Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission hit Detroit-based watch and accessory maker Shinola with a warning for use of the slogan “Where American Is Made,” which the government body concluded was a misleading claim as to the origins of the brand’s watches. The FTC found that, in certain watches, 100 percent of the costs of materials was attributed to imported goods.
This wasn’t a huge surprise. The FTC had advised the company in 2015 to drop the slogan, but warnings went unheeded. Granted, the company never claimed its products were “Made in the USA.” And while the origins of other components, like the dials and cases, weren’t entirely clear, it has always been known that the quartz movement component inside the watches were sourced from Ronda in Switzerland and assembled in Detroit.
But in a burgeoning segment of small US watch brands, Shinola was a standout for its ubiquity, its success and its plucky, can-do American branding. It advertised itself as a revitalization of not just the dead industry of American watchmaking, but American manufacturing as a whole.
Whether or not you bought into all that, it does illustrate a desire for more American watches. Shinola isn’t the only brand to attempt to fill that niche. Companies like RGM, Weiss, Kobold and Vortic to name just a few have popped up and advertised themselves as American to a degree.
But it’s far from a full-fledged revitalization. To understand why requires some perspective on how great the American watch industry was, and how far it fell.
Prior to the mid 19th century, Britain and Switzerland made the majority of the world’s watches (about 200,000 a year, each, in 1800), but even so, watchmaking was still a cottage industry, with the majority of the work being done by hand. The results were imperfect and generally expensive.
The American watch industry was virtually nonexistent at this time, but in 1850 it came into existence in a very big way. Aaron Lufkin Dennison, a watch repairman often considered “the father of American watchmaking,” started his own watch company, the American Horologe Company (later Waltham) in Roxbury, Massachusetts, with a revolutionary mission to create watches with parts that were so precisely manufactured, via machinery, that they would be interchangeable. Dennison perfected this process over a span of several years.
American brands never quite recovered, and were further hurt by an inability to keep up with consumer tastes; the Swiss built thinner, more attractive wristwatches.
More American companies followed, adopting the same mass-production techniques that Dennison pioneered. Elgin, for example, was founded in the early 1860s and recruited some of its watchmakers from Waltham. American companies by and large created watches that were more affordable, more reliable and more plentiful than their European counterparts. More than 120 American pocket watch companies existed between 1809 and 1968, and Waltham alone made 40 million watches between 1850 and 1957.
At the outbreak of World War II, American production of civilian watches halted, as big American brands like Hamilton, Bulova, Elgin and Waltham started making military-issue watches and other wartime necessities like bomb fuses and aircraft instruments. Meanwhile, Switzerland’s neutrality meant it could continue making watches for the civilian market and enjoy an effective monopoly.Switzerland adopted the same mass production techniques honed by American companies; in the decades following the war, around half of the watches sold worldwide were of Swiss origin. Switzerland’s market share grew in the US, too: between 1940 and 1945, exports of Swiss watches to the US doubled from 4 million to 8 million watches and modules. By 1945, a whopping 49 percent of the Swiss watch industry’s output was exported to the US, according to Amy Glasmeier’s book Manufacturing Time: Global Competition in the Watch Industry.
American brands never quite recovered, and were further hurt by an inability to keep up with consumer tastes — the Swiss built thinner, more attractive wristwatches. By 1969, Hamilton produced the last mechanical watch made in America, the 992B pocket watch. Hamilton’s operations fully moved to Switzerland soon after.
With the overseas migration of US watchmaking operations, the resources and infrastructure for manufacturing parts in the United States disappeared. Many former US watch companies (today foreign-owned) that exist today, like Hamilton and Bulova, are now headquartered and/or do almost all of their manufacturing abroad. Only recently have the aforementioned small brands taken their place; but even they can’t be considered fully “American Made.”
Per the FTC’s requirements, any product claimed to be US made must be “all or virtually all” made in the USA, and “the product should contain no — or negligible — foreign content.” In the watch industry, this is actually a unique stipulation. For example, a watch to be “Swiss Made,” only about 60 percent of the watch’s movement needs to be made from Swiss parts and assembled in Switzerland; the case itself can be made elsewhere, like China, as long as it is inspected and assembled with the movement in Switzerland. Watches with the “Made in Germany” label also don’t need to be made from 100 percent German parts.
