Modern American Watches: The Truth Behind The Dial
Whether it is rooting for a sports team, enjoying an ethnic delicacy, or buying a local product, we all take pride in some element of our cultures and countries of origin. As New Zealand has its rugby, Japan its sushi, and Germany its automobiles, the United States of America was once renowned for its manufacturing of everything from blue jeans to the personal computer and – you guessed it – mechanical watches.
In recent years there has been a push for the comeback of goods made in the United States. This has inspired artisans of all trades, including watchmakers, to seek the limelight by labeling their creations with the proud “made in America” predicate.
But what does this label really mean?
What it takes to be “made in America”
To be made in America, the United States Federal Trade Commission declares that, “A product that is ‘all or virtually all’ made in the United States will be one in which all significant parts and processing that go into the product are of U.S. origin and the product contains negligible foreign content.”
According to these guidelines, for a watch, it means that the entire timepiece including the movement must be manufactured in the United States and not simply assembled there. After all, the movement is the heart of watch, and the FTC is strict on this matter.
Here is a brief survey of watch brands with varying degrees of “made in America.”
Shinola: built in Detroit
As you may already know, Detroit-based manufacturer Shinola began producing watches several years ago, labeling them as “Built in Detroit.”
As an American and a watch fanatic, the potential of this news could not have made me happier. But there was one problem with Shinola’s American watches . . . they weren’t as American as the FTC would have liked.
While basing its marketing campaign on the idea of “made in America” without actually using those words, Shinola was still importing foreign movement kits and assembling them in its Detroit factory.
The FTC caught wind of this and took action against the company, ruling that “100% of the cost of materials used to make certain watches is attributable to imported materials.” To comply with the FTC, Shinola had to remove the “Built in Detroit” tagline from all its watches, branded materials, and advertising campaigns.
Weiss Watch Company
Another example of misusing the label occurred with Weiss Watch Company of Los Angeles previous to its current 1003 caliber.
Weiss Watch Company, who at that time made its movements with a combination of American and Swiss parts, was labeling its watches as “U.S. made.” This didn’t meet the “all or virtually all” requirements set by the FTC either, and Weiss Watches was forced to remove the label.
Though tough, these requirements seem logical and reasonable. For a brief comparison with Swiss law regarding watches, two of the key defining points required to classify a watch movement as “Swiss Made” are that at least 60% of the manufacturing costs must be generated in Switzerland and at least 50% of the value of all the constituent parts, but excluding the cost of assembly, must be of Swiss manufacture.
These requirements are by far not as firm as the FTC’s, allowing a different perspective on regulations surrounding watches with parts made in another country.
Timex American Documents
In April 2019 Timex released a new collection of watches called American Documents inspired by the company’s American roots. Originally established in 1854 as the Waterbury Clock Company in Connecticut, Timex is an important part of American horological history.
Throughout the Waterbury Clock Company’s evolution and partnerships with businessmen like Robert and Charles Ingersoll, the company played a role in the creation of famous timepieces such as the Ingersoll Yankee, the first watch to be sold in the U.S. for just one dollar.
Dollar watches were purposely designed to be inexpensive and often featured a pin-lever escapement and no jewels. Hey, not everyone could afford a fine timepiece like a Waltham or Illinois!
Continuing into the twentieth century with a mission to make affordable and reliable watches, the company gained fame along the way for additional partnerships with companies like Disney and the first Mickey Mouse timepieces.
In the 1940s the Waterbury Clock Company was purchased and reformed into the Timex Corporation, sticking with the intent for Timex watches to remain affordable and reliable. Its slogan – “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking” – was so popular that every American of that generation certainly still repeats it at the appropriate times.
Nearly bankrupted by the quartz crisis, the American manufacturing of mechanical Timex watches ceased. The company was purchased and restructured numerous times, with the result that materials for Timex watches are now supplied by Asian and European companies.
With its brand-new American Documents collection, Timex states that it has brought watchmaking home to America. But there is a catch. Every part of these new watches is indeed made in the U.S. except for the movement.
This contradiction brings us back to problems surrounding the meaning of “made in America.”
Timex has avoided the mistakes made by Shinola and Weiss Watch Company by declaring its watches are not entirely American directly on the dial, whose verbiage reads, “Made in America, Swiss Mov’t.”
By doing so, the company has worked around the Federal Trade Commission’s requirements for sole use of the “made in America” label. If the watches cannot be legally and definitively classified as American watches, is attaching this altered label simply more deception?
RGM: the modern American watchmaker
Luckily for those of us in the United States, Roland G. Murphy has put his watchmaking expertise and passion for American horological history into a company that indubitably builds the modern American watch.
Located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (home of the former Hamilton Watch Company) RGM Watch Company manufactures its timepieces using modern technology blended with antique watchmaking tools and methods such as engine turning – perhaps better known as guilloche – which is the process of engraving decorative patterns onto metal using a hand-driven rose engine.
RGM even bases its designs on iconic American pocket watches. The Pennsylvania Series 801 caliber draws inspiration from the unique winding click of the Illinois Watch Company’s “Illini” model – see the The Schmidt List: Top 5 Funky Clicks for a detailed explanation of this component’s function – and its crown and ratchet wheels are finished like those of the Illinois Bunn Special.
Further, the 801 caliber includes a bridge plate construction resembling the Edward Howard model of Keystone Howard watches, and the Pennsylvania Series 801 Classic Enamel uses high-fire double-sunk enamel dials like those on nineteenth-century American pocket watches.
See a complete breakdown of this model in RGM Pennsylvania Series 801 Classic Enamel Offers Traditional Timelessness Bridging Past, Present, And Future.
These inspirations represent the great American railroad watches, which were some of the highest-grade watches of their time. And RGM makes sure that the quality of its movements is nothing less than the watches it honors.
Though the brand’s timepieces powered by in-house movements – some have sourced movements – are only 90 percent made in America with the need to import parts such as balance springs and jewels, RGM has come the closest to an entirely American made modern watch today.
Quick Facts RGM Pennsylvania Series 801 Classic Enamel
Case: 43.3 x 12.3 mm, stainless steel
Dial: high-fire double-sunk white enamel
Movement: manually wound Caliber 801, 40-hour power reserve; 2.5 Hz/18,000 vph frequency
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds
Price: $11,900 in steel, $24,700 in gold
Quick Facts Timex American Documents
Case: 41 x 10 mm, stainless steel
Movement: Swiss Ronda quartz
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; date