A few months go, I discussed the importance of Shinola and taking “baby steps” towards American manufacturing. Today, we are going to talk about the first mass-market-oriented USA-made movement to appear in my lifetime: Weiss Cal. 1003. I’ve just taken delivery of a Weiss American Issue Field Watch, and it would be an understatement to say that I’m thrilled with it. Below, I’ll explain why this new watchmaker, and new watch movement, is so critical for American manufacturing — and why Shinola is probably still more important for American watchmaking as a whole.
As most of you know, the “movement” is the timekeeping soul of a non-digital watch. It can be electro-mechanical, like what you get in a traditional Swatch or any other “quartz watch”. It can be entirely mechanical, using a mainspring to power the motion of the hands and an “escapement” to regulate the motion of those hands. There are also a few hybrid movements, like the Seiko Kinetic (uses the action of a pendulum to charge capacitors that drive the hands) or the Seiko Spring Drive (uses an electronic mechanism to regulate spring-driven hands.)
There is a near-infinite number of luxury watchmakers out there, but there are relatively few watch movements out there. The vast majority of luxury watches are simply custom cases that surround everyday movements made by the Swatch Group and its ETA subsidiary. I’ve written about the Hublot Big Bang, which costs ten grand or more but shares its movement with a bunch of humble $500 watches.
Until recently, you had two “American” watch makers. On the low end, you have Shinola, which is mostly an assembly operation for Swiss and Chinese parts. On the high end, you have RGM, which has built close to three hundred “all-American” watches in which virtually everything is Pennsylvania-sourced. They sell for $7500 and up.
After an apprenticeship in Switzerland, Cameron Weiss opened up shop in Torrance, CA with the goal of walking a middle path between those two extremes. His Field Watches, which sell for a grand or thereabouts, have cases and crystals that are made in Los Angeles. The movements came from Switzerland. This was how he launched the company. But he had a more ambitious goal in mind.
The new Caliber 1003 from Weiss is a reverse-engineering, which is to say a copy, of the Swiss movement used in the original Weiss watches. (That’s perfectly legal; the patents have long since expired.) With the exception of the mainspring and the eighteen “jewel” bearings, everything is made in America. There are very few mainspring winders out there — Rolex and ETA are the only that come immediately to mind — but Weiss has plans to bring that to the USA as well in the near future.
It’s more expensive and difficult to produce an American Cal. 1003 than it is to buy a Swiss ETA movement. But Weiss has successfully brought the know-how back to America. Last week we talked about this in the context of bicycle manufacturing — all the know-how has gone. That’s been true for watches since shortly after Hamilton closed up USA production in 1969. But it’s coming back.
The Weiss 1003 finds a lovely home in my American Issue Field Watch. The simple aesthetic, deep-green dial, and optional Horween natural cordovan strap (a leather strap is standard equipment) makes for a superbly comfortable and tasteful timepiece. The price is reasonable enough. This is not a statement of wealth or even affluence; it doesn’t cost enough for that. Not flashy enough. It’s just a vote for American manufacturing in general and Mr. Weiss in particular.
Were Weiss nothing more than a small-batch American manufacturer, an RGM for those of us who don’t have a trust fund, it would still be admirable and worthwhile. But Weiss has bigger dreams. He wants to begin mass production of American watch movements that will be direct replacements for Swiss ETA movements. This is important for two reasons. The first is that ETA keeps threatening to cut off the supply of new movements to third-party manufacturers. Weiss could pick up a lot of that business, particularly from the small boutique makers that don’t have the expertise to invent new movements. Your next Hublot Big Bang could have an American heart, not a Swiss one.
The other reason for getting stoked about this is simple: the existence of an all-American movement could be the catalyst for an American watch revolution. Anybody with a Haas CNC machine and a few industrial contacts could start their own watch company using the Weiss movement. And they could put “MADE IN USA” on the face of the dial without incurring the wrath of the Federal Trade Commission. Hell, you don’t even need a CNC machine. You could make plastic watches with a 3-D printer. I should try doing it myself.
With a watch movement, we can have a watch industry. With a watch industry, we can have a larger precision tools industry. With a larger precision tools industry, we can build more things here. It’s an avalanche process that starts with a 29-year-old dude in Torrance and ends with an environmentally-responsible factory in your neighborhood making the things that you actually need and use on a daily basis.
In the meantime, it would be nice for Shinola to take note of how Mr. Weiss is doing this. If one man in an office complex can do it, then surely Shinola can. And they are already doing the volume they need to justify the spend on the movement.
That’s the dream, anyway. I’m voting for the dream with my wallet. I now have watches from 2 out of the three “American” companies. If you want me to get an RGM, then… I don’t know. Write to Road&Track and tell them to hire me more often. Tell them it’s about time.