Time: Working on the Railroad
The term “American-made” holds little allure for those who have learned to regard Switzerland as the sole source of fine mechanical watches. Yet the quality and design of American timepieces once rivaled anything manufactured in Switzerland. That was before the Swiss all but extinguished the U.S. industry following World War II, when they began producing pieces that were more reliable and more complicated than those of the Americans. Pieces from the heyday of American watchmaking can be found in the collections of a small group of hard-core enthusiasts and in museums such as the National Watch & Clock Museum in Columbia, Pa. Among the finest examples from this era are the so-called railroad watches, a distinctly American genre of pocket watches produced during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These watches were designed for railroad employees, including station masters and switch operators who needed extremely accurate timepieces, and were later marketed to the public at large.
“I have always loved railroad watches,” says Roland G. Murphy, founder of RGM Watch Co., a small Pennsylvania manufacturer that may be the only current American brand offering Swiss-comparable quality in its watches. “They have great style and romance, and from a watchmaking perspective, they represent a level of quality construction that is sometimes hard to find in Swiss watches.”
At RGM, Swiss watchmaking tradition pervades almost every aspect of the collection, from the finishing of the movements to the engine turning and detailing on the dials. Murphy, a Maryland native whose initials form the company’s name, is a Swiss-trained watchmaker who spent several years working as a product manager for SMH (now the Swatch Group). His watchmaking philosophy mixes old-fashioned handcrafts, such as guilloche engraving, with the Swiss industry’s modern movement technology. RGM’s four watchmakers annually complete only about 400 pieces, including a number of complications. The manufacturer typically purchases Swiss movements, and its watchmakers disassemble them, finish the components by hand, and heavily modify many of the parts, making each a company exclusive. Murphy, however, recently paid homage to America’s watchmaking heritage with an exclusive collection, bearing his own name, based on historic railroad watches.
RGM is located in Lancaster County, once the home of Hamilton Watch Co., one of the most prestigious American watchmakers before declining after World War II. (Hamilton now makes inexpensive watches with Swiss-made movements.) Murphy utilized some vintage Hamilton movements and dials for a limited number of wristwatches that exhibit bold numerals and distinctive hands recalling historic pieces that collectors suitably have dubbed Ferguson, after a company that made a certain style of railroad watch dial, and Montgomery, referring to the name of a popular railroad watch dial design used by multiple companies. The new collection’s dials and decorative elements, including the engraving pattern on the movements, are combined in different ways, making each watch unique. While the railroad collection is not considered a limited-edition series, Murphy expects to produce only about 50 pieces, because he does not have enough parts to make any more.
RGM’s railroad-style wristwatches, however, do not incorporate actual railroad-grade movements. Specific standards for such movements were established by individual railroads and later codified and enforced by the American Railway Association. The diameter of the smallest approved railroad movement, the 16-size (a reference to the old American watchmaking measurement system), is about 42 mm, making it too large and impractical for use in a modern wristwatch. Instead, Murphy has employed Hamilton’s less popular 10-size movement, which was produced from the late 1930s through the early ’60s. Murphy’s source for these uncommon movements is his personal collection of pocket watches. Although they are smaller than those of actual railroad-grade pocket watches, the movements have the same technical characteristics and sweeping bridges of their larger cousins.
Railroad watches represent the zenith of American watchmaking. Built to satisfy the heightened accuracy specifications of the railroads, they were produced with greater care and precision than the average pocket watches of the time. These standards, some of which were initiated after a horrific 1891 Ohio train wreck that was blamed on a slow watch, evolved over time. “The railroads demanded a high level of accuracy,” explains Carter Harris, curator of the National Watch & Clock Museum. “These timepieces had more jewels [bearings] and were adjusted more precisely than average watches.” Railroad watches were large, and the efficiency of their oversize balance wheel assemblies helped them achieve superior accuracy. Some of the best-known American brands—including Waltham, Elgin, and Hamilton—later used the railroad watch designation for marketing purposes.
In the late 19th century, railroad watches were the envy of even Swiss watchmakers for their keen precision and the production techniques that they represented. The U.S. companies making these watches were the first to employ the then-advanced machine tools to produce standardized parts—a classic, if little known, example of American industrial ingenuity. In contrast, the Swiss were making their components one at a time by hand.
While the railroad collection’s movements and designs are American, RGM will produce them using traditional Swiss methods. Murphy’s team disassembles the complete movement and then applies circular-grained perlage engraving, anglage beveling, and other treatments to the surfaces and edges. RGM also plans to enhance some pieces further by adding elaborate engine-turning and engraving, as it does for the dials and Swiss movements of its other models. Some clients, however, share Murphy’s love of the original watches and prefer to preserve the simple character of those pieces that set the global quality standard of their time. “Features that were considered normal then are now found only in the very highest-quality movements,” says Murphy. “I can take a 60-year-old Hamilton 10-size, and with a little work, it runs beautifully.”
RGM Watch Co.