An American-born brand adopted by the Swiss, Hamilton is a unique fusion of its multiple nationalities. Although it is now headquartered in Biel, Switzerland, Hamilton spent the first 111 years of its life based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. From the US military to Hollywood, Hamilton’s quintessential Americanness has been central to its rich history. In fact, its American heritage is still attached to the brand’s identity even today, as Hamilton’s name is a tribute to the founder of Lancaster County, James Hamilton. Without further ado, let’s get stuck into the history of Hamilton watches.
Early Hamilton History
Hamilton was founded from the ashes of other watchmaking companies. Its predecessor, The Keystone Standard Watch Company, was a company based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. However, in 1891 it fell through, just five years after being established. Following this, investors bought out Keystone Standard and its manufacturing facility, merging it with struggling Illinois-based company, Aurora Watch Company. And so, the Hamilton Watch Company was born in 1892.
The following year, Hamilton began releasing pocket watches. These watches formed the Broadway Limited collection, which became fundamental to the development of the American railroad system. Broadway Limited models were supplied to synchronise the timing of the rails to evade accidents and crashes.
The War and the Wristwatch
After making a name for itself through its pocket watches, Hamilton produced its first wristwatch in 1917. Up until now, the company had only made two different-sized movements, the 18-size and a smaller 16-size. However, as America began its involvement in World War I, the size of the pocket watch was becoming increasingly impractical for use in the field. Moreover, many soldiers were attempting to adapt their pocket watches to be worn on the wrist instead. Responding to this, Hamilton developed a more convenient timepiece that could be strapped to the wrist. This was made with a new, even smaller size-0 movement, originally intended to be used on a woman’s pendant timepiece.
Hamilton continued to grow alongside other historical developments. In 1918, Hamilton began its long-standing relationship with the aviation industry when it was chosen as the official timekeeper for the first US airmail flights. It also accompanied the first flight over the North Pole, the first flight from New York to San Francisco, and many more. By the 1930s, Hamilton was named as the official watch for four of the US’s major commercial airlines.
In 1942, Hamilton halted the production of consumer watches in order to prioritise providing pieces to World War II troops. During this time, over one million watches were shipped overseas to aid with the war efforts. This commitment was recognized by the US Army-Navy, who awarded Hamilton a US Army-Navy ‘E’ award for its manufacturing excellence.
Hamilton and Hollywood
Even today, the brand prides itself on its close association with Hollywood. This dates back to 1932 when two Hamilton watches appeared on the silver screen for the first time in ‘Shanghai Express’. In 1951, Hamilton military models were featured in the Academy Award-nominated film ‘The Frogmen’. Set in World War II, Hamilton watches were the favoured choice for the film as they were designed for the US Navy divers.
However, one of Hamilton’s most prominent film cameos was ‘Blue Hawaii’ in 1961. In the film, Elvis Presley’s character wears Hamilton’s iconic Ventura. Released in 1957, the Ventura was an iconic model that was unlike any other on the contemporary market. Characterised by its asymmetric case, it was the world’s first electric watch powered by a battery.
The futuristic quality of Hamilton watches also inspired directors to come forward with special commissions for their films. The legendary Stanley Kubrick approached Hamilton to design unique timepieces to be used in his sci-fi film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. As per this request, Hamilton supplied the film with a futuristic desk clock and a wristwatch.
Throughout the latter part of the 20th century, Hamilton maintained its ties with Hollywood. Acquiring over 500 film credits throughout its lifetime, the brand has been dubbed the ‘movie brand’. ‘Men in Black’, ‘Die Hard’, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, and ‘Interstellar’ are just some of the major motion pictures a Hamilton has been featured in. Recently, the brand has also traversed into television. For example, a Khaki Field is worn by John Krasinski’s character in the Amazon Prime original series ‘Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’.
Transition from America to Switzerland
Shortly after acquiring Buren in 1966, Hamilton ceased its American manufacturing and consequently closed its Lancaster site. The company relocated its operations to the Buren premises in Switzerland until 1972, when the partnership between the two companies was dissolved.
Into the 1970s, Hamilton continued to develop unique and innovative timepieces. The development of the Pulsar marked the world’s first LED digital electronic watch. Contrary to all other watches, the Pulsar was revolutionary as it had no moving parts inside. Its invention was announced in 1970 but was only officially launched two years later. The release was limited to 400 pieces, with each watch costing more than the average price of a car at the time.
In 1974, Hamilton joined the Swatch Group, which ultimately led to the brand’s relocation to Biel, Switzerland in 2003.
Under Swatch, Hamilton has remained a prevailing watch brand by nurturing its roots. For example, in the 1980s the brand re-released several of its formerly retired designs. These included the Boulton, Wilshire, and Ardmore, amongst other collections from the 1920s and 1960s. Moreover, to strengthen its aviatic relationship, in 2005 Hamilton partnered with Nicolas Ivanoff, and invested itself more in air racing culture. Similarly, the brand devoted itself even more to film, by launching the Hamilton Behind the Camera Awards (BTCA) in 2006. The annual awards ceremony seeks to celebrate the talent behind the camera that makes the year’s best films possible. Often, the awards are presented by A-list actors.
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