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Saturday, June 17, 2017

1954 Frankenstein

IT's ALIVE!!!!

Who can forget the late, great Gene Wilder's exclamation when he brought his beloved monster to life, albeit with "Abby-someone's" brain?

In watch parlance a Frankenstein (or "franken") is a watch that is made up of parts from other models.  You really can't call yourself an experienced watch collector until you've accidentally bought a "franken" (or two).  It happens to the best of us, especially when you make an impulse buy.

To me the real monsters are the folks who sell them as legitimate models to unsuspecting rubes.  Although I have no problem with frankens being sold, as long as they are not represented as being something other than what they are... a re-cased assembly.

It happens more often than you might suspect.  Hamilton movements are so well-made that they often outlasted their original cases.  Why buy a new watch when your local jeweler or watchmaker could recase a movement in an aftermarket case?   You could buy cases and dials of various designs for various grades of movements.  In fact, you'll typically see the dial says "Hamilton movement" or "Hamilton 17 jewel movement" on it in some form or fashion.

I occasionally buy frankens in order to use their movements as spares or donors for other models.  It's when you over pay for a franken that was sold as a legitimate model that really grinds my gears.

As with a lot of things, when it comes to vintage watches you should first "buy the seller, and then buy the watch".  If the seller doesn't seem legitimate then don't buy a watch from them... no matter how tempting.

Anyway, I recently bought a watch that could be a franken but I'm not entirely sure.  I'll point out the interesting elements as I go along.

First, as received, there are a couple of things that are odd.  The crown is an obvious replacement - but that's not unusual.  Crowns wear out over time.  The crystal is cracked too - but that's not a big deal.

The dial and hands are yellow but the case is stainless steel.  That's very unusual and almost unheard of with Hamilton models.

The dial pattern looks familiar... it has a minute track with luminous squares at the 12 and 6 but triangles at 3 and 9.  Notice the fonts used for the numbers 12, 3, 6 and 9.

Based on the case and movement inside this is a K-something.   Where have I seen that sort of dial before....?

Well, there's the 1954 K-450.   I haven't done one of those yet but the font of the numerals doesn't match and the luminous markers at 3 and 9 are squares, not triangles.  So the dial isn't a match with the K-450.

The K-450 is the yellow dialed version of the same dial in the 1954 K-501 with a white dial.  Notice it doesn't have triangles at 3 and 9 an the font for the numerals is quite different.

There's also the 1954 K-500, that's sort of similar in terms of printing but it has triangles at 12 and 6, not to mention numbers all the way around.
There's also the 1955 K-451.  This model is uncatalogued but known to exist because it's stamped K-451 inside the case back.  I've seen this model lots of times, in fact I have one on my bench to get to one of these days.  Notice it has squares at the 3, 6, 9 and 12 positions and numerals at all the hours.

I looked and looked and re-looked at the catalogs and images of the various K-series watches and the best I can come up with is the 1960 K-459.  That seems to match with the numerals and markers but the K-459 has a pearled track and my mystery watch does not.  My watch has a minute track like the 1954 models.

So I cannot say with any certainty what model the dial came from but it definitely looks legitimate.

Flipping the watch over, the back is clearly a Hamilton back.  It says "self winding", which is odd since the dial says "automatic" but all the other stainless watches I have seen from this period have the same back markings... like the 1954 K-550, for example.

I've looked at all the stainless steel K-somethings and none of them are an exact match for this case.  That's very weird.

Inside the case is the real reason that I bought this watch.  Check out the movement under the hood... it's a Hamilton 658 movement.  This grade was used briefly before the more common 661 was introduced.  It's essentially the same movement but the rotor is held on with a screw on the 658.  This is a new movement for me, I haven't worked on a 658 yet... and that's saying something after restoring over 700 watches.

Here's a closer look at the dial.  There are no obvious signs from this side that it's been refinished but it's unlike any other model's dial.

Two screws secure the case movement ring to the movement.

The inside of the case back indicates this is obviously a legitimate Hamilton case.

There's a jewel inside the oscillating weight.  I wasn't sure what to expect once I removed the screw that holds it in place.

Now the movement looks just like a garden variety 661, except for the hole in the center.

Here's an even closer look at the dial.  See any signs of being refinished?  The finish is a little compromised between 10 and 12, so this is obviously an old dial.

The back of the dial looks 100% untouched and original as well.

The cannon pinion, hour wheel, minute wheel and setting wheel are removed from the front.

Before I remove the balance, I'll carefully remove the balance jewels.

