RGM Caliber 801
After nearly four decades, the phrase “Made In America”
is once again stamped on a mechanical movement
by C. Bradley Jacobs
Originally published in iW Magazine
It is always a noteworthy event when an independent watch company introduces a new mechanical movement, but when that company is located in the United States and represents the first such horological development in nearly forty years, to claim this as merely newsworthy is an understatement. The RGM Watch Company, of Pennsylvania, is preparing just such a momentous announcement—the unveiling of their proprietary Caliber 801.
Caliber 801, named for the address of the company’s work shop in Mount. Joy, Pennsylvania, is a 16-ligne time-only movement with small seconds in hunter configuration. In a time when other boutique watchmaking houses are cooperating with specialist houses to produce unique complications, it is fitting that RGM’s owner, Roland Murphy, has chosen a traditional time only movement for his company’s first foray into movement production. His brand is known for its traditional approaches to watch assembly and decoration—such as the use of antique rose engines for application of authentic guilloché--therefore a classic three-hand watch seems a good, and typically American, place to start.
The impetus for creation of a new movement by RGM came from two major sources. One is purely practical: the desire to be more independent; the other is more idealist: a craftsman’s natural urge to create a beautiful object of quality, without compromise. To this latter end, the planning and design of Cal. 801 went through several phases over four years’ time. The result is a versatile movement—suitable for either wrist or pocket watch use; and Murphy plans future elaborations—that hearkens to watchmaking traditions once strong in the United States, indeed in RGM’s own back yard.
An examination of America’s newest mechanical watch movement reveals much about the integrity of its makers. It would have been easy for RGM to rely heavily upon established Swiss suppliers for the majority of the material in the new movement, but Mr. Murphy felt strongly that the movement should have a recognizably American character and be produced, as much as possible, in Lancaster County, where RGM is located. Though in the current state of American horology it was unavoidable that some components such as jewels, balance and hairspring be outsourced to Swiss specialists—indicative of a decades-long decline that felled all the major domestic houses of yore—the spirit of ingenuity and entrepreneurship that characterized American watchmaking at its peak was found to be alive and well. Thus RGM partnered with local experts in computer-aided design and machining to bring their vision to life. Production of the bridges, plates and other parts are made not only in the USA but in Lancaster, County Pennsylvania, the final work of tapping or reaming holes, setting jewels, finishing of plates and bridges, adjustment and assembly will take place in the RGM workshop in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.
Roland Murphy drew upon many of the elements of American watchmaking that he admires, and even pays homage to such significant firms as Howard, Illinois and Hamilton in Caliber 801. This may be more than mere coincidence, considering the first two of those firms all became the property of the third, itself headquartered a short buggy-ride from RGM in the city of Lancaster. However, the new RGM movement is anything but a copy of any existing or historical movement. To the pocket watch enthusiast familiar with the Howard Watch Company, the bridges of Cal. 801 will bear a striking resemblance to one of that firm’s finest products. Cal. 801 intentionally has similar bridge shapes, chosen by Mr. Murphy for their beauty and ability to expose all the workings of the gear train. To paraphrase a recent statement by Roland: what would be the point of making the movement visible through the back of the watch without also allowing a clear view of the interaction of the wheels? Aficionados of Swiss watches will also understand RGM’s stipulation not to employ wire springs in the new movement—a quality measure akin to those necessary for the famous Geneva Seal. Caliber 801’s elegant semi-hidden click spring and similar springs within the setting mechanism are milled from solid steel rather than fashioned from bent metal wire.
The Caliber 801 has many more impressive technical features, most of which lie beneath its beautifully gilded surface. The plates and bridges, machined from brass, house nineteen jewels including two large barrel jewels made specifically for RGM. Though the necessity of jewelling the barrel is debated to this day, Murphy and his team have discovered wear in the metal bearings of barrel arbors in movements that RGM services and felt it would run contrary to their aims of top quality if they did not address this potential source of friction. Other issues of assembly and servicing were addressed in the design stage, one example being an extended pilot hole which will guide the full length of the winding stem yet allow for proper lubrication and freedom of movement. All feet of the bridges are integral--created from the original billets of brass as the bridges themselves are machined.
Not all such production decisions were made purely for technical reasons. Several almost invisible elements of the movement were the result of conscious aesthetic choices coupled with the team’s striving for ideal functionality. Murphy and his designers made sure that every hole and recess in the plate of Caliber 801 is functionally necessary--as a result, no extraneous holes detract from the beauty of the movement in its uncased state. Only three holes, intended by Murphy for attachment points for future modules, are unused in the plate, and these are untapped and unobtrusive. The recesses milled into the plates for the gear train are a pleasing array of overlapping circles; other recesses near the edge of the plate match up directly with the sides of the bridges; dial screws that penetrate the sides of the plate serve to reduce the clutter on the dial and train sides of the plate. If all of this seems excessive, there is a beauty, as well as a method, to the madness.
A decorative element of Caliber 801 that particularly pleases Murphy, and he hopes will be of significant attraction to watch connoisseurs, can be seen on the main plate. Every Caliber 801 plate is manufactured with functional engraving on the dial side: an hour chapter ring with numerals denoting 3:00, 9:00 and 12:00, the oval RGM logo, and the words “Lancaster, Penna. USA,” below the sub-seconds area. RGM intends to offer a variety of dial options (and dial-less decoration options) for the new movement but every example of Cal. 801, regardless of whether it is assembled with a dial, will have these features as a trademark.
The last time that high-grade mechanical watch movements were produced in the United States was 1969, the year that Hamilton ceased a period of more than 70 years of continuous manufacturing at its facility just down the road from RGM’s current headquarters. Subsequent to that event, Hamilton was parceled out and its watchmaking arms sold to the precursor of today’s Swatch Group and many years have passed since Hamilton watches were produced at their ancestral home. Thus a strong tradition of Pennsylvania horology—also including such manufacturers and schools as Dudley, Keystone, Bulova and Bowman —has lain dormant until the emergence of RGM as America’s premier producer of fine timepieces. Now, with the re-introduction of local movement production, and with entities such as the Lititz Watch Technicum, the NAWCC’s Museum and its School of Horology, enthusiasts of Pennsylvania horology hope this combined local effort will serve as a foundation for a general revival of American horology.
Regardless of the possible national implications, Mr .Murphy is very happy with RGM’s newest accomplishment. His intention to create a big caliber “that watchmakers will love” and is “beautiful to view, so you can see what is going on” has certainly been realized. During a recent interview he made it clear that even if this new caliber is not a success financially, he is completely satisfied with the results of his and the company’s effort. For 2008 RGM intends to produce 75 to 100 examples of Caliber 801. Eventually it will become the standard that represents the image of the company. Once RGM’s existing supply of Swiss 16-ligne movements is exhausted, all models thus powered will only be available with Caliber 801. In the next installment of this article, we’ll see the actual watches that will be created to showcase the new movement and learn more about the company’s plans for their official unveiling and subsequent distribution.
Text © C. Bradley Jacobs, WatchCarefully.com; images © RGM Watch Company.