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LA TIMES ARTICLE

Daniel Miller  Nov. 14, 2019

One man’s 1,648-page quest to preserve an American watch company’s history

First, there’s the heft: 24.5 pounds.

Then, there’s the size: 1,648 pages.

But, really, it’s the topic of this five-volume book set that elicits the biggest surprise: the Illinois Watch Co.

Presidents, wars, social movements — few, if any, have prompted histories of this depth.

Yet Fredric J. Friedberg devoted a decade of his life to writing “The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years,” a history of a defunct company that, odds are, you’ve never heard of before.

Though not a household name like Rolex, Illinois was once at the vanguard of a vibrant American watchmaking industry, crafting Art Deco-styled timepieces that rivaled the best from Switzerland in both accuracy and artistry.

Watch collector Fredric J. Friedberg focused his efforts on the Illinois Watch Co. after being captivated by the brand’s Art Deco designs.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Friedberg hopes his opus will reinvigorate interest in Illinois, which has been out of business for nearly 90 years. And even if it doesn’t, Friedberg could be satisfied knowing he completed a task that tested him in ways he never imagined when he began the work in 2008.
“My goal was to finish the book in two years,” said Friedberg, 75, a retired attorney who lives in Irvine. “I almost fried my brain on finishing the five-volume set.”

And among the indoctrinated — people like “A Clockwork Orange” star Malcolm McDowell — Friedberg’s project is peerless.“There will never need to be another book on Illinois watches,” said McDowell, an Illinois collector. “He covered it.”It’s a story of devotion. It’s a story of perseverance. And for Friedberg, who once owned more than 700 Illinois watches, it’s a story, by his own admission, of obsession.

Fredric J. Friedberg, a retired attorney, spent a decade writing an in-depth history of the Illinois Watch Co., which closed nearly 90 years ago. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Friedberg can’t explain why he became fixated on vintage watches. But even as a child, he was a collector of things. Marbles. Popsicle sticks. Pennies from 1943 that were made with steel due to a World War II-era copper shortage.“I have no idea why I was doing it,” he said.In 1988, Friedberg, then an attorney in his mid-40s, found a new thing to collect. He was in Washington, D.C., on business, and during a stroll down Wisconsin Avenue, a vintage watch shop caught his eye. “I didn’t know stores like this existed. I was shocked,” he said.

Friedberg went in without intending to make a purchase, but, of course, did just that, picking up a delicate, rectangular model made by Girard-Perregaux in the 1940s.“It felt like I had found heaven,” he said.

He began buying wristwatches in earnest. Perhaps, he said, memories of his father’s watch — a Hamilton with diamonds on the dial — spurred him along. But he dismisses high-minded explanations for his interest in horology, the study of the measurement of time.

“I mean, I just had an affinity for it,” he said.But McDowell has some ideas about the enduring allure of wristwatches.“Look, none of us need watches, we have the iPhone,” said McDowell, who befriended Friedberg around 2012. “It’s about telling a story. A watch tells the rest of the world who you are. And Illinois watches really are as good as anything made in Europe. These are under the radar. You feel a little bit special that you know something about them.”Unlike a mobile phone, or a battery-powered quartz watch, mechanical timepieces are powered by a movement composed of gears, wheels, levers and springs. It can seem almost like alchemy — that simply winding a watch can bring to life its innards, allowing for something as ephemeral as the passage of time to be memorialized.Anachronistic? Perhaps. But it’s also romantic to some.For Friedberg, though, it was more about the hunt, especially in the beginning. He just kept buying watches. But Friedberg also had a young family and a big mortgage.“I was afraid I’d put my family in the poorhouse because every time I went by an antique store I’d go in and buy watches,” he said. “I’d come home and I’d have a pile of crap, and they weren’t working and ... and I said, ‘This is insane.’”

The Illinois Watch Co. was started in 1870, co-founded by industrialist John Whitfield Bunn, who had been a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Illinois Watch Co. was Friedberg’s salvation. Realizing he needed to narrow his focus, Friedberg homed in on the company’s wristwatches, their Art Deco elegance captivating him.

“No one touched Art Deco design like Illinois,” he said. “Plus it was an incredible story about American manufacturing, entrepreneurship and enterprise in this country.”

