Posted on March 28 2018
The Best Railroad Watches
With motorsports there’s been a symbiotic process whereby watch companies have sponsored the glamorous events, then produced watch designs influenced by the cars. These watches are then sold to the fans who have now associated luxury watches with sports cars and the lifestyle that they aspire to. The main influence has been a one of design.
With space watches, and to a degree aviation watches, the influence has been on the functionality of these instruments. Watches as tools. The watches were produced to perform under extreme stress and the aesthetics were secondary. Only later did the watches gain popularity with watch enthusiasts and in some cases the wider public.
The history of trains, railways and watches is more like that of Space rather than motorsports. The influence of railroads on watches has been more strongly felt in the functional improvements of watch design rather than the attractiveness of the finished watch. That’s not to say that the watches aren’t pleasing to the eye, just that in situations involving life and death reliability and accuracy trump looks.
It’s no exaggeration to use the words life and death in this context.
In 1891, in the US, two trains collided at Great Kipton with the loss of several lives. The crash occurred because an engineers watch had stopped for four minutes before then restarting.
The train was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time because of a single faulty watch.
Following this accident the railway company hired Webb C. Ball, a well-known Cleveland jeweller, to investigate how staff were using their watches. He concluded that railroad employees weren’t operating any specific time and watch standard. He, therefore, created a new set of standards for railroad pocket watches. This stipulated that watches must be accurate to within 30 seconds per week, have 15 jewels in their movement, and have a white face with black Arabic numerals. The face should also show each minute around the dial.
The large American watch manufacturers all tended to produce these new railroad grade watches. Waltham and Elgin had both been used as early as the 1860s and 1870s on the railroads and later Hamilton, Illinois Watch Company and many of the other American watch manufacturers also produced railroad chronometers.
However, after the first world war pocket watches were gradually replaced by the more convenient and newer wristwatch. By the 1930’s wristwatches dominated the watch market. Later, with the large scale introduction of diesel locomotives, older steam trains were also replaced. By the 1950’s it was no longer a case of steam trains and pocket watches but modern diesel locomotives and fashionable wristwatches.
This is where we begin. With those wristwatches inspired by or used on the railways.
Ball Trainmaster Standard Time
One of the most iconic names in the history of railroads and watches in that of Webb C. Ball, the man tasked with standardising time on the railroads and the founder of Ball Watch Company. Although still an American company it’s main operations are now based in Switzerland.
There are a number of collections produced by Ball, including Railroad Engineers, Firemen, Trainmasters and Conductors. Although they do three specific Official Railroad watches here we’re actually looking at a watch from the Trainmaster collection. This line is described as having a “classical railroad heritage”.
The Standard time model (NM3888D-LL1CJ-WH) is clearly a vintage styled piece, reminiscent in some ways of a pocket watch. The aim was clearly to produce a watch that references Ball’s standardisation of railroad time, in a style of that period, and with Ball’s contemporary watchmaking technology. So we have a watch powered by Ball’s Calibre RR1105-C automatic movement but with a baked enamel dial. Vintage blue hands but with modern Tritium tube illumination. It’s a relatively formal looking watch so is sized at a modest 40mm, comes with either a stainless steel bracelet or a crocodile skin strap and has a display back that highlights the attractive movement.
Hamilton American Railroad Classic
Hamilton was a US brand with a fine history producing watches for the railroads, the US army as discussed here, and their marine chronometers that were used by both the US and Allied navies in WWII. Having ceased manufacturing watches in America in 1969 the company is now Swiss owned – a part of the Swatch group of brands. Both it's American heritage and Swiss ownership make this a well respected and popular brand that is usually available on the high street.
Like Ball, Hamilton have created a contemporary watch the harks back to their own involvement with the railroads, although the styling is less of a homage to 19th century pocket watches. This particular variation has a black dial with contrasting tachymeters that create circular tracks to underline the railroad theme. Yet despite quite a busy dial with large indices the watch retains a clean, quite simplistic aesthetic. It has Hamilton’s H-10 automatic movement, based on the Swiss ETA C07.111, a sapphire crystal, stainless steel case and like the Ball is 40mm in diameter. It's available with a stainless steel bracelet or black leather strap.
Camden Watch Company - No.253
The Camden Watch Company is a small, independent British brand designed in the heart of Camden, London. The companies founders were inspired by the area’s industrial history and it’s lasting influence on the areas culture and design.
“From Victorian horse hospitals turned into market stalls, to steam train turntables turned into gin warehouses, to bare knuckle boxers and dead elephant circus owners, Camden’s past was as eclectic as its present”.
Each of their watches is inspired by Camden itself. From the Victorian pocket watch inspired No. 29, taken from Camden’s strong railway heritage, to the turquoise-blue seconds hand of the No. 88, based on the iconic ‘Camden Lock’ bridge.
There’s two watches that stand out the most for their railway influence, the Northern Line and the No.253. Here we’re highlighting the latter.
Like the companies other watches the No.253 takes inspiration from the Victorians. In this case with a dial design based on a steam trains wheel. At £119 it’s a very affordable watch so doesn’t have the features of the Ball and Hamilton, but then, it’s aimed at a different audience. Still, it has a 41mm stainless steel case, real leather strap and 50m water resistance. It runs not on steam, but on a Japanese quartz movement.
Mondaine - Official Swiss Railways Watch
Swiss company Mondaine is known primarily for it’s railway inspired watch. In 1944 engineer Hans Hilfiker designed a simple, minimalist clock for the Swiss railways. This iconic design was licensed by Mondaine, and from 1986 has been at the core of their watch lines.
