Check It Out, Mate: RGM’s Chess In Enamel Honors Historical American Watchmaking

by Elizabeth Doerr

 In 2017 RGM Watches turns a quarter-century old. And celebrating these 25 years of existence with some cool projects is not something that RGM founder Roland G. Murphy is above doing — thankfully!

I wrote about the first of these projects back in late December in RGM Collaborates On Two Millionth Martin Guitar With Integrated Unique Piece Watch.

RGM Chess In Enamel

RGM Chess in Enamel

The celebration continues with an unusual homage timepiece called Chess in Enamel, which pays tribute to historical American watchmaking as well as an historical American figure.

The inspiration

American Watch Company was a pocket watch maker arising from a consolidation of brands in 1859. It manufactured approximately 425 watches per day in its heyday around 1877 and employed around 900 people. It was renamed The American Waltham Watch Co. in 1885.

In the year of American Watch Company’s founding, American chess master Paul Morphy (1837–1884) was honored by the New York Chess Club with a pocket watch made by the company. Morphy was a chess prodigy, and many considered the New Orleans native to be the best player of his era. The most famous chess master of all time, Bobby Fischer, even included him in his own list of ten greatest players of all time.

The pocket watch was gifted to Morphy after he returned from a successful tour of Europe, during which he further established his name among the greats of the game.

The original dial of Paul Morphy's pocket watch and inspiration for the RGM Chess in Enamel

The original dial of Paul Morphy’s pocket watch and inspiration for RGM’s Chess in Enamel wristwatch

Upon his return from Europe, Morphy retired from chess to begin his career in law just as the Civil War broke out. The watch disappeared at some point after 1921, more than 37 years after his death, but the dial survived and is now on display at the NAWCC Watch and Clock Museum in Pennsylvania, a place where Roland Murphy spends a lot of time.

RGM Chess in Enamel beside the original Paul Morphy dial

RGM Chess in Enamel beside the original Paul Morphy dial

And it was here that Murphy spied the unique enamel dial boasting red and black chess pieces representing the hours instead of numerals or markers: kings at 12 and 6 o’clock, queens at 1 and 11 o’clock, bishops at 2 and 10 o’clock, knights at 3 and 9 o’clock, rooks at 4 and 8 o’clock, and pawns at 5 and 7 o’clock.

RGM Chess in Enamel

RGM Chess in Enamel

I was curious as to why the chess-themed dial interested Murphy so and found out that the watchmaker also plays chess. “I love chess and history,” he enthused. “Of course, the tie to Paul Morphy was a draw for me as well: his historical family name was changed to Morphy when his great-great-grandfather moved to Spain from Ireland (their name was previously Murphy). It’s also an American story.”

RGM’s ticking chess homage

The first thing you notice on RGM’s new Chess in Enamel timepiece is the oven-fired (grand feu) enamel dial featuring the chess pieces. The attractive design is pretty faithful to the original, with only the wording in the upper half of the dial obviously different; instead of “Made for Paul Morphy by the American Watch Company,” this loyal homage now reads, “RGM Watch Co. Lancaster, Penna, USA.”

RGM Chess in Enamel

RGM Chess in Enamel

The modern enamel work was done in Switzerland, where Murphy has all of his enamel dials made. “We design the dials and send the artwork and technical data,” he explained to me. “As you know, only a few people can make a dial of this quality in enamel; it takes many years of experience.” This dial also marks the first “double-sunk” enamel dial RGM has created, meaning a three-part enamel dial, which is much more difficult to get right due to the artisan having to precision-cut the dial blanks, enamel the parts individually, then put it all together as a whole.

With some imagination, the blued steel hands could also look like rooks. But their shapes were in fact inspired by the shape of the Keystone state (the nickname for Pennsylvania), an item that The Old Farmer’s Almanac defines as “a wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place; it is a stone on which the associated stones depend for support. Geographically, Pennsylvania’s central location along the arch of the 13 original states calls to mind a keystone. Politically, Pennsylvania played a vital role in holding together the states of the newly formed union.”

RGM Chess in Enamel

RGM Chess in Enamel

The architectural 43.3 x 12.3 mm stainless steel case with classic fluting on the case band also features a rendition of the Keystone shape on the crown.

This “Pennsylvania series” case is particularly interesting because it’s made using American stainless steel with components manufactured by a Lancaster County supplier and worked by RGM.

A stylized keystone shape of Pennsylvania is engraved on the crown of the RGM Chess in Enamel

A stylized “keystone” shape of Pennsylvania is engraved on the crown of RGM’s Chess in Enamel

“We have been making about half our cases here in the U.S. for more than seven years now,” Murphy explains. “We design and engineer the cases, then we have a company near us with bigger CNC machines make the main case parts. This is not a case-making company; it makes parts for medical, military, and other industries. Then we finish the case here at RGM, removing machine marks, polishing, brushing, setting the case tube, gaskets, crystals, and so on. In effect we are [our own] case supplier.”

Murphy adds that RGM also engineers and controls the design so everything works correctly in terms of water resistance and quality. These cases are not stamped, but rather machined from solid materials such as stainless steel.

Caliber 801

“I make watches I like, and I hope other people like them,” Murphy once said to me. “Because RGM is small, each watch has its own special appeal. They are not just a commodity pumped out of a factory that changes ownership every five years. I may not have a 150-year history with a famous name, but I have high-quality watches.”

More than ten years ago, Murphy had the grandiose idea of making his own movement, the first serial caliber manufactured in the United States since before World War II.

Caliber 801, RGM's own movement, beats at the heart of Chess in Enamel

Caliber 801, RGM’s own movement, beats at the heart of Chess in Enamel

Since there is no longer an industry supporting making timepieces in the U.S. — which also means there is no infrastructure or supplier system in the country — this venture is a lot harder than it sounds. A decade ago, Murphy proudly introduced Caliber 801, a classic movement inspired by the tradition of America’s greatest manufacturers.

The 801’s classic bridge shapes are strongly reminiscent of Keystone-Howard Watch Company’s Edward Howard model. This was a historical watch company in operation from 1902 through 1930 and located in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Close up look at the RGM Caliber 801 with its unique winding click top right

A close look at RGM Caliber 801 with its unique winding click at top right

Caliber 801’s unique winding click was inspired by the click found within the Illinois Bunn Special, an American-invented “motor barrel” the likes of which was only used in highest-grade railroad watches. Its design is beneficial to the quality of the movement as it transmits energy efficiently by reducing friction.

Finely finished Caliber 801 was conceived from the get-go to be customized to the wishes of the client in terms of decoration, plating, and other elements. Since RGM makes fewer than 350 timepieces per year, customization is one of the great services this American watchmaker is able to offer.

RGM Chess in Enamel

RGM Chess in Enamel

Check it out, mate!

For more information, please visit www.rgmwatches.com/watches#/ps801ch-chess-in-enamel.

Quick Facts RGM Chess In Enamel
 
Case: 43.4 x 12.3 mm, American stainless steel; gold or platinum available on request
 Dial: high-fire enamel
 Movement: manually winding Caliber 801, American-made, 18,000 vph/2.5 Hz, optional wolf’s tooth wheels available, 40–44 hour power reserve; special motor-barrel click
 Functions: hours, minutes, seconds
 Limitation: 25 pieces
 Price: $13,900

Originally published at Quill & Pad.