Some things are iconically, unmistakably American. Menswear staples like jeans, the MA-1 bomber jacket and the Woolrich flannel shirt all have their roots in the land of the free. But watches? The Swiss clinched that one, right?
Well, yes and no. While most watch enthusiasts will point you towards the Matterhorn when asked for their recommendations on the most haute in horology (and they’re not wrong), the US can still fight its corner.
Prior to World War II, America was actually considered a world leader in watchmaking, producing timepieces just as finely finished and functional as their British and Swiss counterparts, but at a much higher yield and for a fraction of the cost. And today, although it’s been some time since the home of the brave had anything homegrown worth flying its flag for, stateside watchmakers are putting it right back on the map.
These are the names to know:
Founded in 1992 by US watchmaker Roland G. Murphy, Lancaster, PA-based RGM Watch Company produced the first in-house American-made movement for four decades – the RGM Caliber 801 – in 2008.
Riding on the success of that breakthrough, the company has continued to roll out new models – each new timepiece featuring the extraordinarily deft guilloché (engine-turning) work that not only ranks RGM top of the class at home in the states, but also sees it hold its own among Swiss competitors, too.
Key Piece: The Pennsylvania Tourbillon
Also known as the first serially produced tourbillon made in North America, this watch lets you fully appreciate RGM’s in-house signature movement and the guilloché that’s made its name in watchmaking.
$95,000 in stainless steel, rgmwatches.com
If there’s one thing that typifies a stereotypically American approach to industry, it’s not letting the past stall your progress. Which is why LA label Devon Works, although first known for its record-breaking Devon GTX supercar, didn’t let that stop it from single-handedly reinventing the watch.
Devon’s first timepiece, the Tread 1, swapped hands for ultra-thin rubber belts printed with numbers to tell the time, and succeeded in placing the company in the very exclusive club of American brands nominated for an award at the prestigious Grand Prix D’Horlogerie de Genève.
“Our movement was developed outside of the traditional watchmaking industry with suppliers within the US aerospace industry,” says Scott Devon, founder and creative director of the brand.
Key Piece: The Star Wars Watch
Think all Stars Wars collaborations are a dull, cheap and easy way to cash in on the sci-fi brand’s hype? Think again. This Darth Vader-inspired behemoth – launched for the recent The Force Awakens film – features case flanks modelled on TIE fighter wings and the imperial logo on the crown.
Built on the brand’s Tread 1 base, we’d go as far as to say it’s one of the best co-branded products in history.
Oak & Oscar
It’s the brave man who actually makes good on his threats to swap board meetings for pursuing his first love. But for watch devotee Chase Fancher, founder of Chicago micro-brand Oak & Oscar, it was simply a matter of time before making timepieces trumped the traditional nine-to-five.
“I wanted to make a watch that was designed well, fit comfortably, was legible and exuded quality,” says Fancher.
“In making the Burnham, my suppliers were key. Working with folks like Lüm-Tec [on testing, assembling, and finishing the Burnham], Woodnsteel [on stitching leather straps], Defy MFG Co. [on leather wallets to store the watch], Horween Leather Company, and Soprod [on the Burnham’s movement] means every component is produced by an expert who’s really damn good at what they do.”
Key Piece: The Burnham
Oak & Oscar’s signature (and currently only) watch takes its name from Daniel Burnham, the famed city planner and architect, known for laying out the streets of Chicago, as well as buildings like the Flatiron in NYC and Selfridges in London.
Although simple in its styling – with a contemporary-leaning grey dial and orange second hand – the Burnham also comes crammed with details for the more finely tuned eye to appreciate, from strikethroughs on the numeral seven to a date aperture at six o’clock.
Weiss Watch Company
Were this a list of Swiss-made brands, 2013-founded Weiss Watch Company’s relatively short time in the business might work against it. But here, the watchmaker’s young age means it’s still small, agile and intensely passionate about restoring American watchmaking to its former glory.
The brainchild of Cameron Weiss, Weiss Watch Company makes full use of its WOSTEP-trained founder’s expertise (further honed at the likes of Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin), producing all case parts, dials, spring bar tools and packaging in-house in its Los Angeles studio.
The company even has plans to build its own movement. Watch (sorry) this space.
Key Piece: The Standard Issue Field Watch
“It was the timepiece we launched with and is a classic, timeless, American representation of what we are,” says Weiss.
“The black dial is a perfect everyday wear on the military grade olive Cordura band, and it looks equally great on a leather strap paired with a suit.”
True to its tagline – ‘Embrace Adventure’ – Kobold builds the kind of wristwear that’s able to deal with the extreme conditions you’d encounter, say, scaling Everest or on a Navy SEALs mission. One of which founder Michael Kobold has actually done. (Although he’s accomplished the no mean feat of training with the SEALs, too.)
Founded in 1998, Kobold was one of the first American watchmakers to start taking its assembly home, releasing its first assembled-in-the-US watch – the Spirit of America – in 2006.
But its ties abroad are what make it unique. In 2012, Kobold opened a subsidiary in Nepal, where founder Michael and his wife Anita hiked Everest in 2010, surviving only with the help of the Sherpas. Now, the Nepal subsidiary, run by two former mountain guides turned watchmakers, produces the Himalaya – its crisp, vintage-inspired aesthetic taking its cue from its namesake.
Key Piece: The Langley
Tipping its cap to inventor and aviation pioneer Samuel Pierpoint Langley, this Langley GMT is the first of Kobold’s civilian watches to feature a quartz movement, and comes with the added benefit of the brand’s TripSafe mechanism, further protecting against strong shocks.
Soberly stylish, it’s the perfect piece to pair with all those menswear staples birthed in the military – from blazers and chinos to field jackets and tees.
Is America’s contribution to watchmaking undervalued? Do you agree with our shortlist of the best in stateside horology?
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*Disclaimer: Many of the brands featured here to do not manufacture 100 per cent of their watch parts in America.