L.L. Bean and Hamilton: Made and not in America

Knife-wielding turtles and the future of watches

With Cyber Monday and holiday shopping nearly here, it felt a good time to reflect on watch brands and retail in America. Also, I’m joining Chase of Oak & Oscar for a virtual happy hour on Dec. 2. RSVP here. We’ll chat whisky, watches, and maybe even hear a bit about their latest release, the Olmsted Matte.

Hamilton and L.L. Bean: The anti-collaboration collaboration

Hamilton Watch Co. was founded in 1892 in Lancaster, Pa. The brand of the railroads, the military, and even Elvis, Hamilton reliably produced timepieces in the United States through much of the 20th Century.

But in the early 1970s, Hamilton was acquired by SSIH, the Swiss conglomerate that would become Swatch Group as the industry was swallowed up by a black hole called the quartz crisis. It meant that watch manufacturing left the States, just as Elgin, Waltham, and other American watchmakers had also closed up shop.

Twenty years after Hamilton’s founding, L.L. Bean was founded some 500 miles north in Freeport, Maine. While Hamilton was being hollowed out in the 1970s, moving the vestiges of a once-great American company to the Continent, L.L. Bean was just getting started. Deemed an essential component of prep style in Lisa Birnchbach’s 1981 Official Preppy Handbook, the Bean boomed in the early 1980s. The Boots, the field jacket, the mail-order catalog with prose that may as well have been written by Hemingway himself: if it wasn’t already, it all became standard-issue Americana. Social security number, iPhone, an unshakeable sense of entitlement and individualism, and Duck Boots — all the things a newborn American leaves the hospital with.[1]

Even when L.L. Bean becomes on-trend — first in the 1980s and then again perhaps in the early 2010s — it never becomes trendy. If its Duck Boots were sold out, Bean never compromised on quality, never moving manufacturing outside of the States.[2]

Hamilton and heritage

While some heritage brands have collaborated with younger up-and-comers or streetwear brands to stay relevant, L.L. Bean has never really succumbed to such gimmicks. Sure, they’ll collab with another friendly Northeastern brand, but that almost feels more like two guys who thought up an idea on a fishing trip than some plan hatched out of a private equity conference to squeeze every ounce of goodwill out of a logo.

However, there is a notable exception to this: watches. From the 1970s through the early 90s, L.L. Bean looked to Hamilton to create co-branded mechanical watches.

These L.L. Bean field watches are simple, time-only timepieces, based on the military-spec watches that Hamilton had been making for the U.S. military post-World War II. “Rugged and reliable alternatives to an expensive dress watch,” the mail order copy read. Old L.L. always had a knack for drawing on the cosmopolitan insecurities of city tourists hitting the wilderness for the weekend, and it seems the field watch is no exception.

This “civilian” version of the mil-spec Hamilton is no less robust, with a hacking seconds movement, luminous hands, and design that’s pulled straight from the wrists of those who fought in Korea, Vietnam, and other such far-flung operations. You’ll also find co-branded Hamilton watches from Orvis and Brookstone (in addition to Hamilton’s own civilian effort, with a bold “Khaki” stamped on the dial), but something about Hamilton partnering with L.L. Bean to sell these watches feels the purest.

L.L. Bean had already introduced the American consumer to a number of its reliable staples, from Duck Boots to tote bags, so it only made sense they’d turn to Hamilton, the producer of equally dependable mil-spec timepieces, to deliver a watch that made sense for the millions receiving its mail-order catalog.

Spilling the beans

Which brings me to the point. Back in the 1980s, you could get this solid, mechanical, Swiss watch from L.L. Bean’s catalog for $59, or about $200 in 2020. Listen, is it the most horologically important, or impressive watch? No, of course not. It’s a 34(ish)mm, manual-wind $60 watch from a mail-order catalog that was sent out to some 100 million American homes at its peak. But, it was a watch rooted in Hamilton’s heritage and history of supplying the U.S. military. The simple, ETA mechanical movement meant that the manufacturing facility in Switzerland kept humming. As for L.L. Bean, it had transformed into something of a model corporation, offering a decent retirement policy and good wages for its hourly employees.[3] Two companies collaborating to deliver quality, built-to-last products to their loyal customers.

