The Last of the Master Watchmakers | Roland G. Murphy
The watchmaker has always been a silent, unseen figure scarcely celebrated in the art world. Needless to say these modest artisans are not spotlight punching rock stars, nor crowd drawing sculptors, and yet, at the same time, they’re no less deserving of the same recognition, not least because of their refined creative intuition and steadfast devotion to their craft. Bold claim? Well, in this blog we’re going to take a look at a singular watchmaker straight out of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. And then we’ll see what this individual, one of the last authentic watchmakers, has done to deserve a place amongst the artists we idolise in modern society.
It might seem like an unlikely place, in the dusty and traditionally Amish backwater of America, to find a virtuoso directly connected to the ticking heart of horology. However that is where you’ll find one Roland Murphy of the Roland G. Murphy Watch Company, hunched inside a shabby building, which used to be a bank. Far from its busy monetary past this building is now the established home of the RGM Watch Company, housing one of the world’s most inspired watchmakers. If you were to wander inside you’d likely find Murphy’s spry son-in-law, Adam Robertson, operating an oversized drill press that looks like a decommissioned robot from the Steam Age. If you were lucky you might even catch him working on the underside of a watch plate, applying a few finely patterned details that no one but himself will ever be able to appreciate. This is horology at its finest – hand-polished and arranged in the hands of loving virtuosos. Usually, if you wanted to find a rarer and more knowledgeable breed of watchmakers, you’d have to travel to the chillier climes of Switzerland. You certainly wouldn’t expect to wind up in some abandoned bank in a threadbare pocket of Pennsylvania.
Inside, the business looks like a nostalgic hideaway with disassembled vintage cameras and cluttered, slightly askew wooden shelves for a collection of strange mementos. By contrast the old heavy bank vault doors loom large in the background and the space is crowded with complex machinery. If we haven’t given it away already, Murphy is not your classic watchmaker. He cuts an old time working man with a confident stare, ragged hair and a full-grown moustache. And a working man is exactly what he is – except without the calloused hands. Initially Murphy started out doing repairs and immediately took to the quiet, obsessive work, which befitted his nature. Within these ticking universes he found and revelled in a perfect order, whereby everything made sense and had a rightful place. Suffice it to say that he spent years peering into broken clocks, until eventually he packed up his life and travelled to Switzerland. This was every young watchmaker’s dream, comparable to an amateur actor making it to the gold-paved streets of Hollywood – and if Switzerland was Hollywood, the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training Program would be the Red Carpet leading to the Oscars. Suffice it to say that after completing this program a watchmaker could earn meaningful recognition in the capital of the watch industry.
That’s exactly what happened to Murphy once he finished the program. Fresh from his studies he went straight to the old Roman city of Neuchâtel and began work at the Hamilton Watch Company in an executive development position. It was here that Murphy learnt the American standard and was privy to a few secrets that revealed how American brands are still dependent on Swiss ingenuity. When he eventually returned to America he did so with a much greater understanding of home-spun watch manufacturers. For that reason he was able to instil RGM with a unique and ambitious ethos, creating watches that couldn’t be mistaken as vague imitations of superior Swiss designs. Instead he crafted his wares from a considered standpoint, inspired by the durable, trustworthy railroad watches of industrial America. This resulted in a rugged practicality, combined with a deeper sense of poetry. Indeed the watches made by RGM became symbols swathed in the promise that customers need not sell their homes to afford watches that wouldn’t let them down. The majority of this work was done by hand and even the machined parts were run through equipment that was made by Murphy and his compadre. At the same time there was no reason to put together in-house movements for American watches. In the end the process amounted to a sweet science of knowledge and delivery. So Murphy refined his designs, trimmed off all the fat and wrought watches tailored for the idealists amongst us, with a variety of cool and authentic designs. However none were quite as well-received as their masterpiece the Pennsylvania Tourbillon.
Not only is it very hard to design and execute a working Tourbillon, but it’s also very ambitious because nobody really does it. That’s why it’s so damn cool when you find out two or three guys, crammed inside a disused bank in Pennsylvania, managed to create a few that are both beautifully assembled and perfectly reliable. All it took was Murphy and his master watchmaker, Benoît Barbé, working together, boring tiny holes in the bridges, mounting the escape wheel and sharing all the intricate details that define a watchmaker. Everything had to be taken into consideration, from the precise 90-degree angle of the drill to the depth of each hole. Even the smallest variation could’ve potentially disrupted the mechanism, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t all worth it, because the finished timepiece (pictured above) was a work of art. Turning at 360 degrees once every minute, with a delicate spring coiled around the central axis, this was a creation that could’ve only been done by hand – and not just any hands, but those of a master watchmaker, devoted to their discipline.
When you strip back all the rhetoric you’re left with the glinting truth that Murphy creates watches with an ideal in mind. Ultimately he believes that a product should always be better than what’s necessary:
“We don’t design on the limit,” Murphy said, “Think about the Brooklyn Bridge. How much weight do you think it had to bear when they built it? Some horse carriages? Some pedestrians? Today there are giant semi-trucks going over it all day, and it supports that weight because it wasn’t designed to the limit. That’s something we take pride in.”