There’s something about a watch you could actually buy with your current bank account, right now, that gets the heart thumping and the synapses firing. These watches — specifically, the ones that cost less than $1,000, many of them less than $500 — are the subject of our new series “Time Is Money“.
“I really made the watch for someone who understands the value of having an item that would last”, Cameron Weiss, founder of Weiss Watch Company, recently told me of his Standard Issue Field Watch ($950). “It’s not just a watch for the season. It’s for someone who looks a little deeper into products, someone who’s buying something for his lifetime, his kid’s lifetime.”
This is a confident stance to take about a watch that many would place well within the “affordable” bracket. But then, Weiss’s statement of purpose should also feel refreshing for serious buyers who aren’t able to shell out for a watch more often considered in terms of familial legacy — a Rolex Submariner, say, or an Omega Moonwatch. And why shouldn’t something costing just less than a thousand dollars last a man’s lifetime, and his children’s, and be considered a small treasure?
Weiss makes a strong argument for the importance of his watch. Based in Los Angeles, his company Weiss Watch Co. is one of the latest small watch building companies to enter a burgeoning segment of watches designed and largely manufactured in the U.S. The Standard Issue Field Watch is the third iteration of their only watch, first sold in 2013; they’ve made approximately 750 so far, with both a black dial with white markings and vice versa. (I tested the white-dialed watch.) Until recently the small company worked exclusively out of Weiss’s home studio and included Weiss himself, his wife, and two part-time workers. They’re about to expand into a larger workshop in downtown LA, and Weiss has hired a full-time watchmaker to work beside him. Weiss himself is fit to teach; he’s worked at Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, and graduated from the Nicolas G. Hayek Watchmaking School after two years of full-time study.
Los Angeles is an important part of each watch’s production. “LA is one of the greatest manufacturing cities for high-tech components”, Weiss explains. “Things that go into spaceships, aerospace products, all that stuff are built here… Watch parts, with very tight tolerances and perfect surface finishes, are very similar to these goods.” And hence the proud “Los Angeles, CA” on the Field Watch’s dial, which has flummoxed some angry internet commenters, who think the city of angels represents silicone breasts and shallowness rather than quality.
But this watch is no piece for greasy-haired flakes to flash, nor is it a fashion item for condescending high-end baristas. The design for Weiss’s watch was heavily influenced by American-made pocketwatches as well as airplane instruments, and especially calls to mind clean 1930s and 1940s design. In both white and black versions it has a conservative styling, mimicking those forebearers with a humble simplicity. At 42 millimeters it’s large, and plenty of empty white space on the dial accentuates its size. The arabic numerals and seconds markings are understated and simple, yet read like newspaper in hi-def thanks to the sharp black/white contrast. At 9:00, the small seconds dial looks especially inspired by the tight lines of Hamilton watches from the 1930s. “Los Angeles, CA” sits above 6:00, notable only because it’s an odd town for a watch to hail from.
And yet the watch is also bold, with pinches of aggressive militaristic design that balance out its otherwise straightforward look. Its sword hands are long and elegant, as far as the usually blunt style goes, and shine with the same buffed finish as the top portion of the case. They’re also the only lumed piece of the watch, showing basic, lonely time in the dark. It’s the bare minimum for field watch utility, but it works. The case is a mix of brushed and polished stainless steel, with the latter shining just so around the edge of the dial and the former faintly showing its luster in my favorite piece of the watch: its lugs. They’re brutish and loud, sticking flatly from the top and bottom of the case; they turn the simple design of the face on its head and transform the look suddenly into that of a field officer’s instrument that’s been tied onto the wrist for convenience. With the olive drab strap (backed by comfortable black leather), it’s a complementary militarized look alongside the conservative dial, hands and case, that gives it the versatility to look good in both the workplace and a in a cow field.
Still, the true magic of the watch is hidden against the wrist when it’s worn. The case back is sapphire, stretching flat and wide the whole way to the outer edge of the case. The watch’s large movement lives inside, all its parts blown up perfectly for studying. There’s more wonder here than in the guts of any other watch I’ve seen in person: The waved Geneva Stripes and blued screws on the plates that veil the inner sanctum; the two large toothed gears that turn one another and in turn tick over a third, smaller wheel; the golden balance wheel that jerks so violently and quickly that you can only see its spokes when it pauses to flash back the other way; the wispy spring it flexes, which strains like the lung of a small animal that’s just finished a marathon; the horned head of the pallet fork, a little creature beneath all this machinery that wriggles back and forth, sternly. For more novice buyers, it’s not a stretch to say this is a front-seat view at the argument for a mechanical watch: not an unquestionable work of art like a piece of haute horlogerie, but then, that’s not what this watch is.
Weiss says he’s trying to produce an American-made mechanical movement for a watch that he says will cost the same price as the current one.
Weiss would be pleased to hear how hypnotized I was by the movement. That fascination with the spring-driven heart was the impetus behind his watch and his entire company. He grew up breaking watches while trying to figure how they work. When he set out to make the Field Watch, he wanted it to be under $1,000, because that’s what nice quartz watches range up to. “I wanted it to be in a price area where I could introduce someone to something with a little more craft — a mechanical movement that should last many generations. At this price I could get it [a mechanical movement] to people who wouldn’t normally buy one”, he says.
But the movement is also a sticking point for many potential buyers. It’s a Swiss-made ETA 6497, a large pocket watch movement that retails for around $229. (Interestingly enough, it’s the same movement used in the Panerai PAM 112, which costs around $8,000.) This ruins the otherwise pure American build of the watch — including movement finishing, case, dial and glass. This is a common problem in the “American-made” watch market. In fact, there’s not a single watch made in the U.S. with an American-made mass-produced mechanical movement. The high costs of production for the precision parts necessary in a mechanical movement have up until now been an insurmountable obstacle for the mostly small companies producing “American-made”, like New York-based Martenero, Detroit-based Detroit Watch Co., and the higher-end Kansas City-based Niall and Pennsylvania-based Kobold.
For now the Field Watch will remain just an attainable dream item for me, despite how taken I am with the current model. Weiss falls a little short in its two-year warranty, which should be a lifetime one for a watch he claims you’ll hand down to your kids. But not buying it is less about any specific problem and more about what’s on the horizon: Weiss says he’s trying to produce an American-made mechanical movement for a watch that he says will cost the same price as the current one. He’s already made a prototype. His goal — an entirely American-made watch — would serve as the perfect affordable heirloom, and a great-looking way to tell the time until you bequeath it to your eager offspring.