The Popular Mechanics Guide to Watches

The Popular Mechanics Guide to Watches

Watches are extraordinary things. Feats of engineering you can strap to your wrist. Whether you choose mechanical or quartz, traditional or smart, your watch has an important role: It lets people know who you are. Even if that’s just a guy who wants to know the time without reaching into his pocket.

The Last American Watchmaker The greatest timepieces in the world come from Switzerland. And Amish Country. By Josh Ozersky

On the corner of a nondescript block in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is a bank, or what used to be a bank. Now it is the home of Roland G. Murphy Watch Company, the country’s only true independent elite watchmaker. Inside, Murphy’s son-in-law, Adam Robertson, is bent over an old watchmaker’s drill press that looks like it was made during the Korean War. He uses an abrasive bit to create burnished, circular perlage on the underside of the main plate of the watch movement. He is focused and unmoving, his attention riveted to the plate, whose decoration no one will ever see. Later he’ll hand-polish the bevels of the screw holes on the tiny bridge that holds the wheel-train gears in place.


High-end watchmaking has not, for the most part, always been something you find in Amish country. Or, for that matter, in the United States. Typically, if you go looking for horological greatness, the kind of virtuosic craftsmanship associated with the greatest watchmakers, you go to Switzerland. If you are looking for scrapple, you go to Pennsylvania. But Murphy, the 53-year old owner and sole proprietor of the watchmaking company that bears his name, is the exception. Like some of the small European companies directed by a single watchmaker, RGM makes fewer than 300 watches a year. In contrast, the brands worshipped by most enthusiasts – Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin – produce tens of thousands a year. Rolex produces 2,000 a Of course, Rolex doesn’t operate in a space that looks more like an Elks Lodge than a watch manufacturer, with a collection of vintage cameras filling shelf after shelf, along with various other mementos. But then Murphy himself doesn’t fit the bill of a classic watchmaker. Burly, and with a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair and a bushy moustache to match, he looks more like a Pop Warner football coach. Like most watchmakers, he started out doing repairs, and found himself drawn to the silent, obsessive work of creating tiny universes of absolute order. After a few years of working on clocks, he found his way to Switzerland, where he made the horological equivalent of the big leagues: training at the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Program, the Swiss watch industry’s official certification program in Neuchâtel. Not long afterward Murphy landed at Hamilton Watch Company, where he eventually rose to an executive development position.


Hamilton, it ought to be noted, is a famous American watch brand. But the dirty secret of nearly all American watch brands, Murphy’s excepted, is that they are either owned by the Swatch Group outright or utilize movements built and exported by one of its subsidiaries. Most of the American watch companies you’ve heard about are using Swiss movements and Chinese casings. And none even tries to produce the kind of arcane complications – a whirling tourbillon that compensates for gravity, say, or a precision moon-phase subdial – associated with the Patek Philippes and Jaeger-LeCoultres of the world. RGM makes what are by far the most intricate and ambitious timepieces produced in the United States. But they aren’t just clones of Swiss watches either. They’re inspired by the tough, durable railroad watches of industrial America. The paradox, of course, is that this rugged practicality is actually pure poetry. A $40 Casio G-Shock keeps more accurate time than a Breguet; a hot-pink Swatch a fourth-grader wears in the pool is more reliable than a watch that costs more than her home. When you think about it, there’s no reason for anyone to create in-house movements for an American watch. Murphy’s quixotic commitment to craftsmanship has no value to anyone but an equally idealistic buyer. Nowhere is this clearer than in Murphy’s masterpiece, the Pennsylvania Tourbillon. A mechanical watch, no matter how perfectly made, is affected slightly by gravity. The rhythm of its escapement, the part of the movement that regulates timekeeping, varies slightly based on how the watch is positioned. Not that anybody other than watchmakers would care or even notice. But the gravity problem stymied them, and so in 1801, Abraham-Louis Breguet patented a rotating cage to suspend the escapement, freeing it from the effects of gravity. Manufacturing a tourbillon is incredibly hard, which is why almost nobody does it. It’s also why two or three guys doing it in a Pennsylvania bank building borders on the fantastic.