The Springfield, Ill., company was started in 1870, co-founded by industrialist John Whitfield Bunn, who had been a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. The company made its name turning out especially precise pocket watches that were used by railroads to keep accurate time, making train travel safer.

Among the watches in Fredric J. Friedberg’s collection of Illinois Watch Co. timepieces is a Jolly Roger model from 1929. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The factory that turned out Illinois’ precision instruments was a Gilded Age marvel. In a stroke of industrial innovation often overlooked amid praise for Henry Ford’s later accomplishments, the company’s timepieces were made on assembly lines.

John Cote, a member of the National Assn. of Watch & Clock Collectors’ board of directors, said the company’s standardized approach, especially when compared to the largely hand-made pieces coming out of Switzerland at the time, is an important example of American ingenuity.

“The American system of manufacturing things, it prevailed over the British and the Swiss, who were the watchmakers of the 1700s, 1800s and up to about the 1850s, when America started taking it over,” said Cote, an Illinois expert.

Illinois hit its stride during the boom years after World War I. Following the war, wristwatches became popular among men, in part because soldiers had grown accustomed to strapping pocket watches to their arms to more easily tell the time on the battlefield. According to Cote, during the 1920s, Illinois was the third-biggest American watch company by production volume, trailing only Elgin and Waltham.

Friedberg shows off one of his wristwatches, a Skyway model made by the Illinois Watch Co. in 1930. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It’s an inspiring era for modern American watchmakers including Cameron Weiss, who founded his eponymous Torrance-based watch brand in 2013.

“The inspiration for Weiss Watch Co. really lies with companies like Waltham, Elgin and Illinois,” Weiss said. “They were supplying all of America and many other countries with watches. Before that, watches were really only for the wealthiest of individuals who could afford a handmade item.”

But for Illinois, and later the rest of the American watchmaking industry, the boom years would soon end.

After its purchase by rival Hamilton in 1928, Illinois was buffeted by a series of changes and ultimately shut down during the Great Depression. Or, as Friedberg writes, the company’s “new corporate parent, faced with life-and-death choices, elected to allow only one watch operation to survive in the face of the most tumultuous economic conditions in the history of the United States.”

And by the end of the 1960s, Hamilton, Elgin and Waltham had all ceased operating as American companies, either shuttering or selling to the Swiss.

While Illinois’ story ended on a melancholy note, Friedberg reckoned it made for a great tale.

Before “The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years,” there was an opening act. In 2004, Friedberg released “The Illinois Watch: The Life and Times of a Great American Watch Company.”

But he wasn’t satisfied with the book, which checks in at a comparably scant 272 pages. He began to fixate on the things he left out of the history, and friends noticed.

Television producer Greg Hart recalled visiting Friedberg’s home after the book’s release.

“I saw all of his material from the first book — he had boxes and boxes of things,” Hart said. “He said, ‘Look at all the stuff that never made it into my book. It’s been driving me crazy.’ I don’t think he could’ve died a happy man unless he told this story.”

To write his history of the Illinois Watch Co., Friedberg combed through the company’s corporate minutes, patent applications, old advertisements and more. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

So Friedberg started anew in 2008. By then, he was nearly two decades into his career as general counsel at Toshiba America Medical Systems. Eventually, Friedberg served as chairman of that company and two related ones headquartered in Chicago and in Edinburgh, Scotland. Regular travel to those locales — he visited Edinburgh at least once a month for eight years — afforded an opportunity to write. He always traveled with a hard copy of a chapter in progress.

“I never watched movies, but I would sip wine and work on the book,” he said. “I wasn’t good at sleeping on planes anyways.”

Friedberg worked his way through a trove of material: corporate minutes, patent applications, old advertisements and more.

But his meticulous approach could be a burden.

“There were times where he said, ‘How am I ever going to get this done?’” Hart said. “He took on a project that was never attempted in the history of the brand. I said, ‘Fred, how does a mouse eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’”

“The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years” was released by Schiffer Publishing in May 2018. The $295 five-volume set is both sumptuous and encyclopedic, its in-depth history of the brand supplemented by a guide featuring every wristwatch model made by the company and essays from collectors, among other features. Volume Five even includes a 750-question quiz, and Friedberg writes that readers can email him if they “get stuck on any question.”

