A chronicle of working with RGM to build a custom wristwatch, from choosing the movement and hands, to designing the dial.
The Creation of a Custom RGM Wristwatch
RGM Ref. 222E
by C. Bradley Jacobs
Originally published in iW Magazine, September 2006
In the Spring of 2003 I embarked upon a journey to create some custom wristwatches based upon the finest small American pocket watch movements available. There are a small number of watchmaking workshops who will accept commissions for custom-built watches and I hoped to match each project to the strengths of a particular firm. The first watch to be completed was a skeletonized and engraved Elgin Grade 543, decorated and cased as a wristwatch in the workshop of Jochen Benzinger. Though the initial idea for this project was mine, I was quite happy to let Mr. Benzinger work his magic and, thus, the final product was as much the result of his vision as of mine. The process of creating that watch was documented and published in the NAWCC Bulletin (#349, April 2004). In the meantime, another project was getting underway which had a much more focused personal vision as the driving force: an American-built custom watch using a fine Hamilton movement.
In the pantheon of American watchmaking, there is no more hallowed name than that of Hamilton. Their commitment to quality, the accuracy of their railroad watches, and the daring design and technology of such watches as 1957's Ventura are but a few aspects of the Hamilton mystique that attracts collectors of fine watches to the vintage wares of that company, formerly of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the realm of modern American watches, there is no more respected name than that of the RGM Watch Company. The young firm headed by Roland Murphy is commonly regarded as the finest representative of American watchmaking since the sale of Hamilton to a Swiss company over 30 years ago. A significant source of pride to the company is their reputation for building one-of-a-kind wristwatches to meet the needs of discerning customers. This fact, plus the proximity of the RGM atelier to the old Hamilton factory--a distance of less than fifteen miles across Lancaster County--made it obvious to me that RGM would be the right partner in creating my custom watch based on a Hamilton pocket watch movement.
The series of small American movements I have chosen for these "conversion" projects are all known as "10-size," one of a group of designations commonly used more than half a century ago to denote sizes of American pocket watches. The most prevalent American watches of the 20th century were 16-size (standard railroad grade) and 12-size (mainly gentlemen's dress watches). Hamilton made gents' pocket watches as large as 18 and as small as 10, the latter being the smallest size offered to men by the important American firms, also including Elgin, Howard and Waltham. Hamilton introduced their 10-size movements in the late 1930s as replacements for their 12-size dress models that had been on the market since the 1910s. Coincident with a re-designing of the classic 16-size railroad grades 992 and 950 (subsequently the 992B and 950B), Hamilton issued the 10-size grades 917, 921 and 923. Each numeric designation of these small new models also indicated the number of jewels present in the movement, something Hamilton had not previously done. The 10-size movements mostly came cased in gold-filled or gold factory-supplied cases with silver dials sporting applied gold markers. A small percentage of Hamilton 10-size movements were cased in Platinum with rhodium-plated numerals and markers on the dial. The finest case materials were generally paired with the highest grade of movement: Grade 923.
Grade 923 is a very high-quality movement, intended by Hamilton to exhibit accuracy on par with the finest railroad chronometer watches the company produced. Featuring such high-grade (and high-tech) elements as Elinvar-Extra hairspring and balance wheel, 23 sapphire and ruby jewels, jeweled motor barrel, and adjustment to 5 positions & temperature, the 923 was Hamilton's premium dress watch movement, and was therefore made in much smaller quantities than the other grades. Of the more than a quarter-million 10-size watches made by Hamilton in Lancaster between 1936 and the end of movement production in 1969, only 3542 Grade 923 movements were produced (according to Hamilton production figures published by Roy Ehrhardt). This grade is among the finest and rarest gentlemen's dress watch movements ever serially manufactured in the United States and, along with its replacement (Grade 945, which was somewhat less elaborate), it has the highest jewel-count of any 10-size American watch.
Having chosen the rather Spartan Elgin 543--with 21 jewels, the highest grade of 10-size watch made by that company--as the canvas for decoration by Jochen Benzinger in my first custom watch project, I was resolute that the conversion project involving a Hamilton movement must involve the magnificent Grade 923. Not only are 923s accurate and technologically wondrous, they are among the most attractive pocket watches of the post-Art Deco era. Early 20th century movements tended to have ornate damaskeening and engraved lettering. After the First World War and into the Depression era, many watch designs were comparatively sober. The Howard and Elgin 10-size watches are prime examples. Simple striping or other machine finishing replaced swirled engine-turning, gold-lettered engraving and decorative fonts. Hamilton's basic 10-size movement, Grade 917, followed suit for the most part, but the more upscale Grades 921 and 923 eschewed the straight-line striping for lovely côtes circulaires and the 923 featured shiny jewel settings and gold-filled lettering which highlighted the polished wheels in the train. This beautiful movement was the perfect choice for my custom project and thus my quest to find a useful example began. As luck would have it, I was able to locate a well-preserved Grade 923, which had previously been removed from its original solid gold case (presumably sold for the value of the gold) and replaced in a simple gold-filled case intended for a lower grade movement. My intention (and that of RGM) was to create this watch without destroying a serviceable, original example of a fine Hamilton pocket watch.
Enlisting such a fine movement to pay homage to Hamilton's great history was an easy decision. But the question of how to encase it and how to adorn the dial was a much more difficult one. Being a relatively young operation (in the realm of mechanical watchmaking), RGM does not have a long, storied history to suggest design direction. I considered dial designs based upon classic Hamilton watch faces--and I attempted several mock-ups--but ultimately this did not satisfy my desire to celebrate both Hamilton and RGM with this watch. Upon realizing that this project should pay equal homage to each watchmaking house, I knew what course to take in designing the dial. In the world of modern watch design, RGM is one of the few firms, and the only one in America, to insist upon dials that are engine-turned by hand. Indeed, they are the only US-based watch company who owns and operates an antique rose engine on their premises. Because of this, they are capable of producing in-house guilloché decorations on the dials, movement parts and cases of RGM watches. Clearly, my custom watch must feature an authentic guilloché dial, but how to decide among the multitude of styles available?
