Review RGM Caliber 20, the Classic American-Made Watch

Classic American-made luxury with an in-house, tonneau-shaped movement and unique motor barrel.

calendar | ic_dehaze_black_24px By Erik Slaven | ic_query_builder_black_24px 8 minute read |
RGM Caliber 20 - Classic American-Made Watch - Review

RGM Watch Co. is truly an anomaly in the industry, designing and manufacturing ground-up movements, dials and cases in a country that’s long abandoned such horological endeavours. The days of great American brands like Hamilton, Waltham and Ingersoll are long gone, but RGM brought traditional watchmaking back in the 1990s, setting up shop in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. Let’s take a closer look at the RGM Caliber 20, a watch that helps re-establish America as a bona fide player in Haute Horology.

The brand is currently the only vertically integrated American manufacturer that designs/builds unique movements in-house, rivalling the achievements of Swiss and European counterparts. RGM has several movements under its belt, including the Caliber 801 (now with a skeletonized variant), Pennsylvania Tourbillon and Caliber 20. That latter movement is the focus of this review and is housed in a tonneau-shaped case with a partially skeletonized dial, all hand-built in Roland’s Pennsylvania workshop. Multiple dials are available for this piece with bespoke options as well, but the general layout is the same throughout.

RGM Caliber 20 - Classic American-Made Watch - Review

Background

The Caliber 20 was named for the 20th anniversary of the brand, founded in 1992 by Roland G. Murphy. The movement itself is more than just an in-house creation and is a nod to traditional American watchmaking. When designing calibers, Roland draws on the past for inspiration. For example, the Caliber 801 (his first movement finished in 2007) has bridges inspired by the Keystone Howard Watch Company’s flagship “Edward Howard” model. The deep polished winding wheels were inspired by the Illinois Watch Company’s “Bunn Special” model and the winding click was inspired by the Illinois “Illini” model. It’s safe to say that Roland knows a thing or two about America’s horological past.

In this instance, he decided to incorporate a motor barrel into the Caliber 20, a feature that hasn’t been seen in over 50 years. What is a motor barrel you ask? It’s an old American system once used in the highest-grade railroad watches to stop additional movement damage caused by a broken mainspring. The barrel and arbor functions were reversed, having the barrel turn to wind the watch and arbor turn as it runs. If a mainspring broke, the sudden shock went to the winding gears, not to the fragile gear-train and escapement. A second, later type of motor barrel was designed more to reduce wear and friction, which is the type employed by RGM. A motor barrel is recognizable by the ratchet-wheel escutcheon having three small screws instead of a large central screw.

RGM Caliber 20 - Classic American-Made Watch - Review

Prior to founding RGM, Roland studied at the Bowman Technical School in Lancaster, PA before attending the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (WOSTEP) in 1986. He later worked for the Hamilton Watch Co. until 1992. The company today remains small and independent, handcrafting watches in a limited series using both modern and traditional techniques. Engine-turned guilloché dials are produced with antique, hand-operated machinery and movements are finished and assembled by hand. Roland will also work with customers to create a unique, bespoke piece from the ground up, a rarity in the luxury watch industry. The Caliber 20 is a modern take on American watch history with an aesthetic that could thrive in a different era.

Case and design

The tonneau-shaped, polished 316L stainless steel case (18k rose gold is optional) is 42.5mm x 38.5mm and 9.7mm in height. Similar to the brand’s Classic Enamel PS-801-CE we recently reviewed, the sides have a series of ridges spanning to the lugs, appearing like columns supporting the front and back crystals. The multi-level bezel slopes downward at a sharp angle, spreading out to a flat ridge that rests on the central case section. A flat sapphire crystal covers the dial. The P-shaped lugs curve down lower than the caseback, preventing it from laying flat on a surface. This protects the rear sapphire crystal from direct contact and resembles a miniature table. Surrounding the rear crystal is a sloping bezel that mirrors the front, held on by twelve polished screws. RGM’s expansive, in-house Caliber 20 is on full display.

RGM Caliber 20 - Classic American-Made Watch - Review

The large, knurled and contoured crown is easy to wind and pull to set the time, with a Keystone insignia at the end (same as the aforementioned Classic Enamel PS-801-CE). It doesn’t screw down, but the case is water-resistant to 50 metres. Although safe in a pool, it’s probably best to simply remove such a nice piece from your wrist before swimming. The lug width is 22mm and polished external screws secure the strap, which I usually prefer to spring bar pins, both for style and convenience. Care must be taken when removing these screws, however, to avoid scratching the case and cosmetically damaging the screw heads.

Dial and hands

There are a couple of dial options available, one has a solid silver guilloché face with moiré pattern and the other is partially skeletonized. My unit is the skeletonised one with a large moon phase on the bottom left and seconds disc on the top right. All dial options are configured this way. My watch packs a visual punch with engine-turned, silver dial sections above the seconds disc and below the moon phase, with the moon crafted from mother-of-pearl. The main-plate and setting parts are exposed and hand-finished with perlage and anglage (chamfered edges).