Schiffer Publishing printed about 1,000 copies, and about 500 have been sold so far. Among the buyers have been a handful of notable institutions and organizations: The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Abraham Lincoln Research Library and the National Assn. of Watch and Clock Collectors.

“The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years” clocks in at 24.5 pounds and 1,648 pages. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

That’s a point of pride for Friedberg, and the book set also has won praise from a notable group: people in the family tree of Bunn, the company’s co-founder.

“We admire him tremendously,” said Andrew Taylor Call, a Bunn great-great-great grandnephew. “I would say in absolute faith that Fredric Friedberg knows more about the Illinois Watch Co. than anyone alive today.”

::

The decades were laid out in front of Friedberg on the kitchen table of his Irvine home.

More than 200 wristwatches in all, they told the story of 30-plus years spent buying, selling, cataloging, researching, writing and publishing.

Friedberg delighted in canvassing the array, which he keeps at a bank and brought home for a recent interview. He bobbed around the table as his wife, Joy, cooked vegan hamburgers she insisted Times journalists try (verdict: surprisingly meaty).

While Friedberg fussed over the watches, Joy said she has long known that he would “dedicate himself to whatever he gets into.” But five volumes?

“I don’t think I could’ve seen that far,” she said.

Still, she was reluctant to call her husband’s work an obsession.

“Maybe to him it’s an obsession,” she said. “To me, it’s like — there are people who have hobbies and people who have avocations. This is an avocation.”

The table glittered and flared as sunlight strafed it through the kitchen windows. Every so often, Friedberg would snatch up a rare piece to explain its provenance.

One of them was a 1928 Illinois Consul given by inmates of Michigan’s Marquette Branch Prison to the prison doctor on the occasion of his retirement. The solid white gold watch, which has been dubbed the “Convict Consul,” may have been a gift from imprisoned members of the Purple Gang, an infamous group that terrorized Detroit, Friedberg said.

Among the assemblage was the one that started it all: the Girard-Perregaux he bought in 1988. A paper label affixed to it read "#1.”

Friedberg has numbered all the watches that have passed through his hands. No. 3,729, No. 3,810 and No. 4,779 gleamed alongside dozens of others. There were gaps in the numbers, owing to those he has relinquished, some as part of an ongoing unburdening.

Friedberg began winnowing his collection a few years ago. After his sons made clear they were not interested in his watches, he moved to sell off the bulk of them. His new book set has made it easier.

“If I want to see them I can go open the book,” he said. “I don’t have to possess them. I can’t be selfish. I want it to go into the hands of someone who will appreciate it.”

But McDowell doubted Friedberg will ever really stop collecting.

“No, I don’t believe it — he’s just giving you a bit of Shinola there,” said McDowell, laughing. “Of course, he’s satisfied at having completed a task that took five times longer than he thought it would. But I happen to know there is a watch that he’s trying to get.”

When pressed, Friedberg conceded he isn’t quite done. When asked about his next purchase, he wouldn’t say much, but he knows one thing: it’ll be No. 4,989.

Hodinkee Article

Recommended Reading Chronicling The History Of A Great American Watch Company

One man's five-volume quest to document the Illinois Watch Company.

NAWCC Profile in Time Interview

NAWCC Profile in Time Interview

 

 

 

 

 

 

FORTUNE MAGAZINE ARTICLE

When American Watches Rivaled the Swiss

By Norman Pearlstine

July 4, 2018

It is not easy for addicts to write objectively about their dealers. But Fred Friedberg is essential to any story about my “drug of choice” – vintage Illinois watches from the 1920s and 1930s.

Fred has bought and sold thousands of these iconic beauties over the years, including several dozen to me in the past decade. Other collectors include actor Malcolm McDowell and television producer Greg Hart.

I thought his own obsession was sated in 2004 when he wrote The Illinois Watch: The Life and Times of a Great American Watch Company. He was only getting started and this month he has published a five-volume, 1600-page set, The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years: The Finale of a Great American Watch Company.

Looking at today’s luxury watch market, dominated by European manufacturers such as Patek Philippe, Rolex, and Omega, it is easy to forget there was a time when American manufacturers rivaled the Europeans. Cincinnati’s Gruen and Geneva’s Rolex both bought their movements from the same source, Jean Aegler. Hamilton, based in Lancaster, Pa., introduced an art deco line, with watches costing as much as $125. Elgin, Waltham, and Bulova also produced quality watches.

