Exploring the world of watches on a budget

The Ultimate 4th of July Watch

Today's Guest Bum is Nathaniel DeNicola, a doctor and watch enthusiast in Washington, D.C.

The Ultimate 4th of July Watch

An American-made watch paying tribute to American horology that can track time from sea to shining sea, in a waterproof case beautifully adorned in non-obnoxious red, white, and blue.

July 4, 2019

Here we are smack in the middle of summer when many watch lovers rightfully rock divers and subs in all shades of stunning azure. Some may mix summer watches and vacation watches with a carefree or adventurous style. Just ask John Mayer. However, there is at least one day of summer that might call for a little more specialization than simply a fun, pool-worthy watch. Whether you honor America’s birth, relate to the fight for independence, or simply enjoy fireworks, the 4th of July just may deserve a few unique features for your celebration apparel. A special watch for a special day.

So what exactly do I mean by a 4th of July watch?

Google “4th of July watch” and you’ll find lists of watches that basically sport any combination of red, white, and blue. Makes sense. A few brands have gone star-spangled awesome and inserted the American flag pattern wherever it would fit -- on the dial, on the bezel, forced into odd strap pairings.

Sure these check off the most basic “red, white, and blue” test, but does that really capture the essence of the American Independence Day holiday?

Ok, then let’s turn to American watches for a minute. Is that enough by itself? Would just any American watch do, or do we need to factor in the summer aspect? With days spent splashing in the pool and evenings lounging on Adirondack chairs on a beachfront or lakefront dock is there an important functionality to a 4th of July watch?

More to it than you thought, perhaps.

To recap what we have so far: it probably should look somewhat red, white, and blue; it might be American; and, it could withstand an afternoon in the pool or evening on the water. Do any watches check all the boxes? Are any criteria more important than others?

Let’s dive into it.

I will take the liberty (yes that pun was unavoidable) to say that first and foremost a 4th of July watch should serve a patriotic function. It should be American. For all of the international attention this holiday can receive -- and cheers to any occasion that can spread joy globally --
4th of July clearly has a specific national origin. If ever there were an occasion to seek out a watch made in the United States this is it.

Vintage American

Now you might say, ok, great. How many American watches can there be? A handful? Let’s pick one and we’re on our way...

Well, that might have been true in the early 1950’s when US watch companies were fresh off their role in a WWII victory but fresh out of luck against Switzerland’s wartime monopoly of the commercial market. Back then just a few brands like Hamilton, Elgin, Bulova, and Gruen were clinging onto US factories while Swiss rivals were circling ready to snatch them up and move them overseas.

But in the first golden era of American watchmaking -- roughly bookended by the two World Wars -- there were a plethora of US watch companies. Nearly every major city with railway service at the end of the 1900’s produced a pocket watch to ensure precision time. They had to. Remember those old math problems “if a train leaving New York at 12:30p traveling 90 miles per hour and train leaving Chicago...” These were real-world problems to solve that were highly dependent on accurate time-keeping.

My first American watch: 1896 Elgin railway grade pocket watch, a wedding gift from my wife Kristie.  Look at what she started…
You had Waltham in New England, Hamilton in Lancaster, PA, and South Bend, of course, in South Bend, IN. Several cities had multiple: Elgin, Illinois, and Burlington all out of Chicago for example. Many of these made the transition to the wrist, following the popularization of the wristwatch after WWI. By the Art Deco glory days of the 1930’s American watch companies were producing world-class products at a record pace -- thanks in part to their innovations like machine-produced interchangeable parts that allowed mass production.

1920’s Art Deco Illinois Watch Company
If you stare closely at this 1920’s Art Deco Illinois Watch Company you’ll find the faint but once-prominent pinstripes and you can almost hear someone whistling “Yankee-doodle Dandy.”

So if we include the vintage American watch supply generated over, say, a 40 year period from 1910 - 1950 we have thousands of options. Before we go any further anyone may pick one of these vintage American watches and declare “this is my 4th of July watch!” and get absolutely no argument here. These are fine exemplars of proud US history and make a worthy watch for a worthy occasion. Many of these would include American military watches -- and while 4th of July mostly celebrates a political turning point memorialized in revered written documents -- there are clear military implications to the political revolution. Fine choices all around receiving nothing but admiration.

