Hamilton Watch Co. America's Finest Watch

The watches


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Amongst collectors of American horology, Hamilton stands out as the “finest American watch made.” However arguable this statement may be, there is no denying that Hamilton watches demand a premium amongst collectors and are without question, the most collectable of all American made watches.

This brief history covers Hamilton from its inception in 1892 until 1936, the years highlighted in this site.  It is not meant to be comprehensive but to offer the reader a historical background on Hamilton and the production of their wristwatches.

1892 -1916 | 1917 - 1922 | 1922 - 1929 | 1929 - 1936

1892 - 1916 . . . The Hamilton Watch Company was established when the Keystone Standard Watch Company was forced into bankruptcy in 1892 and sold at a sheriff's sale to a group of Lancaster businessmen whose "objective was to build only watches of the highest quality."  During this same year, a merger was effected with the Aurora Watch Company of Illinois and a decision was made to name the new company after James Hamilton, owner of a large tract of land which was granted to him from William Penn and included what is now the city of Lancaster.  The new company would be known as The Hamilton Watch Company.

Hamilton Watch Company was housed on a thirteen acre campus and Aurora's machinery was shipped to the Lancaster plant shortly after incorporation.  With quality being Hamilton's primary goal, the company set out to manufacture "America’s Finest Watch,” and indeed they did.  The  first watch made under the Hamilton name was an 18-size 17-jewel pocket watch in 1893.    Within the next six years, Hamilton had developed a reputation for creating pocket watches whose quality and accuracy exceeded the stringent "railroad pocket watch" requirements.  During Hamilton's first fifteen years, only two size movements were produced - the 18-size and the smaller 16-size.

With the election of a new president in 1907, Mr. Charles F. Miller, Hamilton decided to expand its movement offerings.  Watch trends began to lean toward smaller movements and Hamilton spent a great deal of time evaluating this opportunity.  Under the new leadership of Mr. Miller, Hamilton entered the field not as a pioneer; at times rather reluctantly, and only after being thoroughly convinced that the trend was more than just a passing fad.

Prior to 1909, the Company sold uncased watch movements only.  Soon after that date, however, began the conversion of Hamilton to a completely cased line and broadening of that line to include in addition to the standard Hamilton railroad watch, dress watches for men and women.  Women's wrist watches of rather large size were first but men followed soon thereafter.

The market demand for smaller watches for men and women continued through he 1920's and the 1930's and Hamilton always responded with "quality first."

While Hamilton was not  a pioneer in introducing new styles or models, they were however on the vanguard of the introduction of an advertisement program.  Prior to 1908, Hamilton advertised its pocket watches in early railroad magazines.  Hamilton's first advertisement was in the popular magazine, National Geographic and was so successful that Hamilton continued its relationship with the magazine and modeled it advertisement campaign around explorers, adventurers and other "exciting professions."  It was a new experience for Geographic too as Hamilton was its first advertiser as well.

As the years passed, Hamilton broadened the scope of its advertising effort.  New media were added, reaching America's buying millions.  A dealer service department was developed.  All avenues of promotion suited to a quality product were utilized.  As Hamilton's market spread from the railroad yards to Fifth Avenue, the railroad man and his faithful timepiece were dropped as the major advertising story and more sophisticated copy themes were substituted.

The good-will assets of the E. Howard Watch Company were acquired  by Hamilton in 1931.  Although never extremely active in the manufacture of Howard watches, Hamilton did produce small quantities under the brand name and has conducted tests of the current market of this once famous timepiece.

Hamilton is recognized by the jewelry trade and the consuming public as a fine watch.  That recognition is the reward of half a hundred years' conscientious craftsmanship, and honest dealings.  But the real acid test - the thing that seals Hamilton's reputation as something infinitely more than just another "good watch" is the place it has won in the respect and affection of those to whom accurate and dependable timekeeping is urgently important.

Accurate time was literally a matter of life and death to Commander Richard E. Byrd when he navigated his airplane over the North Pole in 1926 - to Roy Chapman Andrews  in three years' exploration of the vast and trackless Gobi Desert - to Captain Bob Bartlett on his voyages through Artic ice fields - to Liets. Hegenberger and Maitland on the first Army flight from California to Hawaii.  They all used Hamilton Watches.