In an open letter published on Hodinkee in June, Shinola founder Tom Kartsotis opined that the FTC’s policies were somewhat unfair. “The regulations governing the ‘Made in the USA’ standards create somewhat subjective policies and standards that hinder the ability of any given company to communicate effectively to the consumer the overall effort and scope of what they are manufacturing in America… We found it confusing that a car, for example, isn’t held to the same standard as a watch.”
“We’re coming back, but at the specialty level — we won’t be at Hamilton’s level doing thousands and thousands of movements.”
To Kartsotis’s credit, manufacturing a watch fully in the US to achieve that “Made in the USA” label is borderline impossible. “In Switzerland and Germany, and Europe in general, because the industry never entirely went away, the foundation for the industry was still there, and all the allied support of companies making all these parts and companies were all still there,” said American watchmaker Roland G. Murphy. “If you wanted, for instance, to start a company in Switzerland…you can rent a building, buy some equipment and put out ads out to people. You have that all right at your doorstep.
“We lost all of that because our industry was gone so long ago… Case makers, dial makers, people who made special machines. All that allied industry is gone. Starting here now, you’re basically starting at zero.”
Murphy, who started his own watch company, RGM, in 1992, is one of the very few to start from zero. In 2007, Murphy made available his manually wound, three-hand Caliber 801, his first movement made from the ground up and, by the company’s claim, the first American fine mechanical watch movement made in series since Hamilton shuttered production in 1969. Murphy now has his own tourbillon and moonphase movements, as well, made from parts built and finished by hand. All told, these watches are 90 percent comprised of American parts, Murphy says.
RGM produces about 50 to 60 of these pieces per year. “We’re coming back, but at the specialty level — we won’t be at Hamilton’s level doing thousands and thousands of movements,” Murphy said. And he isn’t the only US watchmaker to build watches with in-house movements at the specialty level. Watchmaker Keaton P. Myrick has built his own (very) low-volume run of watches that he says are 80 percent comprised of components made by him at his workshop in Sisters, Oregon.
But while Murphy and Myrick pursue American watch manufacturing as a small niche in an already niche industry, L.A.-Based Cameron Weiss — who already places heavy emphasis on his brand’s use of American-made cases, dials, and other parts — has tried to restore some semblance of mass production in America by launching Pinion Precision Technology, in addition to his watch brand, Weiss Watch Company.
“I’ve wanted to manufacture my own movement since I was in watchmaking school. It’s a long process; there’s been a lot of learning,” said Weiss, who earlier this year unveiled the Pinion CAL 1003. The movement, which shares a lot in common structurally with the ETA/Unitas 6498, is almost entirely built from American-made parts, except for the hairspring and jewels, which come from Switzerland, according to Weiss.
Weiss has big ambitions. He says his company currently has the ability to produce 5,000 movements annually, and he wants to double that number by 2017 in hopes of selling movements to other American companies (Kickstarter brand Vortic is one of the first to utilize it).
“If someone asked me, ‘Where are your watches made?’ What country would I say? America.”
This, somewhat ironically, required the rebuilding of the same kind of mass production and tooling processes that American watch companies pioneered decades ago. “It took a while to pick the machines we wanted to invest in. The machine itself is really a base, and from there we need to engineer the process of the manufacturing that will take place on that machine,” Weiss said. He estimates he’s currently making about 65 to 75 percent of the American parts himself, while the rest are made from other machinists in the US.
Weiss’s latest development was once considered to be unthinkable, which is why it has been met with both awe and strong skepticism within the watch community. (The website for Weiss’s manufacturing company, Pinion Precision Technology Company, claims the company is “the only manufacturer able to meet the requirements for the USA Made label.” The FTC declined to comment when asked whether a watchmaker would qualify for the Made in the USA label by building parts to the extent Weiss claims to be.) Regardless, it’s a step forward — a movement that makes the possibility of a more homegrown, FTC-approved American watch a possibility.
Will American watchmaking return to its mass-produced former glory? Perhaps not. But attempts to produce American watches have led to unique products and new brands for watch aficionados. And the question remains as to whether a watch needs to be made 100 percent in the US to be considered truly American. “If someone asked me, ‘Where are your watches made?'” said Murphy, “I would say, ‘America.'”