TimeZone Interview with Roland G. Murphy of RGM Watches

by Michael Sandler

July 2003

MS: Michael Sandler – TimeZone.com

RGM: Roland G. Murphy

MS: Hello Roland. Thanks very much for allowing me to stop by and visit, and for taking the time to talk to us. Could you begin by telling us a little about how you got started with watches and watchmaking?

RGM: Well, that’s a long story. I worked for a clock company part time when I was in high school. I worked in the area of carpentry, actually cabinetmaking, which is what I had taken in vo-tech. Then this little grandfather clock company went out of business during the time when I was working there part-time (through no fault of my own, I might add).

At that time, my father and I bought up some clocks and movements, some half assembled and others in pieces. This was a good opportunity for us. They had a fairly good name in the area (Harford County, Maryland) since it was a 40 or 50 year-old company. So I would assemble these clocks and sell them, basically. That’s how I was making money after high school.

I learned some things from one guy who used to put the movements into the cabinets, He gave me a few little pointers. I’ve always been very mechanically inclined, so I would cut a hole in a work table and actually put a grandfather clock movement in front of me over that hole. I supported it so that I could put the weights on and could actually make it function and watch it run. That way I could figure out how everything worked. Eventually I was taking everything apart and putting them back together, learning how to adjust them.

MS: How did you make the shift from clocks to watches?

I went to school for clockmaking in Lancaster, PA at Bowman Technical school. In the clockmaking course there we also did pocket watches. That’s when I realized that although I liked clocks, I really preferred watches even more.

So watches became even more intriguing to me, especially the history of the American watchmaking industry. The different companies, the advancements, the things that really took place here at the beginning of industrialized watchmaking. Many of the advancements started on this side of the ocean as opposed to the other. This was all very fascinating to me…the histories of companies like Hamilton, Howard, and many of the other smaller companies.

Then I ended up getting more and more into watches, and ended up going to school at WOSTEP in Switzerland in 1986. I took the course there and did very well. I was obviously very interested in pursuing a career in watches. I was also good at recognizing movements and things like that.

MS: Once you finished school in Switzerland, did you come back to the U.S.?

RGM: Yes. When I came back here I went to work for a major conglomerate in product development for one of their brands. I worked on the design of new watches as well as ordering of sample components such as dials and hands and cases. I also technically checked those things when they came in from the manufacturer. I was responsible for checking everything before it was approved to be ordered for production. If there were problems, I would have changes made until it was OK.

I also got very good interchangeability there. Before I came there, they didn’t have a very good handle on certain movements and hands. So, they had a lot of things that were not really organized in a way where they could use their inventory properly. I was able to figure out the interchangeability of movements and cases ,that one movement could also fit in another case, or you could buy another movement and make a particular watch a quartz or a mechanical watch.

I also put together many prototype watches. I was also called on when they needed a watch for a movie. I put together a watch for Robin Williams that he wore in “Dead Poets Society”, I built a watch for Dennis Quaid ( a watch with the “Sugar Bowl” Logo on the dial) . I think the movie was called “Everybody’s All American” or something like that. Recently Albert Brooks wore RGM watches in the “Muse”.

MS: When did you end up starting your own company?

RGM: Eventually, in the early 90’s, I started my RGM experiment, if you want to call it that, ( I wanted to do my own thing, so ). About 1991 is when I officially started at least the framework of the first watch.

MS: What was that first watch?

RGM: That would have been the 101 chronograph and the 101M chronograph, which we don’t make anymore. They were gold chronographs with engine turned dials and blue steel hands. They were sold at extremely reasonable prices for that time. Occasionally you’ll see one pop up on Ebay or here and there, not very often. Maybe once a year I’ll see one come up for sale. We made about 150 of those watches.

Then basically I sort of muddled my way through the years running my own company, designing watches and coming up with new models and progressively growing slowly. We’ve expanded our service here as well.

MS: Some of your watches show design cues from historical watchmakers like Breguet or others. Which watchmakers or companies have influenced you or your designs?