Two bridges hold the tourbillon cage in place. Murphy and his master watchmaker, Benoît Barbé, bore tiny holes in the bridges to mount the escape wheel, pallet, and balance. They friction-fit a gold ring inside each hole and a jewel inside each ring. The 90-degree angle of the drilling, the depth of the holes, and the ring-and-jewel fittings must be precise to ensure the perfect relative positioning of the parts. The slightest variation would ruin the mechanism.The completed tourbillon turns 360 degrees once per minute, driven by a tiny spring coiled around the central axis. All of this work, by the way, can only be done by hand. A few of the parts can be machined, but even those parts are usually made by equipment the two men created themselves.

Murphy doesn’t build watches for himself or his buyer. He builds for an ideal: that things should always be better than what’s necessary. “We don’t design on the limit,” Murphy says. “Think about the Brooklyn Bridge. How much weight do you think it had to bear when they built it? Some horse carriages? Some pedestrians? Today there are giant semi trucks going over it all day, and it supports that weight because it wasn’t designed to the limit. That’s something we take pride in.” And it’s something you won’t find anywhere else in America.

RGM Celebrates the American Pastime

RGM Celebrates the American Pastime and Creates an American Masterpieceby Adam R. Harris, National Watch & Clock Museum Gallet Guest Wristwatch Curator

I had the great privilege of being invited to tour the factory of one of the last true watchmakers who designs and manufactures wristwatches in the United States—RGM Watch Co. The day culminated with the unveiling of his latest wristwatch—Baseball in Enamel—at the NAWCC headquarters.

The Tour

Founder Roland G. Murphy met us outside RGM’s design and manufacturing workshop at 801 West Main Street, Mount Joy, PA, not far from the NAWCC headquarters in Columbia. RGM employs only 12 staff; of course, most of them are watchmakers, who were on hand to demonstrate the stages of making a wristwatch. Because of size constraints, RGM had to limit its second open house on the premises to about 60 people. We were split into groups of about 10 each for the tour. The ground floor is spacious and bright—a large room with high ceilings and excellent light—carefully laid out with benches, test equipment, and Roland’s famous Rose Engine machines, used for fine movement and dial guilloché.

Our first stop was the timing machines and optical comparator. To most watch enthusiasts the accuracy of a watch is as important as its aesthetics—maybe even more so. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the accuracy of the timepiece is understood by all. Watch enthusiasts look for accuracy of plus or minus two to three seconds a day, even with a mechanical piece—not an easy task considering differing temperatures, humidity, and the array of positions a watch on the wrist goes through in a day. That means RGM must not only test for six positions but also push for amplitude results greater than demanded by most manufacturers in the industry. The amplitude is the maximum angle in degrees through which the balance wheel swings right and left from its position of rest. RGM wants no amplitude position below 240 degrees.

We watched in awe because the movement being worked on had more than 120 pieces. Some movements with multiple complications have over 200 parts, and many of the parts are so small that picking them up even with tweezers is nearly impossible. This job requires much skill and immense patience. A piece may have to be adjusted many times until it runs within the testing requirements RGM demands. Sample screws are used during the process, and the final highly polished blued steel screws are used only when the technician is 100 percent satisfied the movement is running over time to a perfect specification.

Our watchmaker during this part of the tour—Helen Powell—explained that although she’s worked at RGM for more than 10 years, she’s been assembling 801’s for just over a year. One movement can sometimes take three weeks to put together correctly to the high standard demanded by RGM.

Next, we watched Roland at work on a Neuwiler Rose Engine. There are only a few craftsmen with the skill of guilloché, and Roland stands among these remaining experts. Guilloché is a form of engraving that decorates objects with geometric patterns. The French engineer Guillot is reputed to have invented it. It is also referred to as an engine-turning machine. People who can operate the machine are as rare as the machines themselves. Seeing Roland’s son (also named Roland) work on a second Rose machine as he painstakingly learns the trade was another highlight of the day to me.

Engine turning is time consuming and unforgiving. The speed of rotation and amount of pressure are manually controlled. An absolutely steady hand and total concentration are essential to ensure regularity of the pattern and correct consistent depth of the engraving. One lapse of concentration may produce visible flaws, causing the piece to be scrapped. Later in the day I saw the younger Roland’s result. Somewhere he made a miscalculation and the curves have not all lined up. In financial terms a whole day’s work was wasted. In true terms it’s just part of a long learning curve.

