History of the Hamilton Watch Company

By Morgan Denyer

Figure 1The history of the Hamilton Watch company goes back to 1886 when Figure 2Abram Bitner bought the Lancaster Pennsylvania Watch Company factory to establish the Keystone Standard Watch Company. The keystone Watch company developed a 18-size, 3/4-plate movement, with 15 jewels that incorporated a patented dust-proofing system (Figure 1) and was accurate enough to for use on the railroads. Unfortunately the company struggled and was eventually auctioned at a Sheriffs sale to a group of Pennsylvanian businessmen (J. W. B.Bausman, John F. Brimmer, Harry B. Cochran, Frank P. Coho, C. A. Fondersmith, George M. Franklin, John Sener, John C. Hager, J. F. McCaskey, H. M. North, Martin Ringwalt, J. Frederick Sener, William Z. Sener, James Shand, Peter T. Watt and H. S. Williamson. Charles D. Rood and Henry J. Cain of the Aurora Watch company) following its bankruptcy in 1892. The new company merged with the Aurora Watch Company of Illinois and was given the name The Hamilton Watch Company in honour of James Hamilton, a local and important historical figure who served as an elected member of the Provincial Assembly, was the Mayor in 1745, and was commissioned by the Penn family to function as lieutenant-governor on a number of occasions between 1754 and 1773. James Hamilton also owned large tracts of land granted to him by the Penn family and he used some of that land to build the State House and surrounding public spaces. He has been credited with founding the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The Hamilton Watch Company was set up with the aim of manufacture watches of the highest quality. The company didn’t have the resources to compete with the American watch making giants of the time (Waltham and Elgin) but what they could do, by producing very high quality watches, was to try and corner the railway watch market. The very first model they produced in 1893, a size 18, 17 jewel pocket watch did just that. This first watch, the Broadway, not only became known as “The watch of the Railway”, but was also the official timepiece of all U.S. Expeditionary Forces by the turn of the 20th century.  It was the Broadway and the later 21 jewel 992 Figure 2) railway grade movement that accounted for the majority of Hamilton sales during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Figure 3WW1 resulted in a need for a new type of watch, the Figure 4wristwatch or trench watch. Hamilton being a provider of watches for the US military very quickly produced its first trench watch in 1917 (Figure 3 & 4). This watch was based around an 0-sized (1 inch) 17-jewel 983 movement which was initially designed for use in ladies watches (see http://www.hamiltonchronicles.com/2013/05/1918-aviators-watch-trench-watch.html), the movements of these watches were even signed Lady Figure 5Hamilton. Hamilton produced 6900 of these movements and only about 1500 were cased as trench/aviators watches. They were quickly replaced in 1919 by men’s watches incorporating the O sized 981 calibre or 985 calibre movements. However, it seems that Hamilton couldn’t manufacture these watches fast enough to keep up with demand. The problem lay in the fact that the Hamilton watches were of an extremely high quality and were thus time consuming and expensive to manufacture. It is possible that Hamilton chose to manufacture high-grade wrist watches because to do otherwise could have damaged their brand and their major market, the railroads (see http://www.vintage-hamilton-wristwatches.com/2013/05/when-did-hamilton-make-its-first-gents.html). Hamilton continued to grow in the 1920s, buying the Illinois Watch Company in 1927/28 and as a result of this expanded its range to include numerous lovely Art Deco wrist watches including the stunning and very highly desirable Piping Rock (Figure 5).

Figure 6By 1939 WW2 had started in Europe and Hamilton Figure 7started to produce wristwatches that by modern standards would be more recognisable. Many of these were designed with almost an anticipation of future involvement in conflict. For example in 1940 Hamilton produced its first watch with a central sweep second hand, the Hamilton Sentinel (Figure 6). This watch contained a 17 jewel 987S calibre hack movement, in which the pulling out of the crown to set the watch stopped the second hand. Figure 8This of course enabled the synchronisation of watches. Talk about reading the market, Hamilton’s timing was perfect. In 1942, following the entry of the USA into WW2, Hamilton ceased producing watches for the civilian market and instead produced a million or more watches for the troops being sent to Europe and the Pacific. These watches were often equipped with movements incorporating the hack mechanism, originally used in the Hamilton Sentinel. After the war many of the designs used in the WW2 military watches were retained in military style dress watches, such as the beautiful 14K solid gold Hamilton Secometer. (Figure 7) The period after the WW2 also saw a return to the manufacture of lovely slim tank watches and Hamilton excelled in the production of some superb watches such as the Hamilton Donald (Figure 8).

