La Chaux-de-Fonds, Basel, LeLocle, all cities in Switzerland that we associate with high quality mechanical timepieces. But Lancaster Pennsylvania, Towson Maryland or Fort Collins, Colorado. It has been a long time since the United States has been on the radar as far high horology goes, but there are a few individuals demonstrating the same pioneering spirit the this country was founded on, while maintaining the history of American watchmaking, and a rich history it is. There was a time when the names Elgin, Waltham, Hamilton and Bulova, amongst others, made the Swiss watchmakers quake in their tiny cottage workshops. “American System of Manufacturing ” as it become known, revolutionized the watchmaking industry and set the stage, for the fall, and eventual reemergence of Swiss horological dominance.
The American watch industry began around 1850 and held a dominant presence until around 1940 when companies began to consolidate. Early in its history, companies like Elgin, Waltham and Hamilton had mastered the process of mass producing interchangeable parts, way before Henry Ford, which translated into highly precise timepieces at an incredible price point for their quality, which had the Swiss so unnerved that they sent a representative to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia to see for themselves what the Americans had up their collective sleeves. What the Swiss saw was, Waltham’s automated screw making machine and were shocked by what it could do. A spool of wire was fed into one end of the completely automated machine, and a steady stream of perfectly formed screws the size of pin heads was delivered out the other end. Similar quality watch screws simply could not be made by the hand controlled machines the Swiss used. Four years later the Swiss and English were pretty much out of the American market, but the Swiss were not sitting on their hands in the cottage. By 1900 the Swiss were almost on par with American manufacturing, but still had an uphill climb ahead of them. American companies such as Bulova, started by Bohemian immigrant Joseph Bulova in 1875 in N.Y.C., were still enjoying prominence in their isolationist markets of the U.S. and Canada. Bulova is credited with many firsts in the watch industry. Along with the standardization of parts, they are credited as having the first ladies line. A Bulova, later to become known as the Lone Eagle, adorned famed pilot Charles Lindbergh wrist as he made his historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean. One of their greatest achievements was the invention of the Bulova Accutron quartz watch, in October of 1960, which used a tuning fork instead of a balance wheel as a timekeeping element, creating a watch of incredible accuracy. Though Bulova was bought out by Citizen Watch in 2008, they are still pushing the boundaries, like introducing the world’s first curved chronograph at Baselworld in 2016.
But by the 1920s Swiss companies such as Patek Phillipe and Longine’s were outperforming U.S. watch companies in their own backyard. The final blow came in the 1940s when the U.S. government forced companies to shut down their commercial production to manufacture timepieces and other instruments for the wartime effort. And the rest is history as they say. But as always is the case with history, it is being written each day, and the story of U.S. based watch companies is continuing as well, albeit a bit more of a condensed story this time but still steeped in the same quality and produced with some of the old manufacturing methods as well, with the end result a wonderful mixture of two very distinct eras. So, let’s take a look at several examples of the new face of American horology.
R.G.M. Watches-Mount Joy Pennsylvania
Roland G. Murphy’s career in watchmaking began in Bowman Technical School in Lancaster Pa., America’s La Chaux-de-Fonds from another era. He furthered his training in Switzerland when in 1986 he was accepted by WOSTEP, The Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program. After WOSTEP he was hired by Hamilton Watch Co., still headquartered in Lancaster Pa. at the time, where he remained until he started R.G.M. in 1992. Modern manufacturing takes place next to antique hand-operated machinery. Hand blued screws and hand-polished components make for a perfect fit with the close tolerances afforded by automated machines. That combined with German solid silver hand cut Engine-Turned (Guilloché) dials, perlage on main plates and in house movements to name a few of R.G.M. watches attributes, he strives to make not only fine American watches but fine timepieces period. In 2010 R.G.M. introduced their Pennsylvania Tourbillion movement. It has a uniqueness to the design, and looks to have elements taken from all parts of watch movement making history, a direct reflection of his depth of training and years of repairing and refurbishing watches from the past.
Price range…..$3,000. to $95,000
George Thomas from Czech Slovakia and Harwig Balke from Germany both wound up on the shores of Maryland one day, which is a miracle in itself, even though both were avid sailors, because both had many spent years globetrotting from one job opportunity to the next. Thomas beginning his career repairing watches for the biggest retailer of watches, at the time, in Panama, later meddling in everything from real estate investment to water treatment ventures, all the while racking up forty years’ worth of watching making experience along the way. Hartwig, a German born engineer, began his professional career designing the hatchback for the VW Golf. From there he ventured into oilfield and dust collection engineering all the while becoming a self-taught master watchmaker. Together the two minds behind Towson Watch Co. have built a watch that has been to space, restored one the oldest watches in existence, which now resides at the Walter’s art gallery. They have also restored the pocket watches of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. All that lends a bit of credibility to this watchmaking duo. Every Towson watch is handcrafted by both Thomas and Balke. Models such as the 14k Gold Potomac are designed with a true watch connoisseur in mind. A 14k gold case contains a 17 jewel Swiss manual wind movement, intricately hand engraved and skeletonized by the pair. Gold cathedral style hands complete the overall classic style of the Potomac. Models such as the Mission Moon, Bay Pilot, Skipjack and Pride, demonstrate where the pair have been, where they are now, and where they are going in the future.
Price range…..$2,500 to $15,000
In 1998 Michael Kobold was making watches in his Pittsburgh apartment, when the German born, Carnegie Mellon University student, decided to turn his hobby into a class project. It was met, by his professor with a casual, that’s a nice hobby. So while his classmates were getting millions in seed money for dot com ventures, Kobold took the $5,000 in his bank account to start Kobold Watches and has never looked back. He began as a one man show, selling on line, to mostly connoisseurs, with a reputation for nearly indestructible, precision watches. Today things have changed considerably. Now 32, Kobold designs each and every watch himself, in his small workshop in Pittsburgh, Pa. Today his watches are put to the test by Nasa test pilots Navy Seals and C.I.A. operatives. Maybe most notably, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the greatest explorer alive, according to the Guinness Book Of World Records, took his Kobold to the top Mt. Everest and beyond. Kobold still sources some parts from overseas but plans to be 100% American made by the year 2025.
Price range…..$2,000 to $14,000
Vortic Watch Co.-Fort Collins Colorado
As young men, the founders of Vortic Watch Co., R.T. Custer and Tyler Wolfe, had a passion for timepieces, and what began as a conversation on the golf course while they were in college together in 2013, once again morphed into a class project, and well once again, the rest is a young history in the making. The pair had an idea to incorporate old orphaned pocket watch movements, which in the era of pocket watches, millions were produced, and back engineer, through the new technology of 3-D printing, a titanium case to accommodate the newly refurbished pocket watch movement. Railroad pocket watches by companies such as Ball, whose tagline is American Standard, and others such as Elgin and Waltham to name a few, were of such a high quality, decoration and precision, to reduce the risk of railroad collisions, that they soon became heirlooms, to be passed along to coming generations and in as such they all come with a long history, telling more than time. Innovative thinking such as the removeable bezel, by hand, on the Railroad Edition, to access the lever set action of the movement, as well as create a watertight seal, utilizing a proprietary cam lock system, keeps the American engineering spirit alive.
Price range…..$2,200 to $4,995
So while America’s big names in the watch industry, some gone forever, others swallowed by conglomerates and relegated to factories with little care for the quality, American companies such as those listed above, as well as others, continue to keep the one thing alive that can’t be absorbed into a corporation; the American engineering spirit.