A Short History of American Watch Making
Now a days, when you say "fine watches", the Swiss immediately
come to mind. This hasn't always been the case, both the English
and the Americans were once considered leaders in the watch field.
The development of the American watch industry was one of the
symbols of America's emergence from an agricultural country to an
Watches before 1850: The English and Swiss Rule Supreme
Although the English aren't famous for watchmaking now, from
around 1650 until around 1850 they made the highest quality, most
accurate watches in the world. The English watches tended to be
bulky and not very fashionable, but the plain style matched the
"puritan" ethic of England. The Swiss, on the other hand, had a
flair for the fashions that were desired by the rest of Europe and
the world. The Swiss made a very wide range of watches, from cheap
junk to very high quality complicated watches, although few were
as accurate as the English. Both of these two major watch centers
made watches in small batches by small companies with a lot of
hand work. Both of these countries dumped their cheapest junk onto
the American market.
1850s: The Founding of the American Watch Industry
Starting around 1850, the Americans pioneered the use of automated
machines to mass produced high quality watches with
interchangeable parts. This became known as the "American System
of Manufacturing." By the 1860s-1870s the American watch
companies had proved that this system could make watches that
were every bit as good as all but the best watches that were made
by hand. They were also able to make watches that were cheaper
than all but the cheapest hand made watches.
1870s: American Watch Companies Are The State Of The Art
By the mid 1870s, the Swiss noticed a significant drop off in
sales to the American market. To find out why, they sent a
representative to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
There, the Swiss saw 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 were delivered out
the other end. Similar quality watch screws simply could not be
made by the hand controlled machines the Swiss used.
It wasn't just screw making that the American's had perfected.
Almost every part of a watch had a specially designed machine that
could make parts faster, more accurately and with less labor than
anything the Swiss or English could do.
By the early 1880s, the Swiss and English were pretty much run
out of the American market. The English just kind of folded up
shop and stuck to the high end ship chronometers needed by the
many ships of the huge British Empire. They also made over priced
junk that could only be sold at home. The English reacted to
both the growing Swiss and American watch industries by lobbying the
parliament for higher tariffs and restricting imports. The Swiss,
on the other hand, reacted by adapting to the new market.
1880s: The Swiss Respond
Before the 1880s, the Swiss watch industry was made up of cottages
in little villages where only a few parts of a watch movement or
watch case were made. Those parts would then be assembled in
other small shops. Each watch had to be hand tweaked to account
for the differences between the parts. A difference in one part
would often require that the other parts that it touched to have
to be adapted.
After seeing the American System of Manufacturing, the Swiss
reorganized into centralized factories, with a fair amount of
automation. These factories were very small compared to American
companies and they still weren't as automated. They did, however,
make enough improvements that they could make knock offs of
American watches ("Swiss Fakes") and also to keep from losing the
rest of the world's markets.
One drawback to the American System of Manufacturing is that each
part required a machine to make it, so complicated watches such as
minute repeaters, chronographs and very high end watches were not
practical to make. Sometimes American companies would "cheat" and
simply make these watches with semi-automated means similar to the
Swiss, but the quantity was limited and by the 1890s, most
American watch companies had stopped making them. The American
watches were very high quality, but also very simple.
1900s: The Power of Competitive Markets
While the American companies had dabbled in foreign markets in the
1870's and 1880's, for the most part, they were quite happy to
limit themselves to the US and Canadian markets. Americans, in
general, were quite isolationist, and Elgin and Waltham were
generally selling everything their factories could produce.
By around 1900, the Swiss technology had pretty much caught up
with the Americans. One big difference was that the Swiss had many
companies involved in the making of a watch. There were a bunch of
companies that would make "movements in the gray" (ebauche), and
these movements would be sold to other companies that would finish
them off and sell them. Other companies would specialize in things
like chronograph attachments, watch dials, mainsprings or
tools. With so many Swiss companies each doing only a part of the
manufacture, as a whole, the Swiss were able to produce everything
from very cheap watches, to watches of the highest quality.
