By Clayton O'Donnell
As one of the most recognizable names in watches for more than a century Waltham has had an unusual journey to its current state. While a whole book could be written on the founding, advancements and success of Waltham's early years alone, we are going to take some time to dig into the lesser known recent developments of the company with many names. (At least 6 confirmed)
The big cutoff in Waltham's history occurs when bankruptcy closed the doors in 1949 and led to the creation of Waltham International SA in Switzerland in 1954 and was followed by the Waltham trademark being acquired by the Hallmark Watch Company for use in the U.S. only. Now this is where things get tricky...Rarely do we see a company split in such a way as Waltham became when its creditors came knocking and is ultimately what adds to the confusion at present.
Stateside Waltham (Hallmark) began importing Swiss components and watches through the 60's and from these we can find jewels such as the Waltham/Blancpain 50 fathoms which was done under the Waltham badge as Blancpain did not yet carry the prestige it has today. This was accomplished by using the subsidiary established as Waltham International SA in Switzerland prior to their sale of U.S. trademark rights to Hallmark. The reason for using imported parts is that Waltham was unable to make U.S. made components due to bankruptcy stipulations. Hallmark also came under fire with the FTC in 1961 for marketing practices regarding its connection to the original Waltham company and the fact that the watches were not made in the U.S.
After the issues with the FTC the Waltham rights in the U.S. we're purchased by watch manufacturer M.Z. Berger (who also currently owns the Gruen and Elgin brands among others). It appears Berger continues to make budget quartz watches for the U.S. market under the Waltham badge.
In 1976 the jeweler Heiwado & Co. Of Japan purchased 40% of Waltham SA while later acquiring the remaining stake in 1981. This period is smack dab in the middle of the "Quartz Crisis" and began the international Japanese based production of Waltham's legacy. From the 80's until the 2000's Waltham would be the best selling brand in the Asian market. (As a side note some "ultra luxury" models have been found during the Heiwado ownership period that are in solid gold with flashy jewels. From what can be found these were exclusively available in the Asian markets and even hardcore Waltham collectors may not know of their existence as they don't relate to the American period.)
Compared to the glory days of the Waltham Watch Co. this was a dark period for such a revered brand. Gone was the U.S. manufacturing and pride of ownership by America's working class, as well as men of society, and in were the times of essentially dime watches being sold for a dollar. Even as late as 1952 a Waltham Vanguard railroad model sold for $71.50 or the equivalent of approximately $600 today adjusted for inflation. Since 2011 the plan has been in place to reverse this course...
After the purchase by DiBenedetto Waltham once again went to Swiss based production using Dubois-Depraz automatic movements in plus size 47mm cases. The main theme of the first models is based largely on Waltham aircraft cockpit clocks and timers the XA, CDIA and A13a.
(This is interesting to note as the last remnants of the original Waltham Precision Instruments Company, including the use of the original factory, has more ties to the Waltham Aircraft Clock Corporation which moved to Alabama after being bought up by Prime Time Clocks Co. in 1994. Whether they are still producing aircraft instruments is unknown but their website is still live.)
Now the current Waltham SA claims ties to the original Waltham heritage from 1850 in their marketing literature though with the interlude under east Asia ownership it's a stretch for this claim to be 100% believable to prospective buyers. Also with the U.S. trademark still owned by M.Z. Berger it would appear that their presence in the states could always be up for challenge without solid licensing agreements in place.
Since its revival as a luxury brand sales have mainly been in Japan only. More recently they have set up a New York office and have made these edgy updated timepieces available through Madison Ave boutique Cellini Jewelers.
Will Berger continue to make budget Walthams available at discount stores while Waltham SA looks to compete in the middle tier luxury segment at the $5,500-9,400 price range? Is survival with a low cost second cousin bearing the same family name viable? Can they gain a foothold in the U.S. market competing with Omega and Rolex or preowned Audemars? Will they come out with smaller traditional styling or keep the new found edginess of their current models?
These are some unanswered questions and barriers to convincing new buyers and collectors alike to take the plunge into ownership of a new Waltham timepiece at a hefty price tag. Since we've not completed a hands on review or seen one of the new models up close any thoughts on where Waltham goes from here is pure speculation.
One thing for certain is with all the changes of the last 65 years, this is no longer your father's Waltham.