The post war period witnessed an increasing wealth and the race to produce the first electric watch. Hamilton, apparently in response to rumours that Elgin were working on the development of an electric watch (http://www.electric-watches.co.uk/make/hamilton/index/), started Project X in 1946. This eventually resulted  in Hamilton unveiling the worlds first battery powered electric watch, the 14K solid gold Ventura in 1957 and soon after the 14 K yellow and white gold filled Pacer (Figure 9). These watches was something new, the design was striking and had its origins in the emerging space age. These watches were incredibly popular, even Elvis had one. Unfortunately the first Hamilton electric movement, the 500 was a bit unreliable, watch makers were un-used to them and refused to service them, so many were sent back to the manufacturer. Modifications of the 500 led to the development of the much more reliable 505 movement in 1962 and this was manufactured right up until 1969, when Hamilton finally admitted the superiority of Bulova’s Acutron. Despite the unreliability of the Hamilton electric watches they are still highly desirable, although there are only a very few specialist dealers/repairers such as the UK Electric Watch Guru Paul Wirdnam (http://www.electric-watches.co.uk/) who can service and repair them.Figure 9

During the Hamilton Electric watch period, Hamilton changed its logo to a stylised H symbolic of the electric watch era (Figure 10). However, Hamilton continued to make very high grade mechanical watches Figure 10during this period. In 1966 hamilton bought the Buren factory in Switzerland giving rise toHamilton Buren. This allowed Hamilton to incorporate the highly inventive Buren micro rotor blade into its automatic watches. Hamilton stopped making watches in the US in 1969, and shifted their watch making to the Hamilton Buren manufacturing base. By 1972, the Hamilton Buren association had dissolved and Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH – Omega & Tissot) bought the Hamilton brand. Via the merger of SSIH and ASUAG (Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG) which gave rise to SMH (Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking Industries Ltd.) in 1984, Hamilton is now a subsidiary of Swatch. Following the success of the film Men in Black (1990) Hamilton re-launched the Ventura design with a quartz movement. Since then Hamilton has gone on to produce very high quality watches for the luxury market. Hamilton currently sponsors Nicolas Ivanoff (Aerobatic pilot) and his plane the Hamilton branded Edge 540, they host the Hollywood “behind the Camera Awards, and are the official timekeepers of EAA AirVenture and sponsor the annual event at Wittman Regional Airport, Oshkosh, Wisconsin.


The Bulova Watch Company

by Morgan Denyer  (Penrose Antiques Ltd)