Elgin Black Star Dial “Kitchener”
WWI trench watch: Elgin Black Star Dial “Kitchener” in honor of Lord Earl Kitchener. The Kitchener is the rarest of the three Black Star models also including the Pershing and Foch. A star-covered dial certainly seems appropriate for the occasion.

For a bit more “recent” vintage watch selection there are also a host of bicentennial watches produced in 1976 that overflow with red, white, and blue, and a bit of whimsy. They feature charming rotating “floating discs” with horse-riding patriots making laps around the dial, liberty bells galore, and an occasional dollar coin Lady Liberty dial. All worthy of appreciation, albeit produced in Switzerland or China.

Bicentennial novelty watch
If you ignore the “Swiss MOVT Hong Kong Dial” signature these bicentennial watches otherwise scream “USA! USA!”
However, there is a slight problem with vintage watches when it comes to wearability. If you spend the 4th partaking in some combination of BBQ, swimming, and generally being active outdoors, a nearly 100 year-old watch might not be the ideal choice. Laps in the pool pose a particular problem.

Seals Watch Company Model A
California-based Seals Watch Company Model A up to the task of grilling, kayaking, and chilling on the dock (notice those Adirondack chairs on the Potomac)
Modern American

Ok, so let’s venture into the second era of American watchmaking. The modern era. The one we are living in right now. At this point you’re thinking this discussion must really be near an end. How many of those can there be? Timex, Apple, umm... I think I’ve heard of Shinola?

Well, there are currently 5 modern American watch companies. The vast majority are limited-production, individually-inspected, operated by devoted single-person shops or small company models. The popular term is microbrand but for purposes of this article we’ll say “Independent.”

So yes there are 5 companies... in Brooklyn. A handful more in other parts of New York City. Several in New Jersey. Three in Chicago. At least 10 in California. Others in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St.Louis, Memphis. If you tally them up you’d find somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 modern, independent American watch companies on this “American list 2.0.”

Where do you even begin?

Origin Railway Edition
Ok they’re not ALL divers: A) Origin Watch Company from Memphis, TN offers this Railway Edition which magnificently captures the elegance and precision of late 20th century American watches
Weiss Field Watch
B) Weiss Watch Company from Los Angeles, CA by master watchmaker Cameron Weiss delivers this field watch made nearly exclusively with American manufactured parts (photo credit: my brother Matthew who somehow captured palm trees in front of him and in the dial reflection!)
Oak & Oscar Batch 1 panda
C) Oak & Oscar out of Chicago, IL with the rare Batch No. 1 white dial panda! [photo credit Oak & Oscar Watch Company]
Summertime and the living’s easy

Since the preference for new, independent American watches is based on wearability on the 4th, this shift should focus on watches that are at least water-resistant. The only problem is that it really doesn’t narrow it down much (ok, they’re not ALL divers). In an era when dive watches are undoubtedly the most popular first release for independent brands (let’s face it, they sell) and when screw-down crowns are nearly business standard even if the watch isn’t labeled “diver”, this is still basically a list of most modern American watches. A great list to be sure. But still a long one.

Nodus Retrospect II
Divers galore! A) Nodus from Los Angeles, CA relaunched the Retrospect II in several colors including the stunning Nebula Blue -- not officially a “diver” but up to the task (btw I need to switch up the suit/shirt more often)
Monta Oceanking
B) Monta from St. Louis, MO delivers Oceanking, one of the finest dive watches you’ll find in the US or the world (good enough for election day 2018, looking pretty patriotic)
Lorier Neptune
C) Lorier by way of Texas and now New York with their nostalgic Neptune diver, which in Bond-like fashion can go from the pool to the theater with ease (Kennedy Center in the background)
So are we just back to red, white, and blue?!

In short, no.

Martenero Edgemere Reserve
The Brooklyn-based Martenero Edgemere Reserve is American, water-resistant, and even red, white, and blue. We must be getting close!? [photo credit: Martenero Watch Company]
American spirit

The colorway is a nice bonus, but not the most critical factor. In fact, given the vast and accessible universe of watch straps in any color, striping, or pattern, I’ll argue that the red, white, and blue color scheme can be easily adapted to any watch. Plus, more importantly, the goal here is to find something deeper. To see if there’s a watch that has a relevant connection to American Independence, that you can also easily where on the 4th of July in all of its celebratory activity. A watch that (granted in a small but still meaningful way) connects us with a sense of American ingenuity, free-thinking spirit, and yes star-spangled pride.

