Life and Death of the American Watch Company

Source: High Consumption

Sink or swim. My mother used to say, “you have two options in life, either you sink or you swim. Either you learn to adapt and survive, or you don’t.”

Companies come and go in the watch world. They are bought, sold, and swallowed up by conglomerates looking to take over the competition. But why some survive and some die isn’t always clear.

Even non-watch enthusiasts know that Switzerland is the mecca of the watch world. The standard-bearer of unmatched quality and luxury. There are places which compete with Switzerland such as Germany and Japan. But American watchmaking has fallen entirely off the watchmaking map. Despite being a top-three importer of luxury watches, America has struggled to create its own market of luxury timepieces.

What happened to the American watch company? How did Switzerland become the center of the watch world?

At the height of the American Industrial Revolution, the American watch-making factories became experts on mass-producing high-quality interchangeable parts. By the mid-1870’s this American manufacturing system was so successful the Swiss noticed a considerable drop in market share to the American watch companies. America had perfected making almost every part of a watch by a machine allowing the process to be faster and less laborious than anything the Swiss or English did.

It was the American ideal at the time. Bigger, better, faster, more efficient. American watch companies did everything possible to expedite the process while still making a quality product, and the rest of the world could not keep up.

The drawback to this type of watchmaking was the inability to make complicated watches such as minute repeaters or chronographs. These watches required special parts the American machines could not make. So despite being fast, cheap, and high quality, all American watches were kept simple.

Although they tested the waters of foreign markets, American watchmakers were quite content to sell in only American and Canadian markets. In today’s global marketplace this would spell death to any company taking an isolationist model, but companies such as Elgin and Waltham were selling out their entire inventory.

Eventually, Swiss technology caught up to America. The main difference between American and Swiss watch manufacturing is that the Swiss had many companies that specialized in each part of a watch. This allowed them to not only produce at the scale of American companies but also be able to make simple and complicated watches. The Swiss were also able to use this outsourcing to their advantage.

American watch companies produced everything in-house, if there was a backlog in one aspect of watch production everything shut down. For the Swiss, if there was a backlog, let’s say for instance with the dial maker, there was always another dial maker the company could turn to for production to continue.

And then the world wars came and altered the watch landscape forever. During WWII all of the American watchmakers produced fuses (timers) for bombs instead of wristwatches. While Switzerland, which remained neutral, was able to keep producing watches. By the end of the war, American companies had lost a major part of their home market and had no foreign presence. The American public, on the other hand, was flush with cash and it was burning a hole in their pockets so they turned to the Swiss market, which was able to make the high-end complicated watches American companies never truly produced in any real numbers.

Despite government efforts to support American watchmakers by placing high tariffs on Swiss imports, WWII essentially was the nail in the coffin for American watch companies. Some survived such as Timex and Bulova. You can also buy watches with classic American names such as Waltham, Elgin, or Hamilton, but none of these watches are made in America.

In the budding microbrand world you see companies such as Oak & Oscar, Vaer, Vortic, Weiss, Sangin, and Marathon hoping to revive the tradition of American watchmaking.

But will American watchmaking return to the pedestal it once stood upon?

It is hard to say if American watchmaking is alive and well or dead as a doornail. But what is clear is that its story is not finished just yet.

By: Greg Gentile

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