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Remembering The Rich History Of American-Made Watches This Fourth Of July

American Flag

This weekend we celebrate the 4th of July – Independence Day – to honor America’s hard-won independence from Great Britain and our adoption of the Declaration of Independence. While fireworks and picnics are the usual fare, this is also a great time to take a look at the Made-in-America sector of the watch market.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a host of American watch brands were building watches on our soil. Great names in American watchmaking history include Waltham, Elgin, Hamilton and Bulova. In fact, Waltham Watch Company produced watches, clocks, speedometers, compasses and other instruments in its 100-plus-year run. Founded in 1850 in Waltham, Mass., the brand remained in business until 1957.

Similarly, Elgin National Watch Company (aka, Elgin Watch Co.) produced watches from 1864 until 1968 – and sold those timepieces under the names Elgin, Lord Elgin and Lady Elgin. The brand’s manufacturing complex was in Elgin, Ill., and at one time was the largest site dedicated to watchmaking.

Joseph Bulova, 1875

Joseph Bulova, 1875

Joseph Bulova, a Bohemia immigrant, founded Bulova as the J Bulova Company in 1875. This brand was famously patriotic and dedicated to the American Dream. By 1945, it had established the Joseph Bulova Watchmaking school to help rehabilitate disabled veterans from World War II and land them jobs in watch service and repairs.

Hamilton Watch Company, which was founded in Pennsylvania in 1892, produced its first watch in 1893 and became a very integral player in supplying watches to the American military during the World Wars.

Indeed, the list goes on and on. Sadly, most of these companies either closed their doors between the 1950s and 1970s, or shifted their production offshore (to Switzerland or the Far East). This loss of American-made watches was due to multiple factors. One was the rise in demand for well-made Swiss watches; another was the rise in the 1960s and 1970s of electronic watches that boasted LED (light-emitting diode) and LCD (liquid crystal displays) and were relatively inexpensive. Most of these brands – created by the technology companies – died out, as well, with the advent of the quartz watch era.

For decades, American watchmaking was virtually decimated. However, in the past few decades, some American-made brands have emerged on the market. Most are small companies with exclusive production of watches. Among them are brands such as Kobold, building watches from a location just outside of Pittsburgh; RGM, building watches from a location just outside of Philadelphia; and Devon, building its watches in Los Angeles. Just a few years ago, Shinola popped up – making its home in Detroit and building movements there whose components are imported from Switzerland.

Each of these brands – and about a half a dozen others scattered around the country – are slowly making their own niche in today’s marketplace.

Elgin Watches

Every once in a while, we come across a customer who has a superb American-made watch dating back to the 1800s or early 1900s. These are exciting to look at and fun to investigate. In fact, the Elgin History Museum has a host of volunteers that specialize in Elgin watches made between 1867 and the mid-1960s. They will do their best to provide information to owners of Elgin watches to help them pinpoint the year the watch was made, the movement inside, the number of jewels, how many were made and other important details about the decorative and styling features of the watch. They can even pinpoint which craftsman may have created the case. If you have an heirloom Elgin watch, we suggest you take a photo of it, look for its serial number and visit this link. But enjoy your Fourth of July barbecue first. Have a great holiday.