Why are so few watches "made in USA"?

Why is it so hard to find watches that are truly "made in USA"? The main argument I've heard is that the quartz crisis of the 1970s decimated American watchmakers; and the Swiss got lucky to have someone like Nicolas Hayek come to the rescue of their industry.

Anyways. I just stumbled across this newspaper article from 1954... i.e. well before the quartz crisis. It describes an anti-trust complaint filed by the US Dept of Justice against basically every major watch manufacturer of the time. The complaint alleges that large producers ("the Swiss cartel") specifically conspired to:

  1. Refrain from establishing watch manufacturing facilities in the United States

  2. Restrict the manufacture of watches and watch parts in the United States

  3. Fix minimum prices and repair costs

Et cetera. Basically, the DOJ argument (also spelled out in this document about the 1960 judgment to the anti-trust complaint) seems to have been that major watch brands had a thriving business importing Swiss-made watches to the US and flexed their anti-competitive muscles to eliminate American rivals.

So I wonder if the answer to the question, "why are so few watches made in USA?" goes something like this: When mass manufacturing of watches took off in the 1940s and 1950s, Swiss companies tried to corner the US market through import/export deals, knee-capping American manufacturing. When the quartz crisis then hit in the 1970s, the American watch industry was already weak and underdeveloped and couldn't weather the storm.

I'm sure some Crunchers will know this history much better and can add/correct in the comments!

Reply

Interesting theory.

Labor in the sixties was actually cheaper in Switzerland

A lot of American watch brands died during the Quartz Crisis. The ones that survived had got gotten bought out by Switzerland, Japan or China in order to survive

WW2 was a major factor

There is a book to be written about this subject.

No, the Quartz Crisis did not kill off the American watch industry. No, the "Swiss Cartel" did not kill off the American watch industry. Structural changes in the American and world economy made it too expensive to produce watches in the United States.

Here is a list of the top American watch companies by volume in 1955: Elgin, Bulova, Benrus, Longines-Wittnauer, Hamilton, Gruen, Waltham, and Timex. Here is that list in 1970: Bulova, Longines-Wittnauer, Timex. Here is that list in 1980: Timex. That may be a tad unfair. In 1980 Bulova sold more watches than Timex, however, by that time they were owned by Citizen.

The Greatest American Watch Company, Waltham, declared bankruptcy in 1958. In the same year Gruen sold off all of its assets. Elgin, the largest American company by far, declared bankruptcy in 1968. Hamilton bought Buren and moved to Switzerland in 1969. Benrus' story is a bit murky, but by the early 1970's they had been sold. Timex struggled but captured market share. It remained afloat because it owned Polaroid. Longines-Wittnauer wasn't really a company. It was a partnership that allowed both companies to grab part of the American market as something exotic and Swiss. Bulova tried to buy their way out of trouble. They bought Univeral Geneve and Wittnauer. They tried to buy Omega. In the end Citizen gave them an offer that they couldn't refuse.

The biggest American watch brands were either bankrupt or nearly so before the quartz movement was invented or marketed. So, that wasn't it.

This comment is too long already. I wrote some about it here and further back in the WC archives. Tariff policy does come into play. Swiss industrial policy does too. The disruptions and shift in production of World War Two is more responsible. Fun fact: Elgin and Waltham spun out their fuse, gage, and industrial timer divisions that had been formed during the war. They still exist. Also a fact: Bulova, Wittnauer, and Gruen had factories in Switzerland to make movements and movement parts. Those were then shipped to the U.S. and cased here.

There is no monocausal explanation. We don't make a lot of things anymore.

UnholiestJedi

WW2 was a major factor

say more?!

Aurelian

There is a book to be written about this subject.

No, the Quartz Crisis did not kill off the American watch industry. No, the "Swiss Cartel" did not kill off the American watch industry. Structural changes in the American and world economy made it too expensive to produce watches in the United States.

Here is a list of the top American watch companies by volume in 1955: Elgin, Bulova, Benrus, Longines-Wittnauer, Hamilton, Gruen, Waltham, and Timex. Here is that list in 1970: Bulova, Longines-Wittnauer, Timex. Here is that list in 1980: Timex. That may be a tad unfair. In 1980 Bulova sold more watches than Timex, however, by that time they were owned by Citizen.

The Greatest American Watch Company, Waltham, declared bankruptcy in 1958. In the same year Gruen sold off all of its assets. Elgin, the largest American company by far, declared bankruptcy in 1968. Hamilton bought Buren and moved to Switzerland in 1969. Benrus' story is a bit murky, but by the early 1970's they had been sold. Timex struggled but captured market share. It remained afloat because it owned Polaroid. Longines-Wittnauer wasn't really a company. It was a partnership that allowed both companies to grab part of the American market as something exotic and Swiss. Bulova tried to buy their way out of trouble. They bought Univeral Geneve and Wittnauer. They tried to buy Omega. In the end Citizen gave them an offer that they couldn't refuse.

