Posted on September 30 2021
As the yanks would say, they're as American as apple pie. They're associated with the growth of the railroads and have a place in popular culture.
But in reality, they're Swiss-owned and Swiss-based.
I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to see how much of the American heritage lives on in the modern Hamilton brand.
I wanted to know if you can combine the knowledge of Swiss watchmaking with the best of the American dream.
So let's take a quick look at Hamilton's history. Then I'll show you the best watches that they currently produce.
A Brief History of Hamilton Watches
Hamilton Watch Company was born out of the bankruptcy of a previous watch company.
A few watch manufacturers had operated from a factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When the last of these went out of business in 1891 they were purchased by the company that would soon become Hamilton. The name references the original owner of the site of the factory.
With the help of the railroads, the new company rapidly expanded. Hamilton supplied over fifty per cent of the watches used on the railroads. Then, as wristwatches became more popular, Hamilton began to supply American soldiers fighting in World War One.
By 1918 they were also a leading watch supplier to the expanding aviation industry.
As you'll see later, Hamilton still has a strong connection to the military, railroad and aviation watch markets.
The military relationship had been strengthened by their involvement in World War Two. Having ceased production of civilian watches Hamilton focused entirely on supplying the military. They produced over a million watches during this time.
Most notable of these were their marine chronometers. They were used by the allied Navies and cemented the brand's reputation.
During the 1950s Hamilton switched focus and began to innovate for the civilian market. They created the worlds first electric watch, the Hamilton Electric 500. The quirky Ventura model was then worn by Elvis, raising Hamilton's profile further.
This period of growth and expansion led to the acquisition of a Swiss watch manufacturer. In 1966 Hamilton bought Buren Watch Company. This began the gradual move from US to Swiss production.
Three years later Hamilton officially closed the iconic Lancaster factory. They then relocated all operations to Büren an der Aare, Switzerland.
Following a series of mergers and acquisitions, Buren returned to Swiss ownership and Hamilton became a part of Swatch Group.
Now based in Biel, Switzerland, Hamilton builds watches that reference over a century of watchmaking history. Importantly, they work with Swiss movement maker ETA to make their own calibres.
The result is a large collection of watches that pay homage to the brands best historical designs. However, they continue to innovate and still release attractive fresh designs.
Where are Hamilton Watches Made?
Hamilton Watches has over a century of American watchmaking history, but they're now manufactured in Switzerland.
Hamilton has a factory in Biel, Switzerland. All Hamilton watches feature the Swiss-Made wording on the dial and are powered by Swiss movements.
Are Hamilton Watches Good Quality?
Hamilton is an entry-level Swiss watch brand. Their watches are competitively priced and often referenced as being good value for money. They're owned by Swatch Group which also owns brands like Omega, Longines, Rado and Certina.
Despite the American heritage, Hamilton watches are Swiss-made and use Swiss movements.
The Hamilton collection includes models that use titanium cases, dive watches with water resistance of 1000M and automatic chronograph watches.
The consensus is that Hamilton makes good quality watches.
The Six Best Hamilton Watches
I'm biased. I'm a fan of Hamilton's military watches. So bear with me. On my list of the best Hamilton watches, I've not included many of their dressy models or even their asymmetrical Ventura watch.
Instead, I've chosen the six watches that most represent the heart and ethos of the brand. I've weighted my list more to the classic military and aviation watches that were worn on the wrists of American servicemen.
Those, along with watches from the Jazzmaster, Broadway and American Classic lines, should give you a full picture of the brand.
Historically, this is what Hamilton did best. It created no-nonsense field watches for the military. The Khaki Field Mechanical is a recreation of the brand's own iconic watch from the 1960s.
It's a simple, but attractive look. It's a recognisable style used by other watch manufacturers at the time. I recently picked up a similar watch from Bulova that gets a lot of wrist time.
Like the Bulova, the Hamilton is an authentic recreation of a vintage piece. The case is 38mm wide, which by today's standards is smaller than average.
But it's not a small watch and the sizing is comfortable. Remember, military watches are worn as tools, not as jewellery. They're meant to be discreet.
In keeping with this ethos, the Khaki Field has a simple white dial with plain 12 and 24hr numbering. The canvas strap adds a little colour, but the overall appearance is militaristic.
There are larger versions of this watch in the Hamilton Khaki Field collection. And there are also automatic versions. But for me, this is the best.
It's true to the era and true to the spirit of a field watch. There's nothing unnecessary and the hand-winding H-50 just adds to the vintage charm.
This is where I suggest that you start with Hamilton.
Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical H69439411
The Hamilton Intra-Matic is a gorgeous vintage-inspired piece. It recreates a previous watch from the brands own back catalogue. Like the 1960s original, it's an automatic chronograph with a distinctive panda dial.
In keeping with modern tastes, this new release has a 40mm case and a sapphire crystal.
The 1960s were a decade of innovation. Hamilton's Chrono-Matic was among the first automatic chrono's to be released. It was a great achievement for the company and an obvious watch to reissue.
The styling is faithful to the original and captures the motor racing aesthetic of the time. Remember, this was the era of the Rolex Daytona and others.
The simple black and white colour palette works well, as do the bold sub-dials. The hands, dial text and date window are all straightforward and practical.
And the movement? It's a Hamilton calibre built from a Swiss-made ETA base.
If you're a fan of vintage chronographs, this watch ticks a lot of boxes. And compared to some of its competitors it's very affordable.
Hamilton Intra-Matic H38416711
The Jazzmaster line contains Hamilton's refined dress watches. But they're not limited to standard, three-handed models.
