Monday, May 12, 2008

Brief history of watches

Hell in a Handbasket linked to a recent post, saying that "although his passion are American made watches which use mechanical movement." Close, but not quite--There's really no such thing as an affordable American-made watch in the era I like best. A brief history of American-market Watches: Until about 1850, England and Switzerland dominated watchmaking. English watches were more practical, Swiss fancier. Waltham in Massachusetts was the first to assembly-line watches, drastically reducing the price of a decent watch--instead of a single skilled watchmaker taking weeks or months to make a watch, a factory would produce higher-quality watches with 3-4 days labor. The downside was that there were few options on factory watches--In order to get these economies, they had to make thousands near-identical. Elgin in Illinois followed a few years later, and together they dominated the vast middle ground of watches for decades. Swiss watches were inferior, and there was a significant problem with "Swiss Fakes"--Swiss watches disguised as American, with either sound-alike brands or actual counterfeits. The predecessor to Timex started as the Waterbury clock company, who later absorbed Ingersoll, and operated for a while as US Time. They specialized in very inexpensive watches--"The watch that made the dollar famous" was one slogan. A far cry from the jeweled watches of Waltham and Elgin, they were affordable and sturdy, but not long-lasting. It is unclear who made the first real wristwatch. There were ladies versions by Patek-Phillipe in the late 1800s. Cartier claims the first men's wristwatch in 1902, and they became more and more popular during and after WWI, as their practicality became evident. The Swiss were more willing to change, and wristwatches helped them regain prominence. During WWII, the US companies could not produce watches for civilians, and after took some time to re-tool from wartime manufacturing back to watches. This also helped the Swiss. American companies kept with their original tradition--Simple but well-made watches, with few features. The Swiss added calenders and automatic winding. American companies relied more and more on Swiss parts, and by the early 60's, most of the American brands had new, foreign owners. (Currently, MZ Berger owns the Waltham, Elgin and Gruen in the US. Hamilton is owned by Swatch. Bulova has recently been bought by Citizen. A Swiss descendant of the original Waltham remains, selling primarily in Japan) In the 1957, Hamilton in the US sold the first electric watch, soon followed by several other companies. This used a small (for the time) battery that powered the watch for about a year. These watches had teething problems--They were purely electric, retaining the balance wheel and most of the gears of a traditional watch, but substituting electrical contacts and electromagnets for the mainspring. The contacts would arc slightly, several times per second eventually damaging them. These watches had very little to recommend them over the proven automatic wind watches. In 1960, Bulova came out with the Accutron, arguably the biggest leap in watchmaking since the mid 1800's. An electronically-controlled tuning fork drove the watch, allowing a mid-priced watch to have accuracy not possible in a wristwatch up to that point. Instead of the tic-tock of a standard watch, Accutrons have a low-pitched hum, and the second hand gliding smoothly with no starting or stopping. Japanese watches were nearly unheard of in the US until the late 60's, when they were brought home by returning Viet Nam veterans. In December 1969, Seiko sold the first quartz watch, followed within months by a consortium of Swiss companies. These had traditional hands. The Seiko was very close to a modern design, using a stepper motor and a second hand that jumped in 1 second intervals. The Swiss used a variation of the Accutron tuning fork with its gliding hand. 1972 brought us Hamilton's Pulsar brand, the first digital. This watch was an LED design, requiring the user to push a button to read, initially costing $1200. Shortly after, Gruen launched the Teletime, the first modern LCD at around $200. In 1975, Texas Instruments began selling an LED watch for $20, and this price dropped to $10 a year later. Hamilton wound up bankrupt, and the Pulsar name was sold several times, eventually bought by Seiko, and used as a lower-cost analog brand. By the 80's, most watches sold in the US were quartz. Swiss watches suffered greatly, and most of the "everyday" brands were discontinued. A modern $10 quartz watch is more accurate than a $10,000 Swiss watch.

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