Clinton: not really gone, but mostly forgotten

In the 20th Century the American watch industry provided high quality watches, movements and cases to a growing middle class that was eager to transition from pocket watches to wrist watches. Due to structural changes in the United States economy, unlike pocket watches, wrist watches did not represent the same commitment of a family’s wealth.  Some companies explored the dollar watch territory, but consumers wanted more quality.

If asked, most of us can name a few American watch brands:  Timex, Hamilton, Bulova, or Elgin.  Some of us can rattle off more.  Some companies that were very common in the post WWII market are almost completely forgotten today.  One of these is Clinton.

Clinton was founded by Hyman Wein in Chicago in 1922. Wein was born in Kiev and had been a Russian army officer. He was 34 when he immigrated. The Weins had been more closely aligned to the Whites in the Russian Revolution. (I went to college with Alexander Kerensky’s grandson, small world.) Clinton would take movements and cases and assemble completed watches.  They never manufactured their own movements.

The Wein family in an interesting one.  There were many siblings. One sister moved to Switzerland and established a company that would export Swiss movements.  One sister settled in Montreal and founded Wenger with her husband.  This is not the Swiss company Wenger.  They are unrelated.  The Canadian company manufactured the Cardinal brand.  Later, this brand was made in the U.S.S.R. If you find a vintage Cardinal watch it is likely of Soviet origin.  Lastly, the baby of the Wein family Morris, also settled in Montreal.  He founded the company that is today known as Marathon. These are all still family owned companies.

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Clinton’s heyday was probably the 1950’s. In that decade they mostly imported Swiss movements. You can find very affordable dress watches and later skin divers that were quality watches. By the 1960’s the economics of the watch industry were changing.  Hong Kong became an important source of cases. Timex was capturing the affordable segment of the market.  Large American watch companies began to fail.  In this climate Clinton adjusted.  They started assembling watches in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  United States tariff laws encouraged watch assembly in the Virgin Islands and later, even Guam.

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I think that my watch is from that era, the early 1970’s.  I say that because of the stick hands.  The 50’s and 60’s were the era of dauphine hands.  Also, it would not be out of place in a brown Oldsmobile Cutlass with a brown interior.  The word “Swiss” appears nowhere on this watch.  The movement is a Universal Time Corporation 29C. Universal Time was Seiko’s maker of bulk movements for third parties, the NH 35 of its day. Clinton always seemed to have a thing for red date wheels.

Clinton bought Benrus in 1981. They changed their name to Benrus because it was a more well known brand.  By this time their watches were primarily sold in stores such as J.C. Penney. In 1995 they sold the Benrus name to M.Z Berger who owns the names of Elgin, Waltham, and Gruen. They did not revert to the Clinton name.  Instead, they became the Hampden Watch Company. They are still around selling quartz watches like this. Hampden is the watch company that went bankrupt and started the Soviet watch industry. This isn’t the same Hampden, although for years it pretended as though it was. (Here is a great website that details the history of Hampden.  The research is all Alan Garratt’s.)

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Another fascinating history lesson. Thank you.

When I see those old watch listings, it becomes more clear what the original destinations of the parts used in NOS brands like Havaan Tuvali were, though I still wonder about who has been holding onto all those parts in the intervening years. (That’s partly because I am probably imaging manufacturing at larger scale than is actually case.) 

It’s fascinating to see the Hampden website. I wonder which retailers carry those watches, how companies like that survive, and who chooses those watches (and how) given the pricing.

Totally Cutlass. Bingo.

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Excellent lesson for sure,Thank you!! I was thinking about you when I was trying to find any information about Sorna watches, pre-quartz crisis. I saw a few on chrono24 that really interested me and wanted to do some research but other then a swiss brand that went the way of many other watch companies during the quartz drama. Was bought by some anonymous figure and that's it!! There was a Kickstarter a few years ago using the Sorna name but supposedly there's no connection. 

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Great reading, thanks!

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Beautiful watch and thank you for the  writeup. Its always a good read when you shine a spotlight on forgotten brands 

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Thanks for sharing! One of the watches I got from my grandfather was a Clinton and knew next to nothing about it. 

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Excellent write up as always, if a watch has a red tip to the second hand I'm basically sold on it. What a lovely thing.

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MinnKonaMike

Excellent lesson for sure,Thank you!! I was thinking about you when I was trying to find any information about Sorna watches, pre-quartz crisis. I saw a few on chrono24 that really interested me and wanted to do some research but other then a swiss brand that went the way of many other watch companies during the quartz drama. Was bought by some anonymous figure and that's it!! There was a Kickstarter a few years ago using the Sorna name but supposedly there's no connection. 

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Old Sorna disappeared in the mid-90's.  They were known for large unusual watches, many with pin pallet escapements.  New Sorna is being made in Germany.  I know very little about this brand.

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roberto

Another fascinating history lesson. Thank you.

When I see those old watch listings, it becomes more clear what the original destinations of the parts used in NOS brands like Havaan Tuvali were, though I still wonder about who has been holding onto all those parts in the intervening years. (That’s partly because I am probably imaging manufacturing at larger scale than is actually case.) 

It’s fascinating to see the Hampden website. I wonder which retailers carry those watches, how companies like that survive, and who chooses those watches (and how) given the pricing.

Totally Cutlass. Bingo.

I have never seen one of the new Hampdens in the wild. I can't imagine that their yearly sales can be much. I would be surprised if they employed 30 people.  An interesting part of that website is that they emphasize their "Union" watches. Imagine the wish casting that goes into that sales pitch:  "We keep our labor costs unusually high to bring you less value."

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Great write up, but damn it man, you have to stop. Every time you do one of these, I run off to eBay to look at watches from a company I hadn’t heard of 30 minutes Earlier but I now can’t live without.  Both my phone and laptop are struggling with the number of open eBay windows I’ve got going. 

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Fantastic morning read and history lesson. 

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thekris

Great write up, but damn it man, you have to stop. Every time you do one of these, I run off to eBay to look at watches from a company I hadn’t heard of 30 minutes Earlier but I now can’t live without.  Both my phone and laptop are struggling with the number of open eBay windows I’ve got going. 

Which sort of explains how I found this…

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Always makes my day a little brighter when I see a new history lesson from you... Fascinating read!

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My favourite posts to read! Thank you.