Hamilton’s history is intertwined with that of modern American watchmaking, and now that it is Swiss-based, it has become known as one of the best-known standard-bearers of US-inspired timepieces.

In the world of watchmaking, all brands have their specific connotation. Something that makes them remembered for their character. And that sticks like a veil, a plastic film that you cannot detach and never goes away.

And this is precisely the case with Hamilton – a company now permanently relocated to Switzerland, but which did much to make American watchmaking great, becoming the standard of reference for railroad workers and stars-and-stripes soldiers of the last century.

A history that begins far away

Hamilton Watch Company 1982
Hamilton Watch Company – Founded 1982 Lancaster, PA

Hamilton began manufacturing watches in 1893. But its roots go back much further: the factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had been home to three other watch industries previously – vanishing into modern oblivion. But unlike them, Hamilton instead thrived. Why? Perhaps, because of a different approach to business.

Rather than scattering its forces, Hamilton focused on creating and improving its calibers: in the first three years of business, it produced only two different ones. The first was its 18-gauge, a sturdy and precise mechanism that became the beating heart of its flagship model, the Railway Special.

It is said that America was built on train tracks, and indeed it was. And 56% of the clocks used to control this traffic had “Hamilton” written on them. This success led the company to become a supplier to the U.S. military in 1912. So when Americans landed in Europe in 1917, they found waiting for them a continent at war wearing watches strapped around their wrists.

Hamilton in the era of wristwatches

Hamilton Aviator Advertisement
Hamilton Watch Company

Wearing a watch around your wrist allowed you to do many more things. Fighting, of course – but also flying. The first U.S. airmail delivery, from Washington to New York in 1918, was tracked on Hamilton watches. And the reputation for providing accurate timepieces continued, accompanying the country into the other great war a few years later.

Exclusively military models were produced to equip G.I.s in action in theaters of war around the world, but the company supplied bomb timers and naval chronometers as well – and in 1942, the U.S. military faced the conflict with Hamilton watches on their wrists.

Post-war, Hamilton resumed the production of civilian watches but continued that of military timepieces, accompanying U.S. troops in their conflicts from the Korean War onward. But what drove the company most was the significant expansion of civilian watchmaking. In 1957, Hamilton launched one of its most distinctive timepieces, the Ventura, with its innovative triangular shape, which also landed on the wrist of the King of Rock, Elvis Presley.

Hamilton Ventura Elvis Presley
Hamilton Watch Company – 1961 Elvis Presley

The 1960s were stormy years. In 1966 Hamilton acquired a well-known Swiss-based company, Buren, which owned several innovative technologies such as micro-rotor calibers. And in 1969, the company decided to transfer its production to the Swiss country, abandoning the historic Lancaster factory.

The quartz revolution and the Pulsar

Hamilton had designed a futuristic watch prop for Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1966 – but in 1970, he found himself creating the world’s most iconic electronic watch for real. The Pulsar was the world’s first LED quartz watch – and it became so famous that it even ended up on the wrist of the most famous secret agent on earth, namely James Bond, as well as other personalities like the President of the United States, Gerald Ford.

Hamilton 1972 The Pulsar
Hamilton Watch Company – 1972 The Pulsar

But the impact of quartz movements on traditional watchmaking was too devastating. So Hamilton, along with Buren, found itself ending up bought by the cash-laden and ravenous SMH group, now known as the Swatch Group – and it continued its mission to produce beautiful, precise, affordable watches with a primarily military and sporty slant: a positioning from which it has never detached itself, and which continues to attract legions of enthusiasts around the world.

The most famous models

The Khaki

The Khaki watch represents the brand’s entire tradition of field watches. Rugged, practical, and efficient, its slightly vintage appeal captures those who want a timepiece to wear, not just show off. A small note: a Hamilton model used in a movie became so famous that it was later put into production. And we’re talking about the Khaki Field “Murph” used in the film Interstellar.

Hamilton-The-Murph-Watch
Hamilton – The Murph Watch

And indeed, the basic versions of the Khaki look like something out of a 1960s U.S. Army documentary, with their dark dial, contrasting hands, and military green fabric straps. There are automatic and quartz versions – and they all share the same quality and reliability.

The Ventura

You’ve probably seen the Ventura in the Men in Black saga, as well in other Hollywood blockbuster movies – and the futuristic modernism of its triangular shape is unmistakable. It has a sleek and retro look, with its undoubtedly bold design – even today – distinguishing the wearer for being an original person – or one who loves “cult” movies!

Hamilton-Ventura-Chrono-MIB
Hamilton – MIB Ventura Chrono

Today’s Ventura models – no longer made in the USA as in the past – no longer feature the original electric movement but instead mount proven quartz or automatic calibers, which the Swatch Group is able to offer in abundance.

The Jazzmaster

The Jazzmaster represents a more dressy watch in the Hamilton line and thus lends itself to more formal use. The design in full 1960s style, however, knows how to capture the attention of the lover of vintage elegance, and in addition, many of them mount the innovative Hamilton H-13 self-winding movements with 80-hour power reserve.

Hamilton Jazzmaster Thinline
Hamilton – Jazzmaster Thinline

In short, it’s a watch that you could leave for an entire weekend in a drawer to pick up on Monday, but with its beauty, you won’t want to take it off your wrist in the first place.

At a Glance

Like so many other companies, Hamilton has had a history of ups and downs, starting from its origins of chronometric quality and arriving at its current connotation, which tells a fundamental part of its history, although certainly not unique.

It must be said that no company can be everything: it is necessary to choose, primarily when strategies are based on the needs of a large group like Swatch. However, what is certain is that a Hamilton, nowadays, allows you to wear a brand that represents an icon of American watchmaking and has the merit of not costing an arm and a leg – which is not at all despicable.

So, if you like the style and you feel fascinated by the legacy of this manufacturer, we are sure that the timepieces of the Lancaster-born brand will be for you.

Keep Reading