In the pantheon of American watches there is perhaps no more storied brand than the Hamilton Watch Company of Lancaster, PA. In 1892, Hamilton emerged like a Phoenix from the ashes of the bankrupt Keystone Standard Watch Company. Keystone in turn had just purchased the defunct Lancaster Watch Company’s factory and also had merged with the Aurora Watch Company.
Small wonder that Keystone Standard had gone bankrupt and was available for pickup by the fledgling Hamilton.
The Aurora machinery was moved to Lancaster and Hamilton began producing pocket watches the next year. For the next fifteen years, they produced two sizes of movements, a 16-size and an 18-size. These watches were sold as accurate “railroad watches” and Hamilton benefitted from the growing reputation of these calibres. (My friend Jason Heaton wrote eloquently of the Lancaster facility here.)
Hamilton was chugging along with these railroad watches when Would War I came along. In 1917, they produced their first wristwatch, based on a women’s pendant watch movement. These watches were intended for men heading off to war. And indeed, Hamilton produced numerous wrist watches through the 1920s.
Through the 1920s and 1930s, Hamilton was growing by acquisition. They purchased the Illinois Watch Company, and acquired the trademarks of E. Howard Watch Company.
14K Gold Hamilton Wristwatch, circa 1940
As World War II approached they shifted production more and more to wrist watches and away from pocket watches. And of course, during the war, the U.S. Navy had critical need of marine chronometers. Hamilton ramped up production to meet the demand. In fact, they suspended production of consumer watches to focus on the military’s needs.
And then came the 1950s. Ever the innovator, Hamilton created the first electric watch in 1957. They called it… the Hamilton Electric. Battery powered and exotically styled, the Electrics were revolutionary then, and highly collectable today. It was then that the Ventura was born, the odd, triangular shaped watch that Elvis Presley made famous in Blue Hawaii. Revolutionary? Positively avant-garde!
Elvis Presley wearing his Hamilton Ventura on the set of Blue Hawaii
By this time, Hamilton was diversifying too. They produced watches under three different brand names, and even manufactured silverware. They also did metallurgical work for the space program and produced timers for the military.
In 1966, Hamilton acquired the Swiss company, Buren Watch Company, and put the innovative Buren Micro-rotor movement to good use in their high end timepieces. By 1969, all manufacturing had moved to the Buren facilities in Switzerland.
They were still ahead of most of the horological world in 1970, when they came out with the world’s first LED digital watch, the Hamilton Pulsar. You may remember James Bond forsaking his trusty Submariner for one in the opening scene of Live and Let Die.
Sadly for American watch fans, the Omega/Tissot holding company Société Suisse pour l'Industrie Horlogère (SSIH) purchased the Hamilton brand in 1971 and took over the Hamilton name. Today the name still exists, and the brand is a well respected member of the Swatch stable.
But one wonders what the watches would look like today if the brand had remained under American ownership in Lancaster, PA.