Design & Make

A Return to the American-Made Watch

by Jennifer S. Li June 05, 2018
ReadA Return to the American-Made Watch

Cameron Weiss’ fascination with watches began when his great-aunt gifted him his first timepiece (a kid-friendly plastic version) as a small child. So, it’s no surprise that his chosen career took him to Switzerland, the current leader in luxury, mechanical watches, to study under respected watchmakers. The California native soon found his way back to Los Angeles, where he has been fostering a return to the American-made timepiece with Weiss Watch Company, which he founded in 2013. We spoke with Cameron about the comeback.

Switzerland is synonymous with luxury, mechanical watches, and your American-made watches use Swiss mechanisms. What is the history of watchmaking and why is it important to bring it back to the United States?

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Swiss watch industry as we know it came into existence (out of a necessity to save watchmaking as a whole). Today there is hardly any U.S. production of mechanical watches. A watchmaker in the U.S. is typically not making any watches, just restoring or repairing timepieces that were made by watchmakers in Switzerland.

Yet, in fact, it was the United States that pioneered precision watchmaking on a large scale in the 1800s and early 1900s. The Swiss followed suit and developed their own watchmaking infrastructure, largely based on the mass production models and machinery developed in America. The Japanese got into the watchmaking industry with the quartz movement, which have electronic circuits and resisters; basically a computerized method of making a watch that utilizes a battery instead of springs and requires very little fine-tuning and adjustment.

The U.S. found it hard to compete with the Swiss and the low-cost quartz watches from the Far East, and began outsourcing manufacturing to Switzerland – eventually closing their doors. In the early 1950s, the American watchmaking business began to collapse due to competition from the Far East, and the preference for quartz watches (what we call the “quartz crisis”). A well-built, mechanical timepiece can last forever and be repaired at any time, while spare parts for a quartz won’t be available in 5-10 years.

Do you view your watch as being American, or Swiss, or a hybrid? And how do you make a watch modern while still honoring tradition?

It’s definitely a hybrid. We’re using the best the Swiss have to offer and pairing that with the best the U.S. has to offer. The United States is more geared towards technology: we are leaders in aviation, aerospace and engineering – and those industries require the cutting and manufacturing of parts for a perfect fit and finish. We’ve adapted that and brought it into our brand. Our logo is a bird’s eye view of an airplane silhouette.

We produce locally when we can. The parts inside the watch—wheels, pinions, springs—are still being made in Switzerland. Finishing and assembly is done here in Los Angeles. The exterior, including the case, caseback, crystals, dials, hands and straps, are also made in Los Angeles. We pair these locally made materials with traditional Swiss watchmaking.

Our mechanical wristwatch is made up of over 150 parts. It’s like a little automobile that fits on your wrist. It runs all day long, which is a pretty impressive engineering feat.

The watch is made with stainless steel, brass, crystals and more. Tell us a bit more about the materials that go into the watch.

The case is 316L stainless steel, which is a high-grade stainless steel. It is very important to use this type of steel for corrosion resistance, especially for an item that is exposed to salt water and skin oils. Over time you want a high-quality case material. The life of this steel is very, very long.

The movement of the watch is all made up of traditional materials: steel, brass and other watchmaking alloys. Traditionally these have been the metals of choice. This is very important because 100 years from now, when I’m no longer here and another watchmaker attempts to repair it, they’ll know exactly what to do.

The front and back of the case, as well as the “jewels” of the watch, are made of synthetically grown sapphire. The jewels are the bearing surfaces, in which the axels or pivots of wheels turn. Traditionally, these were always made from ruby—hence the term “jewels”—but they started to run out around 1920. Eventually the rubies were replaced by synthetically grown sapphire. You can make sapphire any color you want. For the mechanism inside, you can see that we still made them red to resemble traditional rubies. For the case front and back, we made the sapphire crystal clear so that you can see the face and the mechanisms inside. The sapphire is extremely hard—only a diamond could scratch it.

What do you need to do to maintain your watch?

This is a mechanical watch, or a manual winding watch. The owner will need to wind it everyday. You wake up in the morning and you have to feed your watch. It needs about 20 winds in the morning to keep it moving. There is definitely an interaction with a mechanical watch that doesn’t exist with another watch. There’s a mechanism inside, like a pendulum, that goes back and forth 18,000 times per hour. After five years, that’s 700 million times.

I would recommend contacting us for regular maintenance. Giving it back to us is the most ideal since we have the parts and the knowledge for any sort of repair or maintenance. We oil the jewels with about five different oils. Again, it’s similar to an automobile, in that the oils need to be changed so that the engine doesn’t seize up. The oil on those jewels will evaporate or become gummy over the years. The shelf life of those oils is about 10 years, and as they dry up, timing can be affected.

Every five years it should be completely disassembled and cleaned, almost like a frame-off restoration for a vehicle. The watch gets completely taken apart. Every piece is cleaned and parts are repaired or replaced.

Do you have hope for a return to American watchmaking?

In Switzerland, the watch company does not necessarily make everything. Each part is often made somewhere else. Here in Los Angeles we’ve had to develop our own methods: teaching people to run the machines that cut steel, coming up with a design that will actually work. We’re specialized not just in one little aspect but in every single aspect along the way. We design, engineer and manufacture from start to finish all the components from the casing to the straps and movement parts within our own company. It won’t be overnight, but hopefully we will be a big part of bringing watchmaking and watch manufacturing back, and restore the prestige that American watchmaking once had.

Leading image courtesy Ken Tisuthiwongse.

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