Howard was a great but often overlooked American watchmaker

Over the years this column has covered a number of clock and watchmakers, some famous and others less so. Nearly everyone has heard of Rolex, and many other names are nearly as familiar: Omega, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, to name just a few.

And not all are from Switzerland, that great land of timekeeping. American brands such as Bulova, Elgin, Hamilton and Waltham have all made their own marks. Nonetheless, there are literally hundreds of other makers whose stars have risen and set in the firmament of horological history.

Today let’s take a gander at one outstanding but often overlooked American maker with the pedestrian name of the Howard Watch Company.

It was Edward Howard who in 1858 decided to build his own firm out of the remnants of what had been the Boston Watch Company. Ill-fated almost from the start, Boston Watch lasted only four years (1853-57) but left a treasure trove of watchmaking equipment and materials behind.

Long before Henry Ford reached the moon with his assembly-line approach to auto making, Howard had the same idea with watches: use interchangeable parts in such a way as to streamline manufacturing and reduce costs. While most credit America’s industrial revolution as beginning after the Civil War, Howard was truly ahead of his time. (OK, that’s bad.)

Within a few years, Howard introduced a host of technical innovations to watchmaking, most a bit too esoteric to go into here. Suffice it to say that things like six-pillar top plates, quick-train movements and steel motor barrels were just a few of Howard’s ideas that came into being. He was also the first to introduce the stem-winding watch in 1868 (prior to that, all pocket watches had to be wound with a key) and added an internal micrometer adjustment on top of the movement to allow for improved accuracy.

Even the labeling in the underside of Howard watch boxes was elegantly done.

Even the labeling in the underside of Howard watch boxes was elegantly done.

These were big deals and made Howard watches highly desirable when “railroad grade” standards came into being during the mid-19th century.

As time went by, other American watchmakers adopted many of Howard’s innovations, and the firm slowly saw its market share disappear. Howard himself retired in 1882 but the firm continued on as a separate entity until selling out until 1902.

Like many other domestic watchmakers, subsequent ownership changes diluted the name, and today the battery-powered watches you can occasionally find under the Howard name have virtually no connection to their namesake. Despite operating for nearly a half-century, the original Howard only made about 700,000 watches across some 20 models. If that sounds like a lot, consider that Rolex today makes upwards of one million watches each year, and other makers introduce literally dozens of new models annually. Howard was something special.

It’s also worth noting that after Howard was sold in 1902, its new owner made what have come to be known as Keystone-Howard watches up until 1930. While those were excellent watches in their own right, they are not as coveted by collectors as the original Howards.

If you have a first-gen Howard, you are a discriminating (or perhaps lucky) devil indeed. Those in working condition usually sell in the low four figures, and they rarely last long on the market. Watch-and-clock conventions, online forums and galleries like ours are the places to look.

Given their impact on American watchmaking, Howard timepieces today have become the cornerstones of many serious collections.

Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years, he was an award-winning catalog publisher and has authored seven books, along with countless articles. Now, he’s the owner of Antique Galleries of Palm Springs. His antiques column appears Sundays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Drop him a line at [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Antiques: Howard was a great but often overlooked American watchmaker

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