A Brief History of the Gruen Watch Company and the Gruen Watches
This site has purposely stayed away from the topic of Gruen history. Part of it was simple interest in the topic, other reasons included the priority versus other content, plenty of content on the net already, and then there's writing the content that's good.
I'm extremely pleased to be able to provide historical information now that was authored by watch historian and guru Bruce Shawkey. Bruce has a monthly column in the NAWCC Bulletin where he writes not just about Gruens, but all brands of watches from a wide variety of time periods. I hope you find this information both interesting to read and educational (if not outright fascinating). You'll also find a link to his website in my Links area.
The story of Gruen watches begins in the small German village of Ostofen, on the banks of the Rhine River. It was from there, in the mid 1800s, that Dietrich Gruen emigrated to America. Having apprenticed for some time in some of the Swiss watch factories, Gruen worked for a jeweler and watchmaker in Delaware, Ohio. On December 22, 1874, Gruen obtained a patent for an improved safety pinion, and it is the date recognized by the Gruen Watch Company as the start of its business.
However, it was almost two years later when Gruen actually started making watches. In 1876, in partnership with W.J. Savage, Gruen founded the Columbus Watch Co., in Columbus, Ohio. The venture fell with the onset of economic depression in 1893. The machinery was purchased and moved to South Bend, Indiana and used to start the South Bend Watch Co.
In 1894, Dietrich, along with his eldest son, Frederick G. Gruen, started again as D. Gruen & Son. A few years later, the second son, George J., joined the firm and the name was changed to D. Gruen & Sons. The company’s first pocket watches were signed on the movement and dial as “DGS,” and many people do not realize that these are early Gruen pocket watches. At this time, Gruen moved its headquarters to Cincinnati, Ohio. It was patterned after the Medieval guild halls seen in Belgium, and remained one of the most unique headquarters in the United States for any watch manufacturer. In the early 1900s, the D. Gruen & Sons name was dropped, and just the name Gruen was seen on watches.
It should be emphasized at this point that, while Gruen cased and timed its watches in the United States, Gruens are generally considered Swiss watches because the movements were imported from Switzerland. There was a brief period in the 1950s when some movements were made in the United States, and that will be mentioned shortly. That small anomaly notwithstanding, Gruen watches are generally considered Swiss.
As with most watch manufacturers, it is not known exactly when Gruen made its first wristwatch for men. Our best guess is circa 1915. Several models have been documented, and more continue to surface. These early models used both outsourced movements, and Gruen’s own movements. They were made in the traditional “trench watch” style being produced at the time, basically cased in round pocket watch cases with wire lugs soldered to the ends. A man’s Gruen wristwatch with integral lugs (the next step in the evolution of the man’s wristwatch) appears in a 1918 catalog.
In 1925, Gruen introduced its first “Quadron” movement, the Caliber 117. This breakthrough movement was rectangular (or more accurately tonneau) in shape versus round, which made for easier use in slimmer, more rectangular cases. And so we begin to see a notable departure (and a thankful one in terms of aesthetics!) in watch designs from the venerable round, cushion, and tank-style designs. And it was during this period, from 1925 to about 1935, that Gruen came out with some truly fine and ornately designed watch cases.
Of course, the watch that defines Gruen is the Curvex. And this watershed in the company’s history occurred in 1935 when Gruen rolled out its first patented Curvex movement, the caliber 311. It was an instant sales success, and was copied by virtually every other watchmaker of the time. The key word here is copied, for while every watchmaker tried to emulate the Curvex, it was never ever duplicated.
Curvex with a capital “C” always refers to a Gruen. Curved watches and curvex-type watches (note the small c) is used by many dealers and collectors to denote a curved watch bearing any number of brand names. But in the strictest sense, when you are talking about a “Curvex” you’re talking singularly about a Gruen watch and only those Gruens that are fitted with a caliber movement designated as a Curvex movement. The caliber movements that are designated “Curvex” are as follows, along with their year of introduction in parentheses:
440 (1940 1);
and 370 (1948).
The other immensely popular type of Gruen is the duo-dial doctor’s watch, which Gruen purists refer to as the "Techni-Quadron." The name duo-dial came into use because of the prominent auxiliary seconds chapter that is as large as the hour/minute dial above. The watch looks like it has two dials, hence the name "duo-dial." Doctors and technicians used the oversized seconds dial for various timing functions, notably taking patients’ pulses. The first Techni-Quadron watches used the 877 caliber movement, produced in 1928 by the Aegler Co. of Bienne/La Chaux de Fonds. These 877s are especially prized by collectors because they were also sold to Rolex and used in that company’s prized “Prince” models. For many years, collectors thought the caliber 877 was the first and only joint project of Gruen/Aegler/Rolex. But we have recently learned the relationship between these three companies goes back much farther.
We also see Techni-Quadron watches fitted with the 500 caliber movement, which came out in 1936. A lesser expensive version of a doctor’s watch is also seen with a large center sweep seconds chapter. For doctors, this served the same function as the large auxiliary seconds chapter. For collectors, however, these center-seconds doctors’ watches are not to be confused with the duo-dials, which are much more highly sought after.
Other prized models include Gruen’s drivers’ watches. These are designed to be worn on the side of the wrist so the wearer, driving an automobile, can glance down at the side of his wrist and see the the time. Gruen made these in two varieties: a solid-lug version which look like a “C” when placed on its side; and a hinged-lug variety. The latter has oversized lugs that are ornately engraved. It’s fitted with a caliber 440 movement, so it’s technically a Curvex also.
In 1950, Gruen introduced its first “Autowind” series of movements for use in self-winding watches. That year, Gruen also opened of a plant in Norwood, Ohio that produced 17- and 21-jewel movements for men’s and ladies’ watches. These are the only true-American Gruens, and their presence in the marketplace was short-lived. In 1958, the firm moved to New York City, and all the facilities in Cincinnati were sold. That year is generally considered the end of Gruen watches at least as vintage collectors are concerned.
End of Part 1... Part 2 coming soon
All material are copyright © 2015 by Second Hand Press.
Permission for re-use or distribution, in any format, is not implied nor granted.