Now, in 2020, where can a similarly modest, honest mechanical watch be purchased from an American retailer? For its part, L.L. Bean now sells sterile-looking quartz watches, last selling military-inspired watches with movements from Hamilton or cases from Gallet in the 1990s. But look beyond Maine: are any modern brands or retailers with the reach of peak-L.L. Bean doing watches the way the Freeporters did? Just take a look at the uninspired watch counters of department stores, or bemoan with me the fact that the most “successful” DTC watch brands (I deign to even type their names) seem more interested in marketing than manufacturing.[4]

One has to look further, to younger brands and upstarts, for companies doing watches right:

A post shared by Rowing Blazers (@rowingblazers)

“We’re not exactly ‘watch people’ but we’ve always thought watches are cool. We make a point to include the watches we love in all of our lookbooks, and we’re proud to carry a small selection of vintage watches on our site.” - Rowing Blazers founder Jack Carlson.

  • Of course, Rowing Blazers has been getting tons of well-deserved attention for bringing back Princess Di’s sweaters. But check out what the brand is doing with watches too. Take a stroll through its Soho Clubhouse and you’ll see a variety of affordable vintage watches on display, many curated by Wind Vintage and Foundwell. When we chatted with Rowing Blazers founder Jack Carlson, he said: “The watch is just one of many different little winks I try to weave into our imagery and storytelling. Rowing Blazers is a brand that is rich all the way through in that you can go back to a lookbook or an image and notice something that maybe you didn't the first three times that you looked at it. You can keep digging, keep discovering new things. Watches are a part of that.” That’s the approach modern brands need to take with watches. Placed in L.L. Bean’s catalog among field jackets and chamois shirts, a military-inspired watch just made sense. Placed beside a brand inspired by the classics, but offering its own youthful, inclusive and ironic take, vintages watches at Rowing Blazers kind of just make sense (as does the brand’s forthcoming collab with Seiko)— quirky, classic, and subversive to modern luxury.

  • While old-school L.L. Bean and present-day Rowing Blazers draw on the heritage of other brands to tell their own story through watches, there is also space for modern watch brands to tell a modern American story. That’s inclusion, accessibility, sustainability, social consciousness, etc. Look at how Chicago-based Oak & Oscar has built a brand on values of independence, transparency, and crafting no-nonsense, quality mechanical products. It sounds easy, but when so much of modern commerce seems to run counter to these values, it’s anything but.

  • Cue eye rolls. But since deciding it’d rather be a brand-slash-ecommerce platform instead of a full-on publication, Hodinkee’s vintage watch selection has expanded, remaining reliably eclectic and top-notch, staying true to Hodinkee’s founding ethos. Meanwhile, it acts as an authorized retailer for dozens of modern brands, only selling the SKUs that are actually good. Its modern collabs usually hit the mark too, pulling something out of the brand collaboration partner that the brand couldn’t otherwise find on its own. Like it or not, the watch community needs Hodinkee, just as much as Hodinkee needs us. Its product story-telling is some of the best around, as is its ability to tie watches to a certain, global (if sterilized), 21st century, aspirational aesthetic (photographed by Lecia). If watches are to continue to grow and become an accepted part of the mainstream consciousness for the average upper-middle-class citizen of the world who takes an annual international vacation and knows what an Eames chair is, it’s important that someone tie them into this larger narrative of international aspiration.

There are others — Todd Snyder consistently digs something dope out of the Timex archives, and that knife-wielding turtle from Noah x Timex (see below) is a fucking revelation — but what I’m asking for is more mainstream and consumer recognition of these efforts.

