The Intriguing Tale Of Hollywood’s Iconic Sign, Hugh Hefner, eBay, And RGM
The United States of America has always been a melting pot of cultures, ideas, and dreams.
And even though many things we experience around the country might have originated from other cultures, there are some things that are truly American: baseball, apple pie, Spam (the junk mail and the canned meat), mega churches, and nonsensical systems of measurement . . . there is something for everyone.
One distinctly American thing that is famous all over the world is Hollywood: a manifestation of American dreams in every shape and form for over a century.
Here follows a story of neglect, replacement, and resurrection in Hollywood that spans nearly a century and involves Hugh Hefner, eBay, and the last American watch manufacture, RGM. It’s an fascinating journey leading to where we are now, and it is chock full of truly American entities.
Hollywood 1923 watch by RGM
Hollywood’s cultural beginnings
Despite Hollywood’s modest beginning as an unincorporated town west of Los Angeles, it has uniquely shaped an American cultural obsession with fame, glamour, and imagination that has spread throughout the world and inspired millions of people in countless ways.
Officially founded in 1887, Hollywood merged with Los Angeles in 1910 to become a neighborhood of the growing city. That same year the first movie shot in Hollywood was made, and the film industry quickly grew. Over the next decade numerous film studios arose, leading to competition and then mergers to create larger studios, turning Hollywood film into America’s fifth largest industry by the 1920s.
Hollywood grew fast, spurred on by real estate and film production, becoming known as Tinseltown across the nation. But Hollywood wasn’t yet the Hollywood that you and I know, an icon that would be permanently cemented thanks to the Hollywood sign, a monstrous 12o-meter-long sign stretching across Mount Lee in the Hollywood Hills.
The modern Hollywood sign (photo courtesy Wikimedia)
Originally built in 1923 as advertising for a new real estate community the sign read “Hollywoodland,” and each letter was surrounded by more than 300 light bulbs for a total of 4,000 lights illuminating the giant 17-meter-tall sign. It was only intended to stand for about a year and a half, but due to Hollywood’s increasing popularity and the growing fame of the magnificent sign (this was pre-Las Vegas, so a giant illuminated sign was an extremely rare sight), the land developers left the sign.
It remained standing for more than 50 years.
Thanks to the years past its intended use, the sign began to disintegrate. It was repaired in 1949 when the letter H, which had been destroyed by a car crash, was replaced. At that time the “LAND” portion was also removed so it matched the region’s actual name.
This was also when it finally lost the lights to become the Hollywood sign we now know and love.
By 1978, the sign was in such disrepair and covered in graffiti that a movement to replace it was taken up by none other than the uniquely American founder of Playboy, Hugh Hefner. Gaining support from other celebrities and public figures, enough money was raised to take down the old sign and replace it with a brand-new one designed to stand the test of time.
Now the sign standing 14 meters tall and 107 meters long is protected and professionally managed to preserve a landmark known the world over.
After nearly losing the Hollywood sign to vandalism, decay, and nature’s attempts to retake the hillside, the sign has still stood for 94 years in one form or another and has become so iconic that it is one of the top landmarks of the United States of America.
Hollywood sign (photo courtesy Pimlico27/Wikipedia)
30 years later: nearly missing history
Jump forward 30 years: the original sign was thought to be gone forever; why would anyone keep pieces of a nearly destroyed sign covered in graffiti?
Then in 2005 the original sign reappeared – where else but on eBay? I guess you really can find anything there.
The sign was sold first to artist Bill Mack, who used it for various projects over the next decade, including a single recreation of the original letter H. In 2017 a group of enthusiasts acquired all the remaining metal from the sign with the desire to return it to where it belongs: with “the people.”
These passionate people founded Hollywood 1923, a company whose goal is to preserve the history of the sign and allow Hollywood aficionados the chance to own a piece of it.
And one of the first orders of business was to make a splash by offering something unique to serious collectors and, as you may have guessed, it took the form of a limited edition timepiece. Not being watchmakers or even connected to the industry in any way, the company sought out the best choice for this type of project: the only American watch manufacture, RGM Watch Co.