RGM: Breguet, in one sense, was the strongest influence, only because I’ve always loved some of the elements that are typical to Breguet, such as engine-turned dials and blued steel hands. If you think of Breguet, you think of that. We took it a step further than them, because we like to use varied patterns and designs in our engine turning. For years and years, Breguet only used one or two patterns. It’s only been during the past couple of years that they’ve started to use other patterns than the basic Breguet type of engine turning.

We started basically taking some of the elements that we liked, and then tried to expand that engine turned look. We went into shaped watches, whereas Breguet hadn’t made shaped watches in decades. We made the 102J which was the first watch that started the William Penn family for us before they were making any modern shaped watches. It still had the engine turned, blued steel hands look.

As far as other makers, I couldn’t pick one particular name. Of course the pilot watches do have that traditional look that many companies use. Many of our watches have a very traditional look used by many different makers. That’s also true for certain complications, for example the triple date moonphase, which is not necessarily associated with only one company.

MS: RGM currently offers customers the opportunity to have a completely custom watch designed from scratch. Could you explain a little about how that process works?

RGM: We’re actually going to revise our website (www.rgmwatches.com) soon to add more information on the custom pieces….it’s pretty basic right now. We’re also going to show a lot more of the custom watches we’ve made over the last year or two. We probably get several hundred requests a year about custom watches, and we make somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty custom watches a year with varying degrees of customization.

A custom watch can be taking an existing model and simply tweaking it a little. Perhaps they want a special engraving or they want a whole new dial and different hands. We’ve had some customers come to us and say “I love that watch, but I want it in white gold”. We do not normally make the watch in white gold, so we make a brand new case in white gold for the customer. Also, changing the dial and hands on a watch can make it appear like an entirely different watch.

We’ve got other customers who want particular functions or complications, so we may use an entirely different movement, or do a customized movement. The movement can also be altered with respect to finish. In turn, an entirely new case may have to be made. These sorts of things we really consider a completely custom watch. New dial, new case, sometimes new hands….so that’s a truly custom piece. It could be a time only watch, a chronograph, a repeater. A new one we’re working on which we just started for a customer is a custom made RGM perpetual calendar. The dial would be loosely based on the perpetual calendar dial from our minute repeater. We will make it an automatic watch, and we’ll be doing a lot of hand engraving and also two-tone plating of the movement. The customer was very specific about the look he wants.

MS: Do most of your customers come to you with very specific requests or requirements?

RGM: Some customers are very specific about what they are looking for, so we can hold their hands and work things through with them with email, drawings, pictures, etc. Once we get to a certain point, we can actually simulate the look of the entire watch in color for them so they can see exactly what they’re going to get before they sign off on having the watch built. So that’s an interesting project.

We have other customers who we have to draw out a little more, because they’re not exactly sure what they want initially. They want a custom watch, but they’re very vague. So we work with them closely and we can feed them ideas until we can find the right direction on what they are looking for. That helps us get to a point where we can help them find what they want.

MS: Of all the custom pieces you’ve been asked to make, what was the most complex? Did you actually make the piece?

RGM: The most custom watch that we did, we introduced as a limited edition model in the RGM line. It’s a minute repeater tourbillon with the movement reversed so you can see the hammers and tourbillon through the dial and you can see the racks for the repeater and the things normally hidden under the dial through the back of the watch. That’s the most complicated watch we made as a custom watch. It had a special dial as well. It’s a Claret based movement and we worked on a case with the customer as well.

He wanted to make something very special and very complicated, and I pitched ideas to him and then eventually we made the watch based on those ideas. Now we do offer a similar watch, but of course it doesn’t have the same dial as his. We offer the same functions in our line now on a special order bases. Of course watches like that are very expensive, and typically we don’t make very many of them. Maybe once a year we make a watch of that complication.

MS: Can you tell us about RGM’s production, how may people are here, volume, etc.?

RGM: We’re 7 or 8 people if you include me. There are three watchmakers, four if you include me, so a total of four of us that are technical people. I split my time between working downstairs (watchmaking area) and working up here (offices). More and more I spend time upstairs working on custom designs with customer and things like that. I still do go downstairs to work on certain restorations and prototypes. Not too long ago I did a Patek five-minute-repeater repair. I also did a very thin Patek pocket watch from the 1940s that needed a new staff and other things. I like to do certain repairs on interesting pieces. It keeps me sharp.