The official timepiece of the First Byrd Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole was Hamilton.  The fist United States airmail was flown in 1918 on Hamilton time.  Dr. H. S. Dickey on his expedition to the headwaters  of the Orinoco navigated through uncharted tropical jungles with a Hamilton watch.  Jean and Jeanette Piccard used Hamilton in cosmic ray measuring devices when they rose ten miles into the stratosphere.  Lt. Col. Albert Stevens carried eight Hamiltons as essential equipment for gathering scientific data when he achieved the record altitude of 14 miles in his stratosphere flight in 1935.

During the first World War, the government turned to Hamilton for special watches to be used in navigating torpedo boats, destroyers and submarines.  It also used standard Hamilton railroad watches for the railroads built built by American in France to serve the A.E.F.  There's an inter

From 1892 until 1929, business increased steadily.  Sales were $1,500 in 1893, $1 million in 1911 and $5.8 million in 1929 - extraordinary growth considering Hamilton's first 35 years were marked with the Spanish American War, World War I and the onset of the Great Depression.  Management attributed the company's growth to Hamilton's commitment to quality and the standardization of the watch movement.

Like other watch companies, Hamilton suffered during the Depression.  In 1932, sales fell to $1,558,000 and sales of watches were at a lull.  Indeed, many of Hamilton's rarest and subsequently, most desirable watches come from this period.  By 1941, however, Hamilton rebounded with tremendous success with sales nearly reaching 9,000,000.

After the infamous Ohio Train Wreck of 1891, quality and accuracy became essential to the safe running of the railroads and Hamilton concentrated the marketing of their pocket watches in this area.  Train departures, arrivals and crossings were carefully synchronized and subsequently, a faulty or poor running watch could be the cause of a disaster.  Known for their quality, it wasn’t long before Hamilton watches were commonly used by railroad engineers and inspectors throughout the country.  In fact, within ten years of beginning watch production, Hamilton had rightly earned the moniker “Hamilton – The Railroad Timekeeper of America.”

In a 1920 promotional brochure entitled "The Timekeeper," Hamilton elaborated on the importance of a quality timing instrument in the railroad industry:

When the Hamilton Watch was first manufactured, conductors and engineer of railroads bought almost the entire output for use in timing their trains.  This was in 1892, at a period when the increasing complexity of train schedules was creating an unprecedented demand for watches of extreme accuracy.

It is perhaps not generally realized how much the watch contributes to railroad efficiency.  It has been said, and it is undoubtedly true, that the watch of the railroad man is as necessary in modern railroading as the air brake; that without accurate timekeepers there would be more accidents than if there were no air brakes.

By 1920, Hamilton had over 750 watch makers employed in their Lancaster facility and promoted the production of their watches as a "marvel of modern manufacturing."  With between 300 to 350 watches manufactured per day, it wasn't so much the volume of Hamilton's output that was impressive (both Elgin and Waltham far exceeded Hamilton's daily production) - Hamilton's claim to fame was in the quality of the product.

Interestingly, the machinery that was utilized by Hamilton to create Hamilton watches were developed by Hamilton in the Hamilton factory itself.  Even the instruments used in the regulation of Hamilton watches such as scales for weighing and the micrometers used for measuring minute parts were made in the Hamilton factory.  Hamilton trusted no others in the manufacturing of machinery which was vital to watch performance.

1917 - 1922  . . . Having established a reputation for quality and accuracy amongst the railroad industry, Hamilton expanded their product line and began selling women’s pendent watches.  Waltham and Elgin had already established a significant position in the women’s watch market and unlike Hamilton, had even begun selling “strap watches” specifically marketed to men.

Prior to World War I, small watches were considered effeminate and worn only by ladies as either a pendent or on the wrist held by a strap made of ribbon.  The war changed all that. Returning soldiers had worn “strap watches” during combat and appreciated the ease of use, comfortable size and the simplicity of wearing a watch on the wrist.  Elgin and Waltham had already made a significant marketing effort in the manufacture of men’s “strap watches for the wrist” and held a commanding market advantage.  Being a late entry into the men's wrist watch market, Hamilton concentrated their marketing efforts on a more "upscale" clientele pricing their watches higher than Waltham and Elgin and utilizing 17 jewel minimum movements cased in precious metals only.

