Year Established: 1892
Headquarters: Biel, Switzerland
Watch Category: Mid-range
Brand Accomplishments: The Ventura model was the world’s first electric watch.
Hamilton is a storied Swiss brand with deep American roots. Hence, the companies tagline American Spirit – Swiss Precision. The company began in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1892. The original building where the company began was the home to a few other failed watch companies. The Keystone Standard Watch Company purchased the Lancaster Watch Company factory in 1886. Hamilton Watch Company purchased Keystone Standard Watch Company in the late 1800s.
Hamilton was not the name intended for the business. In 1892, the Aurora Watch Company of Illinois merged into Keystone. This merger created what would become Hamilton. A group of businessmen purchased Keystone at a Sheriff’s sale intending to name the new company Columbian. Waterbury Watch Company held a trademark on Columbian. The company chose Hamilton in honor of Andrew Hamilton who was the original owner of the factory land. In fact, Hamilton’s family obtained the land by grant from William Penn’s heirs. He is regarded as the founder of the city of Lancaster.
Hamilton went into business intending to produce high-quality watches. They determined that they could not compete on the low end of watchmaking. So, they sought to be the timekeeper for the American railroads. In 1893, Hamilton produced its first watch. The Broadway was a 17 jewel pocket watch that became known as “The watch of the railway.” Hamilton held a 56% market share in railroad timepieces as the rail system developed. In fact, the railroads purchased Hamilton’s total production for many years.
Like other watch companies of the time, WWI created a need for a different type of watch – the wristwatch. Hamilton, a provider to the US military, used the ladies watch 983 movement for the men’s watches. By 1919 Hamilton made the 981 or 985 caliber movement for the trench watches. With its focus on quality, Hamilton struggled to keep up with demand for the wrist watches. After the war, Hamilton acquired the Illinois Watch Company and expanded its offerings.
Hamilton continued to innovate and created its first watch with a central second hand and hack movement. Little did the company know that such technology would be useful in the war that the nation was about to enter. In 1942, Hamilton ceased production of civilian watches. Instead, they made over 1 million watches for America’s troops. After the war, many military watch attributes transferred to the civilian market.
Post-war, many watch companies looked for ways to create an electric watch. Hamilton started Project X in this effort. In 1957, Hamilton introduced the world’s first electric watch – the 14k solid gold Ventura. Even Elvis sported a Ventura. Hamilton’s electric movement was not exactly reliable. As a result, many watchmakers would not service the watches.
Hamilton changed its logo to a stylish letter “H” during the electric watch phase. Even though Hamilton was the first to make an electric watch, their prowess faded fast.
In 1966, Hamilton bought the Swiss watchmaker Buren. With the acquisition, Hamilton got micro-rotor technology for automatic watches. By 1969 Hamilton moved all watchmaking to the Buren factory in Switzerland. The partnership between the brands did not survive. In 1972 SSIH (Omega – Tissot and company) bought the Hamilton brand. In the next decade, the Swatch Group arrived with the merger of SSIH and ASUAG.
Today, Hamilton calls Biel, Switzerland home and continues their tradition of fine timepieces.