Certainly I don’t work on nearly as many watches as my watchmakers do downstairs. There’s obviously a lot more to keeping a business going than just working on watches. I have to wear many hats.

MS: In terms of your overall business, can you comment on the split between work done on your own watches and new production against repairs your watchmakers are doing on other brands like Girard Perregaux, etc.?

RGM: RGM new production varied over the last couple of years from about 300 to 400 pieces, so it’s very small production. We’re not really looking to increase that by leaps and bounds. Slow progression is fine with us.

Last year we did somewhere between 1,600 and 1,700 repairs. Not all those are full-blown restorations or overhauls, but that’s how many pieces we had here as a company. These could be anywhere from a regulation to a full restoration of a particular brand watch. We do repair and restore many different types of mechanical watches. We are the official service center for several brands; one large brand and several smaller brands. At RGM we do all sorts of repairs for customers.

MS: Have there been any interesting or unique pieces which have come through for repair recently? Something which perhaps sticks out in your mind as particularly notable or memorable?

RGM: Of course some complicated modern pieces have come through for repair, but I think the more memorable pieces are the older watches, because you may never have the chance to see another piece like them. I’d say the most memorable pieces that we’ve done here are some of the Patek minute repeaters. Several years ago I did the Patek Grand Complication for the NAWCC museum. I restored that watch, which was certainly a nice piece to work on. It was a perpetual calendar, minute repeater split second chronograph. It had a broken balance jewel and several other problems.

Other pieces we’ve done here include a high-quality unsigned minute repeater that was given by Mr. Rockefeller in the 1890s to a man who took care of his yachts. That was an interesting piece and you don’t usually forget a watch like that, with its history and its ties to a famous name in history.

Sometimes it’s the individual. We’ve fixed watches for several race-car drivers and some actors. We’ve repaired a couple of watches for Mario Andretti. One was an old Omega pocket watch. There was nothing really exciting about the watch, but it’s interesting to see what certain people have. I think it was a family piece that was handed down to him. So sometimes it’s the watch and sometimes it’s the person who sent the watch in. Still the most memorable ones would have to be those Patek repeaters and the one from Rockefeller was a very interesting piece.

MS: Does RGM have any plans to develop an in-house movement at any point? Is this something you’ve considered?

RGM: First of all, I don’t think that there’s anything that exists which is a fully in-house movement. That would have to be defined, because I really don’t know of anybody who makes a fully in-house movement. I’ve traveled to suppliers in Switzerland and Germany and visited various watch companies. You actually learn more when visiting suppliers that visiting watch companies. I probably have seen more of that than any other American. I’m traveling as a customer looking to buy particular parts; I’m not traveling as a watch collector who’s getting a tour through a particular company and is shown what they want to be shown.

Often I’ve seen things being made at other companies that otherwise I would have sworn were made in-house. So even when a company makes their own movement, like we had talked about earlier, often a lot of components are not made there, like the balance, hairsprings, escapements, jewels, mainsprings, screws, regulations devices. Things like these, no matter which brand it is, are normally made by suppliers who specialize in those areas.

So typically, an in-house movement for most companies would be: they own the design, which could or could not have been done in-house. Often there are people on the outside who help with the design because it is such a large investment. Even within the design, you may have several different people who actually worked on that particular design or tweaked it. Because it is such a large investment, it’s often not left to just one person to do that. If a particular person is in charge of a design, there are often several other people working with him. They may even send the design out to other companies who would review the design for feasibility or technical or engineering mistakes which they could try to resolve ahead of time.

Some companies will then produce their own bridges and plates, and others will have those bridges and plates produced on the outside and then finish them in-house and so on. I really don’t think a truly in-house movement exists. There’s just no one making everything.

MS: So with respect to what you’ve just outlined, is RGM planning to venture into this arena at some point?

RGM: We do have plans to do an “in-house” movement, with some parts made here and some parts made on the outside. That is something we’re currently working on . It’s probably a movement that we will make on a very small scale once we finish the prototypes and test. Then we’ll see what the feasibility is and how many we’re going to make. So it will probably be made in very small quantities each year. It will be signed Lancaster, PA. We’ll probably offer it in different finishes and allow people to get it engraved a certain way, or choose Cotes de Geneve or perlage or damaskeening, etc.