Hamilton's "wrist watch for men” directly descended from the “strap watch” which was used during World War I.  In fact, the watch was described in the 1922 Hamilton Catalog as “designed for Army and Navy officers, Aeronauts, Civil Engineers, Foresters, Automobile Drivers, and others who realize the advantage of a wrist watch in their occupations.”  Hamilton attempted to link the wearing of a “wrist watch” with occupations that were both exciting and adventuress thereby giving the wrist watch a distinctly masculine air.

This wire lug “wrist watch” contained a 17 jewel 981 movement that was timed and adjusted in a sterling silver case at the factory; and was furnished with a "substantial" strap (“Web-strap” which was made of canvas) and a "substantial" buckle. In early 1923, the wrist model was offered in 14K gold with a leather strap.

As with the selling of pocket watches, Hamilton emphasized the quality of the movement when selling “wrist models.”  In the 1923 Hamilton catalog, the 981 size “0” movement which was utilized in the “wrist model" was described as a nickel ¾ plate movement with 17 jewels, a Breguet hairspring, a double roller escapement and utilized sapphire pallets. In addition, the movement contained a compensation balance.  This movement differed considerably with Hamiltons competitors who sold mostly 7 jewel movements that were cased in base metals.

1922 - 1936 . . . In 1929, Hamilton acquired Illinois, a fine American Watch manufacturer in their own right. About that time, Hamilton issued watches that put them on the map considering quality - The platinum Meadowbrook. The enamel bezel watches were stunning in design but not unlike examples issued by Waltham and Elgin.

With the exception of the “Oval,” early Hamilton watches including the “Cushion,” the “Square,” the “Barrel” and the “Tonneau” closely followed the popular designs of their era – 1920’s.  Without careful examination, it would not be unusual to mistake a Hamilton Cushion for an Illinois Cushion and the same can be said for Hamilton’s other geometrically named watch models.  Although the various wristwatch models from the 1920’s may have been similar, Hamilton sought to distinguish themselves from their competitors by emphasizing the “quality” of the movement.  In fact, early Hamilton catalogs marketed the various models to consumers based on the movement caliber and movement quality with model design being secondary.

Hamilton took particular pride in their numerous technological accomplishments and heralded these accomplishments in the various catalogs that they distributed to jewelers.  From the introduction of their first wrist watch, to 1936, Hamilton was well known for their technological accomplishments:

  • “Hamilton never sold anything less than a 17-jewel movement. All were damascened or contained highly polished components; all contained gold chatoned jewel settings (until the introduction of the Hamilton 747 in 1947), all utilized sapphire pallets, and all were temperature adjusted.”

  • “Before 1930, all fine watches made or sold in America used the conventional steel hairspring and split bi-metallic balance wheel. The need for an improved balance assembly was evident; Hamilton searched for and found the answer. After years of research, Hamilton in 1931 presented America’s first Elinvar equipped watch with rustles hairspring and solid balance wheel protecting it against inaccuracies caused by magnetism, moisture and extreme temperature changes.”

  • “In 1930 Hamilton developed and invited and manufactured its own exclusive “Time Microscope” The first and most accurate of all the host of timing devices on the market (at that time).”

  • “The principle of interchangeability has been recognized for years - but true interchangeability in a fine watch was not achieved until 1931, when Hamilton preformed manufacturing miracles and reduced tolerance to minimum variations never before thought possible. Now, except for the vibrating (Balance wheel) unit, any Hamilton watch part will fit perfectly into any Hamilton movement of the same grade.”

  • “Hamilton was the first to add the beauty of applied gold numeral dials to small watches. No other single company has solved the basic engineering problems which make this feature possible. “
Aside from the technological advances that Hamilton made in the construction of their timepieces, extensive man hours went into the construction of each watch. The average time it took to complete a watch was nine months. No watch was ever made in less than seven months and it would not be unusual for construction to take up to a year. Of this time, two months alone are utilized in the "finishing room" where every part of the watch is tested and applied and the assembled watch tested again.

