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Interview with René Rondeau
"COLLECTORS' CORNER -- THE HAMILTON ELECTRIC"
by Jan DiVincenzo - Watch Time Magazine
During the height of the Cold War, the design world was exploding with ideas: kidney shaped coffee tables, Swedish "String" shelves, trumpet-shaped lampshades and, of course, cars with outrageous tail fins. In the wristwatch world, the most successful example of the new design trends appeared in the Hamilton Electric, particularly in the Altair and Ventura models. It debuted in 1957 and was manufactured until 1969. To find out more about these American Originals, WatchTime interviewed René Rondeau, the leading authority on electric Hamiltons and the author of The Watch of the Future: The Story of the Hamilton Electric Watch, now in its third edition.
WatchTime: The second edition of The Watch of the Future was an extremely good read. How does the recent third edition differ?
RR: Virtually nothing has changed in terms of the basic story. In the most recent edition I revised certain aspects concerning collecting and evaluating. I changed the section on batteries because there's an easier solution tot he battery problem now. I added production figures to the main section on the watches. And I added a whole new section on asymmetric mechanical watches, because in the second edition I only listed the "Flight." It dawned on me that I should have listed all of the mechanicals, or none of them. So I went all-out and put in all of the asymmetric mechanicals.
WatchTime: Do the mechanicals have the same cases as the Electrics?
RR: Most of the mechanical asymmetrics have unique case styles and the same avant-garde styling. But there are only a few instances where they share the same cases: there's an automatic "Pacer" and an automatic "Regulus."
WatchTime: Did the designer of the electrics, Richard Arbib, also design the cases for the asymmetric mechanicals?
RR: Presumably. There's no real way to know exactly which watches he designed except where the drawings still exists. He did hundreds, maybe thousands, of drawings for Hamilton, and obviously, the vast majority were never made into anything. But the idea was that he would just crank them out. The stylists (Hamilton had their own stylists) would take an Arbib design and run with it. I do think however, that the fundamental inspiration for just about all of those watches was Arbib.
WatchTime: Did Arbib design other objects, like cars, televisions and radios?
RR: Oh yeah. Arbib worked for three years with GM Styling, but most of his work was independent. After the war he worked with Harley Earl. An article in Elle Decor about future shock says that he designed everything from clock radios to convertibles. There's also an article in Art and Antiques that says, "He stretched his creativity to encompass more than three hundred design categories, from vacuum cleaners to ocean liners." He's really an interesting character. He did a tremendous amount of work for some major companies. But he wasn't very well known to the general public. Today there's a tremendous resurgence of interest in Arbib. In fact, there's a guy who's working of a huge biography of him. Now that he's been dead for a few years, he's suddenly hot.
WatchTime: He broke with Hamilton in the mid-60s. How did that come about?
RR: When I talked to him, it sounded like it was just a situation where he delivered what they needed and that was it. It wasn't like a rupture or break. They contracted him to do some designs, so he cranked out a bunch and that was the end of the contract. He started drawing for them in ‘56, and the continued to make asymmetric watches until the mid-60s. Then Hamilton started pulling away from that.
WatchTime: Why did Hamilton revert to an earlier conservatism in design?
RR: There was a whole lot of turmoil going on at the time. The company was essentially torn asunder because some corporate raiders came in, bought up stock, and sacked the board of directors. Though it's hard to say how much of this had to do with the new management, I think probably most of it did.
WatchTime: Could you talk about futuristic design as an embodiment of the American obsession with the future in the 50s and 60s?
RR: That's a bit out of my field, but it does fascinate me. We have this tendency to look at some of the best and brightest of the 50s and think about what an incredibly futuristic, creative and forward-looking time it must have been. You do see that kind of freeform design in top furniture. And a lot of that filtered its way down to the mass market. But when you look at magazines from the era, you see that it was still very conservative. The average man wore a coat and tie all the time, and the average woman would never go out without gloves and a pillbox hat. I think there was an obsession with the future, but Americans were not universally forward thinking. I think that the people who bought these watches were amazingly brave or ambitious. I don't think they were typical consumers. You could equate them, for example, with the people who were buying Volkswagens in the 50s. You had to be something of an iconoclast to buy a VW or a Hamilton Electric.
WatchTime: But wasn't Hamilton tremendously successful with its sales of these watches?
