American watchmakingCopyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 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. The main reason for the successive changes of names were financial collapses caused by the (understandable) failure to appreciate the amount of capital required to set up a factory.
Because there was no existing watch industry at all, American watch factories had to make all the parts of the watch and then assemble it. Before they could do this they had to create all the machines needed, and to employ a workforce, all before a single watch could be produced. In 1857 it was said that Waltham then knew how to mass produce a good quality jewelled lever watch for $20, but that it had cost $150,000 to find out.
Spin-offs and rivals were set up in competition such as Elgin, Howard, Hampden and the Springfield Illinois Watch Company, and many suffered the same fate as the pioneers, financial collpase due the high cost of setting up the factory before any watches could be produced. In the bold and confident young country of America this was regarded as the price that had to be paid to create a home grown industry, but in Europe the established watchmakers regarded the prospect with horror. As a result, English watchmakers made few attempts to embrace mass production and the English watch industry ultimately withered and perished. In Switzerland things were regarded even more seriously because watchmaking was vital to the Swiss economy. The Swiss formed a trade association to promote the use of machinery to mass produce parts and gradually fought back. But they did not attempt to achieve the same level of integration as in America and thus retained a highly diverse and flexible capability which ultimately won out over the American system, which tended to produce watches that all looked much alike in order to benefit from scale of production.
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.
It appears that right from the outset American factories intended to supply spare parts to watch repairers. Dennison knew from experience what a boon this would be. It would also be another revenue stream from selling parts mass produced cheaply by machine, and boost a companies reputation if spares were easy to obtain so that a watch could be repaired quickly and cheaply. To facilitate this, each movement was marked with a serial number, and the serial numbers of batches of the same movement were recorded. This is because model names were not unique, they were used year after year and there could be subtle changed between watches of the same model name from year to year. Customers cannot be relied on to measure and describe movements accurately, so a serial number is the ideal quick and accurate way of identifying exactly what model and production year is the watch that a customer needs a spare part for. Because of this 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.
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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated May 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.