The Last Great American Watchmaker

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Photograph by Ethan Hill

Roland Murphy hovers as one of his five watchmakers finishes building a new model, closing up the stainless-steel back that houses an array of miniature wheels and levers. Murphy, the last person in America devoted to Old World watchmaking, ambles to the other side of the converted 1916 bank in Pennsylvania Amish country that houses his company, RGM, to observe another employee painstakingly etching a checkerboard pattern onto the face of a dial, square by tiny square. “If you make a mistake, you have to start all over,” Murphy says, pointing to a small stack of abandoned round dials.

Mechanical watches – the type that have to be wound daily – amount to only 10 percent of the world watch market these days (quartz and battery-operated models make up the rest). Watches with handmade movements – the intricate network of balance springs and wheels that make mechanical watches tick – are even fewer and most often originate from countries like China and Switzerland. While American companies such as Tiffany and Timex still exist, RGM is the last to make its own movements, producing about 200 to 300 handmade watches a year, which sell for anywhere from $1,850 to $100,000 (for the gold-plated Pennsylvania Tourbillon, comprising more than 200 parts, including a miniature cage that aims to counter the effects of gravity). “Men are still enthralled with the idea of having an extremely well-crafted piece of engineering on their wrist,” says Amy Dunn, editor of the ‘Horological Times,’ a watch-industry newsletter. “And Roland is the only one left in America.”

Like his ornately crafted, minimally designed watches, Murphy looks as if he belongs in another, lower-tech time. With his craggy features, white flattop, and matching white mustache, the 51-year-old father of three resembles a railroad conductor from 100 years ago. Taking a seat at one of the 1,000-pound rose-engine machines used for decorating watch faces, Murphy begins turning hand cranks and pulleys. “You have to be a crazy watch lover to understand,” says Murphy. “When you look at one of those movements, you want to keep looking at it. You see things working, and you know it’s all mechanical. It’s run by a spring. It takes on a life of its own.” He chuckles slightly. “You can’t exactly put it into words.”

Renowned for their quality and one-of-a-kind craftsmanship, RGM watches make the cover of magazines like ‘WristWatch’ and are written about approvingly in the pages of ‘Robb Report’ and the ‘Horological Times,’ which reach thousands of people willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a wristwatch. “Murphy makes classic watches, traditional in design and aesthetics,” says leading watch writer Ariel Adams. “They would impress the Swiss, and he’s saying, ‘We do it American style.'” Actor Albert Brooks, an avid collector of classic American timepieces, met Murphy at a watch show in the 1990s. “I said, ‘What do you mean, you make watches in Pennsylvania?'” Brooks recalls. “Who knew they made them here anymore?” Brooks wound up buying two RGMs, wearing one in his 1999 movie ‘The Muse’. “As the world gets more robotic, and automation takes over, here’s this little machine done with so much care.”

In high school in suburban Maryland, in the late 1970s, Murphy admits he was set apart, owing largely to his interest in carpentry and building. “I had just a couple of friends,” he recalls. “They didn’t have the same interests I did.” While working part-time at a clock company during school, helping repair grandfather-clock cabinets, he grew enchanted with the inner workings of clocks. He wound up studying watchmaking and repair in the early 1980s at schools in Pennsylvania and Switzerland, before landing a job at SMH (later renamed Swatch), where he helped construct vintage watches used in movies like ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ and ‘Everybody’s All-American.’ Murphy launched RGM 20 years ago, initially working out of a room in his house and concentrating on repairs. His first homemade watch, completed in 1992, used a movement imported from Switzerland.

It wasn’t until 2007, with the launch of the pocketwatch-inspired Caliber 801, that Murphy debuted his own movement. Even today, only 20 percent of his watches use handmade movements (the rest are imported from overseas). The reason is simple: Making watch movements is expensive and time-consuming. In the basement of his building, an automated CNC machine punches out watch faces from sheets of metal. “I see people using silicon and lasers,” he grouses of today’s flashier models. “What does that have to do with watches?”

As a result, profit margins are small – RGM is largely propped up by its watch-repair service – and Murphy admits that establishing himself in a business ruled by giants like Seiko and Rolex is challenging. When he started, he would direct customers to jewelers who sold his watches, only to learn that salespeople were steering those potential buyers to other, bigger brands. “I contacted the stores, and they said, ‘Oh, we don’t do that. You must be mistaken,'” he says. He now sells most of his watches through his website or by relying on word of mouth – “poor man’s marketing,” he says, laughing.

Murphy, who says he doesn’t have any long-term strategic plan and doesn’t want to make more than a few hundred watches a year, doesn’t know what the future holds for handmade timepieces. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, sales were down in 2010 but up again last year. All Murphy can do is hope that a small, avid percentage of the population wants to own something sturdy, homemade, and American. “Foreign companies were allowed to bring things in cheaply, and the consumer chose cheap,” he says. “But my feeling is, if you do things well, eventually people will find you.”

RGM’s Classics

Caliber 801
Aircraft Inspired by cockpit clocks from World War II B17s and B29s, the 801 sports luminous hands and a strap of distressed leather. This was the first RGM series with an American-made movement and is still one of the company’s most popular. ($6,400)

Pilot Professional 151
One of RGM’s least pricey and bestselling models, the 151 has cool touches, like an alligator or ostrich strap, minute and hour hands shaped like baseball bats, and 24-hour numbers that line the outer rim of the face. RGM for beginners. ($2,450)

Professional Diver 300
With its 5mm-thick sapphire-crystal case, the Diver 300 is set to function up to 2,500 feet below the waves. The hand-etched design on the back alone – a dragon encircling an ancient mariner ship – will make you want to take the plunge. ($3,500)

Signature Series 222
An elegant face with no numerals and a small second-hand clock tucked away on the left side make this the perfect stylish-but-understated watch for the office. It communicates professionalism and command without boasting about them. ($4,500)

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