In celebration of July 4th, here is an article discussion the formerly great American watch industry (originally published in September 2014):
It needs to be said and clarified: The American watch industry was once the envy of the entire world, including the Swiss watch industry.
The problem is that this is far from known or even close to being known. Myself included, it took a while to take that statement anywhere close to serious.
But, again it's absolutely true.
In fact, the United States became the leader in mechanical watch manufacturing during the 1800's through the early 1900's. It was American manufacturing know-how that was responsible for literally revolutionizing the way mechanical watches were made. Before that, each part of a watch was made one by one, and could never keep up with any kind of serious demand. But, in the USA, demand started to grow, and Americans seized the opportunity to find a new way to manufacture watches that literally changed the world.
Waltham, Massachusetts, which is the home of the art of modern watchmaking, became the hotbed of this revolution. American companies invented new tools and machines that were specifically designed to cut various metal parts. It was in 1854 that Aaron Dennison established the Waltham Watch Company, and eventually made the first ever 100% American-made watch and with interchangeable parts.
The machinery they invented was quite advanced for the time, and as expected spread to other industries outside watchmaking. This was a big factor in establishing America's reputation for industrial prowess. The Waltham way of manufacturing was a more precise and efficient method than anything before it, because each machine/tool made a specific part correctly and in exactly the same way each time it was manufactured. What this meant was Waltham was consistently making perfect watch components with ease.
But the American watch industry wasn't just Waltham. There was Elgin, Illinois, and Hamilton to name but a few. And all of them became well known for their skill, craftsmanship, and ability to produce parts with efficiency and on a large scale. All of it, right here in the United States.
Eventually, as expected, the Swiss took note and of course adopted the 'American way' and American machinery with great success (obviously). Some Swiss companies brought back equipment purchased in the USA, while others simply copied and made their own in Europe... whatever.
Unfortunately, as has been discussed in length, with the introduction of quartz technology in 1969 (a.k.a. 'disposable watches'), people began turning to battery-powered and computerized watches at a very quick pace, and what once was considered 'cutting edge', mechanical watches was no longer, and quickly vanished.
One by one, each of the historic companies was purchased by foreign investors/companies. And while the rise of the quartz watch affected the Swiss market as well, to their credit, some players were able to adapt and reinvent the industry by manufacturing timepieces positioned as luxury items. They used precious metals, moved towards advanced complications, and advanced decoration techniques. This is what created the advanced legacy and pristine reputation of fine Swiss watchmaking.
But it'd all be for not, if a very important piece to the puzzle, the American Watch industry had not laid down the platform to build on.
Here's hoping sooner or later, there will be a day where the contemporary American Watch industry will once again do it's legacy justice.