The Bulova’s story starts with the immigration of a certain Joseph Bulova to the United States. Joseph Bulova was born in 1851 and emigrated to the US towards the later quarter of the 19th century to establish a small New York jewellers, J Bulova Company. By 1911 Bulova had started to make small table clocks and pocket watches, a venture aided by the opening of Bulova’s first watch factory in Bienne, Switzerland in 1912. Bulova Figure 1This was very much a time of growth and innovation in the watch making industry, partially drivBulova Figure 2en by the needs of the military. The 1st World War, saw Bulova working towards meeting the need for the new fangled wristwatches, and by 1919 Bulova was the first watch manufacturer to launch a full range of men’s wristwatches. At this time Bulova’s business was growing fast and to facilitate continued growth, Bulova, in 1920, moved to 580 Fifth Avenue, where Bulova built the first ever Observatory on top of a skyscraper (Figure 1). Accuracy was everything, thus the observatory was apparently under the direction of a mathematician, whose calculations were reputed to guide the factory’s watchmakers in their efforts towards absolute accuracy. Ever the opportunistic advertiser, the move provided Bulova with an opportunity to re-brand itself in 1923 as the Bulova Watch Company Inc. At this time Bulova’s methods of mass production allowed the production of high precision interchangeable components allowing rapid repair and servicing. The Bulova’s were always ready to support risky projects with the aim of grabbing a headline. For example it was the Bulova Watch Company that made the first ever radio advertisement in 1926, and it was Ardé Bulova, Joseph’s son, who offered a $1000 prize to the pilot who could make the first non-stopBulova Blog Figure 3 single-handed flight across the Atlantic. It seems that those who attempted this feet were all given a Bulova before they took off, and it is reputed that the first pilot, Charles A. Lindberg, who managed the trip wore a Bulova during the flight. It is also believed that Lindberg actually earned himself two Bulova watches and of course a nice large cheque as a result of his efforts. The first watch was given to him before the flight, and the second as a presentation watch after the flight in a blaze of publicity. Not to miss a trick, Bulova capitalised on this my creating the Lone Eagle model, the first ever commemorative watch. This watch seemed to be rather fittingly based on what was called the Bulova Conqueror (Figure 2 – see http://www.watchophilia.com/general-information/bulova-lone-eagle-series/ for more details). Rather perversely, prior to the successful flight the Conqueror didn’t actually sell that well, but on touch down, sales rocketed with the Bulova records showing 5000 sales within the first 3 days of landing. There is still considerable debate as to whether these were actual sales of physical watches to individual customers, or orders from jewellers. The latter seems most likely. The company continued innovating, producing the very first electric clocks in 1931 and making the first ever television advertisement in 1941. During WW2 Bulova dedicated its time to producing timepieces for the US military. After the war Bulova produced some truly lovely watches combining stunningly creative designs with the small sleek look of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many of these watches were very high quality watches consisting of high calibre movements within 14ct solid white or yellow gold cases (Figure 3). Bulova Figure 4The 50s also saw social changes, this was an era of steadily increasing wealth, and massive technological advances. In the watch industry the race was on to produce the first electric watch. This was perceived as an almost impossible task because it required the miniaturisation of electrical components. However, by 1960 Bulova had developed the Bulova Accutron. This watch was remarkable in that it basically contained a mechanical movement driven by a 360 hertz tuning fork. The concept was brilliant, very ingenious and beautifully simple. Basically what Bulova did was to fabricate a means of driving a 25mm long tuning fork with an electronic unit consisting of a couple of coils, a battery unit and a couple of transistors. The tuning fork was manufactured so that one arm possessed a post from which extended an arm like structure terminating in a jewelled square (Figure 4a-c see http://www.decadecounter.com/accutron/history.htm for further details). The vibrations of the tuning fork allowed the arm to drive a micro-toothed wheel, tBulova Figure 5ooth by tooth. It was this micro-toothed wheel, which drove the mechanical gear chain allowing the hands to move. These watches don’t tick they give of a faint high-pitched hum, and it is down to the micro-toothed drive wheel that in these watches the second hand seems to move with a mystical smoothness. The Accutron was the very first highly accurate electric watches, and this was recognised by the Bulova Accutron wristwatch being the first wristwatch to be awarded the US Railroad Certificate. The value of this accolade should be explained. In the early years of the US railroad, accidents tended to happen because train drivers and signallers had watches that were not terribly accurate. To try and circumvent this, strict standards were set for the accuracy of watches used on the US railways to insure the appropriate coordination of time dependent tasks. Thus Bulova, because of the accuracy of its Accutron wristwatches, could market their wristwatches to the rail industry. To market these new watches, Bulova produced versions without a formalised face, thus the all-new movement could be viewed. These watches were meant to be display items only. However, customers wanted to buy them, and thus the Accutron Spaceview watches were born. These were, and still are, highly popular and when combined with the asymmetrical watch designs of the 1960s resulted in some lovely timepieces (See http://oldfathertime.com/accutron_photo_gallery.htm for details of some of the designs). One of my particular favourites is the so called Tilty (or floppy) Football (Figure 5), which consisted of a tilted asymmetrical almost circular 14ct solid gold case combined with the space view – a real peach of a watch! The Space View versions are very collectable and unsurprisingly kits are available to convert a standard Accutron to a Spaceview Accutron. The 60s also saw the race to the moon. Bulova was heavily involved in the space race. Their main rival in this market was Omega. Both competed to have the first watch on the moon. Unfortunately for Bulova, Omega won that race race, on the basis that Bulova didn’t guarantee 100% dust proofing, whilst Omega did. So the Omega Speedmaster Professional became the official NASA astronauts watch. However, all of the timepieces for the spacecraft, were based around the Accutron 214 movement, because NASA couldn’t be certain how purely mechanical timepieces would function in a zero gravity environment. The Accutron based watches were made between 1960 and 1977. The demise of the tuning fork based movement was driven by the invention of the quartz based movement which could be made much more cheaply. Bulova is still a major force in the watch manufacturing industry. The company was bought by Citizen in 2008 and continues to make watches branded as Bulova, Caravelle, Wittnauer Swiss, Marine Star and Accutron (which are now quartz based, although 1000 50th anniversary true tuning fork based Accutrons were made in 2010).

