The Rise, Fall and Rise of American Watchmaking: J.N. Shapiro of California
One should be excited over the prospect of not what J.N. Shapiro of California is now, but what it represents – glimpse of what American watchmaking can be again
Pre-Industrial Revolution, watchmaking was a painstaking activity which part-time watchmakers/full-time farmers engaged in during the off-season. Due to the amount of handcrafts involved, one can imagine that it was a process which only yielded a handful of watches each year and with such scarce supply, these mechanical watches were only the reserve of the bourgeois and noble elites – it has been a legacy of the Swiss ever since they supplanted English and French watchmakers. But after the industrial revolution, things began to change.
The Rise and Fall of American Watchmaking
In the 1850s, the United States emerged as a leader in mechanical watchmaking. The heritage of machine-assisted watchmaking revolutionised how watches were made. Over turning centuries of single, individually made components, in the countrysides of Switzerland, France and england, the Americans optimised the industry to meet demand in a way which not only increased supply of these ingenious timekeeping mechanisms but also, with the resulting fall in prices, paved the way for mass adoption of timepieces and pocket watches.
It was the ingenuity of the Americans which led to the conception of tooling and machinery (the precursor of modern CNC machines) which led to the greatly increased production of watches. The machines cut components in mass numbers, faster and more precise than human hands could. With increased precision, that meant that there could be standardised parts rather than the hodge-podge of trial and error in order to make watch components fit exactly. We have Waltham founder Aaron Dennison to thank for this innovation. Hamilton soon joined Waltham among the top hierarchy of American watchmaking brands, reputed for craftsmanship and manufacturing prowess to produce watches more efficiently and more cost-effectively than the Swiss.
Eventually, the Swiss, spearheaded by Longines and Vacheron Constantin, hybridised this new innovation, incorporating American machinery to supplement their handcrafted process and while the artisanal aspects of Swiss watches remained unparalleled, the PR boost from Cartier’s own successful Santos wristwatch wasn’t enough, it was American watchmakers who dominated the wrist watch craze from the 1920s until its ignominious fall, heralded by the Great Depression and the World War which followed.
With economic collapses, wristwatches were the first luxuries abandoned for food and basic necessities, but when World War II erupted in Europe, the conflict was what drove the final nail into the coffin as American factories were co-opted into the war effort and machines, previously making watch components, became re-tooled to make instruments of war. The Swiss, by virtue of their neutrality (and some posit, the impasse that is the Swiss mountains which encouraged Nazi troops to not be foolhardy) continued to make watches and by the time the war drew to a close, and Americans were financially able once again, they became consumers of timepieces rather than makers.
Today, Hamilton is no longer American but Swiss and Detroit-based Shinola and Los Angeles-based Devon are reigniting the passion for American watchmaking but arguably, it’s going to be brands like J.N. Shapiro to truly restart the competition for the hearts and minds of watch connoisseurs.
The possible Rise of American watchmaking again: Brands like J.N. Shapiro of California
At the highest end of the spectrum, RGM Watch Company, founded in 1992 by Roland G. Murphy, a graduate of WOSTEP, The Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program, has a focus on bespoke timepieces – in the $90,000 to $100,000 spectrum. And while there is no denying that his manufacture calibres are made and finished to a superlative degree, it’s hard to power a resurgent industry without wider adoption.
Enter J.N. Shapiro.
Let’s first address the elephant in the room, J.N. Shapiro watches are badged with a “California” name plate but the movements are supplied by Uhren Werke Dresden. Conceived, designed and manufactured entirely in Germany, J.N. Shapiro’s movements are not American but in this instance, one should be excited over the prospect of not what it is, in so much as what it represents – a glimpse of how American watchmaking can compete once again.
The Dresden calibre features a “floating” mainspring barrel which in concert with the modern petticoat bracket and orientation by means of conventional positioning pins deliver a unique visual spectacle, giving clear view of the six-shank gear train, unlike your other run-of-the-mill, stock movements used by other American watch brands. That said, everything else is 100% American.
The dial is composed of seven different parts, each individually machined. Every surface is engine-turned or circular grained by hand. There are four engine-turned patterns on the dial. The barleycorn, created on the rose engine machine, is outside the chapter ring. The circular ratchet pattern separating the minutes and hours was also created on the rose engine machine. On the inside of the chapter ring is the basketweave, one of the most difficult engine-turning patterns.
This dial features a solid 18kt rose gold seconds ring and name plate. Everything else is made from silver. The engine-turned sections have been frosted white using the same techniques as A.L.Breguet.
Dressed with an American made leather strap by Stone Creek or Arizona and with prices starting US26,000, what J.N. Shapiro represents, is the potential of what it could be with support and awareness of a nascent genre of American watchmaking mostly forgotten.
Available in 18kt yellow, white or rose gold but platinum and stainless steel cases can be done on request.
J.N. Shapiro of California Price and Specs
Movement Handwound UWD 33.1 calibre with 53 hours power reserve
Case 42mm 18kt yellow, white or rose gold with 30 metres water resistance