The worldwide watch industry is changing. Despite a continued wave of buyers in the Asian market, Swiss luxury watch sales slumped for 26 straight months in 2016 and 2017. A wobbly supply of ubiquitous ETA movements, controlled by the monolithic Swatch group, has put mechanical watchmakers on edge and whipsawed the market. Add in a rise in smartwatch popularity (which, despite what the industry claims, does in fact cut into the market share) and mechanical and quartz watch brands alike face a hell of a lot of change.
The United States, long a predictable and quiet market of watch lovers and buyers, is changing too. That’s thanks in part to America’s own kind of volatility: a crucible of American watchmakers and small brands, rising and falling, growing and changing, duking it out for a whole new market of Americans who want to wear a watch made by an American company. The American Watch Renaissance is real. It’s also complicated.
“It’s total chaos,” said Nick Harris, a former Seiko modder who went to Seattle’s Watch Technology Institute and started his own brand, Orion, when I asked him what it’s like to be a small American watchmaker today. “It’s a madhouse.”
American watchmaking has laid dormant since the 1940s, when prominent US watchmakers, already on the decline, were forced to turn their factories to wartime production. Switzerland, neutral during WWII, capitalized, and American watch brands never recovered. American buyers got perfectly comfy with their Rolexes and their Seikos. Then, in 2011, Shinola woke some of those buyers up with watches that used Swiss quartz movements but were put together in its Detroit factory. A small army of brands has followed suit.
It’s not always been rose gold and sunburst dials. Shinola got shellacked by the FTC in 2015 over “American-made” labeling; there’ve been fights over “in-house” claims by up-and-coming brands, and big names like Niall have winked out of business in an instant.
The biggest trends, though, have been great for consumers. Quality mechanical watchmakers of the old school like RGM have quietly stayed the course, keeping traditional, luxury-level watchmaking alive Stateside and inspiring young tinkerers. Larger, mainstream brands, Shinola included, are dipping their toes in mechanical watches for the first time. Smaller first-wave brands like Weiss are continuing to grow and break into the public consciousness. The affordable market has shattered into a sea of microbrands run by up-and-comers like Harris, some of them successful, and each with its own dynamic vision and accessible models.
The result for buyers at the tail end of 2018 is more great watches at every price range, from $100 to $10,000. Heading into 2019, these are a few great American brands and watches to keep an eye on.
Jonathan Ferrer cut his teeth on watch design at Movado, during an internship his junior year at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In 2015 he founded his own microbrand, Brew Watches, inspired by industrial espresso machines, and raised $40,000 on Kickstarter. In 2017 he shipped about 200 watches, made from Japanese and Chinese parts assembled in Switzerland. It’s 2018 that’s been his coming out party, though: Brew’s new Retrograph line, a rectangular watch with a classic bent and a Seiko meca-quartz movement that Ferrer assembles himself in Brooklyn, came out in December. Ferrer was inspired by “telephone timer” chronographs that first emerged in the 1930s and had hash marks every three minutes to let the wearer know it was time to insert more quarters for their call; the Retrograph has extra hash marks through 35 seconds, the ideal time to pull an espresso shot. “There are diver watches that have bezels that tell you how much oxygen you have in your tank, or racer chronographs that have lap timers built in,” Ferrer says. “I find it to be a playful way to connect a specific purpose of timekeeping to an experience that people enjoy.”
Movement: Seiko VK64 hybrid meca-quartz
Mercer, based out of Princeton, New Jersey, has produced eight watches so far — each bringing sharp design to the table, with pricing that usually falls south of $500. The Concorde dive watch is their design standout so far (though chronograph fans could argue for the Lexington). You won’t find many cushion cases in the American market, and this one’s well done; ditto its inner rotating bezel and patterned dial. At 43mm, it’s also the brand’s largest watch; Scott Vacuolo, Mercer’s president, says that extra size has been on Mercer customers’ wishlist.
Movement: Miyota 9039 automatic
Martenero Edgemere Reserve
Martenero made a name for itself as a maker of semi-customizable, dressy watches — buyers of their early models could swap a black seconds hand for an orange one, and decide whether this should be set against a navy or white dial. They’ve moved away from that model with the Edgemere Reserve, but the brand’s modern style lives on. Instead of customizing, buyers can choose between four different colorways of the watch, all of them with the same nautical-inspired design. The defining touch is the power reserve indicator, a colorful swoop whose hues provide just the right pop to the dial.
