The Gruen Watch Company
1867 - 1894
Although the Gruen Watch Company was founded in 1894, the
company later traced its history back to 1874, following the early career
of its founder.
Dietrich Gruen (1847-1911), founder of the Columbus Watch Company and co-founder
(with his oldest son) of the Gruen Watch Company; this engraving was printed
in 1891. (Image courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.)
Dietrich Gruen (originally spelled 'Grün') was born in Osthofen, Germany in 1847.
After attending both public and private schools, at age 15 he was sent away
from home to learn the watchmaking trade. He was an apprentice to Martens
in Friedburg, Germany, and also worked in Carlsruhe, Wiesbaden and Lode.
In 1867 he traveled to the U.S. following his three brothers, who had immigrated
several years ealier. One brother had been killed in 1863, in the American
During his visit, Dietrich met and fell in love with Pauline
Wittlinger, a schoolteacher and the daughter of a Delaware, Ohio watchmaker.
After working as a watchmaker in St. Louis, Cincinnati and Columbus, Dietrich
married Pauline in 1869, moved to Delaware, Ohio, and went to work for her
father. Years later, a Gruen advertisement told how "one word from a woman's
lips" (Pauline's "yes" to Dietrich's marriage proposal) changed horological
Dietrich and Pauline's first son, Frederick G. Gruen, was
born in 1872. Fred was to become an important figure in the Gruen story.
1874: The Safety Pinion
On June 12, 1874, Dietrich applied for a patent on an improved
safety pinion, which was granted on December 22. He was 27 years old. Because
this was his first important contribution to horology, in the future the
Gruen Watch Company would take 1874 as its founding date.
Right: A detail from Dietrich's 1874 safety pinion patent drawings.
See the patents
page for the complete illustration and text.
In later years, alloys for unbreakable mainsprings were developed, but the large and powerful mainsprings used in older pocket watches tended to be brittle and commonly broke. The recoil, caused by the sudden release of the energy stored in the spring, could strip teeth off of wheels and snap pivots, doing tremendous damage to the movement.
The safety pinion, mounted on the shaft which also holds the center wheel, is the interface between the potentially destructive power in the mainspring and the fragile moving parts in the rest of the watch. Dietrich's invention consisted of a simple device which, in the event of mainspring breakage, uncoupled the pinion and allowed it to spin freely without passing the dangerous shock through the shaft to the center wheel and the rest of the mechanism. The pinion itself would not be injured and did not need to be replaced.
In his patent application, Dietrich gave his address as Delaware, Ohio, an indication that he was not yet making watches in Columbus.
1876: The Columbus Watch Manufacturing Company
A view of the corner of Broad and High Streets in Columbus, probably taken
in the 1880s. The Columbus Watch Company was started in the basement of Exhange
Bank, the large building on the left. (Image courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan
Dietrich started the Columbus Watch Manufacturing Company
in the basement of a downtown Columbus, Ohio bank building in 1876. Although
1874 was used later by the Gruen Watch Company as a founding date, and is
the date given in nearly all recent histories, I don't believe that this
is correct. Articles, books and jewelers' newsletters from the 1800s all
say 1876. The Gruen Watch Company itself used 1876 in advertising until about
Some sources say that Dietrich started as a sole proprietor,
others claim that the company was formed as a partnership with businessman
Although the Complete History of Watchmaking in America (1888), claims that the original name was The Columbus Watch Manufacturing
Company, the earliest watches (including serial number 572, in the museum
at the American Watchmaker's Institute) are signed without "Manufacturing"
in the name.
Right: 16-size, stemwind, lever-set Columbus pocket watch, with a 14k yellow gold case, circa 1877-78. The serial number, 4277, means it was made during the first two or three years of production. Note the logo on the dial, which is a stylized. 'C.W. Co.' for 'Columbus Watch Company.'
In his Columbus workshop, Dietrich modified, finished and cased imported raw movements manufactured by Leo Asbey in Switzerland. These new watches included his patented safety pinion. The size and wearing comfort of a pocket watch was always a concern of his, so Dietrich introduced 16-size watches as an alternative to the heavy and thick 18-size and larger watches that were prevalent at the time. It is also claimed that he introduced the first stemwind watches sold in the U.S. market.
A second son, George J. Gruen, was born in 1877.
According to writings by Fred Gruen, Dietrich took on W.J. Savage as a business partner in 1879. Other sources indicate that Savage was a partner from the start. Savage was the elder son of Willan M. Savage, Columbus’ leading jeweler and one of its most prominent citizens. The son sold his share of his father's business in order to raise capitol to invest in the watch company. The financial security his partner provided allowed Detrich to concentrate on supervising the factory, coordinating production in Switzerland, and selling,while Savage seems to have had little day-to-day involvement with the firm. The company name was Gruen and Savage, but the factory name was The Columbus Watch Manufacturing Company.