The Illinois watch, however, was in a league of its own. Founded in 1870 in Springfield, Illinois, the company produced America’s most interesting art noveau, art deco, and pre-modern watches from 1919 through the 1930s, when Hamilton, which had bought the brand in 1928, stopped producing them. During those years, Illinois produced more than 180 men’s and women’s models, many with multiple case and dial variations.

Friedberg, 73, researched and wrote his books in Irvine, California while serving as general counsel and a top executive at Toshiba America Medical Systems Corp. He began collecting watches himself in 1988 after seeing some for sale in small shops in Washington, DC and in New York.

Friedberg’s five-volume opus is remarkable. In addition to including 1,800 images of Illinois watches, he lists over 24 pages of movement serial numbers and other dates.
Signed copies of the box set can be bought for $175 on Friedberg’s website. Fred says all proceeds will go to charity. His site also lists more than 100 watches for sale, with prices ranging from $250 to $7,000.

Norman Pearlstine is executive editor of the Los Angeles Times. He was formerly chief content officer of Time Inc. and Bloomberg LP.

FRATELLO ARTICLE

The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years – a 1648 Pages (and 1800 Images) Book Set

All written by one man - Fredric J. Friedberg

Robert-Jan Broer
November 17, 2019

Real dedication by a mono-brand collector. A beautiful 24.5 pounds weighing set of 5 five books on the Illinois Watch Co. was written by one man, Frederic ‘Fred’ J. Friedberg.

Last week, I stumbled across this article in the LA Times. They did a great article on Fred’s work and made me realize I know nothing about Illinois watches. This American brand was creating beautiful art-deco style timepieces but was put out of business about 90 years ago.

Fred Friedberg and only a part of his collection. Photo by Allen J. Schaben / LA Times

Illinois Watch Co

Friedberg became a watch collector in the late 1980s, which was a pretty unusual hobby back then. He was an attorney in his 40s, and by accident, he bumped into a vintage Girard Perregaux watch. He purchased it, and that’s when it all began. He focused on Illinois wristwatches, as they produced beautiful art-deco watches with a quality that – according to Fred – easily could rival the Swiss-made watches. In 1928, Illinois Watch Co was purchased by Hamilton. Not the Hamilton we know today, but before it became a Swiss brand and part of Swatch Group. Until the late 1960s, Hamilton was American owned and producing watches in the USA. Anyway, Illinois ceased to exist before that time, and there was only one decent book on them before this new set of five books by Fred.

In 2004, the book “The Illinois Watch: The Life and Times of a Great American Watch Company” was released. Written by, and I kid you not, Fred Friedberg. He decided that the 2004 title didn’t cover the brand adequately enough. In 2008, he started to work on his 1648 pages thick story on “Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton years: The Finale of a Great American Watch Company.”. That’s right, it took him 10 years to write this book and make it happen. 1000 copies were printed, and 500 are still left for sale.

Even if Illinois Watch Co doesn’t ring a bell, I believe that it will surely help you to understand watch collecting even better. And nothing beats a great story anyway. This set of books can be ordered via Fred’s website for just $175.-. That’s a no-brainer for any watch fan out there.

Go here to Friedberg’s website and order his bookset.

Worn and Wound

The Worn & Wound Podcast Ep. 121: Collecting Illinois Watches with Fred Friedberg

This week, we’re joined by Fred Friedberg, author of The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years. The Illinois Watch Company played an important role in American watchmaking, producing watches at a great scale through the years of the Great Depression, including many classic Art Deco designs. Their history is linked closely to Hamilton, which is a main focus of Fred’s book.

Fred is one of the foremost experts on the history of the Illinois Watch Company, in addition to being a noted collector and author. On the podcast, we discuss the long history of the Illinois Watch Company, what makes these watches interesting to collect, and how the internet has changed our hobby over the decades.

Click here for more information on Fred’s book and to order a copy of your own, and be sure to check out the slider below for a small preview.

This week’s episode is brought to you by the Windup Watch Shop.

To stay on top of all new episodes, you can subscribe to The Worn & Wound Podcast — now available on all major platforms including iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Soundcloud, Spotify, and more. You can also find our RSS feed here.

And if you like what you hear, then don’t forget to leave us a review on iTunes.