The biggest American watch brands were either bankrupt or nearly so before the quartz movement was invented or marketed. So, that wasn't it.

This comment is too long already. I wrote some about it here and further back in the WC archives. Tariff policy does come into play. Swiss industrial policy does too. The disruptions and shift in production of World War Two is more responsible. Fun fact: Elgin and Waltham spun out their fuse, gage, and industrial timer divisions that had been formed during the war. They still exist. Also a fact: Bulova, Wittnauer, and Gruen had factories in Switzerland to make movements and movement parts. Those were then shipped to the U.S. and cased here.

There is no monocausal explanation. We don't make a lot of things anymore.

fantastic comment. Thank you!

This book on the Waltham Watch company and how the Swiss reacted to their innovations also sheds some light on the downfall of American watch making,

Disrupting Time: Industrial Combat, Espionage, and the Downfall of a Great American Company by Aaron Stark.

Aurelian

There is a book to be written about this subject.

No, the Quartz Crisis did not kill off the American watch industry. No, the "Swiss Cartel" did not kill off the American watch industry. Structural changes in the American and world economy made it too expensive to produce watches in the United States.

Here is a list of the top American watch companies by volume in 1955: Elgin, Bulova, Benrus, Longines-Wittnauer, Hamilton, Gruen, Waltham, and Timex. Here is that list in 1970: Bulova, Longines-Wittnauer, Timex. Here is that list in 1980: Timex. That may be a tad unfair. In 1980 Bulova sold more watches than Timex, however, by that time they were owned by Citizen.

The Greatest American Watch Company, Waltham, declared bankruptcy in 1958. In the same year Gruen sold off all of its assets. Elgin, the largest American company by far, declared bankruptcy in 1968. Hamilton bought Buren and moved to Switzerland in 1969. Benrus' story is a bit murky, but by the early 1970's they had been sold. Timex struggled but captured market share. It remained afloat because it owned Polaroid. Longines-Wittnauer wasn't really a company. It was a partnership that allowed both companies to grab part of the American market as something exotic and Swiss. Bulova tried to buy their way out of trouble. They bought Univeral Geneve and Wittnauer. They tried to buy Omega. In the end Citizen gave them an offer that they couldn't refuse.

The biggest American watch brands were either bankrupt or nearly so before the quartz movement was invented or marketed. So, that wasn't it.

This comment is too long already. I wrote some about it here and further back in the WC archives. Tariff policy does come into play. Swiss industrial policy does too. The disruptions and shift in production of World War Two is more responsible. Fun fact: Elgin and Waltham spun out their fuse, gage, and industrial timer divisions that had been formed during the war. They still exist. Also a fact: Bulova, Wittnauer, and Gruen had factories in Switzerland to make movements and movement parts. Those were then shipped to the U.S. and cased here.

There is no monocausal explanation. We don't make a lot of things anymore.

Was waiting for you to chime in...

What he said 馃槀.

Aurelian

There is a book to be written about this subject.

No, the Quartz Crisis did not kill off the American watch industry. No, the "Swiss Cartel" did not kill off the American watch industry. Structural changes in the American and world economy made it too expensive to produce watches in the United States.

Here is a list of the top American watch companies by volume in 1955: Elgin, Bulova, Benrus, Longines-Wittnauer, Hamilton, Gruen, Waltham, and Timex. Here is that list in 1970: Bulova, Longines-Wittnauer, Timex. Here is that list in 1980: Timex. That may be a tad unfair. In 1980 Bulova sold more watches than Timex, however, by that time they were owned by Citizen.

The Greatest American Watch Company, Waltham, declared bankruptcy in 1958. In the same year Gruen sold off all of its assets. Elgin, the largest American company by far, declared bankruptcy in 1968. Hamilton bought Buren and moved to Switzerland in 1969. Benrus' story is a bit murky, but by the early 1970's they had been sold. Timex struggled but captured market share. It remained afloat because it owned Polaroid. Longines-Wittnauer wasn't really a company. It was a partnership that allowed both companies to grab part of the American market as something exotic and Swiss. Bulova tried to buy their way out of trouble. They bought Univeral Geneve and Wittnauer. They tried to buy Omega. In the end Citizen gave them an offer that they couldn't refuse.

The biggest American watch brands were either bankrupt or nearly so before the quartz movement was invented or marketed. So, that wasn't it.

This comment is too long already. I wrote some about it here and further back in the WC archives. Tariff policy does come into play. Swiss industrial policy does too. The disruptions and shift in production of World War Two is more responsible. Fun fact: Elgin and Waltham spun out their fuse, gage, and industrial timer divisions that had been formed during the war. They still exist. Also a fact: Bulova, Wittnauer, and Gruen had factories in Switzerland to make movements and movement parts. Those were then shipped to the U.S. and cased here.

There is no monocausal explanation. We don't make a lot of things anymore.

"monocausal" nice...馃馃徎