A Brief History of American Watchmaking
With the next edition of Horology Forum happening in the good ol’ U S of A, we thought it would be a good idea to talk a bit about the history of watchmaking in the United States.
While many may know that Hamilton – currently a Swatch group brand – started in the state of Pennsylvania in 1892 (more on that later), they were not the first brand to officially call themselves an American watch brand.
In 1855 in Waltham, Massachusetts, the American Waltham Watch Co. was established under the leadership of Aaron Lufkin Dennison, who, as it is told, in 1849, had been approached by a Bostonian clockmaker by the name of Edward Howard, and the two eventually went into the watchmaking industry alongside business partners David P. Davis and Samuel Curtis. At the time, the business was called the American Horological Company until six years later when it became American Waltham Watch Co. (name after the city in Massachusetts) and then eventually, just Waltham Watch Company.
But Waltham wasn’t the only watchmaker to have found success in the States, and it is said that even this Swiss were in awe of the capabilities of the watchmakers coming out of America. Here are a handful of other American watch brands that found success in the 19th century:
Elgin Watch Company (first known by the name National Watch Company), founded originally in 1863 but incorporated one year later, produced many of the self-winding wristwatch movements made in the United States, at the time. Their claim to fame happened during World War II when they began manufacturing military watches, chronometers, fuses (for artillery shells), altimeters, and timekeeping instruments for aircrafts.
Illinois Watch Company, founded in 1870 in Springfield, Illinois, by John C. Adams and John Whitfield Bunn (with the help of a few other financiers). In the late 1920s, shortly before a takeover, the manufacturer began producing its own watch cases. The company assembled and boxed their watches at their factory, which is now known by many collectors as the company's “golden era.” The brand was eventually sold to the Hamilton Watch Company in 1927 and stopped manufacturing watches in the 1930s. founded.
Hamilton Watch Company was incorporated in 1892 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Little known fact: The company was actually named for a lawyer by the name of Andrew Hamilton who once owned the piece of property in Lancaster, Pennsylvania that the Hamilton watch factory was built upon. Andrew Hamilton was Attorney General for the colony of Pennsylvania from 1717 until 1724, which was when he travelled to London to formally oversee the will of Pennsylvania founder William Penn. For his legal work, Hamilton was awarded land. And some of his land wound up becoming the sight of one of America’s largest and most well-known watch manufacturers. In 1969, the Hamilton Watch Company completely ended American manufacturing operations with the closure of its factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, shifting manufacturing operations to the Buren factory in Switzerland, and in 1971, the brand was purchased by SSIH.
Other recognizable brands to come out of America (but not the only) were Benrus (founded in New York in 1921), Gruen, founded in Ohio in 1894, and Bulova, founded in the Queens borough of New York in 1875. Bulova was purchased by the Citizen watch group of Japan in 2008 and because of a rich history in the space race as well as keeping up with the needs of today’s watch enthusiasts, the brand has found their niche through reissues of their Accutron and Computron timepieces.
Today, the United States has several newer micro brands and independent brands making their mark on the horological world. Microbrands such as Oak & Oscar and Brew have solid followings and Pennsylvania-based indie brand RGM has made its mark on the hearts of collectors around the globe for its intricacy and old school attention to detail.
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