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The Revival of American Watchmaking

American watchmaking was once a thriving industry. After the Civil War, the U.S. dominated the world market in inexpensive, accurate watches, a position maintained into the first half of the 20 th century. Starting in the 1950s watch production declined in the country due to a lack of investment and loss of market share to watches produced in Japan and Switzerland.  American brands were bought by overseas groups and production relocated to Europe and Asia.

But the industry is experiencing a revival of sorts, led by a few highly talented individuals. However, the challenges they face are many: from learning the craft, to affording the necessary equipment, to finding suppliers and attracting customers.

When Josh Shapiro, a high school principal in Los Angeles, saw a poster of a skeletonized watch movement in 2011, he decided that he would like to learn how to make one. Shapiro had spent much of his childhood in the workshop of his machinist and gold refiner grandfather, so he knew how to work with his hands.

After a few months of experimenting with movements, he decided to make his own watches. He began reading, researching, and taking distance-learning courses in the craft. In 2014, he decided to specialize in one area: engine-turning dials.

Engine-turning is a 500-year-old engraving technique using a complicated, hand controlled machine called a rose engine. The unusual feature of engine turning is that during the engraving processes, it is the object being engraved that moves and not the blade that does the engraving.

Shapiro started perfecting his skills in 2014, and by 2016 he had progressed enough to sell a few of his dials.

In 2018, Shapiro began selling his own watches under the brand J.N. Shapiro, with imported German movements and cases but hands and dials produced in his own workshop. Each dial requires 150 hours of time to complete. The 34-year-old father of two now divides his time between his workshop and his principal duties.

Shapiro named his first series of watches Infinity. The case metals available are yellow, white and rose gold, platinum, and stainless steel. The basic yellow gold model costs $28,000; other prices are available on request.

“I’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars buying equipment for my workshop,” Shapiro says, “because I want to start making my own movements.”