The next part of the tour was in the basement where RGM has its CNC milling machines and where it performs plate and bridge finishing. The CNC machine and the various finishing posts are in the basement because milling and finishing metal parts cause dust and vibration, which are detrimental to the manufacture of timepieces, especially wristwatches with their tiny subassemblies. The room and equipment were spotless, and it all looked as immaculate as the upstairs “clean” area. In any watch movement (excluding the Swatch watch), the plate is the biggest part. It is like the chassis that holds the bridges and all the other parts in a watch. The plate can vary in shape, depending on the watch, and is gold- plated, or rhodium-plated brass. The traditional material in high-end watchmaking is German silver, sometimes called nickel silver. It is just 20 percent nickel, while the rest is copper and zinc. The plate is manufactured by an elaborate process of milling, turning, drilling, and tapping—a painstaking process fraught with complications. RGM uses only German silver for all its bridges and plates.

At RGM this room accommodates not only many machines but also two young and very capable men—Ryan Hufford and Adam Robertson. Ryan clearly explained the operations and is as passionate as any watch aficionado. He explained that the CAM software creates a program for every plate, bridge, or milled part. Each contains thousands of lines of code to painstakingly mill out each part with the highest level of precision. Ryan also told us about the debugging process that takes place during the development of a new caliber or part. Ryan started the CNC machine, which was remarkably quiet—not like the old lathe days when metal and water flew everywhere. The trick, he explained, was setting the optimal speed of the CNC machine: if too fast, the expensive drill tips wear out too soon, and if too slow, the time and cost to make each watch rises dramatically.

The next stage is what I call plate decoration and finishing, correctly called “Anglage,” “Côtes de Genève,” and “Perlage.” I knew these three decorations took time and great patience but again I was amazed at the skill and time needed for the process of anglage. The sides of the bridges are simply brushed and the bevels on the top edges are polished—that is anglage in French. The patience and skill in hand polishing the beveled edges were most surprising. The German silver is soft and simple polishing removes too much metal and worse, starts a second flat edge—something RGM would never allow on a finished timepiece. It takes immense concentration and skill to look through an X4 Loupe while polishing the beveled edge to RGM specifications.

Staff also showed us demonstrations of Côtes de Genève and perlage. In horology damaskeening is a decorative pattern engraved onto watch plates and bridges. The term “damaskeening” is used in America while in Europe the terms are “Fausses Cotes,” “Côtes de Genève,” or “Geneva Stripes.” All basically refer to the similar patterns on plates and bridges. The Launch

In 2012 the National Watch & Clock Museum had the special exhibition Time Out, which highlighted the role time plays in sports. Roland and I explored the exhibit and saw specialty watch dials. I never thought more about it, but for Roland a seed was planted. He was determined to make a wristwatch like the 1892 Waltham Baseball dial pocket watch—an exact replica down to the enamel dial as a wristwatch.

Before the unveiling, Roland gave a personal tour of the National Watch & Clock Museum. It is impressive how much he knows about horology and the pieces in the Museum, and everyone appreciated his guided tour. I certainly did, and I am a guest curator here!

The creation of an enamel dial is a high-risk art. Enameling is a technique in which colored powdered glass is applied to a metal plate. The surface is then heated to a temperature high enough to cause the powdered glass to melt and form a new surface. The Grand Feu technique ups the stakes. It involves meticulously coating a watch dial with successive layers of enamel. Once a layer is ready, the dial is heated at extremely high temperatures ranging from 1,472° to 1,652°F (800° to 900°C). The repeated baking of each individual layer ensures a uniquely crisp aesthetic and permanently sets the enamel. Using high heat to create these beautiful dials also poses a risk. Each time it is refired, the danger of cracking, melting, or burning increases. The Roman numerals and baseball figures are also baked onto the surface. An enamel dial will not fade and will look the same in 100 years as it does today. With great risk comes great reward: the appearance of a real glass enamel dial is unmistakable.

