As Illinois turns 200, it will be celebrated by famous actors and former Illinois governors wearing operational wristwatches built in Springfield before the state’s 100th birthday, handmade by men integral to President Abraham Lincoln’s political ascendancy.
Started in Springfield in 1870, the Illinois Watch Co., originally called the Springfield Watch Co., created small works of art that still keep the time and are prized by collectors.
Chicago mobster Al Capone’s jewel-encrusted Illinois Watch Co. pocket watch sold for $84,000 in 2017.
The company was founded by owners John Whitfield Bunn and Jacob Bunn Sr., a pair of Springfield businessmen whose family name would become synonymous with coffee makers.
The watches became famous for their “bold, innovative art deco design,” said Fredric Friedberg, a retired California businessman who has published multiple books on the company. “It makes them highly-distinctive, highly-collectable, and highly-popular.”
For the company’s first president, the Bunns picked local businessman and former congressman John Todd Stuart. A member of Springfield elite, Stuart was the cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln. Stuart helped to introduce Lincoln in Springfield and encouraged his interest in law, eventually taking Lincoln on as a junior partner.
The Bunns, meanwhile, were benefactors of Lincoln’s campaign for president, according to Ian Hunt, chief of acquisitions at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
“When Lincoln almost entirely quits the practice of law in 1860… it was realized pretty quickly that he would amass expenses incidental to the campaign,” he said, cautioning that the men were important but don’t own sole responsibility for Lincoln’s presidency. “Ten Republican leaders, including both John and Jacob Bunn, each pledged $500 dollars to what became known as the Sangamon County Finance Committee.”
Both John Bunn and Stuart were pallbearers for Lincoln in 1865.
The Bunn family ran the Illinois Watch Co. until 1928, when the Hamilton Watch Co. bought the operation for $5 million. The Springfield facility closed in 1933 amid the Great Depression.
In the 1950s, Hamilton experimented with a cheaper, Swiss-made watch that bore the Illinois name, but was short-lived.
Today, Illinois Watch Co. watches are prized by collectors. Among them are award-winning English actor Malcolm McDowell, known for his roles in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Caligula.” More recently, McDowell was in Golden-Globe winning series “Mozart in the Jungle” sporting many of his “30 or 40” Illinois Watch Co. pieces on screen.
“I wear a different watch in every scene,” the 75 year-old McDowell said. “I just thought these Illinois watches stood up very well to their European counterparts. The wristwatches are beautifully designed, so I started to collect them.”
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson has owned dozens of the Springfield-made timepieces, often finding them at antique malls and watch shops.
“The Illinois Watch Co. always stood for quality and for the variety of watches they made,” he said. “I still have the Abraham Illinois Watch Company watch,” referring to one of the models commemorating the president.
Thompson said he enjoyed comparing timepieces with former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, another watch collector, while attending the Republican National Conventions.
“We’d compare notes on who had bought what and roll up our sleeves and show the other what we were wearing that day,” he said.
Illinois Watch Co. timepieces are often seen trading on eBay. The name is now trademarked by Quincy, Illinois horologist Craig Stone, who still produces watches under the same name, but in a more modern style.