Call it the Shinola effect. Ever since the Detroit-based watch brand hit restart on the American watch business last year, a revival of the American watchmaking industry has gone from pipe dream to plausibility (with all due respect to Roland G. Murphy, whose RGM Watch Co. has been quietly and brilliantly making American watches in Lancaster, Pa., since 1992).
In just the last few months, the venerable Waltham brand has been resurrected, the Montana Watch Co. has arrived on the scene, and more brands touting a proud American heritage are drawing attention to a once moribund industry that appears to be on the brink of a renaissance.
Enter Cameron Weiss, the 27-year-old watchmaker and entrepreneur behind Weiss Watch Co., a manufacturer that’s designing, engineering, and manufacturing its own cases and dials, and finishing its own Swiss-made ETA movements, in Los Angeles.
When a press release about the company landed in my inbox last week, I was intrigued. I caught up with Weiss by phone on Friday.
“I was always the little kid who had a watch on in every single family photo,” he says. “Nobody in my family was a watchmaker; nobody collected watches. It was always a fascination of mine. I was given a watch as a gift early on and from then on, on my birthday list was a watch. I had maybe 20 to 30 quartz watches as a kid.”
The San Diego, Calif., native studied business at USC before surrendering to his lifelong calling. He graduated from Miami’s Nicolas G. Hayek Watchmaking School as a WOSTEP Certified Watchmaker in 2010. Upon completing his certificate course, Weiss promptly went to work for Audemars Piguet in New York City (as first jobs go, not too shabby!).
“My first order of business was to go to Switzerland and get my training there,” he says. “It was my first trip to Switzerland and it was pretty eye-opening.”
After a year at AP, Weiss joined the team at Vacheron Constantin, which brought him to Geneva. He spent a few months being trained on how to repair complicated watches before transitioning back to California, where he helped set up the brand’s Beverly Hills boutique. All along, however, Weiss knew his ultimate goal was to have his own brand.
“But always, I thought I’d have to uproot myself and move to Switzerland,” he says. “I always thought it would be impossible to do this in the U.S. so my original vision was to move to Switzerland and open up my own brand. But over time, I learned a lot about manufacturing and larger scale production and realized that I could do the same thing over here and restart an industry that used to be here in a new and more updated fashion.”
After earning his WOSTEP certification from Miami’s Nicolas G. Hayek Watchmaking School in 2010, Cameron Weiss went on to work for Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin before debuting his own eponymous Los Angeles-based watch brand (photo courtesy of Weiss Watch Co.).
Capitalizing on LA’s rich history as an aerospace hub, Weiss sought out machine shops that specialized in precision manufacturing. Although virtually everyone he’s worked with is new to the watch trade, he says he’s been buoyed by the enthusiasm with which they’ve approached the business.
“I have to teach the machinists and engineers how things are done for watches,” he says. “A watch case has to have a perfect finish. When I show the high polish bezel to the machinists, they’re amazed I’m able to do that because they’ve never seen parts like that. I haven’t met with resistance as far as cutting watch parts—everyone’s excited to try.”
Weiss launched his first model, the 42 mm Standard Issue Field Watch, on June 1, 2013. “The design really came from older American pocket watches and it’s certainly aviation inspired,” he said. “Our logo is actually in the shape if you’re looking down at the wings of an airplane.”
The Standard Issue Field Watch from Weiss Watch Co. comes in two dial colors and retails for $950 (photo courtesy of Weiss Watch Co.).
Currently available on the Weiss Watch Co. website, the $950 hand-wound mechanical watch—which comes in a stainless steel case with a choice of a white or black dial—features case parts, dials, hands, spring bar tools, Cordura canvas and leather straps, and white pine packaging all designed, engineered, and manufactured in Los Angeles. (The movement, buckles, case-back screws, and spring bar screws are made in Switzerland before being hand finished and assembled at Weiss’ Los Angeles studio.)
For $1,100, Weiss Watch Co. provides a boxed set that includes one version of the Standard Issue Field Watch, a canvas strap, a leather strap, and a made-in-LA strap changing tool (photo courtesy of Weiss Watch Co.).
Although it’s still early days for the budding American brand—Weiss is currently looking for wholesale partners and plans to debut a second product this fall—it’s clear that momentum behind the American-made movement is building, and for that reason, Weiss is sanguine about the industry’s prospects via-a-vis the Swiss.
“At one time, [the American watch industry] was much stronger than the Swiss,” he says. “It’s certainly possible that it could come back like that.”