If there’s a question you want us to answer you can hit us up at info@wornandwound.com, and we’ll put your question in the queue.

Show Notes

 

NPR

interview

NAWCC INTERVIEW

National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC)

The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years: The Finale of a Great American Watch Company

Fred Friedberg’s The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years is a love letter, composed over the past ten years, to the hobby that has given him immeasurable joy. The watch-collecting community is fortunate that Friedberg has chosen to share it with us.

The author is no stranger to the watch-collecting world in general and Illinois wristwatches specifically. His seminal work on the topic, The Illinois Watch: The Life and Times of a Great American Watch Company, published in 2004, is still considered by many to be the definitive book on the subject. But Friedberg wanted to go deeper.

“I wanted to place the Illinois Watch Company in the greater context of the watch and jewelry industry, and what was going on in the greater society as a whole,” explains Friedberg. “The life cycle of a watch company does not occur in a vacuum, yet most references treat it as such.”

The author especially wanted to delve into the Great Depression of the 1930s. This section is a tour deforce in its explanation of the havoc wreaked on the watch and jewelry industry. The reader will come away with an understanding that the Great Depression was the beginning of the end of the American watch industry that, up until that time, had no rival. Friedberg also wanted to chase down some mysteries that he believed had never been fully, or correctly, explained such as (1) the whys and hows of the Hamilton Watch Co.’s acquisition of Illinois in 1928 and its ultimate decision to close it in 1932 and (2) why Hamilton resurrected the Illinois brand for a short time during the mid-1950s.

Finding the answers, or at least probable explanations, took Friedberg on a long and circuitous journey that included the main branch of the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Library and Research Center of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors (NAWCC) in Columbia, PA. The latter involved wading through thousands of Hamilton corporate documents donated to the NAWCC by Dr. Robert Ravel when he acquired the remaining contents of the Hamilton factory in the early 1970s.

A brief breakdown of the volumes follows.

  • Volume 1 lays the groundwork and gives the reader a sense of the Illinois Watch Co.’s place in America, from the arduous task of reconstruction the Civil War, through the times of economic boom and bust, and leading to its acquisition by Hamilton at, ironically, a time when the Illinois company was arguably at its zenith in terms of design innovation. You will meet John C. Adams, founder of the company and considered by many to be the most important watch industry entrepreneur of the nineteenth century.
  • Volume 2 covers the various movement calibers and some of the nuances involved in their maintenance and repair. Generous sections on dials and hands, and the various case manufacturers that Illinois used through the years are included. Watch repair people might be more interested in this volume, but it is good information for the layperson to have to assist his or her watchmaker in the restoration of Illinois watches.
  • Volumes 3 and 4 comprise the identification portion of the book set. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there are several hundred more Illinois models identified in these two volumes than appeared in the author’s 2004 book. This is especially true with the ladies’ watches (Volume 4) because their collectibility has risen considerably since the author’s 2004 book when men’s watches still ruled the vintage marketplace.
  • Every watch in Volumes 3 and 4 gets an average of one page per piece. In addition to photos, the author lists all the known details about the watch including case color variations, dial varieties, and years produced. There are rarity scales (from “easy to find” to “custom order, possibly one-of-a-kind”) and collectibility scales (whether, in the author’s opinion, a serious Illinois watch collector should have a specimen of a given watch in his or her collection).
  • Volume 5 is one of my favorites because it contains information and pictures of Illinois ephemera and a substantial treatise on how to collect Illinois watches. One would think the latter would simply involve going to flea markets, auctions, NAWCC marts, etc., and scooping up any example that could be found. Many Illinois collectors have gone down that road, often to their financial detriment. There is more to it than that, and Friedberg shows readers how to avoid the pitfalls: for example, how to tell if a dial has been refinished (which significantly reduces its market value) or if a case has been repaired and/or replated (again, a drop in value). Ultimately, any Illinois watch, case, or movement has some value in terms of its salvageable parts. Determining value and deciding whether a given watch is a “buy” or a “pass” is an art that takes practice, and Friedberg shares many of the tips learned from nearly 30 years of buying, selling, and trading Illinois watches and parts. This section alone is worth the price of the book set. Finally, Volume 5 contains an extensive index for the entire book set.

