Monday, June 10, 2013

Watch Brand Review: Hamilton

Today's reviewed watch brand occupies an interesting position in the watch world.


Hamilton began as one of the paragons of the American watchmaking industry, along with others like Elgin and Waltham.  Modern American watchmakers like RGM look to Hamilton as a spiritual predecessor, even using refurbished Hamilton movements in some of their offerings.  Like its peers, however, the American Hamilton fell to the wayside in the mid-20th century, though its name and branding live on as an entry-level brand in the large and powerful Swatch Group.  The economy of scale that Swatch brings to bear coupled with Hamilton's market position means that it represents one of the most inexpensive ways to acquire dependable models powered by solid Swiss movements - particularly after Swatch choose to dwindle the supply of ETA movements to third-parties.  As a result, Hamilton is a logical choice for many looking to inaugurate themselves into the world of Swiss-made mechanical watches.


The trade-off for the attractive price points and value ratio lies in the design of many of Hamilton's offerings, which seem at times hopelessly diluted or derivative.  Subtleties are also often determined by the dictates of the underlying movement - the exact opposite of what true manufacturers strive for (albeit with the luxury of price points several orders of magnitude greater than Hamilton's) - so that they appear aesthetically odd or out of place.  There are exceptions; iconic designs like the classic Ventura, which have endured the test of time (even though its original electronic movement has not), and others that draw on Hamilton's history, like the Intra-Matic (though it too sheds its lauded micro-rotor movement for a more run-of-the-mill ETA 2892-2).  But even those examples contain compromises:  the Ventura's dial has a plasticy appearance when viewed close-up, and its pedestrian quartz movement's second hand doesn't line up with its hour marks, while the Intra-Matic's bracelet appears to be one of Hamilton's stock designs, employing friction pins where competing brands might have offered a screw-in system.


By and large Hamilton makes up for the lumps it takes for its half-hearted designs in the functionality of its offerings.  As can be expected of watches powered by time-tested workhorse movements, they do what they're supposed to.  The ETA 2892-2 in my Intra-Matic may be one of the most accurate mechanicals ever to grace my watch box, which has included in-house offerings from Nomos and Rolex.  Moreover, there is a certain degree of comfort in the knowledge that, should anything go wrong, the ubiquity of ETA's movements means that any watchmaker worth his salt knows how to handle them, and that replacement parts are readily sourceable.  That's the hidden added cost of being an in-house snob:  the exclusivity of the movement on your wrist means that you have very few options when it needs servicing or repair.  Those limited options mean swallowing a bitterly expensive pill when the time comes.  While this may be a non-issue to those who have the disposable income to expend on five figure - or more - timepieces, those who would have to save to afford them have to factor service costs into the overall calculus of acquisition.  In this way, and for what it's worth, Hamilton occupies the "affordable" quadrant of Swiss mechanical watches.


While Hamilton does offer one of the best value propositions in the realm of Swiss watches, I would offer a word of caution to those who would, as a result of their relative affordability, seek to build a sprawling collection of Hamiltons or similarly priced watches.  One or two can cover bases in a collection that might cost considerably more if a collector were to turn to the offerings of more prestigious brands; but once a collection comprises half a dozen or more watches in the sub-$1000 range, the total amount of money expended could have allowed for the acquisition of a single superlative watch which would likely eclipse those Hamiltons in virtually every respect.  Thus, while Hamilton is a great value introduction to Swiss mechanicals, its offerings alone, I would caution, should not a collection make.

My Pick

This is probably a no-brainer:  it's the Intra-Matic 38mm.  It's on my wrist as I type this review, and unless another value proposition from Hamilton knocks it from its perch (I'm looking at you, Viewmatic Skeleton), it'll continue to hold the "automatic" slot of my watch box for the foreseeable future.

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