Output during this time was about 10 watches per day.
before 1882, the company moved to two floors in a commercial building a few
blocks away. Fred Gruen described a home-made phone system using catgut to
allow communication between floors.
Very little information exists
for the early years of the company. The tables of dates and serial numbers
used in collectors' guidebooks and price lists are educated guesses, but
are skewed because they start two years too early.
1882: The Columbus Watch Company
Interior of the Columbus Watch Company's Thurman Street factory, date unknown.
Complete watch movements were designed and manufactured in this new facility.
(Image courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.)
Under Gruen and Savage the Columbus Watch Manufacturing Company was small but very successful, and began to attract the interest of bankers and investors. In 1882, in collaborationwith a number of new partners, the company was reorganized as the Columbus Watch Company and moved to a newly-constructed factory building located on Thurman Street, in the 'German Village' section of Columbus. Dietrich was President of the new corporation.
The Columbus Watch Company, from a book published in 1889. The front building,
on the left, is the original structure completed in 1882. In the rear, the
small, dark brick building with the tall chimney housed a steam engine, which
supplied power to the factory machinery via belts and pullies (as seen in
the interior photo). From the pattern of windows, it seems that the interior
photo was taken in the larger, middle building. The two front buildings were
connected, forming an 'H' shape. (Courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.)
Above, right: The original 1882 building, photographed in September 2000. This oldest section of the factory, now an office building, is the only portion still standing today. The current tennants are a large dentist's office and an advertising agency.
Joining the ranks of older established
American watch companies like Waltham and Elgin, the new company designed
and manufactured their own in-house movements, instead of finishing imported
ones as Gruen had done previously.
William F. Sauer, forman of the Columbus Watch Company until 1890. In what seems a strange series of career changes, he became an agent for the Schlitz Brewing company, and in 1899 opened his own café. (Courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.)
By 1888 production was about 45 watches per day;
the company would grow to 300 employees and output to 150 watches per day.
Although the company continued to issue stemwind watches, they also manufactured keywind movements for some of their less-expensive models.
Starting when Fred was very young, Dietrich involved his older son in the business.
During breaks from school Fred worked in the engine room, blacksmith and machine shops, and was later given more skilled jobs in the gilding and die departments. After earning a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Cincinnati, Fred was sent to Germany to study at one of the most respected European watchmaking schools, graduating with top honors from the Horological Institute of Glashütte in 1893. During his studies, he designed and built both a chronograph and a repeater movement, according to small notices in an 1890s Jeweler's publication.
Fredquickly became an important part of the company. Shortly after returning from his studies, he began to streamline and reorganize manufacturing processes at the Columbus Watch Company, starting with the jeweling department, which up until then had been a bottleneck in the production of finished watches.
The Columbus Watch Company as shown in an 1888 issue of the Columbus Dispatch.
I'm not sure if the tower or the enlargements to the front section were actually built—the building as it stands today shows no trace of them. (Courtesy of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.)
Things had gone very smoothly for the young company, but this was not to last. The Panic of 1893 was devastating
to the U.S. watch industry. This was one of the worst economic periods in
American history, second only to the Great Depression, and lasted for several
years. (What we now would call 'depressions' were once referred to as 'panics.'
In the early 1930s, President Herbert Hoover coined the term 'depression'
to put a cheerful spin on the harsh economic conditions that his administration
was being blamed for—the U.S. was not experiencing a panic, merely an economic
depression. This term has stuck.)
American watch companies were forced
to reduce prices and cut wages, and several did not survive. During this
same time, Waltham and Elgin engaged in a vicious price war which hit the
Columbus Watch Company very hard. Fred later wrote that he believed his father's
company was specifically targeted by these powerful rivals. The smaller and
younger company did not have the financial resources to weather the crisis.
Left: Columbus 18-size pocket watch, circa 1893.
After a series of disagreements with the other partners, Dietrich and Fred left
the Columbus Watch Company in 1894, shortly before the business went bankrupt.
Dietrich had lost his share of the company to the investors, and was faced
with the prospect of staying on as a salaried employee at the company that
he had founded. He chose to leave rather than bear this indignity. After
the departure of the Gruens, the firm was reorganized, refinanced and renamed
"The New Columbus Watch Company."
For collectors wishing to know if a Columbus watch is from the Gruen era: The Complete Price Guide to Watches
indicates that the Gruens would have left around serial number 229,000. After
1894, Columbus watches started to have names like Time King and Railway King.
The pre-1894 models were not named. Although after 1894 the official name
was The New Columbus Watch Company, many dial and movement markings still
used the original name, leaving out the word "New."
The New Columbus Watch Company survived until 1903. The contents of the factory, including
all the tooling and stocks of movements, were eventually purchased by the
Studebaker family, moved to Indiana (along with many key employees) and used
to start the South Bend Watch Company. Some early South Bend watches were
sold with signed Columbus movements in them.
Copyright © 1999-2001 Paul Schliesser email@example.com