RR: Oh yeah. That's another interesting point. There's a book out there, American Wristwatches, that makes the claim that the total production run was something like 41,000 watches. But that is completely erroneous figure. I wrote an article about it for the National Association of Watch and clock Collectors a couple of years ago. Through serial number research, colleague in England and I put together a much more accurate assessment of production numbers, which is in the third edition of my book. The figure quoted in American Wristwatches, which has unfortunately been repeated several times, was taken from report that was a summary of production through December 1, 1957. In the case of the Hamilton Electric, that report reflected less than a year's production.
WatchTime: Apparently, the first run of the Electric was immediately consumed. When the technical problems set in (problems with production spoilage, lack of servicing education and the watch itself) did sales diminish?
RR: It would appear that after the initial flurry, and this involves a bit of guesstimation based on serial number research, there was some drop-off. But sales picked up again when the 505 movement came out. It must have taken quite a while for everybody to realize that there were any problems at all. There were some jewelers who were reluctant to sell the watch because of worries about repair. But from the standpoint of the person who read or heard about this watch in 1957, there was no reason to think that it was anything less than exactly what is was promoted to be: an absolutely revolutionary, incredibly accurate watch made with fewer parts and requiring less care. There was no reason to believe anything other that what Hamilton had advertised. So I don't think that it ever became a problem for the consumer, only a problem for the jeweler.
WatchTime: So people believed all the apocryphal propaganda, like the claim that the electric watch was as revolutionary as the Nuremberg Egg (the first portable timepiece, invented in 1480)?
RR: Absolutely. They bought it completely. There was no reason not to. I think that at some point individual people starting finding little problems. But it didn't turn into a widespread consumer revolt. I've talked to a lot of people over the years who never had a problem. I've also talked to jewelers and watchmakers who worked on Electrics and said that they never had any problems with fixing them or keeping them running. On the other hand, some people have only negatives to say. A lot of it has to do with how thoroughly the individual watchmaker really learned how to repair them. In my work today, I spend most of my time undoing damage done by other watchmakers. Sometimes I look at what they did, scratch my head and say, "Why on earth would somebody do that?"
WatchTime: So if these watches are maintained according to factory specs, they are lasting, dependable timepieces?
RR: Yes, and there's proof of that. I was talking with an old-time watchmaker affiliated with the American Watchmakers Institute, who made a comment about how the Electrics never ran and so they never got to wear out. So I pulled one out of my bag and said "Look at this." It has extensive case wear like a lot of the Electrics I see. Case wear tells you that people wore these watches, and, obviously, if they wore them then the watches had to run. So I think that over the years a lot of misinformation has grown around the Hamilton Electric. People say that the Electric drove Hamilton out of business. Well, it's completely untrue. Sure, the watches had some problems, and it certainly didn't improve Hamilton's reputation, but they didn't kill the company.
WatchTime: Hamilton pursued two routes in the development of the electric movement: the permanent magnet movement and the electromagnetic movement. But they considered a third route, which was the idea of a vibrating "reed" or oscillating crystal. This technology eventually showed up in the Bulova Accutron of the ‘60s and later in the quartz watch. Do you think they should have pursued this avenue?
RR: Definitely. But ignoring hindsight and putting oneself in their position, transistors were impossible to get. Even batteries were an enormous problem. They made a judgment call based on the unavailability of transistors, and it turned out to be the wrong call. Bulova started their research around ‘55, factored eventual transistor availability into the equation, and ultimately won the game. But I think Hamilton did the best they could, given the available technology. They made one fundamental mistake: releasing it too soon.
WatchTime: How far ahead of its time was the 500 movement?
RR: It was very far ahead of its time in terms of being an incredibly tiny, miniature motor. Hamilton also had to research its own battery technology. There was no way to go out and source batteries. Even as late as ‘56, when they were conducting wear tests, batteries were still a big problem. The 500 is (as one Hamilton Electric specialist in England said) an incredibly elegant design -- on paper. Looking at it from a design standpoint, you have to say, "Wow, that is so clever." But this incredibly simple piece, in practice, is anything but simple. Nowadays we tend to think of watches as disposable. Quartz watches are cheap. You buy one. It costs fifty bucks. You wear it for a year. It breaks down. You chuck it. But in the ‘50s, people routinely had their mechanical watches serviced. Just as you would never drive your car 50,000 miles without an oil change, back then, you would never run your watch for five years without routine maintenance. This is important, because Hamilton designed both the 500 and 505 movements with contacts that wear out. Today we see this as an intrinsic flaw. But if you were having your watch serviced every two years, replacing the contacts wasn't a big deal.
