The Revived Cornell Watch Co. Puts a Spotlight on American Watchmaking, with an Assist from RGM

To many people, Roland Murphy is American watchmaking. His company, RGM Watch Co., is revered among watch enthusiasts for producing pieces that rival anything put out by the best Swiss watchmakers, all done in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Murphy was, then, a natural partner for the Cornell Watch Company, a newly revived heritage brand out of Chicago that founder–or re-founder, I suppose–John Warren hopes can help bring attention to the American watch industry and its rich heritage.

“I think people don’t know that American companies made more watches between the late 1850s and early 1900s than anywhere in the world,” said Warren in an interview with Worn & Wound. “I don’t think people know that we pioneered the American system of watchmaking that was adopted by the Swiss and the Japanese. I think it’s a story people want to know and it’s worth telling.”

Cornell’s story began in 1870, when Paul Cornell and John C. Adams founded the Cornell Watch Company to create railroad pocket watches. Cornell was prolific in timepiece production for a few years, but two tragedies, the Great Chicago Fire and the financial crisis of the Panic of 1873, hit the company hard, and brought it to an end. While an attempt to move Cornell to California to save it was made–along with an attempt at rebranding as the California Watch Company–Cornell shut down not long after.

But several Cornell’s pocket watches led to the company having a second life when they were discovered by Warren while a college student at the University of Chicago, not far from where Cornell’s original factory had been located.

“I was collecting the pocket watches because a lot of the watches I wanted were wrist watches and I couldn’t afford them,” said Warren.

Warren was fascinated by the movements in Cornell’s pocket watches, which could vary significantly from watch to watch thanks to differing movement designs, the number of jewels, and even the signature on the movement:

“Paul Cornell is on many of the movements. J.C. Adams was also involved in the company. He was known as the Great American Starter, and he started six other watch companies, including Elgin. Another big one is Charles L. Kidder, who was the co-founder of IWC, interestingly enough, and joined Cornell in 1872.”


When Warren decided he wanted to design a special wristwatch for some friends and family, he knew from where he’d pull his inspiration. And he knew who he’d reach out to.

“Roland’s custom program is a pretty incredible thing,” said Warren. “It’s akin to reaching out to any watchmaker in the world. You know, you name it, Philippe Dufour, whoever. And then you as a normal person get to design a watch.”

In the process of coming up with “an uncompromising piece,” Warren and Murphy realized their project would be appealing to far more people than just the handful Warren initially had in mind. 

“When John and I first talked about this project, we talked about different ways it could be done, different price points, different movements and things like that,” said Murphy. “But I told him that if you want to do this in a quality way, that first watch out of the box has to be something worth talking about, you know what I mean? You don’t want to just put a very basic automatic in it or just have a really plain everyday watch. You want to do something special.”

The end result, the 1870 CE, is indeed something special. The dial is inspired by one of Cornell’s pocket watches, and features black roman numerals on a clean white enamel dial, with a seconds subdial, railroad track around the perimeter of the dial, and eye-catching blue steel hands. The case is stainless steel, and was a new creation of Murphy’s.

“This was a case design that we had come up with here at RGM, even before John and I were talking. It’s a brand new case design. It’s also a new movement for us. I liked the idea of bringing back an old American brand, and I thought it would be a great way to start to use the case and movement,” said Murphy.

Murphy’s participation in the project meant the Cornell Watch Company was always going to be seen as an important addition to the American watch landscape. But Warren is hopeful that they’ll be able to use that platform to do more than just bring attention to Cornell. One way they’re doing that is by setting aside about $500 from each watch sold in the first series to go to the Horological Society of New York’s scholarship program to train watchmakers.

“Another initiative we’re working on is putting together a Yellow Pages for component suppliers and American watchmakers to get them closer to what RGM is doing,” said Warren. “They’re a shining beacon of what American watchmaking could be. So we’re working on the watchmakers directory and connecting component suppliers with watchmakers. We’re trying to integrate American ingenuity, American manufacturing with the knowledge that we’ve gained from how the Swiss were able to beat us in the 1940s. And that was through a cottage industry of different component suppliers to create a more integrated supply chain.”

RGM hand assembles and tests each of the Cornell 1870 CEs, and will produce 10 of them in this first series, with plans to produce a limited run of it each year. Murphy predicted this model will become the norm for future American watchmaking endeavors. 

“The previous watch companies in America back in the day were all big industrial operations. We’re not going to see that happen here for the same reason we’re not going to see that in bicycles or other things. It’s going to be more of a niche. It’s going to be more of an artisan, a craft type of thing,” said Murphy.

In addition to future runs of the 1870 CE, Cornell is already working on a follow-up watch that will be announced over the summer.

“We’re still going to maintain the same type of quality with real fired enamel dials in the same case and we’ll probably use solid gold hands,” said Warren. “So, it’ll be the same ethos, but just a slightly different style. High-level, going forward Cornell will likely introduce precious metals in the coming years. I think it suits that style very well.”

America may not be able to return to its impressive industrial watchmaking past, but the Cornell Watch Company is showing that a still impressive future is possible. It will look different from the past, with smaller batches of watches and an industry powered by individual artisans. And if the 1870 CE is any indicator, it will be a future worth getting excited about.

The Cornell Watch Company 1870 CE is 39mm with a sapphire crystal and a sapphire exhibition caseback. Inside is a 33-jewel Schwarz Etienne ASE 200 automatic movement with a micro-rotor and 86-hour power reserve. It retails for $10,750, and Cornell’s raffle for an opportunity to buy one of the 10 watches in the first round of production runs until 5:00 PM CT on April 30.

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Alec is a writer and editor based out of Washington, DC, currently working as a congressional reporter. His love for wristwatches started at age 10 when he received a Timex Expedition as a birthday present. A film buff and tennis fan, Cary Grant and Roger Federer played influential roles in continuing to develop his interest and taste in watches.