Timekeeping
By Ed Estlow
on 1.7.14

American watchmaking? Well, yes. A century or more ago, watchmaking in the United States was the equal of any in the world. Unfortunately, in the intervening years that industry has largely gone away. Yet there are those who would like to see the industry and its uniquely American timepieces return, people who believe “Made in the USA” should be a label as valuable — and meaningful — on a watch dial as “Swiss Made” is today.

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First, a bit of background. To commit a minor injustice and make a long story extremely short, it is somewhat safe to say that the American watch industry was born out of a then-burgeoning system of railroads. Trains needed to run on time, for a couple of reasons: one good one was so they wouldn’t crash head-on while using single-track mainlines; another was the more mundane need of being predictable. The modern concept of time zones was in part born of these needs. And so was an American watch industry.

Consider this: by one count, 124 pocket watch companies existed in the United States between 1809 and 1968. These were companies with names like Waltham, Hamilton, Elgin, Bulova, Hampden and Illinois. Another roughly 200 companies (depending on how you count) made cases to house those movements. In those days, Elgin, Illinois, Waltham, Massachusetts and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania were American counterpoints to the Swiss Vallée de Joux and other watchmaking regions in Central Europe. American watchmaking mirrored the Swiss and the Germans and held its own just fine, thank you very much. And now? All but a handful of those companies are gone. Those still around, like Hamilton, Bulova and Ingersoll are now owned and manufactured overseas.

124 pocket watch companies existed in the United States between 1809 and 1968.

But it’s worth noting that American watchmaking has not gone quietly into the night. Think of names like RGM, Kobold, Ball, and Shinola, a number of smaller boutique efforts (like Xetum and MK II), and scores of crowd-funded start-ups fighting for continued existence today. (Search Kickstarter using keywords like “wrist watch” or “timepiece” for an eye-opening experience.) If you make a list of all these companies, you’ll see the makings of a significant top layer of a vertically integrated industry.

Each of these companies sources most, if not all, of its parts from overseas. Some find their sources in Switzerland. Many more (especially the crowd-funded start-ups) find theirs in the Far East. But some — Californian Cameron Weiss, for instance — would prefer to procure parts from American sources. Weiss’s Standard Issue Field Watch ($892) is powered by a trusty Swiss ETA 6497 hand-cranker, but the rest — case, dial, strap, plus modifications to some movement parts — is all sourced right here in the good ol’ US of A.

Following the ever-popular paradigm of “Made in the USA”, Weiss sees an industry that’s a modernized version of what existed in the U.S. 100 years ago: established companies making their own timepieces, and supporting them, a network of suppliers specialized in making various components like dials, hands, case parts, and perhaps evolving to entire movements.

FAMOUS AMERICAN TIMEPIECES

New brands looking to establish themselves could tap into such a network to source their components instead of looking overseas. The Swiss manufacturer ETA has already served notice to the independent watch brands of the world — their movements will become ever-shorter in supply (in fact, just days ago they suffered a catastrophic fire to one of their factories), and one day will be unavailable to all but a select few. What then? Could an American company move in and begin to supply ébauches and entire movements? Why not? Certainly, the manufacturing capability exists here in the U.S. Frankly, the design capability exists as well.

Others — Michael Kobold and Roland Murphy of RGM, for instance — share this vision. Murphy once told WatchTime Magazine, “I don’t want to be a watch-casing company. I want to make our own movement, our own complications, our own hand-finishing.”

One possible fly in the ointment is a potential shortage of trained watchmakers for assembly and service. This is an ongoing problem, even faced by the Swiss brands with a large U.S. presence. Frankly, the demand for trained watchmakers hasn’t been noticed or taken to heart by young people looking for a career. Indeed, we know of at least one WOSTEP (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program) certified watch school in the US that recently closed its doors due to eroding enrollment numbers. However, a growing industry may do much to create a higher profile for such a career option.

So what does this vision of a reborn American watchmaking industry really mean? Does someone need to form a trade organization? Should new watch brands band together and share information about competent suppliers who make quality parts? Maybe an alliance of dial refinishers and small parts manufacturers should market en masse to the newly forming American watchmaking industry. Can all this grow organically, or does it need help?

How does the American watch industry, which isn’t well unified at this point, start the process? I put the question to Cameron Weiss.

“I think we start with dials”, he said. “I have American sources for dials that are much less expensive than Swiss sources, at the same quality. And they’re price-competitive with Asian sources.” The industry could presumably grow from there.

What’s the next step to creating a cohesive American watch industry? We’re not sure we know, but keep watching the likes of Roland Murphy, Michael Kobold, Cameron Weiss, and others to find out. In a few years “Made in America” might just be the most sought-after fine print on a watch dial. In double red, white and blue, of course.

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