J.N. Shapiro Makes a Watch in the United States.
J.N. Shapiro markets its Resurgence model as the first watch produced entirely in the country since 1969.
By Kathleen Beckett
The boast was big: Joshua Nathan Shapiro, founder of the watch brand J.N. Shapiro, declared that its Resurgence watch is the first timepiece made in the United States in more than half a century.
“There hasn’t been a watch totally made in the U.S. since Hamilton watches closed down in 1969” and moved to Switzerland, Mr. Shapiro said.
His company, based in Torrance, Calif., makes 148 of the watch’s 180 components, and most of the others are provided by U.S.-based companies, a tally that Mr. Shapiro said met the Federal Trade Commission’s standard that “all or virtually all” parts of a product must be made in the country before it may use the label Made in the U.S.A. (The label is on the Resurgence’s movement, he said.)
Twelve years ago, “when I first started getting into watchmaking, this was the dream,” said Mr. Shapiro, 38, “making a watch from scratch and everything in it.”
The brand introduced the 38-millimeter timepiece on its website in May, and late last month said it had sold 52. It expects to make 36 Resurgence watches a year, which is possible, at least in part, because the Infinity line, the company’s debut watch collection, has been discontinued after five years and 100 watches sold.
The Resurgence’s colorways are customizable, but the company website displays six iterations: at $85,000, with an 18-karat rose gold case and accents with either a frosted silver-white dial or a dark gray zirconium dial; at $80,000, with an 18-karat palladium white gold case and accents with a frosted silver dial or a case made of the dense blue-gray metal tantalum with white gold accents and navy dial; or at $70,000, with a stainless steel case with blued numerals and frosted silver dial or a dark zirconium case and dial with purple accents. Also, there are three bridge designs for the movement, a choice that, Mr. Shapiro wrote in a later email, is purely “aesthetic.”
All of the dials have a guilloché pattern, an engraved ornamentation not often seen on American watches, but which has become Mr. Shapiro’s signature — in this case, what he describes as “a basket weave within a basket weave at a miniature level.” He said he was introduced to the technique when he began learning about George Daniels, the British watch master who was known for his distinctive guilloché work.
Mr. Shapiro described the Resurgence as “classic, not modern, not sporty — it’s a classic timeless dress watch. But with a lot of interesting things, with our own flair of interesting patterns and designs and colors.”
“U.S. watchmaking grew from very humble origins in the 1850s to rivaling and influencing the Swiss by the end of the 19th century and into the 20th” as a result of its automated production and interchangeable parts, Mr. Shapiro wrote in a recent email, recapping some details from “The Birth, Death and Rebirth of American Watchmaking,” a lecture he presented in January at the Horological Society of New York.
But by the end of World War II, he wrote, U.S. machines were worn out from “producing timepieces and chronometers en masse for the war. In 1949, Waltham declared bankruptcy, while Hamilton and Elgin were in a steady decline from this point onwards until their demise and sale in the late 1960s.”
New companies have appeared in the last two decades, he wrote, citing the RGM Watch Company and Keaton Myrick, David Walter and Cameron Weiss. “This resurgence is due to an increased popularity worldwide in mechanical watches, as well as a thriving community of watchmakers in the U.S. eager to restore American watchmaking with the best in the world.”
Marc André Deschoux, founder of both Watches TV and Horopedia, the online encyclopedia of watchmaking, said the rise of young watchmakers was not limited to the United States.
“We’re seeing more and more young and talented watchmakers committing to the art of traditional watchmaking,” he wrote in an email. “This is the case in Switzerland, but we’re seeing this happening in other countries, so it’s no surprise that somebody would eventually be able to fully develop and manufacture a timepiece made 100 percent in the U.S.A. such as the Resurgence.”
Mr. Shapiro’s watchmaking inspiration came from very close to home: His paternal grandfather’s machine shop.
“I was curious about everything,” he said. “He would do projects with me in his giant shop, with all the equipment.”
But by the time Mr. Shapiro graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in history and then from California State University, Northridge, with a master’s in the same subject, he began teaching.
Then in 2011, “when I got married, my wife gave me a watch, a Bulova. I was completely fascinated,” he said, adding that he also realized he missed working with his hands. After he became principal at Chofetz Chaim, a Yeshiva high school in Los Angeles, he spent his free time studying horology and enrolled in the British Horological Institute’s distance learning course.
“They give you pamphlets and books, and you learn how a watch works, the physics, the science,” he said. “You send your work back to them to get feedback. You’re supposed to go there, to London, to do your final exam in person.”
But Mr. Shapiro did not go to England. “I spent that money on my first engine-turning machine instead of traveling there for the final exam.” (Engine turning is another term for guilloché.)
“In 2015,” he said, “I started making watch dials professionally for David Walter, who was a mentor for me.”
Mr. Walter, a prize-winning clock and watchmaker in Buellton, Calif., wrote in an email that he “had five movements and cases left over from another project, so I suggested a project in which Joshua made the engine-turned dials for me.
“This turned out to be the very first commercial dials Joshua made,” he added. “They are so good my wife got the very first finished watch with a Joshua dial.”
“As for mentor,” he wrote, “I have heard Josh say that and, if true, then I am happy to have been able to help a young maker on his way.”
After that project, Mr. Shapiro said, “I launched my own watches and made watches for friends with my own name on them. In June 2018, I became a brand and launched the Infinity series.”
The watches, which sold for $30,000 each, did so well that Mr. Shapiro was able to expand. Initially, “the work was done by just me and one part-time person helping me out,” he said, but the staff now numbers seven: three watchmakers, a master engraver; a CNC (computer-numerical control) machine operator; and two business-side workers.
Mr. Shapiro said the watchmakers all have their initials on the Resurgence’s movement: “That’s really important to me. It’s not all about me. I might have to rename the company.”
He also has added machinery in recent years, so the company is capable of making all the parts for the Resurgence except the jewels and springs. Jewels, the tiny rubies used to prevent friction) are supplied by Microlap Technologies, a North Dakota manufacturer of industrial components.
And while the wire for the watch’s hairsprings is made by Precision Engineering, a subsidiary of the Swiss watchmaker H. Moser & Cie, Mr. Shapiro said his workshop actually finished the springs in-house — and had purchased 28,000 feet of wire (enough for 100,000 springs) from an Indiana supplier in an attempt to make its own in the future.
All the recent changes prompted the brand to move from its initial 2,800-square-foot facility in Inglewood — “underneath the flight path of LAX,” Mr. Shapiro said — to a 7,300 square-foot-space in Torrance.
Overall, Mr. Shapiro said he felt very positive about how the company was growing. “We control the quality. We’re not relying on other sources, we’re mastering all the skills to make all the components. It feels great. This is what we’re doing, and we’re extremely proud to do it.”