As I was researching the American dress pocket watches of the 1920s-1950s, I came across a remarkable style of hands used by E. Howard (Boston) and Illinois Watch Companies. Modeled on classic Breguet "moon" or "pomme" hands, the particular examples that I encountered exhibited something akin to a cubist interpretation. I was determined to feature these lovely blue hands in some future project, but was unsure how I could reconcile their use on a watch intended to combine and honor two great watch companies from Pennsylvania. The answer came as I perused some old Hamilton watch catalogues. In an early-1930s advertisement for the Masterpiece Group (fittingly, Hamilton's top-of-the-line series of gents' dress watches) a model called the Nobel was pictured with just the style of hands I desired. I could now include these marvelous hands on my project watch and have no qualms about whether they represented Hamilton. Bolstering my defense of this decision is the fact that both the Howard and Illinois watch companies were taken over by Hamilton around the time of the Great Depression. Even if they did not introduce this style of hands, Hamilton can lay claim to their use as much as any American company. Thus, they became the focal point for telling time on my project watch and a significant influence on the dial design.
I had so far made many preliminary decisions and was enthusiastic about the project. But in order to make this a practical project, I needed a case to fit this vintage movement. The cases readily available on the market to fit watch movements of this size are generally intended for the 16 1/2-ligne (36.6 mm) Unitas 6497/6498. The RGM watch company itself offers watches that employ this caliber, and has ready-made cases which could potentially be milled to fit the 38.1 mm Hamilton movement. This did not suit the nature of my project, however. The RGM Ref. 150 case has a modern shape that is akin to watch cases of the latter half of the 20th century--not exactly suited for a movement designed in the 1930s. Something with more of an antique flair would be required. Fortunately, Roland Murphy had been thinking along these lines prior to my contacting him about my project. RGM was already exploring the feasibility of issuing a small series of watches with vintage-style dials and Hamilton 10-size movements (a plan brought to fruition as the recently-released Ref. 222 "Signature Series"). A suitable case design was already in the prototyping stage. It was a relief to know that a quality case, unlike anything offered by other watch companies, would be available for my watch. I could return my focus to the design of the dial.
Among the guilloché choices RGM Watch Company offers, are two that my watch collecting friends jokingly call the "Q-bert" designs, after the landscape upon which one manipulated the video-game character of that name. It has also been called "Escher-esque" in deference to the complex and illusory structures created by M.C. Escher. Regardless of the name, these engraving patterns seemed to meet my criteria for this watch. They represented a classic style of design, they represented the modern RGM signature element of engine-turned dials, and facilitated the coalescence of a few uncommon, if not disparate, components. Some significant discussion and coaching from RGM's General Manager and chief designer, Rich Baugh, helped me to make the final decision. The use of the unusual hands (including a 1920s Hamilton seconds hand with a diamond-shaped counter-balance), the unconventional engraving pattern, some small radial Roman numerals, and another layout feature to be discussed later, made this design a radical departure from what might be considered the norm at RGM. Yet it would still be readily identifiable with RGM products due to the quality, the clarity of the design, and the case's distinctive bezel.
All that remained was to build the watch.
After waiting some months for the dial to be cut, printed, lacquered and delivered back to RGM, I got a note from Rich. Without warning, he informed me that the dial was ready, that my set of vintage hands could be made to fit the movement, and that the assembly of my custom watch would begin in a matter of days. I was, of course, excited. Rich informed me that the RGM team was also enthusiastic about the watch. To be sure, it was an unconventional undertaking, but one each person took pride in helping to realize. In fact, one of RGM's top watchmakers spent considerable time and effort to comply with a request I made. The only concession to my own tastes that is visible on the backside of the watch is the presence of blue movement screws. I did not want to alter the beauty of the Hamilton design, but felt that the lovely blue hands on the watch's face would be nicely complemented by blue screws holding the bridges in place. To my surprise, the aforementioned RGM watchmaker polished and heat-blued every visible screw before servicing and re-assembling my Grade 923--even down to the tiny screws that secure the swans'-neck regulator spring. Some Hamilton-collecting purists might criticize my decision to alter the movement in this way but I believe it is an appropriate and acceptable modification, and one that can easily be undone by replacing the blue screws with factory nickel-plated ones if I ever wish to do so.
The completed watch represents a few "firsts" in the history of RGM and watch design in general. This example (officially known as Ref. 222E) is the first left-handed watch RGM has ever produced. It is the first production wristwatch ever to be powered by a Hamilton Grade 923 movement (RGM has since produced a few more 923-powered Ref. 222s as part of the Roland G. Murphy Signature Series, and the 2017 Railroad-inspired 222-RR). It is the first wristwatch I've encountered to use the "square moon" hands and the cubist guilloché pattern. In addition, the minute hand overlays an inner minutes chapter rather than pointing to an outer chapter as is more conventional. By framing most of the markers, the aperture of the hand can be used for reading of the time to the minute. But, the milestones aside, it is important to me for far more idealist reasons.
Within a couple weeks of Rich's announcement, I visited RGM and took great pride both in taking delivery of my new watch and in wearing it while driving through Lancaster County, the source of much inspiration. The watch even has a name: the Lancastrian. To me, this simple moniker ties the notable history of Hamilton and the elegant potential of RGM together by identifying not only a spatial proximity, but a devotion to quality and heritage.
Photos 1, 8-12 courtesy RGM Watch Company