Made In The USA: Vortic Chicago Series

If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you know that American-made watches are a recurring theme around here. Bark, Danger Girl, and I all own and wear Shinola watches, which are assembled in the United States using components from Switzerland, China, and Florida. Bark owns a Weiss Standard Issue Field, which combines an American-assembled Swiss movement with American-made case, crystal, and strap. I have the Weiss American Field, which takes the standard Weiss and adds a movement made in the United States by Cameron Weiss and a team of CNC machines. Only the hairspring and the jewels come from other countries — in this case, Switzerland.

Believe it or not, there was a time when American watchmakers didn’t import anything from Switzerland. They made the whole thing here, soup to nuts, in massive factories that churned out millions of watches for working Americans. The Elgin Watch Company, for example, operated thirty miles away from Chicago, from 1864 to 1968. It was the largest watchmaking operation in the world and it made everything from solid-gold ladies’ watches to clockwork fuses in World War II bombs.

The ownership of a gold Elgin pocketwatch in the Twenties was a sign of significant personal accomplishment; it was the Rolex Submariner of its time, neither everyday common nor uncomfortably recherche. As the value of gold skyrocketed during the Obama years, a lot of vintage pocketwatches were melted down for the $1500 or so worth of precious metal in their cases and the painstakingly-crafted movements were thrown into storage lockers — or worse yet, into the trash. After all, who needs a pocketwatch?

Luckily, today’s wristwatch aesthetic has grown to include massive cases that are large enough to hold pocketwatch-sized movements. IWC, for example, is exploiting this with their 150th Anniversary watch which is basically a vintage pocketwatch re-imagined for use on the wrist. Here in America, a new company is doing something even more interesting: they are taking those old pocketwatch movements out of the trash, rebuilding them, and placing them in American-made cases to create 100% USA-made watches at a price well below even that of a Weiss American Standard. To find out how well that idea works, I ordered a Vortic in early December. It was delivered today.

To design my watch, I used the Vortic custom builder. It’s extremely easy to use and you can see at every step how your choices affect the cost and look of your new watch. This was my spec:

1926 Elgin 345 17j 12s 28475002
Case Finish: Blued Titanium
Crown Style: Knurled Raw
Strap Type: Oxblood Shell Cordovan
v2.1 Caseback Ring: Blued Steel

Elgin movements are a little cheaper than the Waltham and Illinois examples. My choice was a highly-decorated example of the Elgin 345, which beats at a leisurely five ticks per second. You can get them on eBay all day for a hundred bucks — as noted, there is nothing quite as worthless as an old pocket watch.

Vortic rebuilds, re-times, and quality-checks the movements. They are then placed in a case that is either 3-D printed or CNC-milled. You can get a Horween strap, and you’d be silly not to. Pricing is between $995 (for a low-end Elgin movement in a plain steel case) and four grand (for a Railroad edition Illinois in a CNC case).

I’ve been wearing my titanium-cased Vortic for a few hours now. It’s surprisingly light — I’d say it’s no more than two-thirds what my Tudor Black Bay Bronze weighs — and it wears very easy on my oft-broken and small-diameter wrist. The ticking is loud and slow. Readability, as you’d expect in a watch about the size of the largest Panerai watches at 46mm, is outstanding.

As a few people have already noted, this is not a sports watch. I’ve crashed my BMX bike a few times with my Tudor on — it suffered no ill effects. Doing the same with this Vortic would be like throwing a pocketwatch against a wall. So this will be reserved for non-cycling and non-motorcycling dressy wear.

The blued titanium case is industrial-looking without being cheap or overwrought. The Horween strap is perhaps even better than the one fitted by Weiss to their watches or the Hodinkee cordovan model. The non-domed sapphire crystal is not up to Weiss standards but it doesn’t need to be.

So far, I’m a believer. I’ll keep you posted on my experience in the months to come. In the meantime, if you’re looking for an all-American watch that will also connect you to an era that few living Americans can remember, Vortic should be tops on your list. There’s something odd about wearing a ninety-one-year-old watch. It suggests that time is both an illusion* and an unavoidable force. It’s worth thinking about.

* “…Lunchtime doubly so.”

39 Replies to “Made In The USA: Vortic Chicago Series”

  1. VoGo

    ” As the value of gold skyrocketed during the Obama years…”

    In January 2008, gold was $1,039/ounce. In January 2016, it was $1,160/ounce. That’s just over 1% annual increase, or less than the rate of inflation.

    Not exactly skyrocketing.

    Reply
    • ASWOJoe

      Misleading statistics are misleading. Bookending the sample period and averaging to derive an annual rate of increase conveniently ignores peak price of gold above $1900/oz in 2011 and, in my opinion, it’s well inflated value for two years thereafter. Jack’s original hypothesis remains credible.

      Reply
      • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

        Don’t confuse him with the facts.

        When gold peaked there were people melting gold Rolex Datejusts for Pete’s sake.

        Reply
        • Mike

          He was also wrong on the date range. The Obama years began in 2009. Also instead of commenting on the watch or American inginuty he focuses on any perceived sleight to an ex President.

          Reply
          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

            I’ve often thought this country would be better off if all these Obama fetish guys just sucked a black guy’s dick on Craiglist and got it out of their system.

            As presidents go, he was neither the best nor the worst. But some of the folks treat him like the Messiah.

          • -Nate

            “But some of the folks treat him like the Messiah.”

            Never met one of those, not even in the Ghetto .

            Agreed, he was a mediocre POTUS at best .

