Visiting Hamilton’s First North American Boutique

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Last month I was able to spend a few days in Lancaster Pennsylvania exploring the region’s rich horological history.  In a previous post I talked about my experience with the RGM Watch Co., America’s foremost producer of in-house high horology pieces. Nevertheless, what drew me to the area was the “soft opening” of a Hamilton boutique in downtown Lancaster. This occurred sometime in July, and the location is still waiting to have their official “grand opening,” which, I am promised, will be an epic party.  In this post I would like to talk about the location that they selected for this new retail space, its social significance to the surrounding community and the future of this project.  I will also dive into the watches themselves and some of the things that I learned about Hamilton’s current struggles. 

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Origins and Location

Historic downtown Lancaster is composed of block after block of picturesque, exquisitely preserved, brick townhomes.  Within these streets visitors will find the location of the former Bowman Technical School.  Established in 1877 and relocated from Philadelphia, this school had been a fixture of local life for generations.  It taught clock and watch making in town where Hamilton was a major employer.  A surprising number of individuals in the watch industry today, including may leading the charge to preserve or revitalize American watchmaking, graduated from this school. The building itself is three stories and has an actual astronomical observatory on the roof that was used for making horological observations. 

Only the lower floor of the building is currently open to the public.  When entering you will find a stylized modern seating area of the sort that is now seen in all fashionable watch boutiques behind you. It sits incongruously next to the original 19th century oak display cases that line both the right and left hand sides of the store. Those on the left are filled with pieces from the Hamilton museum and various bits of historical information.

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The cases on the right feature an extensive collection of Hamilton’s modern offerings.  While it does not stock the entire catalog, it was more Hamiltons than I had ever seen in a single place before. The sales staff is more than happy to assist you on either side of the store, whether you are there for historical exploration or if you are looking for something more modern. This combinations makes for a uniquely relaxed and informative experience that was more like a high-end boutique than I had expected. I think it is remarkable that they have been able to replicate this type of feeling for a brand located at the “entry level” price point for Swiss luxury watches. 

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It is also interesting to note that this location is not actually advertised as a “boutique.”  Rather it is the “Hamilton Heritage Center.”  Samantha Denbow was the sales representative that I worked with over a couple of different visits.  She is amazing and I highly recommend her.  As she noted, Hamilton still has an outsized presence in the local area. For instance, they make substantial donations to the watch and clock museum in Columbus PA, right down the road, where there is a large exhibit focusing on their history in the region and contributions to watchmaking.  While I was visiting the store I saw several individuals just wander in off the street and announce that they had been educated here and previously worked at Hamilton.  Sam matter-of-factly observed that this was what you would expect see on any random Tuesday or Wednesday morning.  I think it would be an understatement to say that the locals community is emotionally invested in this launch. For many of them it is no small thing to see Hamilton back in town and the Bowman School open to the public again.

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I had assumed that this highly symbolic move back into Lancaster was part of a sophisticated corporate marketing strategy to reinforce the brand’s American roots (something that is a big part of Hamilton’s current advertising) or maybe laying the groundwork for other sorts of the projects in the future.  Sam disabused me of these notions.  Rather, the family that owns the local multi-brand AD that sells Hamilton watches, Brent Miller Jewelers, purchased the building on their own and formulated the project entirely as a local initiative and with the local community in mind. Hamilton’s corporate expectations for the project had been pretty modest, and so far results are exceeding their hopes.   

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Since it is primarily a local restoration project a certain amount of pride seems to be invested in getting the details “just right.”  For instance, the observatory on the top of the structure is being restored and attempts are under way to locate the original telescope that lived there. None of that is necessary to run a boutique selling mass produced modern Swiss watches to the summer tourist crowds. Further, the second floor of the building is currently under renovation (I could hear construction while I was there). While they have not yet announced what is going in, I was told that it would likely be a space for separate projects related to the region’s horological heritage. Rather than the expected exercise in corporate marketing, what I found was a locally driven and financed effort to reclaim aspects of the region’s heritage. 

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Modern Hamilton

I should preface this next section by noting that I am in no way an expert on Hamilton watches.  One of my aims in spending a few days in the region was to learn more about the brand, both in terms of what it had been and what it is now. Sam was very helpful in both regards.  But she also introduced me to a regional corporate representative who happened to be in the boutique on business.

This turned out to be very interesting and she spent more than an hour chatting with me. This regional officer wanted to have a candid conversation about their current catalog, its strengths and weaknesses, and to get feedback on how collectors viewed the brand.  This even included going over specific watches that its competitors sell.  

She mentioned a few times throughout our conversations that “Hamilton is a brand that really listens to its community” and given her candor, I would tend to believe that.  My overall impression was of a company that is very much aware of what its consumers are saying, but is also feeling the constraints from being part of multi-brand corporate group.  Still, they are actively looking for creative ways to balance these two competing forces that they are not totally in control of. At the same time they are also aware of how nostalgia and “heritage” could supercharge consumer interest in the short run, but might stifle innovation and product development down the road. These sorts of conversations are exactly why I find people from the industry so interesting. Their perspective is pretty different from the average watch YouTuber.  (No shade to the YouTubers, love you guys!)

