AMERICAN WATCHMAKING HISTORY

The American watchmaking history holds back from the middle 19th century, and its beginning essentially coincides with the incorporation of WALTHAM (1850-1957) in Roxbury-Massachusetts by three men, Aaron Lufkin Dennison (1812-1895), Edward Howard, David Davis. The first one, watch technician himself, is considered the patriarch of the American watch industry materializing his vision for the mass production of watches with interchangeable parts produced by specialized machinery, away from the hand-made dogma of the European and the Swiss watchmakers. Ironically, this differentiation had been achieved thanks to the contribution of Pierre Frederic Ingold (1787-1878), a genius Swiss watchmaker who had been rejected for his pioneering ideas in Switzerland, France and England. According to some notes of Richard Watkins on the records of “Swiss Society of Chronometry” from an assembly in 1932, after being expelled from the three traditional industries, he moved to U.S. in 1845, and presented his numerous applications on machinery tools used for the production of most watch parts like plates, barrels, balances, pinions, escapements, etc. Americans accepted him with enthusiasm, granted him the US citizenship, and the first workshops in Boston started producing watches using his tools in 1852. Twenty-five years later, the early achievements of the American watch industry would be the determinant factor for the historic change of course for the entire Swiss watch industry, something very indicative for the contribution of the Americans in the modern watchmaking era.

American heritage

Three years after the establishment of WALTHAM, E.Howard left and created his own homonymous brand (1858-1930) based again in Boston. These two, along with ELGIN (1863-1968) incorporated in Chicago, ILLINOIS (1870-1932) founded in Springfield, ROCKFORD (1873-1915) located in the homonymous city of Illinois, HAMPDEN (1877-1927) based in Springfield-Ohio, and finally HAMILTON (1892-1971) incorporated in Lancaster-Pennsylvania, are the seven best representatives of the American watch making industry over a period of 120 years. We could claim that WALTHAM was the oldest, ELGIN was the biggest producer by far, HAMILTON was the best overall, ILLINOIS presented the best railroad pocket watches, and the minor three are addressed to the connoisseur, with “value for money” vintage timepieces.

Two more worth mentioning names are those of the independent watchmakers CHARLES FASOLDT (1818-1898) and ALBERT POTTER (1836-1908) who created some of the best pocket watches of the 19th century. The first equipped his watches with his own calibers featuring an innovative lever escapement with two concentric wheels, whereas the second settled in Geneva in 1875 where he presented, among others, his innovative tourbillon watches.

According to the serial number records available, it is estimated that the total production volume of the U.S. watch industry from 1852 to 1969 is approximately 140 million mechanical watches of average to high grade (not including those equipped with Swiss or Japanese mechanisms), for a population range that increased very rapidly in Northern America during these 120 years, from approximately 25 million people in the early 1850s to more than 200 million people in the late 1960s. It is worth mentioning that the industry development during the second half of the 19th century reached the top annual capacity of 2 million good quality timepieces, with worldwide exports. Especially from the beginning of the 20th century till the financial crash of 1929, the top brands were producing annually approximately 750,000 pocket watches, and these are considered today among the best vintage timepieces of that period.

Apart from the 7 companies mentioned above, there are 5 more brands that left their mark in this first period of more than 120 years. TIFFANY (1837) coming from the Jewelry industry, BULOVA (1875) primarily distinguished for the Accutron electric models, BALL (1891) associated with the railroad watches (assembled primarily from the brands referred above), GRUEN (1894-1958) producing high quality watches equipped with Swiss mechanisms, and finally BENRUS (1921) involved in military projects like the iconic Type I/II wristwatch models produced for the war in Vietnam.

The dollar watch

Mass production and the subsequent affordable clocks and watches is the most significant contribution of the American horology, one century before the era of quartz watches. The starting point was the incorporation of WATERBURY clock company in Connecticut in 1854 targeting in the production of table and wall clocks costing a few dollars, for both the American and the European market. The dollar price point had been reached by 1896 and is primarily attributed to the efforts of WATERBURY and INGERSOLL watch companies to produce cheap pocket timepieces with simplified escapements. This trend passed to wristwatches from the 1920s and ended up to TIMEX brand established in the middle 1940s, and being the most representative American watch company in the basic range.

The railroad pocket watch

It is the most significant vintage American watch, profoundly associated with a landmark achievement of the American industry, the evolution of railways, envisioned in the end of the 18th century, only few years after the independence war. The discussion of national standards, adopted in the timing of the railroad activity in the US and Canada, started in 1872 and resulted in the “railroad grade” pocket watches in 1893, attributed to the work of Webb C. Ball, after the fatal collision of two trains in Ohio two years earlier. The most critical standards imposed are: (1) Open face, (2) 16-18s size (approx.43-45mm), (3) mechanism with 17 jewels minimum, (4) mechanism adjusted to temperature and 5 positions minimum, (5) mechanism with steel escape wheel, (6) mechanism with lever set. Mechanical railroad grade pocket watches had been produced primarily from ELGIN, HAMILTON, HAMPDEN, HOWARD, ILLINOIS, WALTHAM, for 76 years till 1969, with the legendary HAMILTON 992B being the last representative model.

The electric watch

The third major achievement of the American horology is its pioneering contribution to the electric watches, thanks to the projects of ELGIN, HAMILTON and mostly BULOVA, for a period of 30 years, from the middle 1940s to the middle 1970s. The first two, after a long testing period, presented mechanisms based on the replacement of the mainspring by a battery powering an improved hairspring balance wheel. Despite the commercial achievement of the second, both efforts did not overcome their reliability issues. On the other hand, BULOVA eliminated the traditional balance wheel and presented Accutron, equipped with a credible battery transistorized tuning fork mechanism, considered the first successful electronic watch, kept in production for 17 years (1960-1977). Today these timepieces are considered among the most collectible American wristwatches of the 20th Century.

The industry evolution in the 21st Century

Considering the overall domestic capacity, the American watchmaking industry is the most productive of all till the beginning of the quartz era in the 1970s. After more than 30 “dead” years, its revival started in the middle 2000s. The first efforts to present contemporary watches assembled in US and equipped with “in-house” manufactured mechanisms, started materializing thanks to the initiative of Roland G. Murphy who incorporated RGM WATCH CO back in 1992. In the early 2020s, the North American watch industry develops from the east to the west coast including several Canadian workshops. Even more, the industry provides for the local production of quartz movements from FTS, with the Ameriquartz line. Eventually, there are more than seventy (70) domestic brands belonging to 3 groups. (A) The basic-middle range group of brands that partially or entirely, assemble their watches in the US or Canada including approximately 20 entities. (B) The basic-middle range group of brands that have their watches assembled abroad, in Asia or Switzerland, including around 30 entities. (c) The high and luxury range group of brands including around 20 entities, with most of them assembling their watches domestically, equipped primarily with Swiss mass production calibers, extensively reworked per case.

Finally, the high stock availability of vintage pocket mechanisms, provides an opportunity for any connoisseur to accomplish his own new-old project (NOP) with the selection of the necessary parts. This kind of anonymous watches, assembled in workshops around the world, is an additional option for watch enthusiasts and collectors. GS