RGM Caliber 20 - Classic American-Made Watch - Review

A minute track surrounds the perimeter with Roman numerals marking the hours at 12, 3 and 6 o’clock. The seconds disk, a common element of watches in the 1930s, is marked by an arrow tip formed by the shape of its guilloché cover, while the bottom moon phase is partially covered by a matching guilloché cloud shape. It is a precision moon-phase function that would have only a one-day error over a 120-year period (assuming the watch is continuously running). The blued keystone hands are a hallmark of RGM and favourite of Roland. The central wedge in an arch that locks all other pieces in place, the keystone is also a nickname for Pennsylvania – The Keystone State. Roland was given a set of old keystone hands at watchmaking school in Lancaster, PA, made between 1886 and 1891 by the Keystone Watch Company. The design left an impression and they can now be found throughout many Caliber 20 and Caliber 801 series watches.

Movement

The hand-wound Caliber 20 is the third in-house movement for the company, following the Caliber 801 and Pennsylvania Tourbillon. Named to commemorate the brand’s 20th anniversary, the tonneau-shaped movement is a triumph of American horology. Featuring the previously mentioned motor barrel, one of the first-ever employed in a wristwatch, it’s a nod to great American railroad pocket watches. The movement is hand-built in RGM’s workshop with the main-plate and bridges cut from German silver, hand finished and left unplated.

RGM Caliber 20 - Classic American-Made Watch - Review

Finishing includes Côtes de Genève, perlage and anglage, and each movement takes several months to produce. It’s also a sizeable movement that fills almost the entirety of the exhibition caseback. The Caliber 20 has 19 jewels and beats at 18,000vph (2.5Hz) with central hours and minutes, a separate seconds disc and moon phase. Approximately 90% of the movement is hand-built in Pennsylvania, with just a few parts like the mainspring and jewels being outsourced.

RGM Caliber 20 - Classic American-Made Watch - Review

Strap

A 22mm black alligator strap is fitted to my piece and really complements the overall aesthetic. It’s well padded and comfortable, without feeling too stiff and overbearing. Many straps are available for this watch with the majority produced in Florida by Stylecraft. RGM uses a few other sources as well, such as Jean Rousseau and Camille Fournet in Paris, and Hirsch in Austria.

RGM Caliber 20 - Classic American-Made Watch - Review

Thoughts

RGM has truly brought traditional watchmaking back to America and the Caliber 20 reflects Roland’s appreciation of great watchmakers from bygone eras. The motor barrel has been revived after more than fifty years, last seen in the highest-grade railroad watches. The keystone hands represent both Pennsylvania and The Keystone Watch Company (from Lancaster, PA) from the 19th century. Traditional hand assembly and finishing of the movement is comparable to well-established European brands in this price range, which is all the more impressive given RGM’s relatively short history. All of RGM’s in-house movements are hand-wound and there are no current plans to design an automatic (there are some Swiss automatics in lower-end pieces).

RGM Caliber 20 - Classic American-Made Watch - Review

Roland feels that his calibres are more traditional and “pure” without a rotor obscuring the gears, bridges, plates and overall beauty of the movement. Most movements/watches are also round and it was ambitious to design a tonneau-shaped calibre, especially for only the third in-house movement in the company. Roland did produce a complex tourbillon movement prior, however, so I’d say he’s well-equipped to continue pursuing new and bold designs. His latest skeletonized version of the Caliber 801 is a cool modification of his first movement and demonstrates a prowess to evolve existing movements as well as designing new ones. Tradition and quality form the backbone of RGM, and American Made is no longer a horological dream of the past.

Price and Availability

The Caliber 20 is produced in low volume and may be built to order, depending on demand. Steel models retail for USD 29,500 and 18k rose gold models retail for USD 42,500. I wouldn’t label these prices as accessible, but these are hand-made luxury watches, requiring several months to produce, with an overall quality and finish of European counterparts. For collectors and watch enthusiasts, prices are comparable to similar timepieces. And if you want to buy American, this is quite literally your only stop – Weiss Watch Company out of Los Angeles also produces an in-house movement Calibre 1003, but it’s closely modelled after the Swiss ETA-Unitas 6497. You can purchase a Caliber 20 and find more information at RGM’s website.

5 responses

  1. Beautiful piece. Why did high-grade railroad watches especially need to be able to stop damage caused by a broken mainspring?

  2. Aside from its price(and size personally), this is truly a beautiful timepiece.

  3. Very nice. I’m getting drawn towards RGM the more I see. Particularly like their 801 series.

  4. Very attractive. The photo shows it overpowering the wrist. Is there anyone at monochrome with a slightly larger than normal wrist ( like mine) instead of a slightly smaller than normal (like the model) ? I have to say the star gear captures my imagination. While not enthused about the keystones hands…i would get used to them. No picture of the full moon phase….NOT an insignificant overlook with a new maker and dial.

  5. I dislike the dial and hands but the case and movement are very strong. They also have a strong vintage American vibe which I like. But this instead of a PF, AP, VC etc?
    No way

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