I first learned of the Columbus Watch Company while watching the “German Village” installment of WOSU’s Columbus Neighborhoods series. Shortly afterward, I was watching an Antiques Roadshow episode in which they were appraising a pocket watch made by the Columbus Watch Company. I had not been aware that there had been a watch company right here in Columbus, let alone one whose original factory building was still standing—a building I have passed on countless occasions. Intrigued, I wanted to find out more about this historic building and the company it used to house.
The Columbus Watch Company was founded by Dietrich Gruen and William Savage circa 1876 (though many sources cite 1874) as the Columbus Watch Manufacturing Company. The company initially assembled their watches using imported Swiss movements and worked out of the basement of the Exchange Bank on the corner of High and Broad Streets, across from the Statehouse building. The name was eventually shortened to the Columbus Watch Company and, in 1882, the company began to manufacture its own movements when it moved into the factory complex located in German Village. The Panic of 1893 brought financial trouble to the company, which led to the ouster of Gruen and his son, Frederick, who had begun to take on a larger role within the business. The two left to form D. Gruen and Son, which would ultimately become the Gruen Watch Company. With the departure of the Dietrich and Frederick, the Columbus Watch Company was reorganized and re-dubbed the New Columbus Watch Company. It continued to operate until 1903 when its assets were sold and moved to South Bend, Indiana, giving birth to the South Bend Watch Company.*
Armed with a cursory knowledge of the Columbus Watch Company, I scoured eBay and found an affordable North Star model; its serial number dates the watch to 1894. (Depending on the source, I have found the serial number traced back anywhere from 1891 to 1894.) One curious tradition I’ve discovered during my research is the practice where the jeweler or watchmaker initials and dates the inside of the back case whenever they service or repair the watch. Obtaining an old watch in its original case can reveal its complete service history; a veritable timeline of the watch’s lifespan. Unscrewing the back of the case on my recently purchased watch, I was able to make out some of the service dates: 1910, 1920, 1962. I find it amazing that a watch this old is still in perfect running condition, long after those who made it have passed on.
I’ve always had a fondness for pocket watches. Being a bit of a technophile, I can appreciate that they were the original hand-held device. On the surface, it’s quite simple: an hour and a minute hand with an inset sweep hand denoting the seconds. The simplicity, however, belies the complexity of the inner clockwork beneath the enamel face. Cogs, springs, wheels—all finely-machined components working in synchronous precision, measuring the moments of time in evenly spaced increments. The paradox of the pocket watch is how something small enough to fit in the palm of our hand serves as a reminder of the immenseness and fluidity of time.
*For a more detailed history of the Columbus Watch Company, I recommend reading Paul Schliesser’s History of the Gruen Watch Company. Paul spent many a day in the Columbus Metropolitan Library pouring over street directories and historical records, cross-referencing names, dates, and locations. From the little research I have done, Paul’s work has been the most comprehensive source of primary research on the Columbus Watch Company. The Columbus Metropolitan Library’s online archive, Columbus Memories, is an excellent source for historical Columbus photographs.