The idea was to incorporate the metal from the sign by turning it into a dial for a limited run of watches. Once representatives from Hollywood 1923 met with RGM’s Roland Murphy, it became clear that the metal from the old sign was in pretty rough shape, meaning that a full dial wasn’t going to be possible. Not to the standards of RGM, anyway.
Metal from the old Hollywood sign at the RGM factory
Ideas were tossed around, and the winning concept called for the metal to be used to make custom plaques affixed to the dial.
The watch by Hollywood 1923 and RGM
The plaque design mirrors the look of the sign on Mount Lee, which, due to inconsistencies in the terrain, makes the sign look like it is rolling over bulges in the hill.
Hollywood 1923 watch by RGM: the ‘Hollywood’ plaque is made from metal from the original Hollywood sign
When viewed straight on, the sign is nearly perfectly level and spaced pretty evenly. But only a helicopter will ever see it from that view, so what we are all familiar with is the charmingly uneven layout of the letters. The shape of the plaque follows that wave, the letters placed as if the sign was viewed from a bit below and to the right. That is the most familiar general view from photos.
Once the direction for the plaque was decided, the watch still needed an overall design direction. Keeping with the Hollywood theme, the dial was given the look of a film reel with a railroad chapter ring around the perimeter and Super-LumiNova dots at the hours.
The dial has a sunburst brush finish, while the film reel is pad printed over it in a tone-on-tone grey. The Hollywood plaque was also pad printed, but in-house at RGM. The pad-printed numerals are Art Deco inspired, harking back to the 1920s when the sign was first erected.
Hollywood 1923 watch by RGM resting on metal from the original Hollywood sign
Underneath the Hollywood plaque the year 1923 is printed on the dial, completing the name by referencing the year the sign was first built. On the top of the dial we find the RGM Watch Co. type logo, very small, as is the style with RGM. It doesn’t overwhelm, preferring to let the Hollywood sign take the spotlight.
The RGM Model 25 case is made from 316L stainless steel right here in the good ole U.S.of A. Inside ticks the reliable ETA 2892-A2 caliber, which is embellished with the RGM logo on the rotor. The choice to use this movement rather than an in-house RGM caliber is most definitely to keep the price from skyrocketing, since the limited edition watch is already pricey on its own.
The watch is sold exclusively by Hollywood 1923, and as it is a limited edition of 12 only a few are left. For any fan of Hollywood history, this is a rather unique ̶ and definitely American ̶ piece of history. The story of the sign and the rise of Hollywood are praiseworthy added-value elements to the piece.
Of course you get a solid watch from RGM, but having that bit of iconic metal incorporated is something else entirely: including a piece of history is pretty cool.
But unlike most of Romain Jerome’s historically inclined pieces, this is uniquely American. And in the modern world of watches, that is something hard to find.
Reliable ETA movement visible through the display back of the Hollywood 1923 watch
If it had a fully in-house RGM movement, then it would be as American as possible. But keeping the price reasonable is always a good idea for a unique project such as this.
It also is a much more wearable piece than many special editions you see these days; it can easily be an everyday watch, especially for someone with a touch of Hollywood fever.
Hollywood 1923 watch by RGM
With my own interest in film and movie props and such, I can see the appeal. And according to Hollywood 1923, this is the first step toward creating an affordable and accessible watch that will come later, also incorporating some piece of the sign. It remains to be seen what that will be, but if the partnership with RGM continues I believe that it will help keep American watchmaking alive and celebrate a truly American contribution to worldwide culture. If you are a cinephile or a Hollywood aficionado, this might be for you.
For more information, please visit www.hollywood1923.com/pages/the-hollywood-watch.
Quick Facts Hollywood 1923 watch by RGM
Case: 40 x 10.4 mm, 316L stainless steel
Movement: automatic Caliber ETA 2892-A2
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds
Limitation: 12 pieces (3, 4, 5, 10, 11 remain as of this writing)