Thrift Store Treasure: The L.L. Bean Hamilton That Shifted My Perspective

Thrift Store Treasure: The L.L. Bean Hamilton That Shifted My Perspective

A few days ago at a local thrift store, I found a slightly older version of the watch I wear most days: the Hamilton Khaki Automatic. More surprising than the watch’s price (which as you’ll see, was very surprising) was its effect on how I view my daily wear. Before comparing these two examples, allow me to share my thrift store encounter from last week.

The Thrift Store Discovery

I frequent a handful of thrift stores here in Portland, Oregon, usually making a beeline to the watch and jewelry displays. Most of the time, there’s nothing more than a Michael Kors, a few unbranded watches, and the occasional G-Shock. However, every once in a blue moon, I see something special looking back at me. This past Friday was one of those days.

LL Bean Hamilton ref. 9721

I saw the name ‘L.L. Bean’ on the dial of a charming, noticeably older field watch. I looked down a bit, hoping to see the name ‘Hamilton’ at 6 o’clock. To my delight, I saw just that. Below ‘Hamilton’ was a smaller word that I couldn’t quite read but I knew was longer than ‘quartz’. This was an automatic Hamilton field watch retailed by L.L. Bean: a newer reference from a family of collectible vintage Hamiltons.

I asked to see the watch, knowing at this point that I’d probably buy it, but eager to look at its condition. The mineral glass looked a bit hazy with a few light scratches. The brushed steel case had similarly light wear, but the dial was perfect and the watch looked to be in good shape overall. I gave the crown a few stiff turns, fully expecting the seconds hand to remain in one place. It did. I gently shook the watch, hoping for the rotor to wind and/or the balance to wake up. It did! The seconds hand began to sweep, and as I would find out over the weekend, the ETA-2824-powered watch keeps great time.

Hamilton LL Bean 9721 caseback

I flipped over the watch to read the caseback. There was a sticker on the spotless brushed surface: ‘$10’.

“I’ll take it!”.

A Brief History of Hamilton Field Watches

This article wasn’t meant to be a history lesson, but history is huge a selling point of Hamilton field watches. It would be a misstep not to include some history in an article detailing two vintage-inspired watches.

Hamilton Trench Watch WWI

Image Source: Watch Charts 

In 1914, smack dab in the middle of their significant involvement in US railroad expansion, Hamilton provided their first watches to the US Military: a small number of railroad pocket watches that were adapted to be wristwatches for trench warfare (above).

Hamilton WWII Watch

Image Source: Unwind in Time

Later during WWII, the US Military enlisted Hamilton to make many, many more watches. In fact, Hamilton halted production of consumer products in the early 1940s and delivered over 1 million watches to the US Military.

After the war, these rugged mil-spec field watches became all the rage, aligning with a boom in commercialized outdoor recreation amongst the American middle class. Hamilton was still producing watches for military issuance, but began offering near-identical watches for civilians. These tough timepieces were perfect ‘second watches’ for otherwise gold-wearing weekend warriors.

Hamilton MIL-W-4637A and 9219

In the mid-‘60s during the Vietnam War, the US Department of Defense issued watch specifications MIL-W-46374A and GG-W-113. These two watches (visually congruent) would act as the blueprint for Hamilton’s ref. 9219. This reference is what I consider the birth of Hamilton field watches as we know them today.

Hamilton LL Bean Catalog Ad

In the midst of becoming a fully-Swiss brand, a few short years before being acquired by SSIH (soon to be the Swatch Group), Hamilton partnered with L.L. Bean to sell a co-branded version of their ref. 9219. The 33mm manually-wound watches were sold via L.L. Bean’s mail order catalog, attracting outdoorsy folk with their rugged specifications. As decades passed, mil-specs changed, and L.L. Bean ballooned in popularity, Hamilton expanded their consumer-facing line of field watches. They released numerous references: some co-branded (L.L. Bean, Orvis, Brookstone), some not (Khaki), some inspired by US mil-specs, some by British mil-specs.

The watch I found at the thrift store is among the last L.L. Bean co-branded Hamiltons: the ref. 9721. This watch is based on the Hamilton 6B, issued to the British Royal Air Force in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Fun fact, the Bean-branded 9721 was only offered in their Spring 1991 catalog.

How This ‘90s L.L. Bean Hamilton Shifted My Perspective

Hamilton Khaki Automatic vs 9721

Most days, I wear a Hamilton Khaki Automatic 38mm ref. H70455133. The watch maintains the aforementioned mil-spec Hamiltons’ core design elements, specifically a hyper-legible, white-on-black dial with arabic numerals and an inner 24-hour scale. The simple case design has gone largely unchanged, and it even houses a 2824-based movement. For all intents and purposes, my modern Khaki Automatic is a faithful interpretation of older mil-spec Hamiltons . . . or so I told myself.

LL Bean Hamilton 9721 and Hamilton Khaki Automatic 38mm

Although the L.L. Bean Hamilton ref. 9721 is one of the last co-branded Hamilton field watches, and therefore somewhat modern, it retains the unapologetically utilitarian vibe of its predecessors. The ref. 9721 features a 36mm fully-brushed steel case with drilled lugs, a solid caseback, an unsigned crown, and a workhorse ETA 2824 movement. There’s nothing fancy here: no gimmicks, no nonsense. As Tony Traina pointed out in his 2020 writeup of the brands’ partnership, quoting L.L. Bean’s terse sales copy from the 1980s,

“That’s the beauty of the Bean: it never tried to be more than it was. ‘Rugged and reliable alternatives to an expensive dress watch, built to military specifications,’ is all it said of its field watch. It’s all that needed to be said,”.

The L.L. Bean Hamilton ref. 9721, like all L.L. Bean co-branded Hamiltons, is true to the brand’s ethos of creating sober, practical, reliable timepieces. For the past year and a half, this is what I thought of my Khaki Auto 38mm. I saw it as a no-frills time-and-date field watch. Only after holding it next to this forgotten $10 L.L. Bean did I realize that my modern version did, in fact, have a few frills.

Hamilton Khaki Automatic 38mm

For starters, the modern Khaki Automatic has a sapphire crystal. While a utilitarian argument can obviously be made for sapphire, it’s a noticeable creature comfort next to the 9721’s hazy mineral glass. The Khaki Auto also has a polished bezel, one of its louder modern refinements that frankly has no business being on a field watch. Looking a bit closer, the modern Khaki Auto has a signed crown. I’m assuming this wouldn't fly under most military specifications. Speaking of which, the Khaki Auto’s caseback is not brushed steel, but a second sapphire crystal, displaying the watch’s caliber H-10 (with its comfortable 80 hours of power reserve).

If the L.L. Bean Hamilton is hike-in camping, the Khaki Auto 38 is a queen bed at the Hilton.

LL Bean Hamilton 9721

Luckily, stumbling upon this L.L. Bean Hamilton didn’t make me fall out of love with my Khaki Auto. In fact, it only made me appreciate it more. Maybe I’m spoiled, but I quite like the gussied-up modern Khaki. Sure, it's not as faithful to its mil-spec predecessors, at least not to the extent of the 9721, but it's the right translation for me. If you’ve read this far, you know I also love the nearly-boring practicality of a watch like the 9721 (and you probably do too). I liken it to my appreciation/preference for 5-digit Rolex compared to the shinier new stuff.

If there’s a takeaway here, it’s this: if you enjoy a modern watch or watch brand that has some history behind it, and you’re not at least Googling that history, you’re missing out on half of the fun. This used Hamilton (and a bit of research) shed new light on my daily wear, all without a polished surface.

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