There is a variety of styles, with some genuinely quirky pieces. The Jazzmaster Regulator Cinema, for example. It's a unique looking watch that celebrates Hamilton's long association with the movie industry.
I'd suggest that this collection best embodies the brands 'American spirit, Swiss precision' ethos.
But having said all of that, my favourite watch from the Jazzmaster line is a simple, three-handed automatic.
Yes, the open heart models are appealing. As are the variety of Jazzmaster chronographs. But I like simple things. And this automatic does the basics very well. That works for me.
Like the Intra-Matic, this watch has a safe and comfortable 40mm case. And again, it's powered by a Hamilton automatic movement with an ETA base.
This watch succeeds precisely because no single feature stands out. The deep blue sunburst dial is attractive and has a contrasting chapter ring. The hands and numerals are plain but effective, and the date window is positioned at 6 o'clock to maintain the dial's symmetry.
Taken together, this results in a tasteful and sophisticated dress watch. The blue adds a touch of colour and some versatility. Although there is a slight vintage vibe, it still feels like a modern watch.
And the small touches finish the watch off nicely. The movement is visible through the exhibition back and the bracelet is substantial with a neat fold-over clasp.
If you want your dress watch to be simple and functional, this Jazzmaster model could be the answer.
Hamilton Jazzmaster H32475140
Dive watches are extremely popular and, like most companies, Hamilton has a diving range. Introduced in 2017, the Khaki Navy Scuba is Hamilton's dive watch.
It's a handsome piece with a recognisable style. This model follows the standard dive watch DNA which makes it a good allrounder.
There are a number of colour and strap combinations and I'm particularly fond of this black and orange variant. My first choice would be with a steel bracelet.
At the risk of repeating myself, the Scuba model is nicely sized at 40mm - there is also a new 43mm version available too if you prefer bigger. But the 40mm case works best for me.
Some of the other features will be familiar too. It has an ETA based automatic movement and a sapphire crystal. The water resistance is only 100M, so it's not meant for deep diving. But as I've noted repeatedly - how many of us actually dive?
This watch will spend more time in the office than the sea, and it's smart enough to carry that off. The black dial and bezel give a nice background for the orange accents. It's all sporty but restrained.
There was a danger that this watch could have been another Submariner homage. Indeed, the case is very similar. But Hamilton has put their own stamp on it. The triangular markers and similar hands change the look, as does the repositioned date window.
The 24hr numerals continue this. Just small touches that give the watch its own personality.
For a Swiss-made automatic dive watch, the Khaki Scuba is competitively priced. It would make an ideal entry-level watch if you don't yet own a Swiss diver.
Hamilton Khaki Navy Scuba H82305131
If you're familiar with the British Air Force's W10 watch, you'll love the Khaki Pilot Pioneer. The W10 was an iconic military watch that has since been recreated by the likes of MWC and CWC.
Hamilton's version is authentic to the period. It retains most of the elements of the 1970s originals. There's a grainy, textured dial with numerals in a dated font. And the signature tonneau case? It's only 36mm wide. That's quite small by today's standards, but faithful to the period when RAF pilots wore this watch.
And that is the big selling point of this watch. It recreates the W10 as it really was.
The fonts, aged-looking lume and hand-winding movement are all reminiscent of the original. The daily ritual of winding this watch harks back to an earlier era. And as a big fan of hand-winding watches, I get it.
So you get a foot in each era.
This is a modern watch. It was built in Switzerland with the latest watchmaking technology. But the major features look old. Take the glass, for example. It's a mineral crystal rather than the sapphire used on most Hamilton watches.
This watch won't be for everyone. It's smaller than is fashionable and needs to be wound daily. But if you want an authentic military watch, look no further.
Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer H76419931
The Hamilton Broadway showcases another side to the brand. It's also a good reminder of the company's American heritage. What could be more American than Broadway?
It's an affordable dress watch and could be seen as a rival to Tissot's Gentleman range and Certina's DS Action Day-Date.
It's a dress watch, with colour, flair and a few subtle design points.
The dial makes this watch. It's eye-catching and features vertical stripes that represent New York's skyline and a central stripe for the street itself.
Those vertical stripes remind me of the teak effect used on Omega's Aqua Terra, and it's a good comparison. The Hamilton ticks some of the same boxes as the Omega. They're both dressy watches with a robust aesthetic.
Once more, it has the Swiss-made Hamilton automatic movement. And once more it features a sapphire crystal, 100M of water resistance and an exhibition case back.
But I keep coming back to the dial.
It's a unique look that really gives the watch its own character. On this variation, the maroon and blue are an unusual combination. But the blue central stripe holds all the additional information. The logo, the 12 numeral, day and date are all within this slim area. I like that. It feels focused and very legible.
The Hamilton Broadway has a strong look. It's a bold take on the dress watch template. And for me, it's a success. It's also a nice departure from the military watches that first drew me to the brand.
Hamilton Broadway Day Date H4351575
Hamilton uses the tagline 'American spirit, Swiss precision'. And that is a good way to think about the brand. As you can see from my list, Hamilton often references American history and culture.
The Khaki Field is a tribute to the US Army, while the Broadway collection is influenced by the musical side of US culture. And you can see the same among their other collections too.
As a Brit, I find this fascinating and see the Swiss workmanship as an excellent bonus.
As a company, I'd class Hamilton as an entry-level Swiss brand, alongside Certina, Mido and others.
I'd suggest that you follow some of the links in the article and explore the brand more. Then let me know your thoughts. How do you think the marriage of American history and Swiss ownership has worked?