glass formed a tight bond with a concealed plastic washer situated in a recessed groove. Plastic washers similarly ensured tight seals for both the crown and the case back. The movement resides within a retaining thrust ring, cleverly designed to provide structural integrity. The Dennison Aquatite watch cases offer flexibility to accommodate both bevelled and regular movements in 10 ½ and 12 ligne sizes.
Denisteel was a trade name registered by the Dennison Watch Case Company in 1934 to describe its stainless steel watch cases. Stainless steel was developed by Harry Brearley of Thomas Firth & Sons in 1912. Initially, stainless steel was used for cutlery. However, by the 1930s, due to the Great Depression, watchmakers began to look for cheaper alternatives for watch cases than gold, silver and even nickel. As a result, watch cases began to be made from stainless steel in the early 1930s. Today, we most commonly find the Denisteel stamp inside case backs from the 1940s to the 1960s on UK market models by Omega, Rolex and IWC. While superb as a case manufacturer, Dennison certainly didn’t make its own steel and it would have been supplied by Firth or one of its competitors.
Dennison and Rolex
The Dennison Watch Case Company quickly became the largest watch case manufacturer in England, supplying high-quality cases and even movements to prestigious watch brands like Omega, Longines, JLC, Rolex, and Benson. It is not uncommon to see an antique watch from an established Swiss brand like Rolex featuring a British made Dennison case. Because of high imposed import taxes on luxury goods between countries, companies like Rolex would get around this by shipping their movements to Dennison, who would place them in their locally made watch cases. This avoided the high import duties on the precious metal.
In 1915, the Dennison Watch Case Company registered the brand name, Denco Watch Co. and launched its own line of watches. Up until then, the company had concentrated on manufacturing watch cases. They supplied various watch companies, including Waltham UK. These were likely to be private label watches, made by another firm. There is no indication that Dennison had any in-house watchmaking capability. They simply would have purchased the completed and branded movement and inserted them into their own watch cases. The watches were certainly of good quality as they used, as a minimum, 15-jewel movements. However, watch production ceased at the start of World War II when the company started manufacturing military equipment for the British Royal Air Force. I have also seen watches with the Dennison name on the dial and the movement.
Dennison tried and failed many times throughout his career and there are involvements with other businesses that I have left in this post for brevity. One thing is clear, he never gave up. He was perhaps overly ambitious and also difficult to work with, had he delegated tasks to others he may have been successful earlier. He certainly contributed much to the horological industry as pioneering work with machinery and interchangeable parts paved the way for the mechanisation of the industry and mass production. His greatest success remains the Dennison Watch Case Company.
A list of additional posts regarding antique watches can be found on the Guides page.