So we’re working on that, and it will obviously be a more expensive item in our line, probably aimed toward the custom kind of area. For example, you wouldn’t see the movement in a pilot watch at $1,750.

MS: Would you discuss your current model line a little? Are there any specific models you’d like to highlight? New models, etc?

RGM: For years, we’ve done a lot of complicated pieces. This year, we decided to concentrate on continuing to make the pieces we had in our line. In the past year we added the other William Penn models, the moonphase and the date version. We added the 151 Classic, which has the very unique dial just showing the three numbers at 12, 3 and 9 and the date at 6. This model has the very nice engine turned pattern in the center. Also, by not having numbers all the way around the dial of this particular watch, we were able to increase the diameter of the engine turning all the way out to the minute track, which really accentuates the engine turning. The plan for this watch was to really accentuate the engine turning, so we made a really classic watch, time-only automatic with date, and we have it in both steel and gold.

We just introduced in Basel the same watch with a copper color and silver dial instead of the all silver or the blue and silver dial. The copper and silver version of the 151 is the newest watch that we showed at Basel. We’re always working on new things, so we’ll probably introduce something totally new for next spring. We also just introduced our Model 160, which you can see on our website.

MS: Do you have any special or unique projects going on that you can tell us about?

RGM: We’re working on some variations of some of our other watches which haven’t really been shown around much. There’s the Constellation ship’s watch. That was sort of a pet project of mine, and I don’t really know that there’s a big market for it since it’s a bit of a departure from our other watches. I love watches and I love sailing ships, so this watch combines the two. We haven’t fully decided how we’re going to market it. It may be a watch which we decide to only sell directly through our website as a special offering because it’s so different from our other pieces. Of course we did all the artwork here which was then translated to a beautiful dial. So we’ll see where that watch goes.

Over the last year or so we’ve also increased our pilot watch line, incorporating the 107 which we’ve had in our lineup for years at 35mm. Then we introduced the 42mm 150 and then the 151 pilot, which is a 38.5mm automatic. The 150 and 151 can also be had on a bracelet. These are the first watches in our line that we’ve offered with a bracelet.

MS: You just mentioned the introduction of the 150 at 42mm. The trend with a lot of companies now seems to be towards the production of larger watches (over 40mm diameter). Is that a trend you believe will continue, or do you see it as a fad that will pass fairly quickly?

RGM: I think it may drop off somewhat, but I don’t think it will disappear. A lot of people now are used to large watches. It may slow down, but I think you’ll see larger watches stay around. The 42mm watch we offer was an answer to that market, but also we were able to put the large Unitas movement in there and still sell it at an affordable price. Our movement is a very upgraded one, with an upgraded balance and a Trivois regulator which I think makes it an interesting piece. When you turn it over and look at through the display back, all you see is movement due to its size. We also have a skeleton version.

I think 42mm for RGM is the biggest you’ll ever see us go. I think that’s the limit for an RGM watch, and you’ll probably not even see too many at that size. I think 38.5mm or 39mm is a more practical size for most of our customers. I’ve had customers inquire about pieces at 40mm, which we could custom make.

MS: Earlier, you mentioned that one of the key features of many of your watches is the intricate engine turned dials. Could you walk us through the process of designing these dials and then the actual process of making the dials themselves as compared to a stamped dial?

RGM: Sometimes for the novice it’s difficult to see the difference between an engine turned dial and a stamped dial or an embossed dial. On an embossed dial, the tool is hand cut, sort of like how our actual dials are. So with the tool, it is cut once, and then each dial is stamped with that tooling. The peaks and valleys on an engine turned dial are much sharper than on a stamped dial, because there’s a little bit of rounding over on those stamped dials. So it’s not quite as sharp and crisp, but it can still look very good. It also doesn’t reflect the light in the same manner as a true engine turned dial. If you really want the optimum, engine turning is certainly much nicer to look at to someone who can recognize those differences.

