“If you wanted to make a 1920’s Ford,” explained Cameron Weiss, the owner, operator, and watchmaker at Weiss Watch Company, “the first thing you’d do would be to go look at a 1920’s Ford. You wouldn’t try to design the parts yourself, because it’s already been done.”
“That’s what makes watchmaking so cool—we’re dealing with old technology, but we’re finding new ways to do it.”
We’ve featured Mr. Weiss’ work here a couple of times before, but I was fortunate enough to have the chance for him to give me a guided tour of his Los Angeles facility last week. And what I saw was enough to convince me that not only do I need to earmark some more money for an Cal 1003 or Cal 2100 watch of my own, but that you probably do, too.
When Mr. Weiss, barely past his thirtieth tour of the sun, talks about his watchmaking process, he often uses the pronoun “we.” In reality, however, he’s really using the “Royal We”—all of the assembly of the timepieces is done by hand, and it’s done by Cameron, himself. “I assemble the watches, and my wife, Whitney, does the marketing.”
There’s over 60 hours of manual labor that goes into each one of his American Issue Field Watches, and there’s been such a demand for his watches that he’s well into backorder status at this point. Each watch is serialized, and nearly everything that goes into the case is either made in the shop or made locally by another design firm in the Los Angeles area.
Cases, for example, are made by a local firm that specializes in high grade materials for aerospace. “There’s one guy there who makes every single case we have, and he takes a lot of pride in it. For his other clients, it’s hard to follow the supply chain, but he knows that every single Weiss watch is a case that he made,” Weiss told me while carefully showing me the hand-polished cases. Crystals are made exclusively for Weiss, as well, and won’t be found in any other watch in the world. “We could buy them ready-made, but that would actually be more expensive.”
In order to have consistency and control over the manufacture of his timepieces, Weiss manufactures nearly all of the parts required right in his shop—everything except the springs and jewel bearings. The machine pictured above is the only one of its type in the country, and can make thousands of tiny little screws at a time, as well as several other varieties of parts. All of the machining is done by Grant, a very precise young man who came to the watchmaking business as a fan. “I reached out to him on Facebook, told him that I liked what he was doing, told him about my experience in design and machining, and here we are.”
Grant was excited to show me the impossibly precise drilling and machining that he’s capable of doing in the shop (fingernail shown for size). “We control all of our production, rather than outsourcing it, which means that we maintain the knowledge of how to actually do it. When we want to evolve our designs, we can do it ourselves.”
New concepts start out as rough hand drawings, done by Weiss himself, and then evolve in computerized drawings. But even the computers can’t be precise enough to get the type of tolerances Weiss wants in his movements. “The computer might say it’s 1mm, but in reality we might need it to be .98 mm in order to really be right.”
Not only are the parts for each watch machined and made in the shop, but most of the tools that Weiss uses have actually been made in the shop, as well. Presses are at the ready at Weiss’ workbench, labeled for each specific job, and the miniscule screws and parts are pre-organized into small plastic cases for ease of assembly.
Ultimately, Weiss hopes to be able to produce 5,000 to 10,000 watches annually in his workshop. “Ideally, we can make the design process and manufacturing process quicker—and less expensive, too.” While Weiss’ products are already incredibly reasonably priced in comparison with similarly manufactured and assembled watches, one gets the sense that he’d like to be able to bring his products to more of a mass-market, as long as his vision isn’t compromised.
Weiss explained that vision to me. “I looked at young people who wanted a more bespoke, handmade, refined approach to things like coffee, food and wondered to myself if there was a community who wanted that same thing in a watch. Turns out that there was.”
I mentioned to him that there’s some confusion in the message from mass-market watchmakers like Shinola, who had to fight it out with the FTC over their “Made in Detroit” messaging.
“A lot of people I talk to think Shinola is making watches in America, too,” I said. “They don’t realize that they’re taking Chinese and Swiss parts and assembling them in Detroit.”
“Agreed,” said Weiss. “What they’re doing is cool, but it’s not what we are doing here.”
And while I definitely love my Standard Issue Field Watch, with its Swiss movement, it’s not the direction that Weiss has for his company. “Your watch is, well…it’s discontinued. We still have some retailers selling through stock, but we aren’t selling it on our website anymore. Our direction is making the movements.”
To that end, Weiss takes his current wrist candy off and shows it to me—it’s made with aerospace-quality materials, allowing for reduced friction and increased efficiency. It’s simply gorgeous, and makes me check my credit card balances to see if I can buy one ASAP.
Looking around the shop, it’s immediately apparent that the investment made by Weiss into the business that bears his name is monumental. The equipment and materials needed to make an American watch? It’s significant, to say the least—“Much more than I ever thought it would be when I started,” said Weiss. But the passion and craftsmanship that are injected into each timepiece—these things are essentially made by one guy—makes it all that much more personal for the end user. To see the shop is to know that this isn’t just a business for Cameron Weiss—it’s a passion. Actually, strike that—it’s a mission. To know that Cameron, Grant, and Whitney are restoring this industry to the US, damn near singlehandedly, is a credit to not only them, but their generation.
Visit their website to learn more, yes, but if you really want to see what makes Weiss Watch Company special, visit their first open house on March 18th. RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, no, there’s no disclaimer required here—I didn’t get a thing from Cameron or Whitney during my visit, other than a renewed sense of hope in American craftsmanship.