Fond Memories for a Faded U.S. Watch Industry

New York Times, March 8, 2012

NEW YORK — As President Barack Obama hit the campaign trail recently, exhorting Americans to buy U.S.-made items, the retailer Club Monaco was a step ahead.

A “Made in the U.S.A.” placard in the company’s Fifth Avenue store pointed to a capsule collection of domestically manufactured men’s apparel and accessories — like rucksacks and low-rise denim trousers — available since November at the retailer’s locations on Fifth Avenue and Bloor Street in Toronto, curated by the men’s fashion blogger Michael Williams.

The collection featured nine American-made watches selected by Benjamin Clymer, founder of the watch blog Hodinkee.

These included a 1950s Benrus Skychief Chronograph; a 1954 Elgin “Sugar Bowl” Winner’s Watch (Georgia Tech beat West Virginia 42-19 in the football game that year); and a 1970s Hamilton military watch “meant to be rugged and reliable wristwear for G.I.s,” according to the display card describing the watch.

The vintage assortment was sweetly nostalgic and, for fans of American watchmaking, perhaps a little disheartening. The age of the timepieces, which Mr. Clymer found by scouring the Brooklyn Flea Market and eBay, was a testament to the state of the American watch business.

“The industry started in 1850 and began to die off around the mid-1940s, when companies started to consolidate,” James E. Lubic, executive director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute in Harrison, Ohio, said recently by telephone. “The Swiss invented a better mousetrap. They made thinner, sleeker, more stylish watches that appealed to people.”

It wasn’t always that way. In the 19th century, while the Swiss clung to the hoary traditions of a cottage trade, American companies like Elgin, Waltham and Hamilton fine-tuned the production of standardized timepieces that kept the country’s trains running on schedule. “People talk about Henry Ford having the first mass-produced product, but it was first implemented by the watch industry,” Mr. Lubic said.

Roland G. Murphy, a contemporary mechanical watchmaker in the United States, has spent the past 20 years paying tribute to this rich legacy with his RGM Watch Co. Based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the former home of the famed Hamilton watch factory, Mr. Murphy and his staff of 10 produce about 250 timepieces a year, 20 percent of which contain movements fashioned almost entirely in-house.

In January, Mr. Murphy introduced his latest ode to the U.S. horological tradition, the Caliber 20, a tonneau-shaped movement featuring a motor barrel inspired by high-grade railroad watches of the early 20th century.

“It’s far superior in terms of reduction of friction,” Mr. Murphy said of the component.

Once the finished watch is introduced this year, the Caliber 20 will join RGM’s five-year-old 801 collection of American-made calibers, which incorporate both mechanical and aesthetic features borrowed from celebrated American makers of the last century.

In his own modest way, Mr. Murphy is hoping to reverse the trend that began in the 1920s when Swiss companies like Longines and Patek Philippe started to outperform the Americans in their own market.

“By the time World War II came around, there weren’t a whole lot of brands left,” Mr. Murphy said. “What killed American watch companies was what made them great. The really big ones were large industrial companies that used interchangeable parts. When business went down, they couldn’t feed that monster.”

The U.S. industry suffered another blow when the government forced the most successful companies to shut their commercial operations to manufacture timepieces for the war. Once the war ended, only a few companies survived. Despite transferring their factories overseas, they continue to trade on their Yankee heritage.

Hamilton is a good example of a company trying to continue its U.S. tradition. The company was purchased in 1974 by the Swiss conglomerate Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère, the predecessor to Swatch Group. Production was moved from Pennsylvania to Switzerland in 2003. The chief executive of Hamilton, Sylvain Dolla, points to the start this week of a Web site, hamiltonmuseum.com, dedicated to the company’s history, as proof that the brand retains its American spirit.

Visitors to the Baselworld watch fair opening this week in Switzerland will find a trio of Hamilton introductions influenced by the brand’s 120-year-old American roots, including the Hamilton Khaki Navy Pioneer, a hand-wound mechanical watch inspired by marine chronometers from the 1940s. Available in a limited edition of 1,892 pieces, in honor of Hamilton’s founding year, the model sells for $2,945.

Other names synonymous with U.S. innovation have also persisted. Bulova, founded in New York in 1875 by Joseph Bulova, an immigrant from Bohemia, grew into a mass producer of mechanical timepieces.

In a departure from its typical production, the company introduced the Accutron in 1960. Billed as the world’s first fully electronic watch, it featured a tuning fork and electronic circuitry in lieu of a balance wheel.

“For a long time U.S. watchmakers were at the forefront of bringing technology into the category,” said Adam Gurian, president of Timex, an iconic American brand that traces its history to 1854, when the Waterbury Clock Co. was founded in the Naugatuck Valley in Connecticut.

For Timex, durability has been a major selling point. In the 1950s, under the name U.S. Time Co., the company staged a series of stunts to highlight the abuse its watches could handle while maintaining their accuracy. Whether the watches tumbled over the Coulee Dam, or went down, fist-first, in the hands of an Acapulco cliff diver, the company showed that a Timex “takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

Today, a new generation of American watchmakers is once again trying to pit Swiss tradition against U.S. innovation, perhaps none more boldly than Devon, a concept watch company started in 2010 by the entrepreneur Scott Devon of Los Angeles.

The company’s avant-garde Tread 1 timepiece was the first American-made watch to be included in the prestigious Grand Prix D’Horlogerie De Genève competition in 2010, making it to the finals in the design and concept category. This week at Baselworld, Devon will introduce the Tread 2, which offers a streamlined version of the Tread 1’s iconoclastic architecture.

The watches, produced in southern California, use parts supplied by aerospace companies, including interwoven belts made from reinforced nylon and a quartz-based timekeeping mechanism that stores energy in a rechargeable lithium battery rather than a mainspring. The watches sell for $10,000 to $19,500.

Beyond Devon’s signature belt system, an homage to the conveyor belts at the heart of the American industrial revolution, “we don’t have any relevance to the past,” the managing director, Ehren Bragg, said. “We have a reverence for the watchmaking industry, but we’re fine being a trailblazer.”