As far as making the dial, the difference between the two is fairly great. Engine turning is an art, a skill. It’s like a hand engraver or a painter. The people who do engine turning, basically that’s all they do, although some also do hand engraving. They’re typically not watchmakers and not dial makers. They just do this art, either by hand or in the case of engine turning, with a rose engine or straight line engine.

In the process of making one of these dials, we would design the dial here. We will decide exactly all the dimensions of the dial and what engine turning pattern will go where. So we make a very detailed drawing with all the patterns and measurements. Typically we’ll work with a dial factory, which will handle the details for us as far as having the engine turning done, because they have to start first.

MS: What material are RGM dials made of? Do you have an engine turner on your staff?

RGM: With all RGM engine turned dials, the plate is either solid gold or solid silver. Even if the dial is silver in color (as in some of our William Penn watches, or some of our more complicated pieces), the dials are made of gold and then they’re silvered. In some of our other pieces, like the 151 or the chronographs, the dials are made of silver. So the dial factory will prepare the plate, whether it will be gold or silver. It will be cut to size, it will have dial feet applied, it will have the center hole and holes for the other hands and calendar cut. Also, they will print guidelines on the dial for where the engine turning is to go and where it’s not to go.

Then the dial is sent to an engine turner, which is typically a one or two person family operation in their home . They will then turn the required pattern onto the surface of these dials. It usually takes several hours to turn one dial, even after the plate has already been prepared. When the engine turner is done, the dial then goes back to the dial factory, who then prepares the dial. With a very, very fine abrasive and a soft brush, the dials will be brushed under water to create a very fine finish on the engine turning and will also remove any burrs which may have been left on during the engine turning. Typically, the flat areas can be brush finished to make them a little brighter. Sometimes there’s masking done so that a certain area isn’t touched during a certain process. There’s printing involved of the tracks and the numerals and the logos, lacquering of the dial, etc.

To make one engine turned dial, there are many people involved. It’s a large process with many steps, versus a stamped dial, which would normally be something like a brass plate that can be stamped in a matter of seconds, and then printed and lacquered. There are far fewer steps involved and it’s much less expensive. It’s a similar look, but to a trained eye, there’s a very big difference. If you look at our dial closely compared to a stamped dial, you would definitely see a difference in quality.

If you look at our website on the engine turning page, there’s a link to a page which shows many different engine turning patterns. There are more patterns than what are shown on that page, but it does show some of the varied designs which are possible with engine turning. We have a Rose Engine at RGM we use for turning on a caseback or bezel mainly on custom jobs.

MS: Regarding case design, you noted earlier that many companies are not making their own cases. Are your cases exclusively your own designs, or do you also use somewhat standard cases designed by the case-maker?

RGM: With most of our round cases in the newer watches, it’s a very traditional style, which is what I like for a round case. We use a very traditional style lug on the pilot watches and also on the 151 and the master chrono. We have a special turning done on top of the bezel. This is not a groundbreaking design or a totally unique case. We do elements which are to our design, but you could see similar case styles on many other watches. I prefer this very classic look on a round case, with the flowing lugs and the double-turning on the bezel.

As far as the William Penn goes, this is a totally RGM designed case. It does not really mimic anyone else’s watch. If you look at the side of the case, you have a slight tonneau shape, very unique angles on the side, and the lugs are unique. It is sort of a classic looking rectangle, but if you look around the market, there really is no other case like this.

The first time we did this case was on our 102J jumping hour watch. That’s when the case was designed. When we went to the William Penn pieces like the power reserve, we took the same case, but “beefed it up” a bit to make it a little stronger looking. It’s the same basic design, though, and it’s a totally unique RGM case. The reason we named it William Penn and made an entire line of it is that it’s somewhat of a signature design for us as far as our brand goes.

MS: Are there any current watch companies which really stand out in your mind as doing something truly unique or interesting? Do you have any particular favorites? It’s always interesting to get the perspective of a watch designer on what his contemporaries are doing.