History of The Helvetia Watch Company

The history of the Helvetia watch goes way back to 1848, when a certain Louis Brands established a sales office for manufacturing watches. By 1880 Louis and his brother César set up a watch manufacturing business, La Generale Watch Co (General Watch Company). Clearly names for their product were required and the two brothers picked a number of names for their watches including Patria, Jura, Celtic and Helvetia, with Helvetia, being the female personification of the Swiss nation, bearing testament to the Swiss origin of their watches. The watches produced by the Brands brothers were highly thought of and by incorporation of the new lever movements in 1885, they produced timepieces that were accurate to within an astounding 30 seconds per day. Four years later the General Watch company was producing more than 100,000 watches per year and became the largest producer of watches in Switzerland. They formed collaborations with other manufacturers, most notably Audemars Piguet and produced highly desirable watches such as the minute repeating wrist-watch in 1892. This was way ahead of its time bearing in mind that wrist watches only gained popularity during the 1st World War.

By 1894 the General Watch Company had developed a new type of watch movement incorporating the revolutionary idea of having component parts that were interchangeable. This of course decreased manufacturing costs, made the manufacture of watches more efficient and also made watch repair easier. I simple name for this new product was required and it was the companies banker Henri Rieckel who came up with the simple and quite elegant name Omega. The Omega brand was a tremendous success and by 1903 it was decided that Omega would split from the General Watch Company as an independent enterprise, with the General Watch Company focusing its attentions on the manufacture of cylinder watches under trade names such as Helvetia.

In the depression of the early 1930s the Swiss watch manufacturing industry was in turmoil. There was a significant risk that many watch manufacturers and allied businesses would face bankruptcy. To prevent this the Swiss government and the Swiss banks provided funds to form Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG (ASUAG) as a vehicle to allow watch manufactures to pool resources and thus protect employment. ASUAG basically consisted of two arms, a conglomerate of movement blank manufacturers and movement part manufacturers, and a conglomerate of watch assembly companies under the company name of the GWC (General Watch Company) Ltd.  HelvHelvetia Naval Pocket Watch FIg 1 for Blogetia was one of the brands made by this newly merged company. At the time GWC Ltd made high quality watches for both the domestic and the military market. Emerging from the early 1930s was a growing trend toward rearming. This drove developments in the watch industry with the German military for example ordering high quality watches from Swiss manufactures incorporating design features such as the then new (1934) Incabloc shock proofing. Other countries followed, although the UK for example tended to buy comparable watches but of a lower specification that lacked the Incabloc shock-proofing modification. ThusHelvetial Watch Blog  Figure 2a Helvetia watches, being one of the major brands of GWC Ltd, found their way into the armed forces of both the German and Western Allies. Helvetia military pocket watches are currently quite readily available, although there are some quite rare examples such as the mid 1930s Royal Navy Helvetia pocket watch shown in Figure 1. This particular silver nickel cased black dialed Helvetia pocket watch carries British broad arrow, the Royal Navy Pattern No 301 and the serial number 4014547 on its back and has a Swiss made Helvetia signed caliber 32A movement (Figure 2). Understandably such watches had a habit of disappearing a fact that is probably related to the high losses of shipping experienced by the British Royal Navy during the 2nd World War.

After the 2nd World War, GWC Ltd continued to make high quality watches under the Helvetia name, including this absolutely stunning wrist watches. (Figure 3).  In 1968 the Helvetia movement factory in Reconvillier was bought by the SGT (Societe des Garde-Temps SA) although it seems the that the Helvetia  watch factory in Bienne remained independent. Sadly the invention of the quartz movement in the 1970s had a seriously negative impact on the manufacture of Swiss mechanical watches and Helvetia was one of the victims of this new innovation. UntitlHelvetia Blog Figure 3b

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