Philadelphia's Time-keeping Tradition
by roberta naas
Long before military men would revolutionize the history of timepieces by sporting the first wristwatches, there was the pocket watch. And America’s first soldier, George Washington, proudly carried one.
“It’s a standard Swiss pocket watch. There’s nothing special about it,” says Noel Poirier, director of the National Watch & Clock Museum, where the watch is on display as part of a special exhibition, “Existing Time,” running through August (514 Poplar St., Columbia, 717-684-8261). Located in Columbia, Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County, the public museum is recognized as one of the most comprehensive watchmaking institutions in the country. “But what makes the watch so interesting is that we know the story behind it: He owned the watch from 1775 to 1777 before giving it to another officer. Washington likely carried this at the Battle of Trenton during the American Revolutionary War.”
The Philadelphia region has a rich history of horology. Rolex, Hamilton, and a bantam watch brand known as RGM all have enjoyed prominence in Eastern Pennsylvania. The Hamilton Watch Company was founded in 1892 in Lancaster, where it continued to build watches for the American armed forces and the public at large until 1969 (when it was relocated to Switzerland). Rolex moved in to the Lititz area with the opening of its state-of-the-art repair center in 2001, and started up the Rolex-supported Lititz Watch Technicum—one of the top watchmaking schools in the United States today. And in an era when American watchmaking has almost completely ceased to exist—with watchmakers in short supply and a high demand—watchmaker Roland Murphy set up shop in Mt. Joy, where he builds and produces his RGM brand top-quality timepieces.
One of the key contributing factors to the remarkable presence of watch-related companies in the area is Philadelphia’s ripe history. According to Poirier, “The history goes back to the original colony-settlement period. Many top clock makers in the 18th century, as they migrated to the Shenandoah Valley, stopped here, and it became a real hub for clock making, with many different influences in materials and styles.”
In fact, one of the most famous astronomers, inventors, and clock makers, David Rittenhouse, was born near Germantown, in 1732, and built some of the most sought-after astronomical clocks in the world. Though the National Watch and Clock Museum is not lucky enough to own a Rittenhouse clock, both of his orreries (a mechanical device used to chart the movements of the solar system) are still in use and on display at the University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton University.
Run under the auspices of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC), the museum was opened to the public in 1977—with fewer than 1,000 pieces on display. Since then, it has undergone a major expansion and is recognized as having the most comprehensive international horological collection in North America. The museum’s 18,000 square feet of various galleries houses over 12,000 clocks and watches that run the gamut from ancient sundials and water clocks to monumental clocks, tower clocks, car clocks, and electric clocks. They also offer specialty watch exhibits that range from marine chronometers to pocket watches and a century of wristwatches. “People fundamentally have a fascination with time,” says Poirier. “It stems from the concept that time is something we have no control over, so we constantly try to control it or track it with our watches.”
Additionally, NAWCC offers clock-making courses and runs watch education seminars at the museum, which also boasts a complete horological library for children and adults, and hosts special events and exhibitions. The current exhibition—featuring Washington’s storied pocket watch—traces timepieces worn by service personnel up to the present. “For this exhibit we wanted to look at the development of how watches were worn and carried by fighting men and women,” explains Poirier, who adds that the exhibition has a watch from a soldier currently stationed in Afghanistan.
“People have an emotional attachment to time and its complex aspects,” says Poirier, noting that children are especially excited when visiting the museum. “Kids are fascinated by all of it. Clocks and watches have sound, motion, art—all things that attract them.” Appealing to youngsters is especially important here in the US, as kindling interest in horology will keep this deeply rooted yet dwindling art form vibrant in generations to come.
Watchmaker Roland Murphy, whose RGM brand is located near the museum in Mt. Joy, is a big supporter of the institution and its efforts. In fact, when he has watch collectors in to see his workshops, he occasionally coordinates a museum excursion. Visitors to Murphy’s YouTube channel will be treated to a guided tour of the museum. The American-born Murphy established his Pennsylvania-based watchmaking business 21 years ago with the notion of creating top-quality, American-made mechanical timepieces—a goal he has accomplished.
Initially, Murphy restored pocket watches and created a small number of timepieces of his own using Swiss movements. Eventually he hired the right watchmakers and assistants, and began doing more of the watchmaking process in-house. While Murphy was building his brand, he was also learning to run the newest state-of-the-art watchmaking machines. He persisted in finding a Pennsylvania-based micromanufacturing company to help him produce small numbers of bridges and plates that he needed to build his own watch movement.
Along with using the latest technology to create his timepieces, Murphy has also explored the other end of the timeline, utilizing “guilloche,” or engine turning, in his designs. In the 1980s, Murphy became intrigued with this process after reading about it in George Daniels’s book on watchmaking. A decade later, Murphy hunted down a rose engine, despite the fact that he had never used one, and began to play with it and learn how to do delicate engraving with this large, century-old machine. RGM now possesses five of them, and Murphy’s watches are known for their fine guilloche work that comes from the hand-turned rose engine—which engraves in a circular motion—and the straight line engine, which engraves up and down. This fine engine turning adorns RGM’s cases, dials, and movements.
In 2007 Murphy unveiled RGM’s first high-grade, American-made watch movement, the RGM Caliber 801 (named for the workshop’s street address). This movement was followed by another, unveiled in 2010: the RGM Caliber MM2 (manufacture movement 2), also known as the Pennsylvania Tourbillon, a superb tourbillon mechanism that is the first of its kind to be fully American-made. This past year, he unveiled yet another native caliber.
Today, in his refitted bank building in Mt. Joy, he builds about 300 watches per year, some still with Swiss movements, but approximately 50 to 60 pieces annually are entirely American-made, with movements created right here in Pennsylvania. Murphy’s eye for detail and his investment in the craft also allow him to repair unique timepieces and, in some instances, manufacture parts that are no longer available. “I like being small, doing what we like to do,” says Murphy. “In fact, I find I have to restrain myself and pace myself. I have a lot of great ideas, but I have to shelve them due to time constraints; we just can’t implement all the ideas we have.”
photography by jeff gale; styling by terry lewis