Movement: Miyota 8245
Weiss 38mm Standard Issue Field Watch
Weiss is one of the OGs of modern American mechanical watchmaking, having started making watches in Los Angeles in 2013. They’ve made more gains than most to build parts in the US, and their design — simple and classic — has met with wide appeal. For those with smaller wrists, though, their Standard Issue Field watch’s 42mm diameter can yawn a bit too widely. The 38mm variant fixes that — its smaller dial has a sharp, condensed look, and its movement, though made with Swiss parts, is assembled and finished in California. The watch is “reminiscent of the past,” says Cameron Weiss, founder and watchmaker, “with a timeless design that will remain relevant for many years to come.”
Movement: Weiss Cal 1005, ETA 7001 base, finished and assembled in the US
Shinola Monster Mechanical Line
When it was founded in 2012, Shinola was a game-changer for American watches, touting its local Detroit staff as part of the city’s Renaissance, and the watches they assembled with Swiss quartz movements as a return to an American-made ethos. Since then, some would say the American watch movement had left them behind, moving on to younger, smaller brands, and moving toward the mechanical. Shinola showed signs of catching up in 2017 with its limited-edition Lake Erie Monster dive watch, which had a Ronda AG mechanical movement. Now a mechanical watch is a permanent part of the company’s lineup —- with a Sellita automatic movement this time — available with a black, orange, or blue dial.
Movement: Sellita SW200-1 automatic
Oak & Oscar The Humboldt
Oak & Oscar’s founder Chase Fancher ditched a real estate job in 2015 to start his Chicago-based brand — Fancher has said he wants his watches to be talked about forty years from now. His new watch, and the brand’s first permanent installment (the others being limited editions), should be part of that discussion. The Humboldt was inspired by adventurer Alexander von Humboldt and takes the brand in a decidedly field watch-direction: with its 200m water resistance rating, thick sapphire crystal, sandwich dial with plenty of lume and dependable ETA movement, it’s what Fancher calls the “perfect everyday, go anywhere-kind of watch.” Expected delivery will be in late spring of 2019.
Movement: ETA 2892A2 automatic
Lüm-Tech Super Combat B4 GMT
Lüm-tech assembles its military-inspired watches in Ohio, and has been doing so for 10 years, flying under the radar while producing dependable mechanical timepieces with an Americana touch. The Super Combat B4 GMT is an upgraded version of their best-seller, the coin-edged bezel Combat B, made with titanium, a double-domed sapphire, a Swiss ETA movement, layered dial, and anti-shock housing. “If the standard combat B range is our VW, the Super Combat is our Audi,” says Chris Wiegand, CEO. “It represents the best in our lineup.”
Movement: ETA 2893-2
Vortic Railroad Watch Edition
“We hope to remind everyone that the United States used to be the world superpower of watchmaking,” says R.T. Custer, cofounder of Vortic Watch Company. They’ve found a unique way to prod that memory. Each of the brand’s watches is centered around an antique pocket watch movement, dial, and hands, refurbished and placed inside a custom-made case. The Railroad Edition uses only refurbished “railroad grade” watches made by American companies like Elgin, Waltham, and Illinois. The watches are huge, of course—each around 51mm— and though they are all different, each has an absolute eye full of American heritage watchmaking waiting behind its display caseback.
Movement: Custom, refurbished American-made
Movement: Custom, refurbished American-made
Autodromo Ford GT Owners Watch
Auto-designed watches are not new. Yet designer Bradley Price has breathed new American blood into the trope, blending a consistent design language spoken by both car and watch people with quality finishing and reasonable prices thanks to Hong Kong manufacturing. That formula has been a winning one for buyers, and it scored Autodromo a deal with Ford to build the GT Owners Watch—only available to purchasers of Ford’s half-million-dollar sports car. That watch is a beauty: made of matte ceramic and stainless steel, with a honeycombed dial and sapphire crystal hour and minute hands. Nearly every aspect is customizable, so that GT owners can make their watch match their vehicle. Fortunately for Fusion owners, Autodromo also made a Ford GT Endurance Chronograph collection, with a sticker price of $695 but a similar feel.
Movement: La Joux-Perret 7773 flyback chronograph