RGM Watch Co.: Where Past & Present Manifest
by Keith Lehman
It’s hard to believe that one of the last true US watchmakers resides in the humble town of Mount Joy, PA—population 7,410—but it’s true. Roland G. Murphy, founder of RGM Watch Co., has married his talents in watchmaking and his appreciation of local and national history into a successful business founded on inspiration.
To better understand the gestalt of Murphy’s body of work, a brief horologic and geographic history of Lancaster County will help. Pennsylvania’s south central county, one of the oldest inland settlements of the United States, has deep and notable roots in clockmaking and watchmaking. Influenced from other famous businesses and technologically driven industries, including Conestoga Wagons, Lancaster Rifles, and Stiegel Glassworks, the county, from 1750 to 1850, boasted more clockmakers than any other settlement not only in Pennsylvania but most of the other colonies and states during that 100-year time frame.
Watchmaking came to Lancaster County in 1874 with the arrival of John C. Adams, known as “The Great American Starter,” who started six other watchmaking firms, including Illinois Watch Co. Although his businesses and many other start-up companies in the county were not successful, the stage was ultimately set for ventures like the Ezra F. Bowman Technical School and Hamilton Watch Co., one of the most famous and innovative watchmaking companies in the world. The National Watch & Clock Museum, founded by the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors (NAWCC) in 1977, is only seven miles from RGM Watch Co.
Murphy holding both an original Corps of Engineers pocketwatch (left) and his latest creation, the 801-COE "Corps of Engineers." Photo credit: Keith Lehman.
Originally Florin Trust Bank (built 1915) now current address of RGM Watch Co.,
801 West Main St. Mount Joy, PA. Photo credit: RGM Watch Co.
Medium Is the Message
Since the Hamilton factory closed in 1969, RGM, founded in 1992 with a staff of 12, is the only US-based watch company to design and manufacture its own movements. It is also the first US company to serially produce a tourbillon watch—a truly impressive achievement. So what is it that drives Murphy to continue the tradition of watchmaking in Lancaster County? A native of Baltimore, MD, Murphy studied at the Ezra F. Bowman Technical School in Lancaster and the famous Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (WOSTEP) in Switzerland. Certainly a man with his talent, drive, and knowledge could set up shop virtually anywhere in the world. He must have also been aware that America wouldn’t be the easiest place to start a watchmaking company due to the fierce competitive nature of the Swiss watch industry. Perhaps the only way to express his unique view on watchmaking is to draw from the wellspring of Lancaster’s deep horological history—and actually live and work here.
But where does a mechanical wristwatch fit in today’s world of solid-state smart watches and inexpensive quartz movements? What does wearing one say about the individual? What about the provenance of the watch? Where and when was it made? Who made it? All these questions come to mind when considering what makes a mechanical wristwatch desirable.
But to Watchnews’ surprise those questions were not important to Murphy. During our tour of the RGM workshop and interview with Murphy in May 2015, the main question he asks himself is, “What kind of watch can I make that fits me?”
801-COE "Corps of Engineers." Photo credit: RGM Watch Co.
801-A "Aircraft" Model Photo credit: RGM Watch Co.
PS-801-BB “Baseball in Enamel” Photo credit: RGM Watch Co.
What Once Was Is Again
RGM’s latest wristwatch, the 801 "Corps of Engineers", is an impressive insight into the watchmaker’s creative process. The number 801, engraved on the back of the watch, represents RGM’s address at 801 W. Main St., but the design is inspired by the US Corps of Engineers pocket watches from World War I. The 801-COE watch is a testament not only to the excellence in American watchmaking but also US and Swiss cooperation during a time of great crisis in world history. Having accurate timepieces proved vital in warfare. After the initial watches made their way to Europe, the US Army asked the Swiss companies to procure more watches to reduce reliance on trans-Atlantic shipping routes. With this watch and many of his previous watches, Murphy has breathed life back into this important moment in history by not simply recreating what was but reinterpreting and making a timepiece that fits into the present.
Murphy has also drawn inspiration from America’s golden age of culture and watchmaking when he designed two other watches. He was inspired by the 1882 American Waltham Watch Co. at the National Watch & Clock Museum when he created the Pennsylvania Series 801 Baseball “Baseball in Enamel” watch. Murphy was captivated by a watch that combined American watchmaking history with America’s pastime. The 801 "Aircraft" Model, inspired by the technical layout and colors of the Hamilton and Elgin model 37500 aircraft clock from World War II, is another example of Murphy taking a piece of the past and bringing it to the present.
Murphy sitting in his office. His collection of film cameras displayed on the back wall. Photo credit: Keith Lehman.
Murphy standing beside his "Rose Engine." RGM also specializes in Guilloché (engine-turning). Photo credit: Keith Lehman.
Original bank vault and door in the main work shop(locking mechanisms still operational). Photo credit: Keith Lehman.
What’s in a Name?
Describing Murphy as a watchmaker may be too myopic. Craftsmen, jeweler, historian, collector, clockmaker, storyteller, guillocheur, and yes, even web designer. (He created and continues to update www.rgmwatches.com). But the term artist seems to fit him the best. An artist incorporates a medium—paint, music, and, in this case, metal—into a story, message, or concept only they can see. Not restrained to the limits of expertise and training, or the fear of failure, an artist expands into many disciplines to illuminate and share their unique visions. With any luck these visions tap into the greater consciousness beyond the artist and speak to the greater world. Murphy’s visions, conjured from the rich horological roots of Lancaster County and the golden age of American craftsmanship and influence, have proven they do speak. We look forward to what he will reveal next and what his pieces will say about ourselves.
Antique ship model is displayed in Murphy's office. Photo credit: Keith Lehman.
Display case of watch dials created by Murphy. Photo credit: Keith Lehman.
Gibbs, James W. Pennsylvania Clocks and Watches. Antique Timepieces and Their Makers. University Park, PA, and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1984.
Harris, Adam R. “Baseball in Enamel: RGM Celebrates the American Pastime and Creates an American Masterpiece.” Watch & Clock Bulletin, No. 413 (January/February 2015): 16-22.
Wood, Stacy B. C. Jr. Clockmakers and Watchmakers of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Lancaster, PA: Lancaster County Historical Society, 1995.
Wood, Stacy B.C. Jr., and Stephen E. Kramer III. Clockmakers of Lancaster County and Their Clocks 1750-1850. Litton Educational Publishing Inc., 1977.