Affordable Vintage: Hamilton Art Decos

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And now for something completely different. For anyone who has read any of my articles here, or seen my feed on Instagram, it’s plain to see that I favor mostly divers, chronographs and other watches from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. However, what first drew me to vintage watches were the incredible Art Deco and Machine Age designs of the 1930’s.

Companies like Waltham, Elgin, Gruen, Bulova and Hamilton produced an amazing array of stunningly designed watches. The cases ranged from simple Streamline to intricately engraved and enameled designs, to the dramatic stepped cases that took their styling cues from the skyscrapers in big cities like New York and Chicago. I started out my WIS journey collecting these beautiful creations from the 1930’s, and really enjoyed them.

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However, as much as I love the look and style of these, they are quite small and they are far more fragile than watches from the 1950’s on. I found that as my tastes changed as I grew as a collector, I slowly stopped wearing them and eventually sold most of them off. That said, I did keep a small core of these gems, and today I’ll discuss a trio of vintage Hamiltons from the mid 1930’s: The Putnam, the Drake, and the Nelson.

No single watch embodies the elements of Art Deco and Machine Age design like the Hamilton Putnam. Introduced in the 1932 catalog, the Putnam was described as a watch “with a flair for the modern”. The case features dramatic, slightly curved triple stepped sides with a super clean look. It measures 27mm wide by 34mm long, with 17.5mm lugs. Most Hamilton wristwatches of this era were available in different colored cases with different dial variations, and the Putnam was no exception. It was offered in both yellow gold fill (YGF) and white gold fill (WGF), with a choice dials with either luminous Radium numbers, or applied gold numbers (AGN).

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The Putnam was also available made with two different caliber manual wind movements, the 17 jewel 987 and later the 19 jewel 979. Fortunately for collectors, many of Hamilton’s records have survived, and production numbers for many models are known. In WGF, there were 3247 examples made with the caliber 987, and only 607 with the 979 movement. In YGF, there were 5681 examples with the 987, and 1220 with the 979. This adds up to only 10,765 Putnam models ever made.

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It was originally priced at $54.60 for the luminous dial, and $55.00 for the AGN dial version. My example shown here is a YGF with caliber 987, the most ‘common’ of the variations. I was fortunate enough to acquire one in excellent condition with the original Radium dial and hands. You can see where the Radium has burned a shadow onto the dial where the hands likely sat in the same position for years in someone’s drawer.

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Next up is the Drake. To quote Seinfeld: “Love the Drake!” Debuting in the 1933 catalog, this model is another fine example of Machine Age and Streamline design, with a smooth tonneau shape and triple stepped sides. The steps aren’t quite as dramatic as the Putnam, making this one definitely more sleek and streamlined. It measures 27mm wide by 41mm long, with 17.5mm lugs.

This one was also available in YGF and WGF, and it had three options for the dial. It was offered with a choice of luminous, AGN, or black enamel painted numerals. This one was powered by the caliber 987 movement. There were 4121 examples made in WGF, and 20919 pieces in YGF, for a total of 25,040 produced. The Drake was priced at $37.50 for the luminous and painted dials, and $40.00 for the AGN.

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While all variations are attractive, I was especially drawn to the enamel painted dial, and after a long search I found one in a WGF case, which is my favorite combination. The black painted numbers are done in an incredible Art Deco style, with a beautiful decorative line design around the inside, and capped off with stunning blued steel spade tipped hands.

Lastly we have the Nelson, with perhaps the coolest stepped case ever made. The Nelson was introduced in the 1935 catalog, and featured a longer, thinner case than the previous two models. It measures 22mm wide, by 38mm long with 15.5mm lugs. The case has a single slim step on either side, but the top and bottom of the case have steps that extend onto the lugs and sides, giving it an incredible 3-D wraparound look that is the epitome of 1930’s Machine Age design.

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The Nelson was available only in YGF, but did come with three options for the dial. The choices were the classic AGN, applied gold stick markers, and the black painted enamel numerals. They were priced at $50.00 for the enamel dial, and $52.50 for either applied marker dial. The Nelson was part of a group of models that debuted in 1935 that featured the smaller sized 17 jewel caliber 980 which was touted as being more advanced, with greater interchangeability of parts and ease of repair.

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Unfortunately, production numbers for the Nelson do not seem to be available. My example has the AGN dial, which is nice as when it’s grouped with my other two Hamiltons, it gives me a representation of the three major dial styles available at the time.

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Vintage 1930’s Hamiltons are quite popular with collectors, but since they are relatively small in size, they are not as widely popular in general as are the larger watches of the 1950’s and 1960’s. As such, they can be found for sale for comparatively reasonable prices. I would say that any of these models can be found (given time and patience!) for anywhere from $150 to $600 depending on condition, seller, and sales site. How’s that for a truly “affordable” vintage timepiece with impeccable heritage and stunning style?

I want to give a shout out and hearty thanks to Bryan Girouard of www.artdecowristwatches.com for the production numbers data as well as directing me to the Hamilton catalogs on www.vintagewatchforums.com. You can find lots of fantastic vintage Deco Hamiltons and other brands on his site…great stuff. Thanks Bryan!

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Christoph (Instagram’s @vintagediver) is a long time collector and lover of all things vintage, starting with comic books when he was a kid (he still collects them). His passion for watches began in 1997 when he was gifted a family heirloom vintage Omega Genève by his step-father. That started him on the watch collecting path—buying and selling vintage watches of all sorts, with a special appreciation for vintage dive watches and Seiko.
vintagediver
  • Larry Williams

    Bryan,
    Remember me Larry Williams? How’s Mark Cardalucci? Thanks to you I have a great Hamilton Collection.

  • Larry Williams

    Bryan there is one watch that will complete my collection. A white gold Hamilton Cameron. You and Mark helped me obtain a Donovan and and I have a 50mm. Green Curvex in 14k called the Lt. it is a very rare solid gold curves with a 330 movement. Thanks always for yours and Mark’s friendship. Also Phil Welch of Newton, Mass. Larry