The American market, in contrast, was effectively a duopoly of
Waltham and Elgin, with several smaller companies trying to
survive in niche markets. All of these companies produced
everything but the watch case. A factory that builds everything
has certain advantages, such as it is easier to coordinate, but
having one factory that did everything from making jewels, to
making dials, to sales and promotion also had draw backs. If a
Swiss company was having problems with the quality or quantity of,
say, the dials, they would change suppliers. If an American
company couldn't make dials, they were stuck. A new Swiss company
could enter the market fairly easily, but the American "watch
trust" made distributors and Jewelers leery of accepting a new
brand of watch and risk loosing their supply of Elgins and
1920s: The Return of the Swiss
The Swiss were early adopters of the wrist watch, and after WWI,
they made significant inroads into the US market. Of the American
watch companies, only Elgin, Hamilton and the company was to
become Timex really successfully made the switch to wrist
watches. Waltham held on, but due to poor management, they failed
to invest in the newer equipment that was needed to make the
smaller watches. The dozen or so other American watch companies
either merged, were bought out and moved to other countries or
After the market crash of 1929, watches became a luxury that most
people could put off buying. All the watch companies suffered, but
those that hadn't switched to wrist watch production couldn't
recover. During the 1930s, watch companies all over the world
just kind of hung on.
During WWII, the American watch companies sunk a great deal of
their remaining capital into converting to war production. Bomb
"fuses" (timers), specialized navigation timers, and ship
chronographs were all new designs which required new
equipment. The Swiss, being "neutral", were allowed back into the
American market in a big way and when the war ended, the American
watch companies were in a world of hurt. They had lost a large
chunk of their home market, they had no foreign markets, and they
needed time to retool back to watch production. The American
public, on the other hand, was flush with money that they couldn't
spend while the war was on, and the Swiss were all too willing to
supply them with watches.
1950s: The Swiss Take Charge
By the 1950s, the Swiss had perfected machine made complicated
wrist watches such as chronographs, automatic winding watches, and
day-date watches. The Americans had never produced these kinds of
watches (in any real numbers), they weren't making much money and
they had exhausted their reserves. None of them were able to make
the transition from simple watches to the complicated ones that
were in demand in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Like the English, the American watch companies reacted to the
growing Swiss market share by lobbying congress for higher tariffs
and restricting imports. They also tried to get more military
contracts, but even the Korean war didn't help much. I have a
wonderful article from Elgin whining to congress about how there
"needs to be a parity of price at the borders" and "We need a
tariff on Swiss watches and a subsidized export market." And to
think, Elgin was in much better shape than most.
The only American watch company that survived was Timex, which
made cheap, "disposable" watches. While they were looked down on
by the elite watch makers, they were at least turning a profit.
By making the watches "disposable", Timex was able to do things
like completely seal the watch case. This meant that it couldn't
be opened to be repaired, but it also wouldn't let dust in. The
Timex also lacked any jewels, which meant that it would wear out
after a while, but it was also more rugged that way. A sharp
knock would often break the jewels in an expensive watch, but a
Timex could "Take a Licking, And Keep On Ticking!"
The other American company of note was Bulova, which up until the
1950s had imported their movements from Switzerland. In the
1960s, they created the revolutionary electronic "Accutron"
watch. This watch used a tuning fork to keep time instead of a
rotating balance wheel, and the result was an incredibly accurate
watch. The Accutron became the high end watch from the early
1960s until the early 1970s when the quartz watch took over.
1970s: The Quartz Age
In the 1970s, the Swiss took another shock when the Japanese
perfected the quartz watch, but like the shock from the "American
System of Manufacturing", they adapted and recovered.
Today, you can still buy watches with the great American names of
Waltham, Elgin, and Hamilton, but none of these watches are made
in the USA. Many watch companies license these names, and little
attention is paid to their quality. They probably aren't any
worse than many other brand names that you can pick up at Target
or Wallmart, but they have nothing to do with their once great