WatchTime: Do you replace the contacts in the 505 electric movements yourself?
RR: Forty years ago, watchmakers didn't have to make the same repairs that I make today. In those days, repairs were simple, especially with the 505. Though the Hamilton Electric was advertised as a simple watch, it was only superficially simple. Now that you can't buy the parts, it's not simple at all.
WatchTime: Why is the 505 a sturdier movement?
RR: The 505 eliminated contact wires altogether and mounted the contact directly onto the balance. The other half of the contact is part of the gear train - an extremely clever design and much more dependable. The downside of the 505 is that the higher contact pressure increases contact wear. That wasn't a problem when every two years you could pop a whole new balance in. Today we don't have that luxury.
WatchTime: Where do you get these parts?
RR: I've been doing this for many years. When I first started out, I placed ads in Horological Times, offering to buy out watchmakers' stocks. I was bombarded with material. These watchmakers had long since given up working on Electrics and they were perfectly happy to get rid of their material. During my travels in Lancaster, Pennsylvania I found a huge stock of loose 505 contacts, which in the old days were impossible to buy without a complete balance wheel. I had to adapt tools to rebuild the balance wheels myself. The fact is that without a supply of parts, it's impossible to keep these watches going. A good analogy is the points in an older car, which always had to be replaced. The contacts in electric movements are points, but they're infinitely tinier.
WatchTime: Which case design it the ultimate embodiment of the Electric esthetic?
RR: Definitely the Altair. This is the watch that hooked me. My epiphany came when I saw the Hamilton Electric exhibit at the Smithsonian. But what really pushed me over the edge was a picture of the Altair. I saw that picture and flipped. I went from being interested to becoming a committed Electric collector. I sold my mechanicals and went chasing after an Altair. I managed to find one in a few months. But that was sixteen years ago. Today it would not be so easy.
WatchTime: Due to the increasing numbers o collectors and people buying watches on-line, how are you affected by the fact that all the Hamilton Electrics are getting bought up?
RR: It's a Catch-22 for me. Ironically, I abetted a widespread interest by publishing the book. When I started out, people though I was nuts. I'd go to watch shows, ask for Electrics and they thought that I had to be crazy. As time went on, I acquired a reputation for being an Electric collector. They'd see me coming and say, "Hey, I've got some stuff for you." What they were really thinking was, "Here's my chance to unload this junk." Now when I see these same people, they all tell me the same thing: "I sell everything as fast as I can find it." The demand has exceeded the supply. Nobody cared about Hamilton Electrics fifteen years ago. I remember going to an Orlando show in ‘86. I went up to a table and a dealer dumped a bag of Pacers on the table. There must have been two hundred of them. He said, "Your choice. $150 apiece." All these jewelry buyers were getting watches by the thousands. They were everywhere.
WatchTime: What are some of the key questions buyers should ask when buying Electrics on-line?
RR: Most sellers aren't capable of giving the required answers. There's a lot of dishonesty. I'll give you an example. There was a guy who sent me a Pacer for repair, and the movement was destroyed by battery leakage. It was completely unsalvageable. I told him that the only option was to replace the entire movement. Well, he decided that he didn't want to spend that much money, so I shipped the watch back to him. A week later on Ebay, I saw the same watch and the description read, "Not running, needs work, but you could send it to..." (he specifically mentioned my name) "...and get it repaired for $100." The person who bought that watch ended up with a piece of junk. Another guy on Ebay insisted that all his watch needed was a new battery. I looked at the picture of the movement and the contact wires were bent forty-five degrees sideways. There was no way it was going to run. People can say anything. As far as advice goes, beyond what's in my book in the section on collecting, there's really not much to add. The only advice I have for buying items on Ebay is: if you decide to buy something and don't know whether it's running, make sure that you get it cheap enough to afford having it fixed. People also frequently list them as "running." Running" implies that a watch doesn't have any major problems. Well, if a watch is running but gaining seven hours a day, then it probably does have major problems!
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