            -Nate

    • VoGo

      My bad: should have used January 2009 and 2017. Changes the figures to about a 30% change, or around 3% annually. Still not skyrocketing.

      Also, using words correctly is not the same thing as being gay.

      Here’s hoping RG is so commercially successful you can hire a proper editor!

      Reply
          • Ronnie Schreiber

            For a person who deeply and cravenly cares that others think of you as a moral avatar, you’ve just denigrated your own heritage in front of the entire world. Note: They’re laughing at you, not with you.

            I once wondered how some people could become kapos. I don’t anymore.

  2. Ronnie Schreiber

    With hipsters and such there’s probably a market for restored vintage pocket watches themselves. I have a Bucherer pocket watch with an enamel face and engraved back that features cows. It was a give from some friends of his to my dad, who was a veterinarian. At one time I had in my possession my grandfather’s gold Elgin pocket watch but its location is sadly unknown at this time.
    People take their phones out of their pockets to see what time it is, why not a watch?

    Reply
    • Robert

      I would love to have a pocket watch and I’d wear it unironically. Ever since the combined weight of a motocross bike and it’s rider landed on my left wrist at the Dallas supercross from about 15 feet up I can’t tolerate having anything strapped to my wrist.

      Reply
  3. -Nate

    I like this idea and wish I still have the old steel case pocket watches I saved from Thift and junk stores/shops in my cross America travels .

    Too big for me to wear as a wrist watch I bet they’d make dandy gifts after having them fixed up like this .

    $pendy too but what the hell, right ? .

    -Nate

    Reply
  4. Disinterested-Observer

    Once again you are out here talking about $1000+ US made watches and $200 jeans, while I am in the real world with my Libman broom and toilet brush. Why don’t you highlight some US made products that people who don’t cry poor while running two race teams can actually afford?

    Reply
    • dumas

      Check out Liberty Tabletop’s flatware series- it’s all made in the USA. My set is nicely made and looks decent. It doesn’t even cost that much versus the “designed in Italy/Germany/France/etc” competition of similar quality.

      Reply
    • Ronnie Schreiber

      American made stuff that I’ve bought recently:

      Pace soldering station.
      Magnatone pickup winding machine.
      Sterno brand canned heat (using the empty cans to house effects pedals).

      Reply
    • Disinterested-Observer

      I am not nearly as mad as this post sounds, although I would like to see the Baruths promoting more mundane items because I think that is where the real bread and butter of manufacturing capacity lies. Irronically or coincidencely my NAFTA compliant replacement “Black Eyed Man” arrived today and “The Last Spike” started playing just as I started writing this.

      Reply
  5. statick89

    Thanks for the thoughts, Jack. I saw these guys at an outdoor festival last year, and a Waltham is really tempting since that’s where I live. I also have fairly small wrists and I didn’t pull the trigger because I like how ~40 mm cases look. It sounds like you didn’t find that a problem.

    Reply
    • musashi66

      36mm case is also available. Vortic sizes are what they are because pocket watch sizes were pretty standardized at sizes 0, 12 and 16, and Vortic makes their cases for those most popular movement sizes (36mm, 46mm and 50mm). I own one of their 50mm models and it sure is a conversation starter. Mine turns 100 this year – well, the movement does 🙂

      Reply
  6. stingray65

    Very cool watch and idea, and I’m glad there are people that appreciate the history and quality enough to support this “craft” industry. Guns and clocks are the products that really forced manufacturing to develop to a high level of precision that later became handy in everything mechanical (including automobiles), and were the high tech industries of their time.

    Reply
  7. scotten

    From someone who lives in the shadow of Elgin, I appreciate your appreciation of their timepieces and the history behind it. They were a powerhouse back in the day.

    Reply
  8. Dave

    I don’t understand why this is better than buying a decent working or refurbished original off of ebay. The movement is the thing – the case, strap, box, and all that are so superficial.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Well, the idea is to use it as a wristwatch instead of a pocketwatch.

      I can earn $1300 via writing much faster than I can build all the component parts myself 🙂

      Reply
  9. Bill Malcolm

    The American watch companies of the 1800s were technical marvels. By the 1870s they had the Swiss in full retreat. Specialty machinery to make parts was invented in-house. And yet today, phone-wielding youngsters fulminate on how engineers using good god! sliderules somehow engineered the space shuttle. They forget the theories and math that came before anyone could perform calculations on a design, whether that is done by sliderule or computer. Those 1870s watches had tolerances and tiny screwthreads your average computer dolt today cannot even imagine, and couldn’t duplicate without a vast R & D project to essentially relearn what the paleolithic creatures of the 19th century managed without much trouble, but a lot of rational thought. Even to temperature and movement compensation.

    I keep an old Waltham and a railroad grade Elgin from about 1900 myself, just to marvel at the guts, being a retired mechanical engineer myself. Lovely stuff. Mass-produced precision unlike the job lots and one-offs the Europeans made, that was the genius. Many articles on the web about the factories and the watches.

    Glad to hear old pocket watch movements are being recycled and resuscitated. They deserve to be used. Two thumbs up.

    Reply
  10. musashi66

    Jack, aren’t they a thing of beauty? I have a 50mm model, made by Illinois in 1918, in a raw titanium case with rose gold crown and buckle and regular blue leather band. I saw the Montgomery dial and it really stood out next to the other models and I had to have it.
    One correction – the glass on your watch is american make Corning Gorilla glass, not sapphire. Every piece of your watch is USA made, and I’m pretty sure Vortic is the only company that can still claim that. This is my baby
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/5oRJexFHQQMPqqQ93

    Reply

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