Hamilton Watches – History, Philosophy, and Iconic Products
Today, for the first time in Heddels history, we dive into a watch brand. In many ways, a “fine watch” is the natural progression for the detail-oriented fashion lover, and where better to start than with the Hamilton Watch Company? This company made its famously-accurate watches in America from 1893-1969, and had its hands (minute and hour) in keeping railroad-workers and US servicemen safe, all while setting industry standards for design and function.
And if you, like the author, are totally new to the world of watches, we’ve got some background reading to help you catch up on the different kinds of watch movements.
Hamilton’s History and Philosophy
Though the Hamilton Watch Company didn’t officially form until 1892, and didn’t make its first watch until 1893, the brand was built on a strong foundation of horological excellence—the factory that Hamilton came to inhabit in Lancaster, PA, had previously been home to three other watch companies. Watches had been made in the factory for years, and the equipment and the staff that manned it were the best in the business.
But unlike the other brands that had operated out of the Lancaster factory, Hamilton thrived. Undoubtedly this success was due to the accuracy and fine mechanisms of the watch, but there was something more. The Hamilton Watch Company deftly marketed their designs to the newest American industries and endeavors, and banked their reputation on their designs’ durability and reliability.
The Hamilton Watch quickly became associated with a cutting-edge means of transportation: railroads. And U.S. railroads desperately needed Hamilton. At the time, there was no standard for time keeping and accidents due to minor differences between conductor’s pocket watches were all too common.
The 1902 926 pocket watch had a size 18 movement (meaning 3/5 inch in diameter) and 17 jewels (at the time, rubies, whose low friction increased bearing life and were placed at points of stress), which allowed for premier accuracy.
Ultimately, the gamble to hinge everything on their product’s reliability paid off, and Hamilton could rightfully claim that 56% of the railroad community was using their product to safely get the public where they needed to be on time. In 1912, Hamilton released the Railroad Pocket Watch to further exploit this tie to America’s largest transportation system.
The success of Hamilton’s watches did not go unnoticed, and in 1914 the company achieved the sought-after position of supplier to America’s armed forces. And when American soldiers arrived in France in 1917 to break the stalemate of the First World War, they noticed a new trend had emerged. Soldiers and some watch companies had devised ways of strapping pocket watches to the wearer’s wrist so that their hands could be free to better make war, and Hamilton took note. Soon, the 981 Wrist Watch was born.
With each new success, the Hamilton Watch Company vaulted to ever-ascending heights. In 1918, during the interwar years, a Hamilton watch accompanied the pilots on the first ever air mail delivery, from Washington to New York.
As an aviation craze invaded the American imagination and even the fashion world, Hamilton watches went along for the ride. Again, Hamilton watches had been linked to a newer and even more dangerous form of exploration, and this reputation for accuracy on land, air and sea would mean that the finely-made watches from Lancaster would see action all over the world in the Second World War.
By 1942, a year into the U.S.’s involvement in the war, the Hamilton Watch Company had ceased production of civilian watches and focused solely on time-pieces for America’s armed services.
But this effort was not simply limited to the infantry and diver’s (far right) watches above, Hamilton’s reputation for accuracy had placed them as the best bet to produce the most technologically-advanced and sensitive equipment of the war. Bomb timers for the Air Force and Chronometers for the Navy were also made in the Lancaster, PA factory. The Chronometers were made so fast and so well, that even before the war’s end, in 1943, the US Army and Navy presented Hamilton with the “E” Award for excellence.
The 1950s was a landmark decade for the Hamilton Watch Company, though it might have also represented the zenith of the companies progress. The explosion of a consumer economy in the U.S. made room for much more watch-buying and the company simultaneously provided for the civilian and military markets during this period.
In 1957, a breakthrough came for Hamilton in the form of the Ventura, the world’s first battery-powered watch. Not only did the technology of the watch make an impression, but its design as well. Elvis Presley can be spotted wearing one of these asymmetrical electric beauties in the 1961 film, Blue Hawaii.
By the 1960s, things became a bit more complicated, and the decade was a tumultuous one for the brand. On the positive side, in 1966, Hamilton acquired Buren Watch Company of Switzerland, and with it, their micro-rotor. This acquisition allowed for the production of even slimmer automatic (self-winding) watches, and in the same year, Hamilton designed futuristic time-pieces for the crew of Stanley Kubrick’s famous film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But when the decade closed, so too did the factory in Lancaster.
Ironically, only four years after being commissioned to make a “futuristic” watch for a classic science fiction movie, Hamilton actually invented (along with Electro/Data Inc. of Texas) the digital watch. And in so doing, made a watch that looked far more like HAL 9000 than the watches that actually wound up in A Space Odyssey.
Hamilton left the U.S. in 1969, working for a few years working with Buren in Switzerland, before their eventual purchase by the conglomerate now known as the Swatch Group. The 1980s saw a revival of some of the classic Hamilton watch designs—albeit this time made abroad—and the 1990s still featured the once-American watch company on the silver screen, in movies like Men in Black.
The Khaki watch is a clear call-back to the brand’s long history of military supply. The above is one of the simplest and most affordable models of the Khaki, coming with an olive drab canvas strap and matching dial. It comes in automatic and quartz variations, and if you’re willing to cough up the dough for something slightly less period-accurate, the Khaki is available in larger sizes as well. And if you’re into options, you can scroll through those faster than the website can load them, and there seem to be dozens—if not a hundred—variations on the old-school mechanical army watch. And although it’s a bummer that the watches are no longer US-made, they’re now made in Switzerland and I’ve heard those folks can make a good watch.
Available for $395 – 1,695 from Hamilton Watches.
With its retro atomic-age face, the Ventura watch strikes a dashing figure, and the model in the picture above is a reproduction of the 1957 original that made history as the first battery-powered watch. Bold design and historical authenticity come together like chemical explosive and sub-critical uranium for an accessory that radiates style and confidence. Also, Elvis had one.
The Ventura is available for between $725 and 1,625 in a variety of sizes, bands and plays on the original ’50s style.
Jazzmaster Power Reserve
The Jazzmaster watch has all of the reliability one expects from a Hamilton automatic watch, but comes with something extra. The watch features Hamilton’s new H-13 movement and has an 80-hour power reserve. Although self-winding like all automatic watches, the smaller dial on the face can let you know when you’re close to running on empty, just in case you like to keep tabs on those types of things.
Available for $1,245 from Hamilton Watches.
Hamilton – The Final Say
Hamilton Watch Company is the American icon I never knew existed, and never knew I desperately needed strapped to my wrist. The company’s meticulous attention to detail and legendary accuracy set them apart from any competition while allowing them a place at the forefront of nearly every technological development in their industry, and in the world at large. Their success story is only tempered by the closing of their original factory and the fact that production happens in Switzerland now, under the direction of an enormous conglomerate.
But if you want a watch that arguably helped America win two world wars, why then go right on ahead.