What is the most famous and successful American watch brand? You’d be forgiven for saying that it’s Apple, as they did sell 30 million Apple Watches in 2020. But this doesn’t sit particularly well with fans of mechanical timepieces.
And why should it? When it comes to American timepieces, there’s so much more to talk about than the smartwatch from Cupertino. Too many people forget that, in its heyday, the USA was a heavyweight among watchmaking nations and even influenced production in the Swiss watch industry.
Read on to (re-)discover a few classics, innovations, and remarkable timepieces hailing from the American watch industry.
Beginnings: Watch Pioneer Waltham (est. 1850)
Let’s kick things off with a bang. At the Centennial International Exhibition (a.k.a. the World’s Fair) in Philadelphia in 1876, the Swiss clock industry discovered that the American Waltham Watch Company was able to produce (pocket) watches faster, cheaper, and in larger quantities than their Swiss counterparts. This was thanks to their standardized, automated production methods for watches and components. The entire industry would later adopt these methods.
While watches were being made at a slow pace by hand in Switzerland, American watchmakers were churning them out in mass numbers. Waltham would go on to make an estimated 40 million watches and other precision devices during its time in business. Today the brand is under Swiss ownership.
Paul Newman’s Waltham Diver Bathyscaphe
If you’re looking for a particularly special piece of Waltham watch history, be sure to keep an eye out for the model worn by Hollywood icon Paul Newman, the Waltham Bathyscaphe. The American company developed this timepiece in cooperation with Blancpain in the 1950s and 60s. Compared to Newman’s legendary , it’s relatively affordable at between $3,700 to $6,100.
You’ll find a great selection of Waltham wristwatches, pocket watches, and even dashboard instruments on the .
The Railroad Era: Ball’s Official RR Standard as a COSC Precursor
On April 19, 1891, two trains collided head-on near Kipton, OH after one of the conductors’ watches stopped for four minutes. This incident prompted the railroad company to contract watchmaker Webb C. Ball to investigate the incident and suggest corrective action. Ball, in turn, created the “RR” (railroad) standard and its associated tests, which became required for all watches used on trains to prevent future railway accidents. These included, among other things, regular accuracy inspections and highly legible white dials with black hands and Arabic numerals.
According to legend, Ball’s criteria for accuracy were so strict that the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC) used them when developing their own standards.
Now headquartered in Switzerland, Ball Watch Company SA continues its American railroad heritage. It is now in the hands of Asia Commercial Holdings Ltd., which is based out of Hong Kong.
Military Service: Field Watches for US Soldiers
Being able to produce reliable watches in large numbers is critical during times of war. The American watch industry heeded this call during World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War, with several US watch brands producing reliable, easy-to-operate timepieces for the military. In addition to Waltham, brands included Elgin (est. 1863), Bulova (est. 1875), Hamilton (est. 1892), and Benrus (est. 1921).
Some of these brands have since introduced new editions of these models in their catalogs. Under the ownership of Citizen Watch Co. Ltd. since 2008, Bulova now offers a remake of the Hack watch with its stop-seconds (hack) feature. On the battlefield, this enabled a group of soldiers to synchronize their watches.
Today part of the Swiss Swatch Group, Hamilton’s Khaki is a well-known series that enjoys wide popularity in the watch community. It’s also a very affordable watch that often demands well under $1,000.
You’ll have to dig deeper into your pockets for an original vintage military model. A good idea here (the same goes for any field watch, really) is to keep an eye out for a “mil-spec” designation (such as “GG-W-113”) on the watch’s case back, which confirms its official certification for armed forces.
Steve McQueen’s Benrus from the Film Bullitt
The “King of Cool” himself, Steve McQueen, donned a Benrcusfield watch in the 1968 film Bullitt.
If you’re looking to acquire one of these lesser-known classics, be sure to check out the Benrus rom
ef. 3061. McQueen wore a black variant of this model in Bullitt, which is pretty difficult to get a hold of today. That’s what makes its relatively affordable price a bit of a surprise, especially when you compare it to the other watch icons McQueen wore, such as the Heuer Monaco 1133, Rolex 5512, or Hanhart 417.
Speaking of films and the 1960s, the next two brands really enjoyed their time in the sun here.
Hamilton has had a close relationship with Hollywood for ages. It claims that its timepieces have appeared in a total of 450 films since 1932. For example, the immortal Elvis Presley wore the iconic and eccentric Hamilton Ventura Electric in 1961’s Blue Hawaii. Introduced in 1957, it was the first electric-powered watch and had an appearance that remains futuristic even by modern standards. You’ll find the vintage model of Presley’s watch on Chrono24 for around $3,700. Newer versions are even more affordable.
You can find the Hamilton Ventura Quartz and its unconventional on the wrists of the characters in the Men In Black film franchise as they “guard against extra-terrestrial violence,” as heard in the hit title song from the film’s soundtrack performed by Will Smith, a.k.a. Agent J.
Space Age: Tuning Fork Watch Technology
Another American watch innovation and sought-after collector’s item is the Bulova Accutron Spaceview with its tuning fork technology. This electric watch premiered in 1960. Its lack of a dial takes your gaze to the watch’s inner workings and its single-transistor electronic oscillator circuit. As a result, this watch hums instead of ticks. Its tuning fork was a remarkably accurate forerunner of quartz timepieces, and its design perfectly matched the space age of the 1960s. In act, it remains a favorite among watch fans to this day. Its price currently lies in the three-to-four-digit range. The year 2020 saw a limited re-creation of the Spaceview. Prices for this new watch currently sit around $6,100.
Timex: The “Yankee Dollar Watch,” Mark Twain, and Mickey Mouse
While many early American watch brands no longer exist or have moved overseas, one often-underestimated US watchmaker has managed to remain on American soil: the Waterbury Clock Company. Founded in 1854, the company now goes by Timex. Timex has always been about affordable timepieces. Mark Twain himself is said to have owned a so-called “Yankee Dollar Watch.” Twain’s model of choice debuted in 1880, and you could purchase it through the mail-order company Ingersoll for a single dollar. It sold in the millions.
The Mickey Mouse is another legendary Timex, with the Disney icon’s arms indicating the time. Introduced in 1933, Timex claimed the watch had become the “official timekeeper of two million children” within three years. Today it’s a sought-after collector’s item for grown-up watch lovers.
The Timex brand continues to operate on solid footing, with the company still releasing new editions of their Timex Marlin and Q Timex watches. These models were well-received by the watch community, not least of all due to their very affordable prices. There’s also the Timex Waterbury Traditional line, which is a nod to the company’s roots and heritage.
So there you have it: a selection of milestones from American watch history. Unfortunately, the limited space here doesn’t allow us to present every single company, model, and story. However, it should be clear that the world of American watches has so much more to offer than it might seem at first glance. There’s plenty to discover here and includes watch newcomers like Devon or Shinola, who are looking to play their own part in modern American watch history alongside the Apple Watch.