What many readers may find surprising is how easily Friedberg draws us into this history lesson. His writing is concise, yet extremely readable and conversational. Text throughout the book is sprinkled liberally with images of Illinois company memorabilia to make the book a feast for the eyes as well.

If you are a serious wristwatch collector, you need to buy this book set. I believe it’s safe to say that Illinois watches are now the most documented American brand. I cannot imagine anyone topping this work in terms of comprehensiveness. It is more than just about Illinois wristwatches and even more than just about wristwatches in general. It is nothing short of one of the greatest chapters in twentieth-century American history told by a gifted storyteller. —Bruce Shawkey (WI)

The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years: The Finale of a Great American Watch Company by Fredric J. Friedberg. ISBN 978-0-7643-5371-0. 2018. Published 2018 by Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA; 1,648 pages, including thousands of images, hundreds of vintage advertisements, and almost 500 tables of useful and easy-to-read information, hardcover.

Available through author website, http://www.illinoiswatches.com/the-book/, for $175. All book profits will be donated to the NAWCC.

State Journal Registry (SJR)

CLICK TO GO TO ONLINE ARTICLE

One Man’s 1,648-Page Quest to Preserve an American Watch Company’s History

Fred Friedberg of Irvine once owned more than 700 Illinois Watch Timepieces Alen J. Shaben (Los Angeles Times / TNS)

SPECTRUM ONE NEWS

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Vintage Watch Collector Spent Decade Writing About American Watch Company

By LA Times Today Staff Los Angeles

Frederic J. Friedberg of Irvine once owned more than 700 Illinois Watch Co. timepieces. After being captivated by the brand's Art Deco designs, Friedberg started his quest to preserve the company's history.

A decade later, he published The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years, which clocks in at 24.5 pounds and 1,648 pages.

LA Times business reporter Daniel Miller stopped by LA Times Today to talk about his obsession.

Watch Los Angeles Times Today at 7 and 10 p.m. Monday through Friday on Spectrum News

STAR TRIBUNE ONLINE

Art Deco designs inspired Fredric J. Friedberg to be master of little-known Illinois watches

Though not a household name like Rolex, Illinois was once at the vanguard of a vibrant American watchmaking industry.

Fredric J. Friedberg, a retired attorney, once owned more than 700 Illinois Watch Co. timepieces.

– First, there’s the heft: 24.5 pounds.

Then, there’s the size: 1,648 pages.

But, really, it’s the topic of this five-volume book set that elicits the biggest surprise: the Illinois Watch Co.

Presidents, wars, social movements — few, if any, have prompted histories of this depth.

Yet Fredric J. Friedberg devoted a decade of his life to writing “The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years,” a history of a defunct company that, odds are, you’ve never heard of.

Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Though not a household name like Rolex, Illinois was once at the vanguard of a vibrant American watchmaking industry, crafting Art Deco-styled timepieces that rivaled the best from Switzerland in both accuracy and artistry.

Friedberg hopes his opus will reinvigorate interest in Illinois, which has been out of business for nearly 90 years. And even if it doesn’t, Friedberg could be satisfied knowing he completed a task that tested him in ways he never imagined when he began the work in 2008.

“My goal was to finish the book in two years,” said Friedberg, 75, a retired attorney who lives in Irvine. “I almost fried my brain on finishing the five-volume set.”

And among the indoctrinated — people like “A Clockwork Orange” star Malcolm McDowell — Friedberg’s project is peerless.

“There will never need to be another book on Illinois watches,” said McDowell, an Illinois collector.

It’s a story of devotion. It’s a story of perseverance. And for Friedberg, who once owned more than 700 Illinois watches, it’s a story, by his own admission, of obsession.

Friedberg can’t explain why he became fixated on vintage watches. But even as a child, he was a collector of things. Marbles. Popsicle sticks. Pennies from 1943 that were made with steel due to a World War II-era copper shortage.

“I have no idea why I was doing it,” he said.

In 1988, Friedberg, then an attorney in his mid-40s, found a new thing to collect. He was in Washington, D.C., on business, and during a stroll down Wisconsin Avenue, a vintage watch shop caught his eye. “I didn’t know stores like this existed. I was shocked.”

Friedberg went in without intending to make a purchase but, of course, did just that, picking up a delicate, rectangular model made by Girard-Perregaux in the 1940s.