RGM: Sometimes I can admire things that I wouldn’t necessarily make, but I can appreciate what they are. It may not be an idea that I want to explore, but I can say that it may have been an interesting project or an interesting choice that they made on a particular watch or design. It would be hard to name one person. I think as far as the design goes, in terms of classical designs and sticking to your roots, Vacheron has done a really nice job in the last several years. They’ve come up with several nice, classic looking pieces that really say “Vacheron”. I wouldn’t’ make a watch that looked like that, because it’s not me, but looking at what they’ve done and how they’ve kept the continuity of some of the classical looks, they’ve done an excellent job on some of their pieces.

On the other hand, I think Patek’s watches (and I love Patek), over the past several years are a departure from “Patek”. That may be good and it may be bad, depending on who you are. If I was deciding what Patek should make, I think I would have made a few more classical looking pieces, but as I said, I’m a real classical kind of guy. Somebody else might say they needed to change things and shake it up a little.

MS: What about the work of the small independent watchmakers?

RGM: With individual watchmakers, I think there are a number of them. I couldn’t name just one because I’d be afraid of leaving someone out. There are a number of individuals who I think have done very interesting things in several areas. With one person it may be a design element like a cool rotor, with another it may be an interesting case, and with another an interesting dial or an interesting movement or combination of functions. So I don’t want to name individuals just because there are so many out there. It just shows you how alive watchmaking is right now.

As far as the huge complicated watches, personally I think you can go too far. I’ll use a story that Phillipe Dufour told me once , I was visiting with him a few years ago and he was describing how some customers want everything in a watch: tourbillion, a repeater, a split second chrono, a perpetual calendar. For Philippe, he’s not really all that keen on those types of watches. So he told me this story . He told the customer that he’s from Italy, where they make really fine sports cars. They’re beautiful cars, they handle great. But if I came to you and said I want a sports car which was incredibly fast, and had this special engine, and these gull-wing doors and I want 4-wheel drive so I can go off-road, well then it’s not going to do as well on the highway any more. Now you’ve got 4-wheel drive and big tires, but you’ve lost something else in the process. He said that whenever you do that, there are compromises, and when he said that, it stuck with me.

I don’t think cramming every single function you can into a watch is necessarily a good thing. I prefer watches which actually have individual functions and do them well and look good. I like watches that are designed well and function well, as opposed to a watch that has a power reserve, a repeater, a tourbillon, and other functions. Those things don’t really do anything for me. I see watches like that come out and yes, they’re engineered amazingly and they’re neat, but I just don’t have an interest in that area.

I’d rather have a tourbillon by itself or maybe one other function. Something like that is a little cleaner looking and more interesting, and it will function better. I think the more you cram into a watch, the more potential there is for something to go wrong.

MS: What are your future goals for RGM? Where do you see the company going over the next few years?

RGM: Well over the next few years I hope to increase our sales slowly. I want to add a few more individual interesting pieces. There are a few pieces of which we’re working on the design of right now that we’ll introduce next year. They’re very classic pieces but they’ll be very nice watches made in very high quality. I’m sure some of them might be 25 pieces; others may be 50 or 100 pieces. Overall a very small series in their own right.

I want to continue with engine turned dials, but I also want to explore using other kinds of dials. We’re never going to stop making engine turned dials, but I also want to offer options. That would give us a whole other price point and a whole other look. I really like the look of some of the Omega dials from the 40s. There are some elements we’ll take from some of the classic pieces which I’ve liked over the years. That way, we can offer a watch with more than just one “look” so it would appeal to more customers.

MS: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us at TimeZone. Is there anything else you’d like to say to the TimeZone community?

RGM: Well, I’ve been a visitor to TimeZone for a long time, since it was in Singapore. That was when I first started playing online, so I would read some of the stuff on the site. I also did an online interview with TimeZone several years ago with Richard Paige. I visit TimeZone every week to see what’s going on, and I’ve always found it to be a really good resource and also an inspiration in a lot of areas. Of course I invite anyone at TimeZone who has questions or who either agrees or disagrees with me to contact me. I’m always ready to talk about watches, and I invite feedback.

MS: Again, thank you very much for your time.

RGM: Michael, thank you for taking the time to come see us here at RGM, we hope you can come again in the future.

You can visit the RGM website here: http://www.rgmwatches.com


Illustrations by: Richard Baugh of RGM Watch Co.

Copyright © 2003, Michael Sander

All Rights Reserved