Over the years this column has covered a number of watchmakers and watchmakers, some famous and some less so. Almost everyone has heard of Rolex, and many other names are almost as familiar: Omega, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, to name a few.
And not all of them are from Switzerland, this great country of watchmaking. American brands such as Bulova, Elgin, Hamilton and Waltham have all made their mark. Nevertheless, there are literally hundreds of other manufacturers whose stars have risen and set in the firmament of horological history.
Today, let’s take a look at an outstanding but often overlooked American manufacturer with the pedestrian name of the Howard Watch Company.
It was Edward Howard who, in 1858, decided to start his own business from the remnants of what had been the Boston Watch Company. Unfortunate almost from the start, Boston Watch only lasted four years (1853-57) but left behind a treasure trove of watchmaking equipment and materials.
Long before Henry Ford hit the moon with his assembly line approach to car manufacturing, Howard had the same idea with watches: using interchangeable parts in a way that streamlined manufacturing and cut costs. While most credit America’s Industrial Revolution with a post-Civil War start, Howard was truly ahead of his time. (OK, bad pun.)
Over the course of a few years, Howard introduced a host of technical innovations to watchmaking, most of them a little too esoteric to discuss here. Suffice it to say, things like six-pillar top plates, fast train movements, and steel engine barrels are just a few of Howard’s ideas that came to life. He was also the first to introduce the stem-wound watch in 1868 (prior to this all pocket watches had to be wound with a key) and added internal micrometer adjustment above the movement to allow for better accuracy.
These were big business and made Howard watches very desirable when “Railway Quality” standards came into being in the mid-19th century.
Over time, other American watchmakers adopted many of Howard’s innovations, and the company slowly saw its market share disappear. Howard himself retired in 1882, but the business continued as a separate entity until sold until 1902.
Like many other domestic watchmakers, subsequent ownership changes diluted the name, and today the battery-powered watches you can sometimes find under the Howard name bear virtually no connection to their namesake. Although it ran for nearly half a century, the original Howard only made around 700,000 watches out of around 20 models. If that sounds like a lot, consider that Rolex now makes over a million watches every year, and other manufacturers introduce literally dozens of new models every year. Howard was something special.
It should also be noted that after Howard was sold in 1902, its new owner manufactured what became known as Keystone-Howard watches until 1930. Although these were excellent watches in their own right, they are not as coveted by collectors as the original Howards.
If you have a first-generation Howard, you are indeed a discriminating (or perhaps lucky) devil. Those in working order usually sell in the low four figures and they rarely last long on the market. Watch and clock conventions, online forums and galleries like ours are the places to look.
Given their impact on American watchmaking, Howard timepieces have now become cornerstones of many serious collections.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award-winning catalog editor and authored seven books, as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Palm Springs Antique Galleries. His antiquities column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Write to him at [email protected].