Once the balance is removed I can flip the main plate over and remove the other balance jewels from under the shock spring.

Everything is cleaned and dried.

Based on the gap I saw between the dial and the case, I suspect this watch uses a crystal with a reflector ring.  A 29.7mm crystal should do the trick.

The center wheel goes in first and is held in place by it's own bridge.  Then the escape wheel, 4th wheel and third wheel can be installed.

When everything is lined up just right, the large train bridge will drop in place and all the wheels will spin easily.

Next on is the pallet fork and it's bridge and the mainspring barrel.

At this point I can wind the watch and get ready to install the balance.

However, before I install the balance I will need to install the balance jewels in the main plate.

The movement is now ticking away but I still need to install the balance jewels in the balance cock.

There... everything is looking good so it's off to the timer.

Not too shabby.  The beat error of 3.1 is on the upper end of my acceptable range.  It's not easily adjusted on this grade like on some of the other Swiss-made movements.  I could attempt to lower it but that also risks goofing up the hairspring.  I'm not feeling particularly lucky today so I'm going to leave it like this.

All of the parts go back onto the front of the movement and the dial can be reinstalled.

The movement is noticeably shinier after it's trip to the spa.  I also replaced the crown with a slightly smaller and better looking example.

Well, here it is... I have no idea what it is but it's running great.  The case doesn't match any other model and the dial doesn't match any other models but both are similar to other things - just not exact matches.  So is this a legitimate model or is it a franken?  I'm not sure so let's call it a 1954 Hamilton Frankenstein.

My light tent makes the dial look worse than it is, although it's not all the great.  On the wrist in daylight it looks a little better.


I realized I had a spare dial in my stash and it's from a 1954 K-501.  It has a better finish than the dial that came with the watch so I decided to install it.  It's very close to the look of a K-501 but the case isn't an exact match.  I like the red second hand - it really makes a statement, doesn't it?

UPDATE - Feb 2020

Thanks to a fellow collector, I've come to realize this is an uncatalogued 1954 model called the K-500.  Mystery solved!


  1. Dan the Franken looks spankin". I have what we think is a Franken with a Viking? dial and 671 movement. The case says stainless steel back, antimagnetic and incabloc. Also 100% waterproof tested. TK is in a diamond on the center. The inside of the back says Star case co. Made in France. The watch is whirling away and keeping very good time.
    I now also have a 1960s Sea Mate II, what we think is a Neilsen and a Norde or Nordon on the way.
    What would be the tactful and honest way to sell the Franken on ebay? I bought it not knowing any better and it runs and looks well. But I do not want to deceive anyone. I also do not think that the person I bought it from meant any malaise.

    1. I'm a big believer in the golden rule. If you have a known franken that you want to sell, then list it as a Hamilton movement and dial that has been recased. If you know it's service history, etc. then say that too. Use good photos, etc. and list it as an auction. The final price is the price the market will bear.

      It's when sellers have multiple watches with fanciful dials, nice photos (typically without crystals) and descriptions about how original and authentic each watch is that is what I'm referring to as a bit deceptive. Especially when the watch is "from the estate of a retired watchmaker".

  2. Dan - two thoughts (from a very entertained and very amateur "collector")....

    (i) It seems to me your addition of the '54 K-501 dial is just one more Darwin-like step in the evolution of your '54 Franken. There were probably many contributions like this that cumulatively produced your watch. And they were all so seamless that a very "advanced amateur" (I believe that is how you've characterized yourself) couldn't tease it all apart. In a funny way, its now more original than the original. Which brings me to my second point...

    (ii) A very interesting "Hamilton" caught my eye on an on-line auction. I spent an afternoon reviewing all your entries trying to find the watch to no avail. After sometime I deduced it was a specific intact movement and dial elegantly and uniquely recased. With my Peter Parker Spidey-sense a-tingling, I ran for the hills. Shortly after the auction was finished I thought to myself that I should have bought it because it was unique. If the seller had just told me what it was instead of being deceptive with a lie of omission in its advertising, I probably would have bid because it was pretty cool.

    As with many things in life, when in doubt, look to Johnny Cash whose "One Piece at a Time" song says it best..."

    I got it one piece at a time
    And it wouldn't cost me a dime
    You'll know it's me when I come through your town
    I'm gonna ride around in style
    I'm gonna drive everybody wild
    'Cause I'll have the only one there is around.

    1. I saw a franken recently with a 23 jewel Rotomatic dial and movement in the wrong Hamilton case. I’m sure someone picked that up thinking it was the real deal but alas, not so much.