As of January 1st 1928, the Hamilton Watch Company owned and controls the entire assets, good will, trade name and plant of the Illinois Watch Company which was located in Springfield Illinois.

In fact, many of the well-known watch manufactures during the 1920’s used the same case manufacturers – Wadsworth, Fahy’s, and L&W (Lutringer & Wittmer) and there were only slight differences as designated by the watch manufacturer. It is important to note however that although Hamilton sold far fewer watches than Elgin which was the leading watch manufacturer of the time, proportionately, Hamilton sold significantly more gold watches than gold-filled (over 80,000 solid gold watches in the first ten years of wristwatch production). In fact, of the five American watch manufacturers, Elgin, Waltham, Illinois and Hampden, Illinois sold relatively few solid gold watches with most being gold-filled.

Of the four American wristwatch makers (Illinois, Hampden, Elgin and Waltham), Hamilton was the last to close its doors. Although Hamiltons are still manufactured, they are owned by the Swatch Company and are manufactured in Switzerland. Hamilton was the last of the “great” American watch manufacturers to cease US production in 1969. Hampden ceased wrist watch production after 1927. Hamilton bought out Illinois in 1928. Waltham dissolved in 1955, and Elgin closed its doors in 1965.

Hamilton, ventured onto the wrist watch scene fairly late in the game – Originally, woman’s watches were manufactured by Hamilton as a men’s strap watch was considered effeminate until the advent of World War I were wearing a wrist watch was not only convenient, but also safe.

The 1920’s saw names like Piping Rock, Meadowbrook and Flintridge, all names of famous golf resorts of the time period. However, in the 1930’s, Hamilton started naming watches after men’s names which turned out to be marketing coup.

In the mid 1930's, Hamilton developed a new marketing plan concentrating on emotional and human interests.

By 1935, Hamilton had fewer grades of movements than they did in 1915.  This consolidation was due to Hamilton's concentration on style changes and model introduction taking precedence to the need for various movement grades.  Prior to 1915, the distinguishing features of the grades were the quality of materials, their finish, the number of the jewels and whether or not the wheels were gold or brass, and so on.  Compared to 1935 when the consumer was more interested in the various styles and dials with emphasis on beauty.

Hamilton employed a "Director of Styling" who devoted his entire time the designing of new styles of cases, dials and attachments.

Each watch consisted of approximately 150 parts and required close to 1,100 direct labor operations and on average, required eight to eleven months to complete.

The material cost, with the exception of the case, was the smallest part of the cost.  For every $1.00 spent on the cost of the movement, 15 cents represents the material with the greatest cost being the jewels.  In 1935, the jewels, mainsprings, hairsprings and hands were imported from Switzerland.  Labor was by far, the largest element of cost.  45 cents of every dollar spent was attributed to labor representing the largest single cost.  The 35 cents remaining is attributed to overhead cost such as indirect labor, factory supplies and engineering.

Hamilton never departed from the should fundamentals of the distribution policy which was conceived early in the Company's story.  However, changing market conditions in the late twenties and early thirties brought about a revision in operating methods - a "streamlining" of the Company's traditional policy of selling through wholesalers.

The Depression years of the early thirties brought to an acute stage many of the merchandizing evils which slowly had been developing sine the first World War.  The jewelry trade was particularly hard hit.  As the luxury market shrunk, wholesale jewelers and retail jewelers alike were driven to all manner of sales expedients in a desperate effort to avoid business collapse.  Policies were thrown out the window.  No merchandizing tactics were too unethical as long as a sale was made.

The watch market was demoralized by the "dumping" of large overstocks of domestic watches, and was flooded with watches of foreign make, many of them smuggled into the country.  Fine, trade-marketed goods like Hamilton Watches, depending upon reputation and long-established prestige for their acceptance by the trade and the public, suffered severely in this period of ruthless selling.

In 1935, Hamilton selected 41 jobbers or wholesale distributors throughout the United States and allotted each a defined territory which Hamilton designated as a "zone."  The wholesale distributor was than licensed to sell to retailers within their district.  Each zone was based on "buying power" indexes which Hamilton had taken three years to establish through research.  Wholesale distributors who's zone's "buying power" was minimal would be granted larger territories sufficiently large enough to do good business but yet not too large to be uneconomical.