Not all that long ago, The United States was known for being a true industrial giant. Although most of the country’s manufacturing is now outsourced, throughout the 20th Century, the USA was a leading producer and exporter of steel, petroleum products, automobiles, lumber, and electronics. And in the first half of the century, the country was also known for producing some of the world’s finest timepieces – an industry that, like many of the above listed, has all but disappeared from America’s curriculum vitae. Today, most of the world’s finest timepieces come from Europe and Asia, and while the American watchmaking industry truly doesn’t exist in any recognizable form, there is a proud legacy of design, innovation and manufacture; as well as a sizable number of vintage American-made timepieces still available on the market for thoughtful collectors.
American wristwatches, from the early 1900s to around 1950, were truly some of the highest quality timepieces in the world, and were produced to meet a global demand. After 1950, increased competition from overseas, changing exchange rates and economic forces, and the onset of the quartz crisis shuttered many manufactures. Ultimately, the few “surviving” large American brands were bought out by European or Asian conglomerates, and are American in heritage only. Today, virtually no watches are still manufactured stateside in any considerable volume. As with any collectable item, the earlier, most “genuine” examples are the most sought after, and a Hamilton built in Lancaster, Pennsylvania trumps one assembled overseas, and have a small but growing enthusiast group today.
There are tens of thousands of quality vintage American timepieces still available on the market, but the problem facing collectors is that they are being destroyed at an alarming rate due to changing tastes and trends. Appreciation for early American timepieces peaked around the 1980s, and since, values have plummeted to the point of absurdity. A few hundred dollars buys a truly respectable piece of American craftsmanship, while the most exclusive and sought after pieces command only a few thousand; a pittance compared to the highly sought after Swiss sports watches that have been dominating the collector market for the past ten or fifteen years. As a result, many of the remaining early American timepieces have been scrapped, either for parts or for their precious metal content, melted down and turned into currency for the unappreciative.
As a timepiece collector, there are three ways to look at this situation: Apathy, Opportunity, and Responsibility. At the end of the day you could, A) Not give a shit, B) See this as a chance to score some impressive timepieces (for peanuts) for investment purposes, or C) know your duty as a steward of the admittedly obsolete art that is mechanical watchmaking, and do everything in your power to save these historically important pieces from the oven. For those of you in the latter category, you already “get it”. If you count yourself amongst the opportunists, that’s fine too – you’re also doing your part to preserve a bit of history. But if you’re in the “no shits given” category, listen up: You’re doing it wrong. Early American timepieces still matter, and you should care. Here’s why.
Although large steel sports watches have dominated the hearts and minds of collectors as of late, there are hints of an impending change in the air. Manufacturers are slowly but surely rolling out smaller timepieces and returning to precious metals for casing. The 44mm+ behemoths of 2008 are already passé, and it won’t be long before 38 is the new 42 (we’re still talking case sizes here, people). Steel is also taking a backseat as the most desirable case material as consumers are drawn in increasingly substantial numbers to rose gold, white gold, and platinum.
As happened with steel sports watches, an enhanced market for new timepieces provides a direct correlation to interest and enhanced values for similar vintage pieces. As new watches are produced in smaller sizes and more traditional styles, there will undoubtedly be an increased collector market for their historical counterparts. And early American timepieces are quite simply the most prodigious and affordable svelte precious metal timepieces available. Like so many other cyclical trends, everything old will become new again, and it is a fair bet that in the not too distant future, these historical gems will become relevant and desirable again, and a continually diminishing supply of quality examples ensures an increase in market value to follow. Their time, as they say, is nigh.
The challenge is, as always, in timing. There is a definite possibility that by the time the greater collector population reapplies themselves to appreciation these vintage American pieces, it could be too late. Just think of all those 60s and 70s Rolex sports models that were scrapped before they caught on with collectors. Makes you cringe, right? Same story with early American – and its happening right now.
In closing, early American timepieces have not yet had their day in the proverbial sun, and while it may not be a short-term winner from an investment standpoint, there are plenty of reasons for collectors to start thinking about them now: brilliant design, quality, and a real connection to a bygone era of true American timepiece manufacture. Although a Gruen Curvex may seem a little small on the wrist and overly simplistic in style compared to your current Royal Oak Offshore, if you consider yourself a true connoisseur of horology, you owe it to yourself to do your part and save one. You’ll be glad you did.