Timex ends 56 years of watchmaking in the U.S.

An American watchmaking tradition is ending.

Timex Corp.-the largest-selling watch brand in America-is closing its last manufacturing plant, in Little Rock, Ark., after 56 years of operation. The announcement was made June 20.

The Middlebury, Conn., firm was the last major domestic watchmaker of the once-thriving U.S. watch industry doing any manufacturing here at all. Other major companies in the past half-century have closed, were bought out or moved abroad (mainly to southeast Asia) years ago. (A handful still does some assembly in the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.) Timex itself set up assembly operations in Philippines a number of years ago.

Until last year, Timex’s Little Rock factory, the last U.S. plant to make parts for a widely-sold watch brand, made cases and watch parts for 22 million watches, about 80% of Timex’s annual production. It shipped them to Timex’s watch assembly facilities in the Philippines.

The closing, affecting the plant’s 85 remaining workers, is for cost and competitive reasons, say officials of Timex, which built its U.S. businesses in the 1950s, ’60s and early `70s, on the slogan “Takes a Licking, and Keeps on Ticking,”

“It’s all about efficiencies,” says Jim Katz, public relations manager for Timex. “We have a large watchmaking facility in the Philippines which can take over these tasks and do them more efficiently. They are already doing the bulk of the work.”

Last August, Timex announced it would stop making die-cast watch cases in Little Rock within a year, and buy materials from vendors to make die-cast watch cases in the Philippines. Late last year, Timex also closed its Shelton, Conn., distribution center and moved those operations to North Little Rock, where its watch repair center is located. That distribution and watch repair center (with 175 people) will continue operating.

Timex opened its first plant in Little Rock in 1945. By the early 1970s, it had three there and one in Hot Springs, Ark., with some 5,000 workers, making it the largest employer in Arkansas. But Timex laid off more than 2,000 employees in 1975 when it lost a contract to manufacture Polaroid cameras, and in later years closed the plants in Hot Springs, and two in Little Rock. In the1980s, it also closed a second repair and service center in southwest Little Rock.

Timex was founded in 1854 in Connecticut as the Waterbury Clock Co., renamed the U.S. Time Company during World War II and became Timex Corp. in the 1970s. Today, it employs some 7,500 people on four continents, including Middlebury, Conn.; Manaus, Brazil; Besancon, France; Pforzheim, Germany; Cebu, the Philippines; People’s Republic of China; Jerusalem, Israel; and Delhi, India.

Timex controls about a third of the U.S. watch market (in terms of units sold), far ahead Casio and Seiko, which each have 6% of the market, according to Timex’s own research. Timex does about $600 million in sales annually.