The watch scene in the United States, long a predictable and quiet market of watch lovers and buyers, is changing. That’s thanks in part to America’s own kind of volatility: a crucible of American watchmakers and small brands, rising and falling, growing and changing, duking it out for a whole new market of Americans who want to wear a watch made by an American company. The American Watch Renaissance is real. It’s also complicated.
“It’s total chaos,” said Nick Harris, a former Seiko modder who went to Seattle’s Watch Technology Institute and started his own brand, Orion, when I asked him what it’s like to be a small American watchmaker today. “It’s a madhouse.”
American watchmaking has laid dormant since the 1940s, when prominent US watchmakers, already on the decline, were forced to turn their factories to wartime production. Switzerland, neutral during WWII, capitalized, and American watch brands never recovered. American buyers got perfectly comfy with their Rolexes and their Seikos. Then, in 2011, Shinola woke some of those buyers up with watches that used Swiss quartz movements but were put together in its Detroit factory. A small army of brands has followed suit.
It’s not always been rose gold and sunburst dials. Shinola got shellacked by the FTC in 2015 over “American-made” labeling; there’ve been fights over “in-house” claims by up-and-coming brands, and big names like Niall have winked out of business in an instant.
The biggest trends, though, have been great for consumers. Quality mechanical watchmakers of the old school like RGM have quietly stayed the course, keeping traditional, luxury-level watchmaking alive Stateside and inspiring young tinkerers. Larger, mainstream brands, Shinola included, are all-in for mechanical watches. Smaller first-wave brands like Weiss are continuing to grow and break into the public consciousness. The affordable market has shattered into a sea of microbrands run by up-and-comers like Harris, some of them successful, and each with its own dynamic vision and accessible models.
The result for buyers as of 2020 is more great watches at every price range, from $100 to $10,000. Below are some of our favorites.
In 2015, Jonathan Ferrer founded Brew Watches, inspired by industrial espresso machines, and raised $40,000 on Kickstarter. In 2017 he shipped about 200 watches, made from Japanese and Chinese parts assembled in Switzerland. Now, Brew’s newest line is the Mastergraph, a rectangular watch with a classic bent and a Seiko meca-quartz movement that Ferrer assembles himself. He was inspired by “telephone timer” chronographs that first emerged in the 1930s and had hash marks every three minutes to let the wearer know it was time to insert more quarters for their call. The Retrograph has extra hash marks through 35 seconds, the ideal time to pull an espresso shot.
Movement: Seiko VK68 hybrid meca-quartz
Case Diameter: 38mm
Nodus Retrospect Diver
Based in Los Angeles, Nodus represents a crop of young American brands offering the features they know fellow watch enthusiasts appreciate at affordable prices made possible by quality Asian suppliers. Founders Wesley Kwok and Cullen Chen are longtime friends who started the brand together with their own life savings, rather than going the more common Kickstarter route. Nodus is going strong today, and a look at the Retrospect dive watch will tell you why: Its design is rock-solid, it’s powered by a Seiko NH35 movement, and it’s got serious features like sapphire crystal and 200m of water resistance.
Movement: Seiko NH35 Automatic
Shinola Runwell Automatic
When it was founded in 2012, Shinola was a game-changer for American watches, touting its local Detroit staff as part of the city’s Renaissance, and the watches they assembled with Swiss quartz movements as a return to an American-made ethos. Since then, some would say the American watch movement has left them behind, moving on to younger, smaller brands, and moving toward the mechanical. Shinola shows signs of catching up, however, with mechanical watches a permanent part of the company’s lineup — including the brand’s flagship model, the Runwell.
Movement: Sellita SW200-1 automatic
Case Diameter: 39.5mm or 45mm
Auto-inspired watches are nothing new. Yet designer Bradley Price has breathed new American life into the trope, blending a consistent design language spoken by both car and watch enthusiasts with quality finishing and reasonable prices (thanks to Hong Kong manufacturing). That formula has been a winning one for buyers, and it’s taken a number of different forms in its association with all things automotive. The Intereuropa falls on the classic side, recalling the colors and flowing lines of Italian cars from 1949-1964 — the era of the race it was named for. It’s 39mm wide and nice and thin, housing an ETA 7001 manually wound Swiss movement and listing for $1,250.
Movement: ETA 7001 manual
Case Diameter: 39mm
The founder of Pelton watches, Deni Mesanovic, is one of those clearly talented individuals with a wide-ranging skill set and gobs of entrepreneurial energy. His watch business followed a business designing and building microphones, and he’s since also expanded to luxury eyewear and leather goods. He assembles the watches himself, but more notable is that he actually crafts many components in-house. His Sector watch is perfectly representative of the brand, with handmade dials that each require about six hours of work. As each is made to order, however, they take a few weeks to be delivered.
Movement: ETA 2824-2 automatic
Oak & Oscar Olmsted
Oak & Oscar’s founder Chase Fancher ditched a real estate job in 2015 to start his Chicago-based brand. His newest watch, the Olmsted, is the second permanent member of the collection (the rest were limited editions). It was inspired by the founder of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, and takes the brand in a decidedly field-watch direction: with its 100m water resistance rating, double domed sapphire crystal, sandwich dial with plenty of lume and dependable ETA movement, it’s another example of what Fancher considers the “perfect everyday, go-anywhere kind of watch.”
Movement: ETA 2892-A2 automatic
Case Diameter: 38mm
Haven Chilton Chronograph
Haven, a brand proudly based in the American midwest, is new on the scene as of 2019, and brings some fun and color to the watch world with its Chilton chronograph. Drawing on funky chronograph designs of the 1960s and ’70s, it features numerous vintage-inspired elements and details to appreciate, for those so inclined. Take its box-style sapphire crystal, for example, or its panda and reverse-panda dials and vibrant highlights. And unlike many chronographs that tend toward the large side, it’s just 37.5mm wide. Based on this first watch, it’s worth looking forward to Haven’s future as well.
Movement: Sellita SW510M manual
Case Diameter: 37.5mm
Monta was founded in St. Louis where its cofounders were, respectively, working in finance and running a company making high-end rubber watch straps. Only a few years later, Monta is one of the stars of American watchmaking, known for offering the look and feel of name-brand Swiss watches at microbrand prices. The Atlas, the brand’s fourth collection, combines field watch styling with a GMT complication powered by a Sellita 330 Swiss automatic movement. Most of all, it’s the combination of refined details and a purposeful tool watch vibe that give any Monta model its sense of value and character.
Movement: Sellita 330 automatic
Case Diameter: 38.5mm
Vortic Railroad Watch Edition
“We hope to remind everyone that the United States used to be the world superpower of watchmaking,” says R.T. Custer, cofounder of Vortic Watch Company, which has found a unique way to prod that memory. Each of the brand’s watches is centered around an antique pocket watch movement, dial, and hands, refurbished and placed inside a custom-made case. The Railroad Edition uses only refurbished “railroad-grade” watches made by American companies like Elgin, Waltham, and Illinois. The watches are huge, of course — each around 51mm — and though they’re all different, each is chock-full of American watchmaking heritage contained within its display case back.
Movement: Custom, refurbished American-made mechanical
Case Diameter: 51mm