RGM 222-RR ↔ A WatchCarefully Review
C. Bradley Jacobs
Some photos provided by RGM Watch Co.
In 2017, the RGM Watch Company celebrated 25 years in existence with a party at the NAWCC Watch & Clock Museum and the release of some special timepieces. Earlier in his career, the founder of the company, Roland G. Murphy, had worked as Technical Manager for Hamilton in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when he began independently producing small series of Swiss movement-powered watches from his home in 1992. A quarter-century later, RGM can be found operating from an old bank building in nearby Mt. Joy (image below), where a staff of experienced watchmakers and designers now produce watch movements in-house, apply hand-turned guilloché, and even use locally-made cases, boxes and other accessories. They are internationally renowned as America’s finest producer of wristwatches and for keeping many elements of traditional craftsmanship alive. Though some of their movements and parts are still provided by European manufacturers, they are best known for their in-house productions: Caliber 801, a large round movement evocative of the finest American-made pocketwatch movements, Caliber 20, a tonneau-shaped complicated movement introduced for the 20th anniversary of the brand, and the only tourbillon wristwatch ever serially produced in the USA: the Pennsylvania Tourbillon.
Alongside the modern marvels they produce, and their devotion to reviving the lost arts of American watchmaking, RGM has also made a name for themselves with their Reference 222 (Roland G. Murphy Signature Series) which almost single-handedly spawned a trend for re-purposing smaller US-made pocketwatch movements of high grade into wristwatches. So it is fitting that they have chosen to issue a revision of the 222 that celebrates another icon of American horology: the Railroad Watch.
Christened with reference 222-RR, the new piece utilizes the same basic case as the original 222 (introduced ca. 2005) and is driven by a vintage Hamilton 10-size movement—either Grade 921 or Grade 923, all produced down the road in Lancaster, PA between 1937 and the mid-1950s. RGM no longer offers the lower-grade 917 or 945, choosing instead to focus on the most heavily refined and technologically advanced of the 4 movements in that family.
There are two significant and obvious differences between the earlier 222s and the new 222-RR; whereas the 222 used the open-face Hamilton calibers in a “side-winder” format (the crown at 3 and the sub-dial at 9:00) the new 222-RR keeps the crown at the 12:00 dial position, but both the crown and 12:00 are canted a bit clockwise, just to the right of the upper strap lugs. The second difference is the stunning enamel dial, reminiscent of those first used on railroad watches in the mid-1920s.
The 222-RR features a dial of true fired enamel, also known as ‘grand feu,’ whose bold block numerals recreate the style of railroad pocketwatches often called Boxcar Dials. As early as the 1890s, railroad workers were required to possess watches of certified accuracy and clear readability, intended to deter the possibility of train collisions. A departure from the style of early RR watches, Elgin and other major American firms began to offer the thick, utilitarian numerals seen here beginning in 1924.
The connection of this watch to those of the early inter-war years is also reflected in the aforementioned positioning of the crown. During World War I, the benefits of a wristwatch (over a pocketwatch) became evident to servicemen in action. This prompted a surge in production of watches for the wrist among American companies whose watches typically focused on pocket watches for men and considered ‘wristlet’ watches a novelty or jewelry item, mainly suitable for women. As a result, the watch producers found themselves using the movements of womens’ pendant watches as the basis for wristwatches for men. This was a simple transition for hunter-style movements (crown at 3:00, seconds at 6:00) but meant that using open-face movements for the wrist would require the printing of new dials…or make some simple adjustments. Thus, there came into existence examples of ‘transitional’ wristwatches whose configuration is reflected in today’s RGM 222-RR.
All 222-RR enamel dials are white with black numerals, and they employ a unique set of hands created especially for this model. They are blued steel in the traditional railroad shape, but their aesthetically pleasing proportions are specific to this watch. The example 222-RR shown here is motivated by a Hamilton Grade 923, made in 1946. Although Railroad specifications through the 1920s-1960s required a watch of 16-size, in order to keep the 222-RR manageable for the wrist, employing a 10-size movement was necessary. Happily, the Hamilton 923 (23 jewels, fewer than 3600 produced) and its sibling Grade 921 (21 jewels, approx. 54,000 produced) were highly refined and adjusted for accuracy that helped them meet or exceed expectations of railroad accuracy. That they were built in Lancaster, PA, a short drive from RGM’s home, reinforces the noteworthiness of this watch, the first to combine such significant American watchmaking history with a modern homage to the great watches carried by railroad men of yore.
Before building any vintage Hamilton caliber into a Ref 222, a single RGM watchmaker performs restoration and improvement activities—installing a new purpose-made mainspring, polishing any discolored parts to better-then-new condition, and executing a complete overhaul and lubrication. The balance is poised, the movement is adjusted and monitored then, only after having been cased and observed for some days, it is approved for release to its new owner.
Due to the size of the classic movement RGM uses, the 222 watches measure 41.0 mm x 12.0 mm, in cases of 316L Stainless Steel. Sapphire crystals are installed front and back; water resistance is 5 ATM. RGM supplies the 222-RR on sturdy Hirsch Liberty leather straps with ample thickness, contrasting stitching and 22mm width tapering to 20mm ends. A shapely steel buckle is provided, subtly engraved with the RGM logo.
Prices for the RGM 222-RR begin at $5900 US for an example with Grade 921 movement. The price of $7900 for a watch with the Grade 923 movement reflects the extreme difficulty of obtaining (and atmospheric rise in prices asked for) Grade 923 movement and parts in the requisite exemplary condition to be considered for use in an RGM watch. Although Hamilton produced hundreds of thousands of movements in the 917/945/921/923 family, barely over 300 Grade 923s (on average) left the Hamilton factory during each year of its production.
Reflections of the author:
Having now owned this piece since the middle of 2018, and a custom-built 222-E since 2005, I’m quite comfortable with its size. It is comparable to many watches powered by modern ETA 6497/6498 movements (e.g., Eberhard Traversetolo, Chronoswiss TimeMaster, Panerai, etc) and perhaps a bit more wearable than some. The 222-RR has a fairly thin bezel, so the 41mm case admirably manages to act as a subtle showcase for about 37 millimetres of dial. As the dial is true enamel, with the reflectiveness and amazing contrast typical of that material, the case and bezel would be easy to ignore, but for the substantial size of the lugs (which, frankly, I would prefer to be less obtrusive).
The fantastic dial is accentuated by the unusual angle at which it is displayed—the overall effect has retained its novelty for months now—and I find myself drawn to admire this watch as often as to tell the time.
As with all RGM watches, the quality of their production (and of the components provided by their external suppliers) is top-notch, so there are no distractions or complaints here. Any inadvertent oversights in their quality department are quickly rectified—this I know through personal experience. But more significant to me is that every element of this watch is harmonious. The lustre of the dial, the depth of the sunken seconds register, the hue and shape of the hands, the weight of all the printed elements, the color of the straps, the design itself—everything combines to give the wearer the impression of having a true railroad watch for the wrist.
The rear view of the watch does just what it should. It simply and directly (again, a thin bezel is key here) provides one a window into another time. Although RGM has made subtle improvements to the movement within, it remains an example of the highest-quality American made movement of its class and, though not a true RR-grade watch (as described above) it is surely the most apt substitute, whether in 23- or 21-jewel form. The 222-RR looks and feels like a little piece of 20th-century history for the wrist and I consider it to be another significant accomplishment by RGM in their quest to represent and maintain the high horological standards of American watchmaking.
© C. Bradley Jacobs, WatchCarefully.com