Vintage Value: The Appeal of Gruen Watches

Gruen jump hour watch
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

If you’re a regular visitor to this site you may have noticed that this is partly a blog about clothing and partly a real-time record of my psychic deterioration in the face of a growing watch obsession. The more I get into watches, the less I seem to be in control of my faculties. I’ll regularly catch myself looking at a given timepiece selling online for several hundreds or thousands of pounds — hundreds or thousands of pounds, to be clear, that I do not possess — and think ‘Oh, wow, that seems like a pretty good price for this watch!’ It’s at this point that I’ll dunk my face in an ice bucket I keep expressly for this purpose in an attempt to revive some sense of sanity. 

Another remedy for the watch price dysmorphia I seem to suffer from is simply switching over to looking at vintage watches instead. While there are some very notable exceptions (here’s looking at you Rolex) vintage and pre-owned watches can occupy a somewhat more affordable price bracket than their freshly minted counterparts. Plus they often look cooler, they have a lot of character, and they can put you in touch with a time and place entirely different to your own. It’s also a great way of finding watches and makers you never knew existed.

The consequence of all of this is that I often spend hours at a time scrolling through the offerings of online vintage watch sellers. It’s become one of my favourite pastimes (Apart from periodically submerging my head in ice water, I don’t have a whole lot going on in general). And while I’m by no measure an expert in assessing the quality of pre-owned timepieces, I have figured out what I’m generally drawn to. 

I tend to like watches made in the 1970s or earlier. I also prefer smaller case sizes and I’m particularly keen on dress watches with an eye-catching midcentury design. (This can probably be blamed on all those hours of watching Mad Men in college. I’ve yet to buy one of the many dozens of watches I’ve bookmarked to this effect, but when I do I can only assume it will prove as good a match as all of my other Mad Men-inspired purchases have — which is to say not very good at all).

Vintage Gruen Precision manual wind 17 jewel watch
Image credit: Joe Haupt / CC BY-SA 2.0

One brand that always catches my eye when doing this kind of browsing is Gruen. It’s no wonder, really. Most of the Gruen watches I’ve seen over the years have been exactly what I’m usually looking for: A striking early- to mid-century dress watch selling for what seems like a very reasonable price (Oh God, I’m doing it again! Where did that ice bucket get to?)

It’s for this reason that when a reader got in touch a while back suggesting I write a piece about Gruen, it immediately piqued my interest. Here was a brand whose watches I’ve looked at covetously countless times without, I realised, knowing anything about its history. Since a major reason I spend so much time looking at watches is the aforementioned appeal of discovery, it seemed high time to do the leg work of figuring out what Gruen was all about, especially if I’m ever going to pull the trigger on one of their watches. 

Gruen, it turns out, was an American watch manufacturer founded by the German-born watchmaker Dietrich Grün. Since the language spoken in his adopted country lacked an umlaut, he gave his company the more anglophone-friendly name of Gruen.

He set up shop in 1894 in Columbus, Ohio having previously founded the Columbus Watch Manufacturing Company in 1876. Following the economic blow dealt by The Panic of 1893 and a subsequent disagreement with his fellow founders, Gruen decided to start an eponymous operation with the help of his two young sons, Fred and George. They set about assembling and selling pocket watches with German and Swiss movements from their home base in Ohio and, by 1908, had started making wristwatches that were prized for their solid build and dependability. 

Dietrich died in 1911, at which point his eldest son, Fred, took over as president and steered the company into a period of prosperity that at one point in the 1920s saw Gruen grow to be the largest watchmaker in the US. 

This golden age was sadly short-lived, however. Like so many American watch manufacturers, Gruen was hard-hit by the Great Depression only to pivot to manufacturing wartime instruments shortly thereafter in the 1940s. On a macro level, during the Second World War, the US’s watchmaking efforts were diverted because of the war effort, which meant there was a serious dearth of supply in the local market. This allowed Swiss imports to sweep in and meet this pent-up demand, which gave America its first real taste of Swiss watchmaking and made it difficult for US companies to win back their market share after the War ended. Since Gruen was a dual Swiss/American company, it fared better than most. But by the early 1950s, both Fred and George Gruen had passed away (Fred in 1945 and George in 1952), so the Gruen family decided to sell the business in 1953. While the company nevertheless continued to make more than half a million watches per year, scandal, financial disarray, changes in management, and a general lack of direction eventually led to its dissolution. By 1958, the failing company was broken up and sold in pieces. 

Under new ownership, Gruen moved to New York and continued to make mechanical watches for about fifteen years. All of their pre-1958 records were destroyed since they were of no interest to the new owners (which also probably has something to do with why Gruens are so hard to price in the present day). The death blow came in the 1970s during what came to be known as the quartz crisis when Gruen put all their chips on the future being in LCD watches, meaning they reduced their manufacture of mechanical watches and ignored quartz altogether. The bet didn’t pay off and eventually led to bankruptcy. 

This inglorious ending nearly a half a century ago means that Gruen is not as well-remembered as fellow erstwhile American watch brands like Hamilton and Bulova. While you can technically still find modern watches bearing the Gruen name, today these are Chinese-made watches with Japanese quartz movements. On the plus side, however, there are ample vintage models to be gotten. The most sought-after are their gold doctor’s watches and wrist-hugging Curvex line, but other models abound — many of which feature movements shared by Rolex — and the can still be gotten for a good price.

And, lest you think this is my watch mania talking, here are the good people of Worn and Wound saying the same thing:

‘Gruens now can be had for fairly cheap. Even remarkable pre-1958 examples are only a few grand, which is nothing considering their age and uniqueness. Though models from the post-Ohio days are worth very little, they are not bad watches, and are an affordable way of getting an attractive vintage piece with a Swiss mechanical movement.’

So there. Oh, and did I mention that even James Bond wore one for a bit

All of this has convinced me more than ever. The truth is, I’ve yet to see an old Gruen that I don’t like the look of. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll actually take the plunge and pony up to buy one of those old timepieces I’ve spent ages ogling online. One thing I can say for sure is that when that day comes, there’s more than a good chance it’ll be a Gruen.