Waltham watches find new life with startup
When Tyler Wolfe and R.T. Custer, two young engineers with an entrepreneurial streak, discovered four years ago that there wasn’t a 100 percent American-made watch on the market, they saw an opportunity.
They launched a startup to build well-designed, high-quality timepieces completely manufactured in the United States.
In the process, the two Penn State grads also discovered a rich and largely forgotten heritage of American watch manufacturing: the Waltham Watch Co., a once-pioneering, now-defunct company that for 100 years supplied the nation with pocket watches.
Wolfe and Custer were so inspired they decided to take Waltham’s antique watch mechanisms and combine them with cutting-edge 3-D printing technology to build a unique, all-American timepiece.
“We took it upon ourselves to save Waltham watches and make them relevant again,” said Wolfe, who along with Custer founded the Colorado-based Vortic Watch Co. They also revive vintage watches from other American heritage brands such as Elgin Movement, Hamilton, and Illinois.
But the Waltham brand is the most popular, Wolfe said. “Waltham had a huge following,” he said.
Everything inside a Vortic watch is from an antique Waltham timepiece. The movement, the dial, and the hands — each is cleaned and overhauled. The new cases — stainless steel infused with bronze — are built using a metal 3-D printer, transforming old pocket-watches into hip oversized wristwatches. They sell for $800 to $3,000.
While other companies, most notably Shinola in Detroit, advertise “American-made” watches, Vortic appears to be the only one making its watches entirely with American parts. Shinola’s timepieces are assembled at its factory in Detroit, but the company gets its movements from Switzerland and Thailand, and cases and dials from China and Taiwan.
Wolfe and Custer started out buying old “Walthams” on Ebay for about $20 to $100 apiece. They now work with watch pickers and antique dealers from across the country who scout estate sales and attics for vintage timepieces. Often they find boxes of functional mechanisms without cases, which are often scrapped for gold and silver.
With some 36 million Waltham watches produced, Wolfe does not anticipate running out of parts in his lifetime.
Vortic sold its first watch in 2014 and last year sold between 100 and 200 online at vorticwatches.com and at retail stores in New York City and Colorado.
A hundred years ago, watches were the coolest gadgets people could buy. A bit like phones today, they were both essential tools and important status symbols. “Today kids show off their iPhones. Back then it was their watches,” said Wayne McCarthy, president of the Waltham Historical Society and a Waltham native. “It was the hot technology of the time.”
Waltham’s watchmaking origins go back to 1854, when Boston watchmaker Aaron Dennison purchased vacant farmland on the Charles River in then-bucolic Waltham to establish a new factory for his Boston Watch Co., later renamed Waltham Watch.
He needed a place with clean air to prevent dust from getting into the watch movements. In his new factory, he designed machines that for the first time manufactured reliable interchangeable watch parts, dramatically decreasing the cost of production while maintaining high levels of precision.
“Thanks to these machines, a worker could focus on one part of the watch, rather than on the whole piece together, as it was done in England and Switzerland at the time,” said Amy Green, docent and historian at Waltham’s Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation. The museum houses one of the largest collections of Waltham watches in the country.
This new mass production so impressed a visiting Henry Ford that he applied what he saw at the Waltham factory to the automobile industry, McCarthy of the Waltham Historical Society said.
Over time, the factory expanded into a 400,000-square-foot complex, becoming for its time the world’s largest watch factory. Eventually, a series of business errors, combined with the decline in demand for pocket watches, led to the company’s closure in the 1950s.
But in 2009 the complex was redeveloped and is now a modern mix of residential lofts and office spaces. Inside is a small gallery displaying several lathes, Waltham pocket watches, and vintage prints of the factory’s assembly line, bowling league, and company nursery — a groundbreaking perk at the time.
After the company closed, a Swiss subsidiary, Waltham International SA, continued to manufacture watches under the Waltham brand largely for the Japanese market. But in 2011 the company was rebranded, and in 2014 it came out with the new Waltham luxury aeronaval collection.
Despite its name, the new line bears little resemblance to the century-old designs of its namesake, instead opting for a more contemporary aesthetic inspired by the thick dimensions and angular lines of aeronaval clocks. New “Walthams” aren’t cheap, ranging in price from $5,500 to $8,200.
The price of a Colorado-made Vortic watch depends on what’s inside, Wolfe said. Vortic’s site allows customers to design their own watches, with custom hardware, bands, and movement jewels.
At a time when smartphones have replaced watches as timepieces, Wolfe said their Waltham-inspired watches are popular with young entrepreneurs and New England watch fanatics. “Old watches are cool-looking and have an interesting story,” Wolfe said. “People respond to it.”
Chris Carey, owner of Watertown Watch & Clock Co., specializes in repairing Waltham watches. He learned the craft from his grandfather, who started working at the Waltham factory at 17, dropped out of school, and stayed there most of his life.
“I have probably close to 1,000 watches,” Carey said. “I just really like them.” Carey is an active member of watchmaking groups, including the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors and the Massachusetts Watchmakers-Clockmakers Association.
Carey has read about the guys from Vortic Watches. “I think what they’re doing is great. It’s a nice way to get people interested in watches.”