Now actually all of these watches do that. Truly. From the vintage watches honoring a cherished past to the modern watches marking an era of entrepreneurial resilience, each of these and so many more should be proudly featured in fireworks wrist shots.

There’s a reason this preamble has featured so many American watches, and admittedly it’s a limited list. For instance, Ronald G. Murphy out of the American horology mecca Lancaster, PA has been turning out nearly-exclusively American made watches for over a decade, and watchmaker Cameron Weiss out of Los Angeles has more recently picked up that torch. Surely others are to follow.

Let’s not forget, two of the most indelible tool-oriented horological innovations since the quartz boom of the 1970’s have been 1) the athletic timing watches pioneered by America’s Timex Ironman watch in the 1980’s, and 2) the smartwatch, utterly revolutionized by America’s Apple watch.

Two recent American innovations: A) The original sports watch: Timex Ironman released 1986 and in very 1980’s colors; and...
B) A watch that needs no introduction: Apple Watch 1

So the question here is: does one watch stand out just a little for this day and this moment? Is there one that brings it all together -- that puts an American story right there on your water bound wrist?

Reaching new heights

When you consider the centuries-old story of horology and the countless variations of time-tracking tools one thing becomes clear: hardly anything is new. New is impossible. New doesn’t exist. New, is really old. Someone or something has done it before and, at best, a “new” version of something really just improved upon a since-forgotten fad.

So when something actually does break new ground that accomplishment should not be taken lightly. Furthermore, when one of these inventions has an undisputed origin, where no one doubts the originality and there’s no facsimile buried in murky mythology, the credit for innovation and free-thinking accomplishment gets a little extra credit.

Let’s return to the early 1950’s.

The US watchmaking industry may have been on the ropes but the economy at large was booming. Soaring in fact. One of the most shining examples was the US airline industry that was reaching new heights in every sense of the word.

One such company, Pan American Airlines, was extending its global reach through transatlantic flights and for this, they needed an upgraded time-tracking tool for coordinating multiple time zones at once. It may seem mundane now, but this type of on-the-fly (yes, another unavoidable pun) international timezone tracking was simply not a necessity for most everyday activity prior to globalization.

But it was now. 

So in 1954 Pan American Airlines commissioned a watch that could simultaneously track dual time zones anywhere in the world. What resulted was the now-iconic GMT. 

Rolex GMT-Master 6542
Original black dial Rolex GMT-Master 6542 [photo credit: bobwatches.com] 

Hidden in plain sight

Now, without a doubt credit Rolex for the horological achievement. They took the charge from Pan Am and produced something no one had ever done, and they did it so well that virtually every endeavor since has modeled their creation. No small feat.

But here’s the thing.

It was a partnership. Rolex didn’t come up with idea, nor did Switzerland produce the industrial or economic mandate for such an invention. The necessity, drive, and conception of the GMT were born in the United States.

And this has been the rub for so many American horological innovations -- from mass-produced interchangeable components that allowed European watchmaking to become a global industry, to American companies like Texas Instruments driving the quartz era, and numerous others -- that for a variety of reasons the principle American contributions to watchmaking often get lost
to horological history in favor of its more dominant players. But if you look closely enough the American horological signatures are there, quite simply, hidden in plain sight.

The Ultimate 4th of July Watch

So if we take a second look at iconic watches from the vantage point of a more informed history -- a process often known as “Mark II” -- through an American watch company helpfully named MKII, we might shed light on some of these under-the-radar achievements.

Enter the MKII Key West.

The MKII GMT calls to Pan America’s signature destination, Key West, while honoring their signature contribution to horology [photo credit: MKII Watches]

This bench crafted watch honors the original Pan American contribution to the GMT both in name (Key West flights were a crucial stepping stone for Pan Am) and on the case back (airplane with contrails streaming); features high-fidelity recreation of the original GMT-master in a rare white dial which, paired with the Pepsi bezel, happens to be red, white, and blue; is waterproof to 200 meters; and here’s the kicker: is manufactured in Wayne, PA just outside Philadelphia.

So there you have it. The ultimate 4th of July watch.

An American made watch paying tribute to American horology that can track time from sea to shining sea, in a waterproof case beautifully adorned in non-obnoxious red, white, and blue. Born in Philadelphia. ⬩

MKII GMT Key West case back

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