Making a watch movement in Switzerland is one thing. Making one in the USA is quite another. Just ask Roland G. Murphy, founder of RGM Watch Company. Click here to read WatchTime’s profile of Murphy and his brand as we kick off our “Salute to America” week devoted to American watchmaking and watches that celebrate America.
You might chalk it up to Millennium fever. It’s hard to know. But at the beginning of the last decade, Roland Murphy had a crazy idea. A literally crazy idea, many said. Baltimore-born Murphy, a WOSTEP-trained watchmaker turned watch manufacturer, founder and owner of RGM Watch Co. Inc., decided that he wanted to make a mechanical watch movement right here in the good ole U.S.A.
Making an exclusive, high-grade mechanical movement is a major undertaking. Swiss watch executives will tell you it takes an investment of many years and oodles of francs. Roland Murphy doesn’t have oodles of francs or dollars. Watch-wise, he’s a small fry. Worse, he’s an American small fry. He doesn’t have the clout and contacts in Swiss watch circles that big-name Swiss brands do. He and his small team (RGM employs fewer than a dozen people) make 200 to 400 RGM watches a year in a former bank building in little Mount Joy, PA, in horologically historic Lancaster County.
What Murphy does have, though, is mega-doses of American ingenuity, stick-to-it-iveness, street smarts and stubbornness. It took him about eight years but, against all odds, Murphy did indeed make an American movement. In 2008, he introduced the RGM Caliber 801, which he says is the first high-grade mechanical watch movement made in America in four decades. Murphy followed it up in 2010 with the RGM Pennsylvania Tourbillon, containing RGM Caliber MM2 (for “manufacture movement 2”), with a tourbillion mechanism made in Lancaster County. This year, RGM celebrates its 20th anniversary with a new tonneau watch containing the firm’s third movement (and first shaped one), Caliber 20. All of the Pennsylvania-made movements are stamped “USA,” denoting the country of origin.
Just what possessed Murphy to try and make a mechanical movement here and how did he do it? To find out, WatchTime met with him at RGM’s workshop and headquarters at 801 (yep, the movement is named after the workshop address) West Main Street in Mount Joy, situated in Pennsylvania Dutch country west of Lancaster.
The answer to why he did it is simple. “As a watchmaker,” he says, “somewhere deep down is a little voice that says, ‘I have to make watches. I have to produce movements, and I want to do it here.’ To really be a watch company, you need to make your own watch. Otherwise, you’re a casing company. I don’t want to be a watch-casing company. I want to make our own movement, our own complications, our own hand-finishing. It’s a love, a passion.”
Murphy wanted to make a distinctively American movement. “I take my inspiration mainly from American watchmaking,” he says. He’s a fan of classic pocketwatches from America’s late 19th-century and early 20th-century heyday, like those from Howard, Illinois, and Hamilton. (It was Hamilton, which manufactured mechanical watches in Lancaster from 1892 to 1969, that put Lancaster County on the watch map. Murphy worked at Hamilton early in his career.) The caliber of his dreams was manual-wind, 16½-ligne, nearly pocketwatch-sized. It would have a thick, sturdy bridge like that in a 1915 Edward Howard watch, a winding-wheel click like that on an Illinois watch from the 1920s, and traditional finishing throughout.
Murphy could dream about having his own movement because advances in micro-mechanical engineering transformed mechanical watchmaking in the last two decades of the 20th century. CNC (computer numerical control) machines, EDM (electric discharge machining) wire erosion and laser micro-machining made it possible for an artisanal watchmaker like him to try his hand at his own movement. Says Murphy, “Those techniques made it more affordable to someone who is creative.
“But,” he continues, “there is a big learning curve. When you go to school for watchmaking here or at WOSTEP in Switzerland, the program is mainly aimed at training individuals to service watches, after-sale service. It’s not aimed at manufacturing. I went to Bowman Technical School here in Lancaster. We learned to make a few things, but it was always aimed at repairing and restoring, not at manufacturing. I wanted to try but I wasn’t sure I could accomplish it. I had to teach myself, with the help of others, to understand the capabilities of the new technologies. I had to learn what we can do with wire erosion. What can CNC do for me? What kind of materials and equipment would I need? What’s it going to cost? So I had a disadvantage. If you want to make a watch, and not just repair it, there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.”
Originally, Murphy had hoped to find the missing piece of the manufacturing puzzle in the capital of mechanical watchmaking, Switzerland. He took his rudimentary drawings for his own movement to a Swiss firm that produces machinery for making watch bridges and plates. “They weren’t very helpful,” he says. There were two problems: one, his quantities were too small; two, he was a foreigner. “They were interested in making money. If your quantities are high enough, they’ll turn the machine on. But if not,” he says with a laugh, “it’s ‘Have a nice day.’”
That experience made him bound and determined to make his movement in America. “I came back here and I hunted. I knew we had technology. I just had to find somebody who was willing.” He found a micro-manufacturing company five miles from Mount Joy that produces parts for applications in the aerospace, medical, and pharmaceutical industries. He met with the owners, but they, too, showed little interest. “After talking with them a few times, it didn’t go anywhere. If somebody is not eager at the beginning, you might as well just keep walking.” So Murphy walked.
A while later Murphy noticed a new corporate name on the building. The company had changed hands. Murphy stopped in, met the new owners, and exchanged a few e-mails. “I could tell they were interested in what I was doing,” he says. “They liked the challenge. They said, ‘Yeah, we can do that. There’s nothing here size-wise or tolerances-wise that our machines can’t do.’”
The company, 45 employees strong, has millions of dollars’ worth of CNC, wire-cutting, and other manufacturing equipment. Murphy asked them to make 10 sets of bridges and plates for his 801 caliber. “Just to see where we were,” he says. They agreed. (“Nobody in Switzerland would make 10 sets for me,” he notes.) “I knew the parts probably wouldn’t be good, but I wanted to see where I was physically. We made 10 sets and then I could sit down with those sets and see where there had to be changes. I’m used to working with things in my hands. So, working with those parts, I would take notes, and saw there were numerous things that would have to change. I made a number of changes over a period of a year before we ran any more parts.
“At the beginning they were doing the 3-D models for me. I would go down there and sit with them for hours, doing drawings, making changes, because I was the only one who knew anything about watches. They were very patient through all that. I’m sure there were many hours they didn’t charge me for. They were really behind the project.
“Then, about a year later, we ran 20 sets of parts to test. And with those, I was able to get a watch running with some modifications I did here in the shop. I could go to the jig board and make a little change.
“It took a lot longer for me to have the 801 the way I wanted it because it was my first venture into manufacturing. I spent a lot of money on parts I couldn’t use. We realized afterwards, ‘Hmm, no, I’ve got to change this and that’ and then we’d go back to the drawing board.” Nevertheless, Murphy’s Caliber 801 was beginning to take shape with bridges, plates and other small components made in Lancaster County.
Some things, though, you just can’t get in Lancaster County no matter how enterprising you are. “We can manufacture a balance wheel here,” Murphy says. “And we’re now at the point where we can make an escapement. But what we can’t do is manufacture the hairspring.” For that Murphy needs the Swiss. The Swiss, however, as we saw, don’t need him. Nivarox, the primary supplier of Swiss watch escapements, won’t sell to Murphy so he is forced to buy what the Swiss call the assortment (escape wheel, pallet and balance with the hairspring) “sideways,” as he puts it. “I get a small quantity through a third party. There are a few roadblocks here and there. Sometimes I have to pay a little more. The important thing is that we get the parts.”
The hairspring roadblock he expected. It was the Geneva wave roadblock that caught him by surprise.