Timepieces of American History Come to Life Again, Thanks to Vortic Watch Company

By Jeffrey Bonior
The United States once lead the world in making pocket watches, creating more than 100 million between 1850 and 1950. Vortic Watch Company takes the guts of these old timepieces and turns them into modern wristwatches. | Photos courtesy Vortic Watch Company

The company transforms antique American-made pocket watches into modern masterpieces.

The initial motto of Vortic Watch Company founders R.T. Custer and Tyler Wolfe was “America wasn’t assembled, it was built.”

Vortic Watch Company founders Tyler Wolfe and R.T. Custer.

The Pennsylvania State University classmates have held true to this tag line since they launched the Vortic Watch Company in 2013. Because of a unique supply chain model, Vortic can boast it manufacturers the only 100 percent Made in America watches.

In doing so, they preserve an important point of American history.

We are in the digital age, and many people don’t even bother wearing a watch, keeping time via their smartphone. But there is another group of timepiece aficionados that wear a wristwatch not only to make a fashion statement, but because they find it easier to glance at their wrist than to dig through their pocket and press a button to discover the time of day.

And, as they say, time is money. The worldwide wristwatch annual revenue is estimated to be $128 billion per year. Watches sold in America represent about $10 billion of this burgeoning market.

This has surely proven true for Custer and Wolfe as they developed a line of classic Made in America watches. And we don’t mean assembled in America. The watches are 100 percent American-made because the “guts” — the movement of the watches — come from antique pocket watches that date back to the mid-1800s.

“We salvage and restore antique American pocket watches and turn them into wristwatches,” Custer said. “Unfortunately, nowadays people do not have any use for pocket watches that were made 100 years ago in the United States.

“People find them in estates or as family heirlooms and they don’t know what to do with them, so they take them to pawns shops for the price of the gold and silver. The guts of these watches, or movements as we call them, are often discarded. That includes all the gears made here back in the day, the face of it and the hands.

“Everything inside our watches is an original antique and it’s all from the guts of the old pocket watch. So, we like to say we preserve American history, one watch at a time.”

A Niche, Inside a Niche, Inside of a Niche

Vortic Watch Company got its start when Custer and Wolf were still students at Penn State. The pair found themselves contemplating a challenge made by one of their professors who wore a Timex watch that was Made in China. He asked the students, ‘what can be Made in America?’

So, the college students came up with the idea of taking century old pocket watches and converting them into modern looking wristwatches that contained the original American-made parts and movements.

The United States once rivaled Switzerland when it came to making fine timepieces. From 1850 to 1950, there were 10 great American watch companies, and those companies manufactured more than 100 million pocket watches in the United States.

Companies like Elgin, Waltham, Illinois Watch Company and Hamilton made the finest pocket watches in the world. Swiss manufacturers came to America to study their expertise.

One of the most famous American watchmakers was the Bell Watch Company in Cleveland, Ohio.

“Webb Bell owned a jewelry store in Cleveland, and he bought pocket watches from all the major brands,” Custer said. “There was a huge train wreck in Cleveland in 1894, and Ball altered the watches of the popular pocket watches. He made them more accurate and sold it to the railroad companies as the official timekeeper of the American railroads.”

After all, they had to keep the trains running on time.

“Ball is now the most collected pocket watch,” Custer said. “If you have a Ball pocket watch, it’s very valuable today.”

But as the wristwatch became popular after World War II, pocket watches were no longer in demand. Many were either sold for the value of the metal or left sitting in a drawer.

Custer and Wolfe decided to take advantage of the classic American gears and movements found in millions of American pocket watches and incorporate these parts into unique, one-of-a-kind wristwatches.

Vortic Watch Company has a manufacturing facility in Fort Collins, Colorado where it manufactures the metal components, the outside case, the crown and other small internal engineering for its watches. The leather straps are manufactured in Brooklyn, and the glass is from Corning Gorilla Glass out of a company in Los Angeles.

But the internal movement parts of these former pocket watches are from those legacy companies.

Yes, the movements are old – some restored from as far back as 200 years ago – but is all American craftsmanship and, believe it or not, there is still an ample supply of replacement parts available.

“We make about 500 watches a year, that’s it,” Custer said. “And they made 100 million pocket watches 100 years ago. So, even if only 1 percent of pocket watches they made back then are still around and findable and salvageable, that still leaves me with a million potential options — and I only make 500 a year.

“I buy about 2,000 pocket watches per year and then I cherry pick from those 2,000 looking for the best 500, and they become Vortic watches.”

Custer has three or four people searching estate and pawn shop auctions constantly on the lookout for old pocket watches that may have been stripped down — except for the timekeeping movement.

“These guys, that’s what they do and make of their money off the diamonds and gold, and every now and then, they find a $50,000 Rolex that will make their day,” Custer said. “But pocket watches to these people are just kind of fodder. They buy a whole estate and wonder what to do with 100 pocket watches from this pawn shop, and they collect them all for me and I go out and buy all the pocket watches from them.

“It’s a niche, inside a niche, inside of a niche.”

But a successful niche it has been. Business has nearly doubled each of the past four years.

A Modern Movement

Vortic offers several lines of Made in America watches, including the American Artisan Series, the Railroad Edition, and the Military Edition. Vortic also has a Convert Your Watch program for those who discover an old pocket watch at home and want it converted to a wristwatch with special specifications.

It’s a sentimental way to get an old family heirloom working again. After all, you can always purchase an expensive timepiece — but preserving the memories of past family members is priceless.

Vortic’s main customers, demographics aside, are people who have an affinity for history. The price range for a Vortic one-of-a-kind original is between $1,500 to $7,500. Although pricier than the typical wristwatch you would find at a big box store, the cost of a Vortic watch is reasonable compared to most high-end timepieces, which are often purchased as a jewelry showpiece.

“Rolex is a great company, but they make 10,000 of one model at a minimum, and then they move on to the next thing,” Custer said. “If you like watches, you want a watch that no one else can have and that’s what we specialize in.”

And you are guaranteed the watch is entirely 100 percent American-made.

“That is really the kicker that it is American-made,” Custer said. “It’s just kind of a mindset thing for me, because I love American-made and I want to support American-made, but if I just go around waving the flag all the time people are going to think I’m crazy. I need to make a good product, and have it Made in America.

“If I were to buy a pocket watch that was made 100 years ago and fix it up and restore it and then clap it in a Made in China case and it sells for 500 bucks, the people who made those pocket watches 100 years ago would be rolling in their graves.

“I would not be doing service to our ancestors who made these things unless I do it the right way. So, for me, that’s what Made in America means. America wasn’t just assembled. I’m not just assembling a watch from some part. I’m building something the right way and that’s the difference.

“It’s about doing the right thing.”

Visit Vortic Watch Company online.