When you think of fabled watchmaking locations, you might think of a Swiss pastoral setting with a factory against a mountain backdrop. Cows are oblivious to the alchemy in the nearby workshop where wizened watchmakers lean over their benches. Words like tradition, artistry and craftsmanship come to mind. You might think of Geneva, or the Jura Valley, or Pennsylvania. Screeeeech. Wait. Back it up. Pennsylvania? The U.S. of A.? What has the home of mass production to do with the houses of Haute Horologie?
Just as French wine makers were slow (if ever) to warm to California Cabernet, Pennsylvania recognition may take time; but with watches as with wine, comparison reveals greatness. It was the 1976 blind taste test, known as the “judgment of Paris,” which pitted illustrious French chateaus against Napa Valley farmers. When the votes were tallied, California won. Though there have been no watch contests between Switzerland and Pennsylvania, RGM is like a fine wine, ripe for comparison. You be the judge.
RGM, founded in 1992 by American watchmaker Roland G. Murphy, has been quietly producing watch parts, cases, movements, and then putting all the pieces together to offer some beautiful timepieces. These watches are made in the USA, through and through. RGM describes their goal as making not only the finest watches in America, but the finest watches available. Their newest caliber, the manual wind RGM 20, is a 20th anniversary celebration. With its blued screws, intricate movement finishes, and bespoke dial, the watch rests comfortably in the world of Haute Horologie, but this particular offering, the Caliber 20, is a rebirth of some good, old-fashioned American ingenuity.
There was a time in the States when Waltham, Ball and Hamilton pocket watches fit snugly into a train conductor’s pocket. At that time, these were all American companies. When railroads crisscrossed the United States and its various time zones, accurate timekeeping became a necessity. At the turn of the century, one of the problems plaguing watches was broken mainsprings. Over time, the metal spring would fatigue and break, typically at its point of attachment, the arbor. The results were disastrous.
To understand the magnitude of this problem and its clever solution, we need to consider how a mainspring works. The spiral torsion spring is attached to the center arbor, which winds the spring, and the outer spring is attached to the barrel case, which rotates in its transfer of power to the watch. This is how a typical going barrel transmits its energy to the going train of gears. If the mainspring were to break, all the power would be transmitted into the gears and the escapement, with a trail of carnage ensuing. The American solution was the motor barrel, of which the RGM Caliber 20 is a modern example. In the motor barrel, the roles of the arbor and the barrel are reversed. The barrel winds the spring, and the arbor transfers the power, so if the mainspring breaks, all the energy is transferred into the winding system, avoiding catastrophic damage. It is unlikely a modern RGM mainspring is going to break, so RGM adopted this design less for safety and more for prestige. The motor barrel is a distinctive American design, used in the past by top grade American railroad watches like the Illinois Bunn Special or fellow Pennsylvanian Hamilton 950. The motor barrel remains a distinctive American design and signature of a high-end watch.
How to describe the beauty of this modern movement? When you describe a wine’s bouquet, a melodious assortment of adjectives collide: complex with notes of berry, bright, and subtle in its earthy overtones. Seems silly to try something so grandiose with a watch, but no matter how sophisticated the palate, this watch satisfies. Côte de Genève, Perlage and Anglage dazzle the senses. Almost the entire case back is sapphire, revealing the movement and its many gears and bridges. The attention to detail is everywhere evident. Some works of art, in their totality, defy description.
Turn the watch back over, if you must, and the pure silver, partially skeletonized dial greets you. This is a movement you just cannot hide, so we also get a glimpse from the front. The blued hands, the rotary seconds dial, and the clever moon phase, accented by a Roman chapter ring, all make for a sophisticated watch. The highly polished tonneau case gives the watch a long, good finish to be savored long after viewing.
If this is what we get with the 20th anniversary, I think future anniversaries will taste just as magnificent.
- Caliber: RGM 20 , American-made, Manual Wind, 19 Jewels, 18,000 vph, Cote de Geneve, Perlage and Anglage, Unique Motor Barrel System
- Functions: Hour / Minute / Seconds on Disk / Precise Moon Phase
- Case: American Made, Polished Stainless Steel, Sapphire Crystal, Sapphire Crystal Display Back, 42.5 mm X 38.5 mm / Thickness 9.7mm
- Dial: Solid Silver, Skeleton or Full Guilloche
- Hands: Blued Steel Keystone Hour and Minute
- Buckle: Signed RGM Stainless Steel
Pricing: $19,500.00 in steel; please contact RGM through their website, for pricing in Gold.