It’s fairly easy, if asked to reel off a list of Swiss watch brands; these days it’s even pretty simple to name a few British and then maybe throw in some Italians and a few French. Coming up with American watch brands though, is a little harder. The names don’t exactly trip off the tongue, which is a shame because, back in the late 1800s, the US was giving the Swiss a run for its money when it came to producing accurate, reliable timepieces.
So advanced was US watchmaking that in the late 1870s a Swiss engineer called Jacques David was sent to the US to conduct industrial espionage at both Waltham and Elgin’s factories. He returned with such a damning surmisal of the Swiss watch industry’s failings that the report was labelled “secret” and buried, but not before the Swiss took note and began to mass produce themselves.
Despite Switzerland getting its mojo back, US brands continued to dominate the domestic market before the entire enterprise was destroyed by WWII. When the US entered the war, watch factory machines were put to use making artillery shells, military clocks and precision instruments. The Swiss, being neutral, continued to make technological advances and were also still able to export thanks to special permission from the Nazi government.
Hamilton was one of the few names who continued to produce watches and who supplied 9,800 marine chronometers to the US Navy and one million watches to the Armed Forces. By the late 1950s, the likes of Elgin and Waltham were wrapping up business and by the 1970s the US domestic watch market had died.
Recently, however, there has been a resurgence in brands that are assembling watches in the US, making in-roads into bringing back life in an industry that has been dormant for over 30 years. Here are just a few of the names that are making American watchmaking great again.
The Best American Watch Brands
Yes, it is Swatch-owned, has “Swiss made” on the dial and since 1969 all its watches are made in Bienne, but Hamilton’s DNA is quintessentially American. It was born in Pennsylvania, gained a reputation for making pocket watches as accurate as railroad clocks and thanks to the superior quality of its escapements, was the only US watch brand to survive WWII.
In 1957, it pre-empted Bob Dylan and went electric, creating the first watch of its kind; the movement of which was used in the Ventura worn by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii. Despite its obvious Swissness, this is most definitely a brand whose heart, if not the beat, is still 100% American.
Watch to own: Hamilton Khaki Field mechanical – the direct descendant of the GI’s legendary hack watch from WWII
Founded in 1875 by Joseph Bulova who emigrated from Bohemia, part of Europe’s Austro-Hungarian empire, this brand is most renowned for its tuning-fork technology. Devised by Max Hetzel, who surmised that a tuning fork with a resonance frequency of a few hundred hertz would, thanks to its insensitivity to temperature changes and purity of tone, keep time better than both the mechanical and electric options around at the time.
At the end of the 1960s this revolutionary technology was unveiled in the form of the Accutron. It became an integral part of the US space programme – there should still be one in the Sea of Tranquility that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong put there. Movements are Swiss, Japanese or from Hong Kong and the watches are assembled in Switzerland or Asia. However, despite being acquired by Citizen in 2008, Bulova still retains headquarters in New York City; the place where its story began.
Watch to own: The ultra-precise Precisionist
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Shinola, the watch and lifestyle brand set up by Fossil Group founder Tom Kartsotis and named after the defunct shoe polish brand. It has been accused of dealing in fake Americana and capitalising on Detroit’s comeback story when it based its factory there, despite bringing jobs to the area.
In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission ordered it to stop using the slogan “Where American is Made” due to the use of Swiss Ronda movements and overseas manufacturers for dials, hands, cases, crystals and buckles and its advertising campaigns have been accused of perpetuating a “white saviour” narrative. However, despite all that, it is still going strong and even launched its first mechanical watch in 2017.
It looks like Oscar Wilde was right about it being better to be talked about than not.
Watch to own: The original Runwell but with an automatic movement
Set up by friends RT Custer and Tyler Wolfe while they were still at Pennsylvania State University, Vortic combines 3D printing technology with antique American pocket watch movements to create some really interesting vintage-style timepieces.
Old Elgin dials, discarded hands and redundant calibres are all given new leases of life in cases of printed titanium. You can buy ready built, have fun creating your own or even get a pocket watch you already own converted into a Vortic original. This brand is also as American as they come, as everything is made in the US at the brand’s Fort Collins, Colorado home.
Watch to own: The Chicago. It has an original Elgin dial so you’re owning a real slice of US watch history
Launched in 2014, this New York-based watch company has made a name for itself thanks to its eye-catching designs and very easy-on-the-wallet prices. Set up by John Tarantino, who left a career in real estate to turn watch designer, it uses Japanese Miyota movements and components from China, but final assembly and testing is all done in New York.
The brand got its boost thanks to SeedInvest, the crowd funding platform that allows people to become investors in startups, owning actual equity shares. The aesthetic is minimal with design twists that make the styles stand out, while dial colours can be chosen by the customer to add a touch of individuality. It’s definitely something different in a world of retro reissues and often interchangeable designs.
Watch to own: The ultimate everyday wearer – the Kerrison
Timex emerged out of The Waterbury Clock Company, which was founded in Connecticut in 1857, when after WWII, Norwegian owner Thomas Olsen, who bought the company in 1941, decided to develop a cheap simple watch movement. Called the Model 21, it had no finishing, no jewels and wasn’t particularly accurate. It was made to be replaced not fixed and thanks to being sold through drugstores, tobacconists and discounters, was incredibly successful.
Since then Timex has become a huge conglomerate with operations in Europe, the Americas and Asia. Manufacturing may have moved to the Far East and Switzerland, but all products are based on technology developed in the US, as well as Germany. It has a reputation for making reasonably priced, fashion-forward timepieces. But nowadays, they are also accurate too…
Watch to own: The retro-inspired Marlin
If you love car-themed watches then this Brooklyn-based brand is for you. Frustrated that there wasn’t anything automotive-inspired other than expensive chronographs or gimmicky carbon-fibre designs, product designer and car nut Bradley Price decided to create his own watch based on gauges from the 1960s and 1970s. The result is something subtly car oriented rather than all-out petrolhead.
Because of his attention to detail, only one model is launched every year and in limited numbers. They are quartz powered, which helps keep the prices at a very respectable sub-£1000 mark (unless you opt for the Monoposto, which is just over, and automatic).
Watch to own: The very jazzy Ford GT Endurance Chronograph 67 Heritage