After 35 Years, a Watchmaker Returns to the Trade He Loves

Once a watchmaker, always a watchmaker. A brief biography of George Thomas of Towson Watch Company.

George Thomas was born in Prague, Czech Republic  in 1930 and grew up in Prague, Vienna and Zurich. In 1945, he apprenticed with a watchmaker in Prague. To escape the communists in 1948, he went to Panama and worked in Panama City for an agency servicing all major brands of timepieces. In 1951, he moved to San Francisco where he worked for a time as a watchmaker, but he soon realized that there is more money in other endeavors and spent the next 35 years in the plastics and chemical industries. While working in that industry he invented a process of molding sawdust into rustic outdoor dishes called “Stonewood.”

During that period he never lost his interest in timepieces and spent some of his spare time restoring antique and complicated watches. Among his accomplishments was the restoration of the world’s oldest known signed and dated watch from 1530. The watch belonged to Phillip Melanchton, an associate of Martin Luther. He also restored the world’s smallest watch made in 1860 for the Czar of Russia.

(Images taken in TWC workshop. Towson, MD.)

As you can read on our watchmakers page, the Towson Watch Company was founded at the beginning of the new millennium, in 2000, by two gentlemen whose passion is working with mechanical time pieces. After 40 years of experience repairing high grade watches, repeaters, chronographs and making his own tourbillion watches, George Thomas, a master watchmaker met his partner Hartwig Balke, a graduate in mechanical engineering and talented watchmaker, by chance. In an Irish Pub in Annapolis, after sailors’ small talk, Thomas and Balke soon discovered their common love for high grade mechanical watches. Before the evening ended and they parted to return to their boats, they promised: “We have to meet again!”

“I started life as a watchmaker in 1948, 58 years ago. Hartwig started out as an engineer. We work together well because he essentially does the design and engineering work that I can’t do. But I’ve had a lot of experience doing restoration of antique watches for museums. These are 200 to 300 year-old timepieces. We have both ends of the technical spectrum covered, from current engineering to an understanding of watchmaking 500 years ago.”

  - George Thomas

To create something special, mechanical instruments of beauty and precision, was always their dream. Thomas built his first tourbillion pocket watches, displayed now at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania, in 1985 when he was 53 years old. Years later, in 1999 Balke made his first wrist chronograph when he was 56 years old. It was worn during the first space mission in the new millennium, the STS-99 Mission. He made the watch for a NASA astronaut and mission specialist. A second watch, worn during the same mission, is also on display at the Columbia Museum. Thomas and Balke now sail and continue to lead watchmaking at Towson Watch Company together.

Helping to solve the Abraham Lincoln watch mystery

When Abraham Lincoln consigned his pocket watch to Jonathan Dillon in 1861, the immigrant watchmaker, while repairing it, inscribed a massage inside the watch. Then, he closed it up and gave it back to the President, who died without knowing about this fact.

“Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861. Fort Sumper was attacked by rebels on the above date. Thank God we have a government”, was the secret message. The one unknown till when the pocket and now mysterious watch was donated to the Smithsonian in 1958. As it was never opened, the secret remain through the years as a legend. Rumors of the hidden message have existed for more than 150 years, but they were never taken really serious and so they remained more as a legend than a fact. It was when Douglas Stiles, Dillon’s great-great grandson, found a New York Times article in which this story was written and so he told the Smithsonian. On March 10th, Smithsonian officials and media members met to prove if it was a legend or a real fact.

Watchmaker Thomas (Towson Watch Company) was the chosen one to open Lincoln’s pocket watch. The watch was truly inscribed in three different sections. Not a legend but a fact. Jonathan Dillon really wrote inside Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch.


USA LINCOLN ENGRAVING


George was asked to help solve the mystery of the Abraham Lincoln watch. For years a watch belonging to Abraham Lincoln was rumored to have a special inscription inside it relating to the start of the Civil War. Jonathan Dillon had repaired the president's gold pocket watch in 1861 and scratched an inscription inside it before sealing up the case. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History commissioned George Thomas to open the watch as interested parties, Douglas Stiles, (the great-great grandson of Mr. Dillon) and the national media looked on. Yes, the inscription was there, although not exactly as originally noted and off by one day in reference to the date of the first shot fired at Fort Sumter. Though no longer able to be wound and run after remaining sealed for over 100 years, the watch was in amazingly good condition. Detailed  photos of the inscriptions and the inside of the watch were taken and then it was re-sealed for display. Being entrusted to be the one to open the case was quite an honor.

(Hartwig: left, George: middle, Benzinger: right)

An article in the New York Times in 2009 detailed the task: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/11/arts/design/11linc.html?pagewanted=all

The LA Times also covered the event in this article: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/11/nation/na-lincoln-watch11

George and partner Hartwig Balke form the Towson Watch Company

George has made 4 tourbillion watches, 3 of which are in the NAWCC museum in Pennsylvania as well as a Carousel watch also in the museum. There are few craftsmen left in the world capable of making a complete watch from scratch, part by part.

He founded the Towson Watch Co. in 1999 with fellow watch craftsman Hartwig Balke. They build high quality, precision watches in very limited production quantities, two of which have travelled into space on the earth mapping mission in 2000. These watches were build by Hartwig, who is a brilliant engineer and a skilled watchmaker who came to this country 20 years ago from Germany.

George inspects an assembly on the bench. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

Tools of the Trade – CNC and the modern watch industry

Along with the many old-school manual tools you find in George's shop you will also see a small computer controlled lathe. Watch making is a very traditional trade, still using many tools and techniques developed hundreds of years ago, but it is one thing to make a single watch by hand for a museum and quite another to make a line of watches that can compete in the marketplace with others made by world's most famous watch companies. Even companies like Rolex now take advantage of the speed and repeatable accuracy provided by computer controlled machines to make some of the parts; however, the industry still relies heavily on skilled workers to tune and assemble these parts into a timepiece that keeps accurate time.

George and Hartwig's shop and tools:

Towson Watch Company has two well equipped workshops with modern and old traditional watchmaker tools and machines, one of which is located at the company’s office in Baltimore City and the other at Hartwig Balke’s house. All Towson watchmakers are masters at what they do, and still to this day, use some tools that are over a hundred years old.

  1. Precision vertical mill previously used in the Hamilton Watch Company model shop, vintage about 1940
  2. Levin lathe with slide rest, vintage 1940-50
  3. Precision Swiss-made Hauser drill presses
  4. Boley lathe set up with bezel chuck
  5. Boley lathe set up with American jewelling attachment
  6. Swiss precision 10 mm Schoublin lathe
  7. Drill press converted for perlage work
  8. Hartwig programs and runs the CNC lathe. Even traditional fields like watch making now take advantage of what computer controlled machines have to offer for some parts.
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