The design is instantly recognisable. The dial is unmistakable and easy-to-read. With distinctive straight hands and a red seconds hand Mondaine’s take on Hilfiker’s design has became world renowned.
The railway line of watches are available in a number of sizes, with the largest coming in at 40mm and some as small as 30mm. Mostly the watches have quartz movements, although there is an automatic version in 40mm.
SevenFriday Watch Q2/03 Choo Choo Edition
SevenFriday is a new brand having only been founded in 2012. Unlike the large American brands who can trace their own watchmaking heritage back to the creation of the railroads, SevenFriday was founded in the era of driverless cars and Apple watches.
Therefore, it’s no surprise to see the company producing watches with avant garde designs that repel traditionalists. They’re big, bold, colourful and many models use wheels on the dial rather than hands.
But their ‘industrial revolution’ style has earned the Swiss brand a loyal following.
This particular line, the Q range, has a strong steam-punk aesthetic. The basics of this line are a 44mm stainless steel tonneau-shaped case with 30M water resistance and a customised Japanese Miyota 2819 automatic movement. This specific model uses black and gold, with a distressed leather strap in an attempt to recreate the opulence of train carriages used by wealthy Victorian travellers, including Victoria herself, the first British monarch to travel by train. The result is a unique and stylish design at quite an affordable price.
Pulsar and Seiko Railroad Approved Watches
Pulsar was initially a watch brand owned by Hamilton. The brand was most notable for producing the world’s first electronic digital watch. However, in 1978 the brand was purchased by Seiko.
Japanese giants Seiko are among the biggest watch manufacturers on the planet. Founded in the late 1800's the company has progressed from its initial production of clocks to the forefront of wristwatch design and manufacturing. Along the way the company released the world's first quartz watch, the first quartz chronograph and introduced the innovative Kinetic models – a marriage of mechanical automatic watch features with quartz accuracy.
So Pulsar have their own history, an association with Hamilton and are now owned and produced by Seiko, using Seiko’s movements.
For railroad watches that means there’s offerings from both of these brands, and in most cases the watches are similar. The term ‘Railroad Approved’ is a bit of an outdated concept due to the availability of highly accurate quartz watches. However, these Pulsar and Seiko watches have the styling previously required for railway use, including a bright dial, legible numbers and minutes noted around the dial. Both brands also use 12/24hr markings.
They are relatively small watches with stainless steel cases of 37mm. Still, they’re attractive and cheap, so maybe more suitable as a daily beater than as a conversation piece.
Omega's moon watch, the Speedmaster, is perhaps the Swiss companies most famous watch. However, it's appeal is highest among knowledgeable watch enthusiasts. The type of consumer who cares about the history and technological significance of his timepiece. For the more casual watch fan the Seamaster, Omega's divers watch, is more desirable. Initially the Seamaster was a water resistant dress watch. A relatively uncomplicated watch designed for active men wanting a watch for “town, sea and country”. With the 1957 introduction of the Seamaster 300 the line became more associated with genuine divers.
However, in 1957 Omega also released a third watch. The trilogy included the Speedmaster, Seamaster and the much less well known Railmaster. Whilst the Speedmaster was used for the moon landings and the Seamaster was at the cutting edge of water resistant watches, the Railmaster was less glamorous.
The innovation in this watch, like Rolex’s Milgauss, was it’s resistance to magnetism. Specifically, it was designed for Railway engineers and others who may be exposed to magnetic forces. With less than stellar sales, it was discontinued in 1963.
The Railmaster has been released a few times since 1963 and is now a part of Omega’s current stable. It’s vintage-styled, but with modern anti-magnetism technology, and all the specs you’d expect from a mechanical Omega. The Aqua Terra case comes in at a comfortable 40mm.
Pramzius Trans-Siberian Railroad Watch
Pramzius is a relatively new company, launched after the founders spent two decades importing Eastern-European watches. Named after the mythological Baltic Ruler of Time, the brand’s first release is a watched based on a Russian railroad pocket watch.
The big design feature is that this watch is a pocketwatch, modified to be worn on the wrist. Secondly, it’s huge. 48mm.
The dial has the pocket watch styling but has an open heart section. The dial reveals the inner works of the Seiko automatic movement that powers the watch and the rear case has a train motif. There’s great superluminova illumination with the white model having a full luminous dial. The only real downside is that the watch was released as a limited edition.
Perseo Grande Settebello
Swiss company Cortébert was a brand appreciated for their extensive range of in-house movements and were notable for their railroad watches. They have supplied both the Turkish railroad system and the Italian railroad system, as well as a number of tram systems throughout Europe.
In 1927, at the request of Mussolini, Cortébert started distributing their watches in Italy under the Perseo brand name and it is under this name that they were used by the Italian railway system. By 1944 Cortébert had a lineup of 20 different calibres and a range of special railway watches.
Perseo continued to be used by the Italian railway system after World War II and became well regarded by the Italian public. However, the quartz revolution of the 1970s put an end to the company. The Perseo brand was then created as a separate company and Perseo continues their relationship with the Italian Railroad System.
They now make a number of railway inspired watches including the Grand Settebello, named after the Italian high-speed train that operated between Milan and Rome. The Grande Settebello is a classically styled dress watch with an attractively textured dial. This beautiful white dial is decorated with subtle gold numbers and hands giving it an almost delicate appearance. The luxurious vibe continues with the ostrich leather strap. Internally there’s a Swiss-made Unitas movement.