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America’s overdue revolution

US watchmaking pioneers are reclaiming the nation’s lost craft

What a difference a century makes. It’s an assumption, albeit a deeply held one, that the best watches are made in Switzerland and, with a passing nod, perhaps in Germany and Japan. The United States of America just doesn’t figure in the popular (watch fan) imagination. It’s not an unfair position to hold. But history tells another story: like Britain, the US was once also a serious watchmaking nation and, like Britain, it would fall on hard times, the result of the double blow of the Great Depression and WWII (conflict is always good for business for a neutral country), while the Allies necessarily switched all manufacturing to their war effort. By the Fifties, Swiss ascendancy was assured. Only one US watch brand would make an impact: the United States Time Corporation’s Timex brand. It’s now Dutch owned.

Yet it had not always been thus. As far back as the 1850s, Waltham, in Massachusetts, would prove the epicentre of a buoyant American watchmaking industry — developed to provide a counter to the poor quality European pieces then available as imports. Companies like Waltham Watch Company (makers of the first all-American pocket watch), and later Elgin, Bulova, Waterbury and Hamilton, would introduce a highly mechanised production line approach, one even the Swiss would learn from. That would also be part of its downfall: making watches under one roof meant US manufacturers couldn’t, like the Swiss, switch between suppliers as needs demanded. By the post-WWII years, the Swiss largely had the high-end market wrapped up.

“But now watchmaking in the US is enjoying a genuine resurgence,” argues Nicholas Manousos, president of the Horological Society of New York. “The US is still a centre for servicing, auction houses, boutiques, but now we’re seeing more homegrown brands; ones that look to break into the global market. It’s true that most people still want something Swiss, but the demand that’s being seen for US-made craft goods in other industries is being seen in watches too.”

Think axes and leather goods, jeans and spirits, typically made by lumberjack shirt-wearing, bearded dudes. Indeed, while the US industry has seen a spate of more mass market brands launch like Shinola, Kobold and the Detroit Watch Company — all of which have helped put the idea of American watchmaking more front of mind — so too have there come more high-end makers. Likewise, they are more of the lumberjack shirt-wearing, bearded kind than the suits with MBAs that populate the comparatively gargantuan Swiss industry. American watch-making has rediscovered its pioneer spirit.

“There’s this growing interest in how things are made, particularly in the US, which social media is allowing people to get much closer to, and that’s feeding through into watchmaking now, which is further encouraging more makers to make pieces with some degree of American content,” says Cameron Weiss of Weiss Watch Company. “You see that demand for small-batch production in whiskey, or in custom cars. It’s a unique industry here right now in being comprised of a few independent makers, with that independent approach.”

But, as Manousos stresses, while the US industry now has many young players doing great things as brands, watch manufacturing in the US is “another conversation — it’s the side of the business that requires much more effort to rebuild the infrastructure, and since that will be an expensive thing to do, inevitably it’s the high-end market that will drive the renaissance”.

And the fact is that building a high-end watch business in the US is, as RGM Watch Company’s Roland Murphy puts it, “not an easy mountain to climb”. Unlike the Swiss, the US industry lacks the local support in specialist knowledge and machinery, and finds it considerably harder to find trained personnel. The manufacturing base to make watch parts with the necessary tolerances or finish is also scant. And then there is the legal hurdle: while it matters to some more than others — there are those who are happy to judge a watch on its own merits — US regulations stipulate that to carry that marketing-friendly “Made in the USA” label, a watch must be entirely made in the USA.

“The Swiss in contrast have much more lenient rules [60 per cent of a watch must be made in Switzerland for it to be able to state as much] — they can make something to their rules, and then sell it abroad applying the same rules,” says Murphy, who’s not a little pissed off about it. In fact, it was Shinola being chased by the Federal Trade Commission on this matter that landed that brand in hot water.

“The fact is that you have to be driven enough to pursue things until you accomplish them if you want to build a watch brand in the US,” adds Murphy. “Because if you’re thinking about the money, sooner or later you’re going to get out of the business. You’re not going to get rich out of it. You really have to be a crazy watchmaker like me.”

JN Shapiro

The US may be short of native expertise in the metiers d’art so highly regarded in haute horlogerie, but that is not to say it’s devoid of practitioners: the Los Angeles-based Joshua Shapiro is a case in point. Check out the complexity of his fractal-based “infinity weave” engine-turned dials and it’s clear that Geneva does not hold a monopoly on rare skills. The one-time apprentice to master watch and clockmaker David Walter — another name deserving more recognition outside of the US — Shapiro comes from a long-line of machinists.

“That taught me to really like the intimacy of engine turning,” he says. “You’re using a machine but everything has to be hand-directed, from the angle of each cut to the depth of each cut. And for me the dial is the entry point into a watch. I appreciate both the inside and outside of a watch, but the fact is if a dial is ugly then people won’t buy the watch. Unfortunately, engine turning, despite being used historically by some of the most respected watchmakers around, from Breguet to George Daniels, is not well understood. It doesn’t help that some companies “engine-turn” with CNC machines but don’t tell people that’s what they do.”

It’s fighting talk perhaps. But it reflects Shapiro’s enthusiasm for this finest of fine arts, in which one slip can ruin the week’s worth of work necessary to complete each dial. It’s an art that he compared to Japanese traditional sword-making 20 years ago — then on the very precipice of disappearing, but now in recovery. Shapiro wants to take that further, by ultimately seeing his dials on fully US-made watches, rather than on the German-made, Uhren-Werke-Dresden ones that he utilises today.

“But I’m a few years off that. I’ve approached local industries, aerospace and computing, but the business for them is too small. There’s a demand for US-made watches, but for me it’s more about the perceived value in any company that does it all themselves. It would be great for the US watch industry to be the juggernaut it once was again.”