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American Pioneer. Our Favorite Hamilton Watches

Paul Altieri

The much-loved and well respected watch brand Hamilton today marries the best in Swiss engineering prowess with a design ethos that is unmistakably American.

It has roots that date all the way back to 1892, when the newly-formed enterprise bought out the bankrupt Keystone Standard Watch Company and set up in their factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Taking their name from the noted local political figure James Hamilton, who is credited with founding the town in 1734, the brand cleverly positioned themselves as the unofficial supplier of highly accurate timepieces to the burgeoning railroad business. Their first creation, the Broadway Limited pocket watch, was built to address an increasingly dangerous problem in the field. With no agreed on standard for time keeping, accidents on the flourishing railroad system were becoming more common, due to disparities between conductor’s watches.  The accuracy and reliability of the Broadway’s 17-jewel movement led to them being adopted by more than half of the railroad’s staff and they were soon dubbed the ‘Watch of the Railway’.

By the turn of the century, Hamilton’s reputation for precision was enough for the Broadway, and later the 21-jewel 992, to become the official watches of the American Expeditionary Forces, and in 1914 the company was chosen to supply the whole of the U.S military. The First World War also signaled the beginning of the end of the pocket watch, with soldiers rigging their pieces to wear on their wrist, leaving both hands free for combat. Taking note, Hamilton introduced their first wristwatch, the 981. By the end of WWI, a new market had appeared, even more thriving than the railroads; aviation. In the 1930s, the brand became the approved contractor to the biggest names in commercial flight—TWA, Eastern, United and Northwest. However, with the arrival of WWII, Hamilton ceased production of its commercial watches and exclusively supplied the military, making somewhere in the region of one million pieces.

Post-War Hamilton Models

The fortunes of the Hamilton Watch Company following the end of the war are full of highs and lows and some seriously impressive innovations.

Elvis Presley wore a Hamilton Ventura in Blue Hawaii
Elvis Presley wore a Hamilton Ventura in Blue Hawaii

In 1957 they introduced the first electric wristwatch, the 14k yellow gold Ventura, utilizing a battery linked to an intricate gear train to drive the hands. The space age, asymmetrical design proved immensely popular and even made its way onto Elvis’s wrist in his 1961 outing Blue Hawaii. Look carefully and you will also see updated versions worn by agents in Men In Black 3 in 2012.

In 1970, they chalked up another win when they introduced the first electronic watch with a digital LED display. The Hamilton Pulsar P2 2900, while limited in features to just telling the time, was nevertheless another success for the company, helped along by the patronage of James Bond in 1973’s Live and Let Die.

A connection almost as ubiquitous as the military, Hamilton watches have appeared in more than 300 movies over the years, most recently in Interstellar with Matthew McConaughey in 2014.

Sadly, the brand left its Lancaster home in the U.S in 1969, briefly working with Buren in Switzerland, a company they had acquired in 1966, before they were eventually purchased by the massive conglomerate that was to become the Swatch Group. They are now based in the Swiss city of Biel, where they produce a vast range of watches, many heavily inspired by their legendary military timepieces.

Hamilton Khaki

The Khaki series is split into three distinct segments; Field, Aviation and Navy, representing the different branches of the armed forces. Each has a wide and disparate number of subsets, totaling a massive collection of watches.

hamilton khaki field mechanical watch
The Hamilton khaki field mechanical watch (Photo courtesy of Hamilton)

Of them all, the Khaki Field Mechanical, a 38mm manually-wound time-only model on a NATO strap, is perhaps the most reminiscent of the brand’s heritage. As utilitarian as is possible, it is based on the Hamilton Hacked, a mid 20th century military watch that was among the first to stop the seconds hand when the crown was pulled out, allowing for soldiers to synchronize the time. A fantastic piece of retro nostalgia, it is also a particular bargain at around $475.

Elsewhere in the Khaki Field range you will find a number of beautiful and robust Day-Date models, chronographs and dressier ‘Officer’ pieces, with a selection of quartz and mechanical movements.   

The Aviation series is, if anything, even more varied. Hamilton has a long relationship with the skies and is currently the official timer of the Red Bull Air Race Championships. Their pilot’s watches have a more modern look but still with a healthy amount of vintage design influence.

Hamilton Khaki Aviation Pilot Day-Date Watch
Hamilton Khaki Aviation Pilot Day-Date Watch (Photo courtesy of Hamilton)

The Khaki Aviation X-Wind Auto Chrono even includes a drift angle calculator to help work out the effects of crosswinds on a journey. There is a limited edition version which uses the H-21-Si, the first chronograph movement Hamilton has made with a silicon hairspring.

At the more vintage end of the spectrum, the simply-named Khaki Pilot harks back to the golden age of aviation, with a 46mm diameter and a large and easy-to-read dial, with day and date function.

Heading to the ocean waves, the Khaki Navy collection boasts some impressive water resistance and eye-catching styling. The Pioneer Auto Chrono is an especially elegant example, based on Hamilton’s original pocket watch designs and outfitted with blued-steel hands that pay their respects to the marine chronometers the brand produced in WWII.

As well as the Submariner-esque and extremely popular Scuba Auto line, the Navy range also has the GMT Auto, a very smart dual time zone watch with an international city display at nine o’clock and three screw down crowns.

Hamilton American Classic

The American Classics are another extensive selection of watches spilt into a number of categories, with both men’s and women’s ranges.

The Railroad models are inspired by the very first pieces on which Hamilton made its name, and there are several collections in the current lineup.

The Railroad Skeleton Auto series is comprised of four versions, on both steel bracelets and leather straps, with see-through dials that lets you watch the H-10-S movement, a superb ETA caliber with an 80-hour power reserve, at work. There is also a smaller, non-skeletonized Lady Railroad model in both mechanical and quartz variants.

American Classic ODC X-03
American Classic ODC X-03 (Photo courtesy of Hamilton)

Perhaps the biggest, and strangest, of all Hamilton’s watches is the American Classic ODC X-03 Auto, a 49mm x 52mm behemoth containing three separate movements to power its trio of dials. It is the result of a collaboration with celebrated Hollywood production designer Nathan Crowley, the three-time Oscar nominee who worked on Interstellar. As well as having faces that display UTC, home time and local time, the major talking point of the X-03 is the huge photorealistic 3D-printed representation of the planet Jupiter in the middle. It gives the whole thing a real taste of the best of old school sci-fi films and is a fitting piece for Hamilton, especially with their long association with the medium’s pioneers. It was also the brand’s watches that appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Although it is now identified as a Swiss brand, under the patronage of the Swatch umbrella, Hamilton’s long history as one of the standout American watchmakers lives on in designs steeped in the country’s heritage.

With a massive range of models to choose from, there is a Hamilton watch out there to suit every taste. Best of all, they have always been exceptional value for money, with a level of quality and features usually found on far more expensive watches. As such, Hamilton has acted as a gateway into horology for many new collectors.

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Paul Altieri