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HAMILTON - AMERICA'S PREMIER WRIST WATCH
Of all the brands of vintage American wristwatches, the one that is arguably the most desirable among collectors are those that were made
by Hamilton. The wrist watches Hamilton produced during its “golden era” -- the 1920s to about the mid '50s -- are often referred to by
collectors as the "American Pateks," in reference to Patek Philippe, the Swiss company that produces what is generally regarded as the
world’s finest -- if not most expensive -- mechanical wrist watch.
This notoriety is perhaps ironic in that the company did not sell the
most wrist watches during this "golden period." That distinction belongs to Elgin. And it certainly wasn't the first American watch company in existence; in fact it was the last. Waltham, Elgin, Illinois, and Hampden - which all produced wrist watches at some point during this golden age - all preceded Hamilton.
Yet of all five truly American wrist watchmakers*, Hamilton is
generally held in the highest regard. For one thing, Hamilton priced its wristwatches higher than the competition. The company's advertising touted them as top-of-the line, and oftentimes this was true. Many of Hamilton’s movements are works of art in themselves with their ornate damaskeening on the plates. Also, while many other watch manufacturers used less expensive cases with stainless steel backs, most Hamilton models you find from the '20s to the '50s are cased in more expensive all gold-filled cases, bezels and backs.
And, finally, Hamilton has stayed in business longer than any of its
competitors. 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 went on, and even enjoyed a rebirth in the 1980s. And although they have long been part of the giant Swiss consortium SMH, Hamilton continues to pump out watches, many of which are remakes of decades-old models. In watchmaking, as in many areas of life, the longest survivor is often remembered as the best. And while this association is oftentimes unjustified, many watch collectors believe it is true in Hamilton's case.
The story of Hamilton begins in 1892, when a group of businessmen headed by Charles D. Rood and Henry J. Cain founded the company in
Lancaster, Pa. The building housed several bankrupt watch companies before it, including the Adams & Perry, Lancaster Watch Co., and the
Keystone Standard Watch Co. It is interesting to note that this original building still stands today, converted into pricey condominiums!
Many people think the company was named after Alexander Hamilton, the
the famous first Secretary of the Treasury. But is was, in fact, named for Andrew Hamilton, the Scottish born immigrant who is perhaps best remembered as the architect for Philadelphia's Independence Hall. His association with Pennsylvania is long and distinguished. Among other things, he served as Pennsylvania's attorney general from 1729 to 1739.
The company quickly became known as a supplier of pocket watches to
employees of the nation's railroad companies. Hamilton soon realized the limitations of that market, and quickly adapted to watches for the
general public as well.
As with most manufactures - Swiss and American - the company started
making wrist watches in the 1910s. For the most part, they were plain
designs, with model names that simply indicated the shapes of the cases. Such examples are the "Square", the "Tonneau", the "Barrel", and so forth. With a few exceptions during this early period, Hamilton was a follower rather than a leader in wrist watch design and production. By 1920, wrist watches comprised a mere 4% of Hamilton's total production, compared with 28% for Waltham and a whopping 48% for Elgin. These earliest Hamilton wrist watches are considered quite underpriced by many collectors, considering their relative rarity to those made by other American companies.
Their casual attitude toward wrist watches changed in the late '20s, as Hamilton acquired Illinois. In 1929, the company came out with three models which - uncharacteristic for Hamilton - were stunning in their design and remain today as some of the most collectible models. They are the Piping Rock, the Spur, and the Coronado. All three solid gold-cased watches feature enameled bezels.
From that point to about the mid 1950s are generally considered
Hamilton's "golden years". During the '20s and early '30s, the watches
took on more glamorous names - the Oakmont, the Flintridge, the
Meadowbrook and so forth. In about the mid-'30s, the company decided to name most of its watches after men's names. This is perhaps one of the qualities that endears so many collectors to Hamilton. If your name is Dennis, or Gary or Ross or Donald, you can find a Hamilton literally with your name on it!
The invasion of inexpensive Swiss-made movements in the 1950s, along
with the success of cheap, disposable watches by Timex, signaled the
beginning of the end for Hamilton. The company gradually shifted toward installing Swiss-made movements in their watches. In 1969, production of American-made movements ceased altogether.
The company made a brief resurgence in the early '70s with the
introduction of the Pulsar LED watch, the first commercially successful quartz watch. Hamilton bet the farm on this watch, and lost as the LED craze soon faded. The company would probably have gone belly had it not been for its "Awards and Incentives" division - which supplied watches to companies that gave them away as service rewards.
As mentioned, the company enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the 1980s as the public became enamored with the "retro" look. Fortunately, Hamilton still had the specs for many of its old models, and they pumped them out to the delight of the general public and, yes, even vintage collectors.
But the appeal for vintage collectors fades quickly after the mid
1950s. This does not include the Hamilton's electric models, produced
from 1957 to about 1969, but those are generally considered in a class
by themselves and will be discussed in a separate installment.
The list of "most desirable models" produced during Hamilton's golden
era is long and quite subjective. While the following list is by no
means inclusive, it contains many of the models that are most coveted.
As you might expect, many of these watches are also the most expensive.
For more information:
- Piping Rock, Coronado and Spur.
- Oval and Flintridge.
- All models containing the grade 401 movement from the Illinois Watch Company factory).
- Rutlidge and Cambridge (platinum cases).
- Otis (a reversible watch which flips from open to closed position).
- Seckron (duo-dial doctor's watch).
- Any of the coral (rose) gold watches. (These were produced only from 1940 to 1941 and were not re-introduced after World War II).
- Bomb timer (actually not a wrist watch, but was mounted on a turret within the bombardier's compartment of the aircraft so he could time the duration between bomb drop and detonation. These are converted fairly easily into a wrist watch by a simple modification to a standard leather strap.)
- Brooke (Hamilton's first asymmetrical watch, circa 1938).
- Flight I and II. (These are some of the few asymmetrical watches
containing mechanical movements produced during the same time as the Hamilton electric models. The former model is solid 14K gold while the latter is gold-filled).
Hamilton is probably the most documented of all
American manufacturers, and probably more of Hamilton's factory
documents survive than of any other company. For general reading,
consult Time for America, by Don Sauers. This 1992 book, commemorating Hamilton's 100th anniversary, is out of print but can still be found at NAWCC marts and from other booksellers. Be warned it is more a book about the company than about its watches, but it is still fascinating reading. Also, check out Hamilton Wristwatches by Rene Rondeau. This 1999 book describes most every wrist watch Hamilton made from the 1910s to 1969. Much of the surviving factory documentation is available for inspection and research at no charge to NAWCC members at the Association's library in Columbia, Pa.
* Companies like Bulova and Gruen, while they were headquartered in
America, imported their movements from Switzerland, so their watches are not generally considered American-made in the strictest sense of the term.
(with additional information by Don Baker)