The next obstacle is finding an artisan who could create a high-quality Grand Feu (French for “Great Fire”) enamel dial. There are only a handful of master enamellers worldwide. “If I couldn’t do it right, I wasn’t going to do it,” recalls Roland. The dial had to be made exactly the way the original was made. A three-year search located an enamel artist willing to take on the project.

The Man

Two quotations came to my mind during the tour and unveiling. First, John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Second, Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream.” These two quotes embody the man who runs a small but important piece of watch history in the heart of Lancaster County, PA, for several reasons.

First, it is the company. RGM was founded in 1992 by American watchmaker Roland G. Murphy, and ever since he has been making watchmaking history here in America and worldwide. Roland did not ask, “What can America do for me,” but he surely—judging by the costly and indeed risky challenge in setting up a watchmaking company in the United States—asked “What can I do for America?”

In 1969 the Hamilton Watch Co. ended American watch-manufacturing operations with the closure of its factory in Lancaster, PA, and shifted manufacturing operations to the Buren factory in Switzerland. By 1972, Hamilton, founded in Lancaster in 1892, was liquidated and basically ceased to exist as we knew it.

In 1992 Roland made the difficult decision to return high-end watchmaking to Lancaster. Born in 1961 in Baltimore, MD, Roland went to vocational school for carpentry and cabinetmaking at Harford Technical High School in Belair, MD, during his last two years of high school. He worked summers as a carpenter’s helper and spent his last year of high school in school for half the day and working at Danecker Clock Co. in Fallston, MD, the other half. He graduated in 1980 after which he made clock repairs from his parents’ home. From the summer of 1986 through December 1987 Roland attended WOSTEP (Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program). He started RGM in 1992.

At the RGM tour I could see that modern manufacturing coexists with antique, hand-operated machinery. Hand-blued screws and hand-polished components are at home among the close tolerances afforded by automated machines. RGM has five vintage machines for engine turning; three Rose Engines and two Straight Line Engines. The Plant Rose Engine gets the heaviest use.

The 12-member staff does not just manufacture and assemble all the components that make a wristwatch. The individual parts are lovingly prepared, assembled, and tested. Each part is brought into existence with the same high level of care and attention. Attention to detail is obvious in the finishing and decoration, in the shape of the German silver bridges, and in the quality of finishing on the steel parts. These watches are made to last forever. In the words of perhaps today’s greatest Swiss watchmaker, Patek Philippe, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe; you merely look after it for the next generation.” So it is with an RGM timepiece. RGM’s goal is to offer not only the finest watches made in the United States but the finest watches available. Roland and his team firmly believe that this requires equal efforts to improve current methods while preserving tradition.

In the 1880s the great age of modernized watchmaking began in America. Today, both history and watchmaking are alive and well at RGM. Roland not only makes outstanding quality timepieces but he shares his success locally. His small team is young and old and they have one thing in common—they are all local. And this extends beyond staff to materials. Whatever

Roland cannot make in-house, he attempts to procure locally. A local company makes parts for watch cases that he does not make in-house. Roland takes the same approach when it comes to launching an exciting new product. He chooses to do so at the nearby NAWCC Museum, asking all his invited visitors to make a small donation that he presented to the Museum’s preservation funds.

Finally, in terms of his dream, Roland as a watchmaker says, “Anyone who works in high-end watches, especially who is building them, wants his own movement. That’s really the heart of the watch. That is where it starts.” Where it all comes together for him is 801 West Main Street, Mount Joy, PA, inside the RGM design and manufacturing offices. In fact, 801 is the caliber (and name) of Roland’s first original movement; it relies still on some Swiss parts, including the jewels, balance, and hairspring, but the wheels, bridges, and mainplates are all manufactured here, and every timepiece is fully assembled and tested at 801 West Main Street.

In 2007 Roland turned that dream into reality with the caliber 801, a 16-ligne in-house movement that took about seven years to develop. It is so versatile that it can be used for either a wristwatch or a pocket watch. In 2010 Roland launched the first Tourbillon series ever made in the United States, the caliber MM2 Pennsylvania Tourbillon. That new caliber, in tradition with Roland’s love for Pennsylvania, is signified by the state’s symbol—a keystone—surrounding a capital T in its logo.

In 2012 RGM celebrated 20 years of watchmaking by launching its third in-house movement, the “caliber 20.”