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One of the things that quickly became apparent is that she has been thinking a lot about Seiko and its recent up market moves, and not all of these thoughts were happy ones. This led to an exchange about various Seiko divers and what Hamilton could do to get people to take a look at their offerings in this area. Still, most of her interest in that brand was reserved for the Seiko Alpinist and how it had developed a cult following as the ideal field/dress watch.  

She was very upfront that not everything was going to plan with the launch of the new Hamilton Expedition. This was particularly frustrating for her as the piece included lots of features that had long been demanded by consumers including a screw-down crown, better AR coating, a cleaner dial and improved bracelet.  Despite a healthy advertising budget and lots of promotion on social media (which was interesting to hear about) sales were lack luster.  It was selling, but no better than anything else in the Khaki Field range.  I actually saw two field watches sold to other customers during my visits, and both were the previously released titanium models.  

This led to a point by point critique of the new Expedition (Is it the hands? The dial? The price? The compass bezel?) trying to get feedback about how people were reacting to it.  Clearly there are meetings happening back at HQ on the subject. I liked the watch when I tried it on. But this was also my first opportunity to do so as my local Hamilton AD never has any in stock as they refuse to order them. It seems that it will take the various layers of the watch community a while to fully warm up to the new design and, more importantly I think, its higher price point.

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Frustrations about the new release aside, we had a great time going through the rest of the collection together. I was really surprised by the Bolton. I had never been convinced in pictures, but on the wrist my doubts vanished. This is a lot of fun because it is not trying to be that restrained mid-century tank that the Hamilton name was once synonymous with. It’s a funky take on a classic dress watch design and does not try to be anything else.

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Of course the Intra-Matic chronographs were great and while my corporate interlocutor freely admitted that modern Hamilton does not do “high horology,” she selected these as the best watchmaking in their current catalog.  Still, I found myself more attracted to the Hamilton Khaki Field Aviation Chronograph. While it has the same ETA movement as the Intra-Matics, I found myself falling hard for its brushed asymmetric case. 

While on the topic of pilots watches, I would like to give a shout-out to the small seconds Pilot Pioneer, in both bronze and steel. This struck me as, in many ways, one of the most spiritually authentic watches that they offer. Powered by a manual wind pocket watch movement, and with a dial taking inspiration from an important WWII chronograph pocket watch, it reminded me of a long lost cousin to the RGM 222-RR that I had purchased the day before. Historically speaking, Hamilton did not really do oversized wrist watches during WWII. Yet if you had asked their designers for a large flieger style watch in the year 1940, I have a feeling that this is exactly what they would have given you.

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It was a pleasant surprise to turn the watch over and see the proper type of movement being used as well as one actually filling the oversized case back.  I am sure that it would have been easier to shove another flavor of the ETA Powermatic 80 in here, but they didn’t.  The end result was an affordable watch that actually felt like it had soul.

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Speaking of soul, I had no idea that I was a fan of the Ventura before visiting this boutique, but now I am.  While the movements in these watches are pretty basic, I could not help but admire the complex case shapes and their beautifully curved and vaulted sapphire crystals. It occurred to me that these watches are, historically speaking, the progenitors of the avant-garde watch making that we see today. Hamilton was experimenting with new technologies at the same time that they were fully embracing the sort of futurism that seems to be the domain of brands like Urwerk and MB&F now.  If they were ever to drop a jumping hour module on top of one of their ETA base movements, I think they would have my money.

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Wrapping Up

My time at the Hamilton Heritage Center turned out to be full of surprises.  What I had expected to be a carefully crafted corporate marketing strategy turned out to be an intensely local revitalization effort.  I spent time studying important historic pieces as well as having frank conversations about what the brand is trying to do accomplish today.  And I could totally be a Bolton guy! Then again, that green Intra-Matic was pretty cool as well….. 

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Reply
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Very well written article. Thank you for that.

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Thanks for this. Great that Swatch are honouring Hamilton's American heritage in this way.

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Thank you

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Case563

Very well written article. Thank you for that.

Thanks @Case563 , glad you enjoyed it!

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I enjoyed this more than you know. Well documented. I am currently waiting on my Hamilton Field Khaki. Great history here, no doubt about it. Thanks again. I will need to make the pilgrimage. Lol

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TimePeaceTX

I enjoyed this more than you know. Well documented. I am currently waiting on my Hamilton Field Khaki. Great history here, no doubt about it. Thanks again. I will need to make the pilgrimage. Lol

Thanks so much @TimePeaceTX. There is a lot to do in the area. I still need to write the part III to this series about my trip to the National Watch and Clock museum just down the road in Columbus. It will take more than one day to get everything in.

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Finnarm

Thanks so much @TimePeaceTX. There is a lot to do in the area. I still need to write the part III to this series about my trip to the National Watch and Clock museum just down the road in Columbus. It will take more than one day to get everything in.

Look forward to seeing it. Keep Crunching!

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Thanks. I need to go there soon.

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Tacomawv

Thanks. I need to go there soon.

Its deffinately worth the trip @Tacomawv !

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Wait wait wait. So the AMERICAN founded company that moved to Switzerland only in 1969, just FINALLY has one dedicated store in the US?