Waltham, Massachusetts, is known by many historians as the home of the American Industrial revolution and, with it, our modern way of life.
It was during this period when the demand for quality pocket watches increased due to the low-quality of European watches being imported into the country.
Waltham would also be the birthplace of America’s first 100% locally-made watches: The Waltham Watch Company.
While the US brand is currently defunct, its history spanned the greatest years of the American industrial economy. Waltham vintage watches have a story to tell!
The History of Waltham: More than 150 Years of Tradition
The Industrial and Watchmaking Revolutions
The company was founded by Aaron Dennison, a watchmaker born in Freeport who had been in the watchmaking business since his 18th birthday.
Dennison would become the father of American mass-production watchmaking when he founded the American Watch Company in 1850, just nine years before it was renamed as the Waltham Watch Company, which is the name that most remember the company as.
The company quickly became the world’s leading producer of clocks and watches, employing over 3,000 people and producing more than 40 million timepieces. A high level of production was possible due to Dennison’s innovative use of the assembly line manufacturing process. Apparently, Henry Ford himself visited Waltham for inspiration.
By 1954, more than a century after its birth on American soil, the company expanded by establishing Waltham SA in Switzerland.
In 1981, the Waltham Watch Company would be purchased by Japanese giant Heiwado & co., and become the most popular watch brand in Japan.
Most Iconic Waltham Vintage Watches
Waltham Pocket Watches
Waltham Model 1857
This pocket watch is the most iconic of all watches ever produced by the Waltham Watch Company in its earliest years. As its name indicates, it was first made in 1857 and it would be the first industrialized watch in the market.
One of these watches with serial number 67613 was given to American President Abraham Lincoln as a tribute at the time of the Gettysburg Address, which was a defining moment in US history.
Waltham Vanguard Railroad
The production of this model started in 1870 and would become the most popular railroad watch by being used by companies in 52 countries across 5 continents by 1907.
This model introduced the patented “up and down” power reserve indicator that would become a staple in later years.
Waltham Wrist Watches
While pocket watches, car and airplane watches, speedometers, and other precision equipment were produced by Waltham and became closely linked to the company during its early years, the company also produced a multitude of wristwatches in its golden age.
The first wristwatches produced by the company came in 1915 for the American Armed Forces.
These new models offered more convenience and durability amid the chaos of war. In fact, Waltham’s work with the US government was a big part of its survival, and came to define the company in its later years.
Waltham Depollier Khaki
The production of this model started in 1916 for military uses in collaboration with “Jacques Depollier & Son”, another local company that produced high-class cases for Waltham.
The watch had a distinct military appearance and offered soldiers the option to engrave their personal information in a large clasp located in the 3/4 inch strap. The watch came with a waterproof and dustproof oxidized case which in conjunction with a heat-insulated disk provided protection to the movement.
This model was popular with field and marine troops at the time, and even with officers who would have the strap changed. The model quickly became one of the finest watches that US troops could be seen wearing at the time, being advertised as “the watch in the trenches.”
Waltham A11 Navigational Watch
This model was the first standard military issue for all American armed forces upon its introduction in 1947. Two versions of this model existed: A waterproof version for the American Navy and a dustproof version for other services.
The model’s black dial with contrasting white indices, silver case, and one-piece strap became one of the most distinctive parts of the American uniform.
The specifications of this model required it to be hand-wound, with a hacking movement that featured center seconds, an outer minute track with 10-minute demarcations, minute and hour hands, as well as a minimum of 15-jewels in the movement.
The specifications for all of these models were marked on the stainless steel case backs including the service they were intended to be used by.
Despite the specifications, there was leniency when it came to other production standards, which allows for different versions of this model to be found in the market.
Waltham A17 Pilot Watch
In 1950, Waltham continued to support the United State military in its efforts to improve equipment. In that year, the company would launch a new model specifically designed for the US Air Force and Navy.
This model was an improved version of the A11 and sported radium lumed black hands, 5-minute indices, hour and minute hands, and an auxiliary 24-hour track that facilitated reading military time.
The A17 was produced in three production cycles, beginning in 1950. Another run was undertaken in 1952, and the final happened in 1956. Powered by the US-made Waltham 17 jewel 6/0 D manual wind movement, this model was closely associated with American efforts in the Korean war.
While the model that was made for the US Navy featured waterproofing, like any vintage watch, it is necessary to service these components to ensure that they continue to function. The watch was purpose-built for navigation, and remained a popular piece with soldiers who used them.
Other Civilian Models
Waltham produced civilian wrist watches from around the time it began making wrist watches for the US military. Many of these Waltham wrist watches (including those made in Switzerland) were aimed at the dress watch market, and can be found at good prices on the second-hand watch market. There were also chonorgraphs with interesting designs, including that Waltham Surfboard featured in our article about the best chronographs from unknown brands.
Early Waltham wrist watches featured art deco inspired designs, which still look good today. The various models that Waltham produced over the years are too numerous to list, but a look through a popular auction site like eBay will demonstrate the range and depth of Waltham’s civilian wrist watches.
One of the most notable Waltham wrist watches was the Vacuum series, which were marketed extensively in the Asian market during the late 1970s. These new Waltham wrist watches featured unique abilities and materials, like corundum cases, and the ability to operate in a vacuum.
The Vacuum series was especially popular in Japan, and this lead a Japanese investment group, Heiwado & Co., to buy Waltham International SA, and move most of the manufacturing for the watches controlled by that brand to Japan.
While the first watches produced in Japan were of good quality – this wouldn’t last.
The watches produced by Waltham International SA were extremely popular in Japan, however, over time the quality of the watches fell, and eventually the brand was essentially defunct. Before falling into disuse, the Japanese iteration of the Waltham brand did produce the Radiant 2000, in the year 2000, which was covered in 150 carats of diamonds.
The original Waltham company that still operated in the US market became a shell of its former self, and was used to market cheap watches at popular retail stores during this same time period.
The Waltham Watch Company went through several name changes over the years, even during its most successful period, but always kept the “Waltham” name. The Swiss offshoot of the company now seems to be part of WatchAngels watch manufacturer.
American entrepreneur Antonio DiBenedetto acquired the majority of the shares in the international division of Waltham back in 2011 (now an independent company) and became the CEO of the company.
Fans of vintage watches are able to learn about the history of the company and the manufacturing process by visiting the Waltham Museum located in the building where the watch factory used to be located. That building now houses various businesses and apartments.
Despite all the difficulties the brand faced during its more than a century of history, it accompanied the United States and the world through some of its biggest events of the 19th and 20th centuries. Most of Waltham vintage watches have a history included with them, be it of war, the industrial age, or other historic events.