American-Made Watches – Time to Buy?

American-made watches - Vortic

Vortic Watch Co. has launched the Keep The Lights On For American Manufacturing campaign. They’re raising money to “purchase raw materials in bulk for smaller companies that lack the financial resources to invest in the materials and parts needed to make the products that are desperately needed.” Um, what? Great landing, wrong airport. What’s needed from us, the watch community, is to buy American-made timepieces. Easier said than done . . .

“American” watch brands like Carpenter Watches, Wolfpoint and Shinola depend entirely on Chinese parts and labor. At best, their products are American assembled. This despite Carpenter, Wolfpoint and Shinola heavily promoting their hometown connection (Brooklyn, Chicago and Detroit, respectively).

It gets worse from there.

Zhengzhou Foxconn factory

The Apple Watch – the watch that outsells the entire traditional watch industry combined – is not exactly as American as apple pie (which was invented in England). It’s a Chinese-made product sheltering under an American brand’s umbrella, built by humans only because they’re cheaper than robots.

While we’re at it, let’s take a closer look at those “Swiss Made” watches.

To qualify for the designation, 60 percent of a watch’s production costs must be in-country. It must contain at least 50 percent Swiss-made components in value. And at least 60 percent of the movement’s production (i.e. assembly) must take place in Switzerland.

Rolex factory Switzerland

In case you missed it, the regulation has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. For example, research and development expenses count towards “production costs.” Thanks to the legal verbiage about “component value,” eighty percent of a “Swiss Made” watch can be made in China.

To reclaim jobs and prestige, a group of insiders have rebelled against the Swiss watch industry’s sleight-of-hand. “The ‘Swiss Crafted’ label certifies that 100% of the watch has been developed, manufactured, and crafted in Switzerland,” its promoters proclaim.

So what? It takes an enormous leap of imagination to believe consumers are going to know, care or act upon the difference between a “Swiss made” and a “Swiss crafted” timepiece.

Timex American Documents bronze caseback (courtesy thetruthaboutwatches.com)

When it comes to a watch’s “nationality,” U.S. consumers view Swiss watches (e.g., Rolex) and some Japanese watches (e.g., Seiko) with reverence and . . . that’s about it. Where once an American-made timepiece meant quality (e.g., Hamilton), now it means nothing save a bit of easily ignored faux flag-waving.

When Timex launched their American-assembled American Documents watch – powered by a Swiss automatic movement (which probably contains Chinese parts) – it was a drug on the market. Forum dwellers complained about the $495 price. You can buy a “Swiss Made” auto for $100 less!

Atelier Wen Hao watch

Ironically, Swiss watchmaking started as a low labor-cost alternative to the English watch industry. Until they found their horological mojo, the Swiss produced English knock-offs. That “follow the cheap labor” trajectory doesn’t mean Americans are destined to buy unabashed Chinese watches (as montredo.com would have you believe).

U.S. consumers may not be called to action by “buy American,” but their collective anger at China for the coronavirus cover-up won’t go away for at least a generation. That said, the Chinese-made Apple Watch will continue to make mincemeat out of the low to middle of the traditional watch market. The bright spot for American watchmaking? High horology.

American watchmakers operating at elevated price points don’t need to buy Chinese parts to save money. They can, but they don’t want to. Whether from pride, patriotism or marketing, they are the answer to who cares which parts go into a watch. And they want to make or buy American parts wherever possible.

Vortic’s R.T. Custer has made himself perfectly clear on this point. As has Scott Devon, manufacturer of computer-controlled timepieces. “Our goal is to offer not only the finest watches made in the USA, but the finest watches available,” RGM’s founder Roland G. Murphy asserts, heading a company that make its own in-house caliber.

American-made watches: LA's Weiss Watch Co.

Even at lower price points, there’s a “buy American parts” movement afoot in the corporate suite. LA-based Weiss Watch Company says “it strives to increase the percentage of domestic sourcing with each edition, and is the only company resurrecting industry practices that have not been active in the United States for decades.”

If consumers reward these companies with their business, if they make products consumers want to buy regardless of origination, the “all-American” watch trend will continue. With the supply chain to China disrupted, there’s even an opening for American watch parts makers to step in, using technology to keep costs down. Sound far-fetched? Tell that to FTS USA.

3 comments

  1. Too bad Jack sold his Weiss (and it not being an automatic) so we could get a review on it.

  2. How big of a splash has Vaer made in the “assembled in America” market? I’m impressed so far with a quartz one that I bought as a gift, but I don’t really have a sense of how recognized the brand is.

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