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Brief History: Gruen Watch Company

Gruen Watchmaker's Guild, Time Hill

Gruen Watchmaker's Guild, Time Hill

One of the most important and prestigious American watch manufacturers was the Gruen Watch Company, founded by a brilliant father-and-son team of horologists, Dietrich and Fred Gruen. Among the first companies to sell wristwatches, the Gruens split their manufacturing between two continents, exporting American technology to Germany and Switzerland, and bringing German and Swiss traditions of craftsmanship to America.

Dietrich was born in Osthofen, Germany, in 1847, and started his watchmaking career at age 15. In 1867 he went to America and settled near Columbus, Ohio. A hard-working young man, Dietrich was awarded his first watchmaking patent at age 27, in 1874. At 29 he co-founded the Columbus Watch Manufacturing Company; the successful enterprise was soon building complete watches in its own 300-employee factory buildings.

Fred, Dietrich’s oldest son, was born in 1872 and followed in his father’s footsteps. In his youth Fred worked in his father’s factory, then was sent to Germany to study watchmaking. To graduate, Fred was given bars of metal from which he had to build working watch movements, designing and manufacturing all the parts.

Dietrich Gruen - Image Courtesy Columbus Metro Library

Dietrich Gruen

Image Courtesy Columbus Metro Library

In 1894, after an economic depression had forced them out of the Columbus Watch Company, Dietrich and Fred formed a new partnership. Fred’s younger brother, George, joined as business manager and treasurer, and the company was moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where it became the Gruen Watch Company.

Initially, Dietrich and Fred designed the watch movements in America and manufactured them in Germany. Later, they would build their own movement factory in Switzerland. Most Gruen watches have Gruen-made Swiss movements and were assembled and adjusted in the U.S. in American-made cases.

Pocket watches in the late 1800s were large and heavy. Throughout his career, Dietrich tried to make his watches smaller, thinner and more comfortable to carry in a vest pocket, without sacrificing reliability or accuracy. The 1904 Gruen VeriThin pocket watch was a major breakthrough; although it had the same major parts as a traditional movement, Dietrich managed to rearrange components to achieve a much thinner watch. From this point on, Gruen specialized in thin, elegant pocket watches.

Gruen was one of the first companies to make wristwatches – both men’s and women’s models were introduced in 1908, but the men’s models were a huge commercial failure; men at the time considered wristwatches effeminate and refused to wear them.

During World War I wristwatches were used by the military, and after this men started to accept the idea of strapping a watch to their wrists. Most manufacturers, including Gruen, were careful to call these ‘strap watches’, since ‘wristwatch’ still sounded effeminate to male customers.

Dietrich died suddenly in 1911. To honor him, Fred and George put their father’s name on the company’s most expensive watches.

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In 1917 the Gruen brothers built a new headquarter outside of Cincinnati, Ohio and named it Time Hill. The building was inspired by Medieval guild halls, and became an important symbol. “It has always been our aim,” Fred said, “… to foster those ideals of the ancient guilds, of quality and craftsmanship; to make useful things in a beautiful way, under ideal surroundings. We believe in applying art to industry as exemplified in all of our activities, from building a plant whose style of architecture suggests craftsmanship, to making the watches most beautiful, with greatest accuracy obtainable.”

Detail of classic Gruen wristwatch dial

Detail of classic Gruen wristwatch dial

Wristwatches grew in popularity during the 1920s, but conservative American companies continued to make only pocket watches, while Gruen made both wrist and pocket watches. Wristwatches were still not considered appropriate for formal occasions, so Gruen ads tried to convince men that they needed both a wristwatch and a pocket watch.

In the 1920s and ’30s, rectangular watches were fashionable. Gruen was one of the first companies to design movements specifically for wristwatches; it made rectangular movements for rectangular watches, while most competitors still used small, round movements. Gruen’s movements were larger because they filled the available space, and the watches were sleeker because the case designs didn't need to disguise a round movement. This was carried even further in the famous Gruen Curvex. Curved watches became popular in the 1930s, and Gruen’s Curvex movement curved to fit the watch; Gruen’s watches could be thinner and more curved than competitor’s watches with flat movements inside.

In 1935 Fred Gruen, now 63 years old, became Chairman of the Board and Benjamin S. Katz was brought in as President of the Gruen Watch Company. In 1935, Gruen was about $1.8 million USD (roughly $36 million USD today) in debt; nervous stockholders and investors were behind the change. Fred would retire in 1940, but continued to sit on the board for the rest of his life.

After the success of the Curvex, Gruen launched a series of Veri-Thin wristwatches. Like the Curvex, the Veri-Thin was developed to fill fashionable watch case shapes. In the 1940s, Gruen started building Veri-Thin completely in the U.S., setting up a new factory in the Cincinnati area.

After World War II, the American watch industry began to decline. Fred died in 1945, and his brother George died in 1952. During the 1950s the Gruen Watch Company developed serious problems, went deeply into debt, and eventually was broken up and sold.

Fred Gruen retired in 1940 and died in 1945, and his brother George died in 1952. In 1953 the Gruen family sold their interest in the company. The same year, Gruen president Benjamin Katz was forced into retirement after a scandal, and in 1954 the company bought out his shares for $2 million USD. Over the years, other companies have sold watches under the Gruen name, but the original company ceased to exist in 1958.

Gruen Watch Serial Numbers and Dates

Gruen watches are notoriously difficult to date. No accurate date/serial number records exist for Gruen watches. Gruen collectors often rely on old advertisements or watch material catalogs to determine when a particular model may have been introduced, but this doesn't establish a date for a particular watch.

Our friends at GruenWristwatches.com have published research on a method for dating certain Gruen wristwatches using case "style codes". It is available on their site for interested Gruen collectors.

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