American watchmakingCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.
In the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries almost every single watch sold in America was imported from Europe. At first these came first principally from England, many from Liverpool, but in the eighteenth century the Swiss overtook the English with cheaper watches in greater numbers. Some watches followed the English practice of having the retailers name engraved onto the movement and thus could appear to have been made in America. Later, Swiss manufacturers sent over watches with American sounding names on them, names chosen to appeal to American customers, and perhaps make them think that the watches were of American manufacture.
In this period there may have been a few individual American watchmakers who worked in traditional craft way, where watches were manufactured largely by hand using simple tools and craft methods, but very few if any of their watches survive. American craft makers would still have needed to import the specialised tools they needed, and at least some parts such as springs and dials, from England or Switzerland. But most watches were imported complete, or at least as complete movements that were cased in America.
Watches began to be manufactured in large numbers in America in the 1850s in large integrated factories by companies following the model of the first such factory, set up by Aaron Dennison, Edward Howard and David Davis that became the American Watch Company of Waltham, which went through a number of names and is often called simply the Waltham Watch Co. Spin-offs and rivals were set up in competition such as Elgin, Howard, Hampden and the Springfield Illinois Watch Company.
The American factories used what became known as the "American system" of watch manufacture, or the "gauged and interchangeable" principle. Aaron Dennison recorded that he had been inspired by a visit to the Springfield Armory where rifles were made with interchangeable parts to conceive that watches could be made this way; from interchangeable parts mass produced on purpose made machinery, assembled by mainly semi-skilled labour. Each factory produced watches by their thousands, and the names of the factories stamped onto the movements became well known in the trade and to customers. The factory name became a powerful marketing tool.
There are good records for most of the American factories' production data and you can find out when a watch was made from its manufacturer and serial number. A great resource for this is Nathan Moore's Pocket Watch Database.
The Swiss didn't realise what was happening in American and at first put down their falling exports to America to the civil war (1861 - 1865), and then to the economic crash that followed the railway building boom which followed the end of the war. It was only at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 that was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that they became aware of American mass production of good quality jewelled lever watches.
The Swiss were horrified. Not only was America an important export market for the Swiss watch industry, the American factories were producing so many watch movements that they were also exporting to other traditionally Swiss dominated markets such as Great Britain. The chief engineer of Longines, Jacques David, was sent to investigate and prepared a report for the Swiss watchmakers. After a sluggish start the Swiss responded by increasing the amount of automation in their factories.
The two industries went separate ways. To recoup the huge investment that had been made to set up the American factories, and to use their expensive purpose built machinery machinery effectively, their owners wanted to produce masses of identical watches to keep costs low and margins up. Prices were then hit further by the introduction of cheap pin-pallet watches, which eventually became the famous "dollar" watches, costing just one dollar. This resulted in a race to the bottom with prices, which hit profits and wages hard.
The Swiss on the other hand mechanised and automated selectively. Their industry had always been fragmented into many small specialist producers of individual components and they turned this to their advantage, producing wide ranges of well finished watches that competed well with the functional but less attractive American watches.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated January 2017. W3CMVS.