Though Switzerland is known as the home of luxury watches, the industry as we know it today may not have existed were it not for vintage American watches.
Of all the gadgets and timepieces circulating worldwide, few have evolved as much over the past six centuries as watches. One of the earliest documented wristwatches was gifted to Queen Elizabeth I in 1571, which, for reference, would predate the earliest works of Shakespeare by about 20 years. Since then, despite the fact that watches would more or less retain the same basic function, these devices would see drastic improvements over time. For example, the display would eventually offer pinpoint accuracy, whereas early watches may have been off by anywhere from ten minutes to an hour! Every technological advancement in the world of watches proved to be significant for both the quality of watches and to the world at large, and even today we can thank our ancestors for the ability to accurately tell time.
It’s for these reasons that vintage American watches have held more significance in the industry that you may realize.
American watch production began to blossom in 1850, as much a part of classic entrepreneurial intuition as necessity. With American railways hitting their stride as the prominent form of transportation, it was now more important than ever for workers to accurately tell the time when scheduling departures and arrivals. Companies like Waltham, Hamilton, and Elgin sprung up during this era and began what we now consider to be their historic legacies. However, with the demand for watches being at an all-time high, the tried-and-true method of building each watch individually wouldn’t fit the needs of our rapidly progressing country. The world of watch-crafting was on the precipice of change, and it was these American companies who took that brave and innovative leap into the abyss of uncertainty.
Enter the world of mass produced, interchangeable parts. American companies invested in and developed machines that would create each individual gear of a watch, which would then be quickly assembled into a professional product after all was said and done. This may seem like an ordinary practice by today’s standards, but keep in mind that mass production at this level was still a novel concept for the time. This process allowed American companies to gradually refine their watches to improve the quality, and soon the country would be blessed with a vast array of luxury and affordable wrist wear. By the 1900s, the United States became the world’s chief producer of quality watches.
But alas, nothing lasts forever. As the United States suffered through wars and hardships following the 1920s, Switzerland was gleaning from American innovations and began staking its claim in the watch market. Rather than “reinventing the wheel” to further advance the industry, Swiss companies instead opted to refine the manufacturing processes that had worked so well across the ocean. Meanwhile, American companies would be commissioned to use their technology to produce parts like timers for bombs, which steadily loosened their once iron grip on the industry. By the time watchmakers from the United States were ready to reenter the market with full force around the 1950s, internationally produced watches had already claimed dominance.
The American watch gradually slowed down from this point onward. American manufacturers that bought out Swiss companies would ironically move to Switzerland to resume production, and others would just downsize or shift their focus away from watches. However, the DNA of American watches would carry on in spite of this. After all, it was the ingenuity of mass-production that allowed for the evolution of the industry to begin with, and the signature designs of certain antique watches can still be seen in newly designed timepieces.
The impact left by vintage American watches cannot be understated, and that is why any surviving devices are as valuable as they are historic. After all, because the industry took such a hit following the turn of the 20th century, any American watch that can be found nowadays should be considered a timeless keepsake. As the world continues to move forward with “smart” technology and transform the common watch into “smartwatches,” a look back at how the industry has grown can inform us as we look towards the future.
Vintage American watches are not only fascinating and impressive, they remind us of the brilliant ingenuity that has enabled the human race to soar to new technological heights with each passing era.