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Saturday, February 10, 2024

1953 Hamilton Illinois Debonair Model B

Hamilton purchased the Illinois Watch Company in 1928 - not the best of times to take business risks considering the soon to start Great Depression.  The Illinois Watch Company was a premier American watch brand, just like Hamilton, and it made perfect sense to bring two premier watch companies together.  Hamilton made a good go of it for several years but eventually they closed the Illinois factory and moved all they could to Lancaster, PA.  By the mid 1930s the Illinois brand was retired.

Decades later, the watch industry continued to evolve.  WWII decimated Europe and the global economy overall.  American watch companies began to falter.  The market was shrinking.  Price pressure came in two forms - the need to cut costs to make watches more affordable to customers AND the need to cut costs to compete with the high quality, low cost Swiss and German watch manufacturers.  Sounds familiar.

Hamilton executives realized they needed to change their ways.  For example, Hamilton NEVER used rolled gold plated cases until the mid 1950s.  Their dials were always sterling silver and when markers were used, they were solid gold.  How could they introduce cost cutting measures without risking their status as America's top watch producer?

I guess you could say, if you can't lick 'em, join 'em.  They decided to purchase partially completed Swiss-made movements called an ├ębauche.  Instead of a gold filled case, they used rolled gold plated cases with stainless steel backs.  Dials could be embossed (stamped) instead of using applied gold figures.  They decided to test the market and reintroduce the Illinois brand name since Illinois was still recallable as a quality manufacturer, and if the market imploded it wouldn't harm the Hamilton brand.

Several new models using the Illinois moniker were introduced in 1953 - including the first Automatic models and calendar models that Hamilton ever produced.  One of the manual winding models was the Debonair Model B, or Debonair B, as it would eventually be called.

The Model B was produced through 1955, at which point Hamilton executives dropped the Illinois reference and Hamilton-branded models with Swiss ├ębauches were introduced.

The 1954 catalogs show the Debonair B listed at the same price point but I cant't tell for sure if the bracelet style was changed.

The 1955 ad definitely shows a different bracelet.  So if you're one of those crazy people who like to pair correct bracelets with their vintage watches then you have you're work cut out for you.

My project watch is in semi-restored condition.  I say that because the case is in pretty good shape, the crystal is apparently new, but the dial is rather grungy,  The crown is a replacement and the watch winds but it's difficult to set.

The back of the case is a little splotchy, which is weird.  If you notice the number on the back, 9507, this is the model number.  You can see it matches the first four digits of the catalog.

With the bezel out of the way, you can see the dial is rather dirty.  There's an apparent crease between the 10 and the 12.  I suspect this may be a result of someone pressing on the dial to push the movement into the case.

There's not much I can do to the dial.  I can likely remove the loose dirt but getting this dial to look cleaner would risk making it look a lot worse.

The movement is an ETA 1220.  It has no Illinois caliber number.  The TXD on the balance cock is the import code - all Hamilton Illinois movements have this code.  Hamilton models with Swiss movements have HYL on the balance cock.

The inside of the case back shows signs of having been overhauled quiet a few times.

The dial-side of the main plate shows the set bridge is missing the arm that extends to the set lever.  

I get a LOT of requests to work on peoples' non-Hamilton watches... Walthams, Elgins, Bulovas, etc. and I usually turn them away because I won't have spares if something goes wrong.  If something is broken or disappears some how (it happens), it would require purchasing a donor movement or a lot of research to find the correct parts.

Fortunately I have a small stash of ETA 1220's to get a set bridge from.

In the photo below you can see what a complete set bridge looks like.

It's a little hard to see but most Swiss makers stamp the caliber and the maker on the main plate under the balance on the main plate.  You can see the 1220 in the photo below.

Everything is cleaned and dried.

The reassembled movement is running with a nice motion.

The watch timer says it's running well.  The amplitude is good and the beat error is within my specs.  The balance has a fixed hairspring stud, so reducing the beat error is not as easy as it is on later ETA calibers Hamilton would use.  I'm going to let sleeping dogs lie and leave this as is - as I could very easily accidentally ruin the balance if I pressed my luck.

The new set bridge is installed and this watch still is very hard to put in the setting position.  I tried to remove the stem and it was held fast... so I think this watch has the wrong stem installed.

I tugged and tugged and eventually it came loose.  Comparing the stem from the watch (above, In the shot below) to a correct 1220 stem and you can probably tell it's different.   With the proper stem, the watch will set and wind as it should.

The finished watch looks pretty good and it runs even better.  I just noticed the dial says Hamilton Illinois so I suspect this is a a 1954 or 1955 version.  Not bad for being almost 70 years old!


  1. Soap and water for the dial? It cleaned up nicely.

    1. Nope - nothing more than a quick wash and rinse in my cleaning solution. I did not clean it much more than a rinse. It's still pretty spotty