To be clear, I place the blame not on the brands above. Quite the opposite: instead, it’s largely the result of (i) global brand conglomerates and tech platforms cultivating a homogenous two-dimensional aesthetic via social media that looks better on a flat screen of glass than it feels in 3-D IRL and (ii) consumers’ inability to look beyond this aesthetic, more concerned with curating their grid than with, well, anything else. And before you accuse me of being holier-than-though, I fully recognize I’m part of the problem. We’re all just cogs in the capitalist system, man.

Bean to basics

I’m a bit young to have experienced L.L Bean in its 80s heyday. But I remember the catalog: I distinctly recall flipping through it in grade school to pick out a backpack, one that would end up lasting through most of my formative years.[5]

But that’s all I really want from a solid, American brand; it doesn’t need to be some Yeezy ‘we made a million a minute’-level growth. Focus on crafting good, quality products that last years despite being tossed in lockers, mini-vans and whatever else a middle schooler can throw at them. As mentioned, the brand story needs to be updated a bit to represent modern American values of inclusion and general social consciousness, but at the end of the day, a backpack is a backpack; a watch is a watch.

That’s the beauty of the Bean: it never tried to be more than it was. “Rugged and reliable alternatives to an expensive dress watch, built to military specifications,” is all it said of its field watch. It’s all that needed to be said.

Likewise, modern watch brands and retailers must do a better job crafting products and narratives that cut through the noise to reach consumers. Just as importantly, consumers must tune out the noise of social media and whatever else, seeking out and supporting great products instead of copping what everyone else seems to have. It’s worked for L.L. Bean for 100 years, and it’ll work for another century.

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[1] L.L.’s first mailing for its Maine Hunting Boots read: “Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your footwear. You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed. The Maine Hunting Shoe is designed by a hunter who has tramped Maine woods for the past 18 years. They are light as a pair of moccasins with the protection of a heavy hunting boot.”

[2] It’s a far cry from L.L. Bean’s first Boot. As the story goes, Old L.L. started off by producing 100 boots, 90 of which didn’t hold up for the rugged Mainers they went to. But no worry: Mr. Bean’s famous lifetime money-back guarantee was already in place, so he replaced all of the boots. By my count, I’ve published nearly 90 newsletters, so the quality should start to improve soon.

[3] Not that Old L.L. gets credit for this. Apparently, the patriarch thought retirement policies were an extravagance, and not until his grandson replaced him in 1967 did the company begin to revamp the treatment of its employees. Check out this 1985 article from Sports Illustrated for more about L.L. Bean during these years.

[4] If this totally uninspired knock-off Danny Wellington currently for sale at J. Crew isn’t indicative of why the brand is bankrupt, I don’t know what is.

[5] S/o mom: I even remember her letting me get it monogrammed. Btw, apparently this is a market L.L. stumbled into a bit by accident in the 80s. But by 1992, it was doing huge numbers — it sold 12 million of those ubiquitous book packs. If you didn’t have one, your locker buddy surely did.


Noah x Timex Ghost Nets Suck

About that “knife-wielding turtle watch” I mentioned above. The limited-edition Noah x Timex collaboration watch that released on Thanksgiving morning sold out in about 10 minutes. Engraved Ghost Nets Suck on the case back, it’s got a turtle holding a knife to tell time, and 10 percent of proceeds went to the Ocean Defenders.

Ghost nets are plastic fishing nets that have been forgotten, lost, or abandoned at sea. Since they’re not biodegradable, they can remain adrift for years and trap all kinds of fish, turtles and other ocean wildlife. In other words, this is watches at their best: raising awareness for an issue, and donating a portion of proceeds to the cause.

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One more thing

‘You think this has nothing to do with you?’

Speaking of fashion/retail. I recently re-watched The Devil Wears Prada and was reminded it’s probably The Greatest Movie of All Time, and this is no doubt The Best Scene from The Greatest Movie of All Time:

“It’s sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”

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