“It felt like I had found heaven,” he said.

He began buying wristwatches in earnest. Perhaps, he said, memories of his father’s watch — a Hamilton with diamonds on the dial — spurred him along. But he dismisses high-minded explanations for his interest in horology, the study of the measurement of time.

“I mean, I just had an affinity for it,” he said.

But McDowell has some ideas about the enduring allure of wristwatches.

“Look, none of us need watches, we have the iPhone,” said McDowell, who befriended Friedberg around 2012. “It’s about telling a story. A watch tells the rest of the world who you are. And Illinois watches really are as good as anything made in Europe. These are under the radar. You feel a little bit special that you know something about them.”

Unlike a mobile phone, or a battery-powered quartz watch, mechanical timepieces are powered by a movement composed of gears, wheels, levers and springs. It can seem almost like alchemy — that simply winding a watch can bring to life its innards, allowing for something as ephemeral as the passage of time to be memorialized.

Anachronistic? Perhaps. But it’s also romantic to some.

For Friedberg, though, it was more about the hunt, especially in the beginning. He just kept buying watches. But Friedberg also had a young family and a big mortgage.

“I was afraid I’d put my family in the poorhouse because every time I went by an antique store I’d go in and buy watches,” he said. “I’d come home and I’d have a pile of crap, and they weren’t working and I said, ‘This is insane.’ ”

The Illinois Watch Co. was Friedberg’s salvation. Realizing he needed to narrow his focus, Friedberg homed in on the company’s wristwatches, their Art Deco elegance captivating him.

“No one touched Art Deco design like Illinois,” he said. “Plus it was an incredible story about American manufacturing, entrepreneurship and enterprise in this country.”

The Springfield, Ill., company was started in 1870, co-founded by industrialist John Whitfield Bunn, who had been a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. The company made its name turning out especially precise pocket watches that were used by railroads to keep accurate time, making train travel safer.

The factory that turned out Illinois’ precision instruments was a Gilded Age marvel. In a stroke of industrial innovation often overlooked amid praise for Henry Ford’s later accomplishments, the company’s timepieces were made on assembly lines.

John Cote, a member of the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors’ board of directors, said the company’s standardized approach, especially when compared to the largely handmade pieces coming out of Switzerland at the time, is an important example of American ingenuity.

Illinois hit its stride during the boom years after World War I. Following the war, wristwatches became popular among men, in part because soldiers had grown accustomed to strapping pocket watches to their arms to more easily tell the time on the battlefield. According to Cote, during the 1920s, Illinois was the third-biggest American watch company by production volume, trailing only Elgin and Waltham.

It’s an inspiring era for modern American watchmakers including Cameron Weiss, who founded his eponymous Torrance-based watch brand in 2013.

But for Illinois, and later the rest of the American watchmaking industry, the boom years would soon end.

After its purchase by rival Hamilton in 1928, Illinois was buffeted by a series of changes and ultimately shut down during the Great Depression. And by the end of the 1960s, Hamilton, Elgin and Waltham had all ceased operating as American companies, either shuttering or selling to the Swiss.

While Illinois’ story ended on a melancholy note, Friedberg reckoned it made for a great tale. In 2004, Friedberg released “The Illinois Watch: The Life and Times of a Great American Watch Company.”

But he wasn’t satisfied with the book, which checks in at a comparably scant 272 pages. He began to fixate on the things he left out. In May 2018, “The Illinois Watch & Its Hamilton Years” was released by Schiffer Publishing. The $295 five-volume set is both sumptuous and encyclopedic, its in-depth history of the brand supplemented by a guide featuring every wristwatch model made by the company and essays from collectors, among other features. Volume Five even includes a 750-question quiz, and Friedberg writes that readers can e-mail him if they “get stuck on any question.”

Schiffer Publishing printed about 1,000 copies, and about 500 have been sold. Among the buyers have been a handful of notable institutions and organizations: The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Abraham Lincoln Research Library and the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.

That’s a point of pride for Friedberg. The book set also has won praise from a notable group: people in the family tree of Bunn, the company’s co-founder.

“We admire him tremendously,” said Andrew Taylor Call, a Bunn great-great-great grandnephew. “I would say in absolute faith that Fredric Friedberg knows more about the Illinois Watch Co. than anyone alive today.”

 

 

 

 

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