As the final decade of the 18th century dawned, men of means seeking timepieces had two choices. They could opt for a high quality, accurate pocket watch from Britain or choose a more fashionable, more readily available example produced by the Swiss watch industry. By 1790, Geneva was already exporting more than 60,000 watches annually.
At the same time, Maryland led a still nascent America in shipbuilding. The heart of the industry was in Baltimore where a class of vessels knows as “Baltimore Clippers” were built to meet the need for fast ships capable of eluding the brawny but lumbering British naval vessels which were devastating American shipping on the Chesapeake Bay and beyond as the British sought domination of maritime commerce in continental Europe and Yankee waters.
The increasingly frequent illegal impressments of American sailors into the Royal Navy as the British and French vied for control of the sea during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and later Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) of the period fanned the flames of war stateside. Conditions were ripe for the war of 1812, a conflict in which Baltimore Clippers were to play a seminal and unforgettable role.
That notoriety and proud heritage is carried on today in Baltimore by a reproduction Baltimore Clipper known as the Pride of Baltimore II. The successor to the original Pride of Baltimore, launched in 1977, Pride II is a living monument to the fears of the Baltimore Clipper fleet and a powerful sight for all who see her.
“Baltimore Clippers were a surprise to the world at large,” Jan Miles, Pride II’s captain, explains. “Fast and capable, they sailed boldly. American seamanship was not hampered by traditionalism. The ability of the Baltimore Clippers to frustrate the British Navy during the War of 1812 was widely respected. Their power as a symbol stems from the very iconic American profile that the Pride II presents today.”
While that appearance has never quite been equaled on the water, there is a timepiece on the wrist that is almost as distinctive, the Pride II. Fittingly, the special edition is made in Towson, right near the shipyard where the Pride II of Baltimore was built. The piece pays tribute to the Pride of Baltimore II and the infamous Baltimore Clippers she recalls. Featuring a clean and tasteful black or silver dial, the Pride II is powered by the reliable ETA 2892 automatic movement that has been modified and decorated by TWC watchmakers, despite being enclosed by the solid case back.
It’s the shape of TWC’s Pride II that sets it apart. The unique sail-shaped steel case is just about unlike anything you’ve ever seen and a surprisingly appropriate complement to the Pride II herself. Ironically, that wasn’t the original intention of TWC’s directors.
TWC founders, Hartwig Balke and George Thomas, weren’t looking to create a new model when they contacted French Canadian industrial designer, Patrick Ayoub. Co-founder of another American brand, Detroit Watch Compay, Ayoub’s background is diverse, including stints in automotive design at Volkswagen, BMW, and Daimler-Chrysler.
TWC had turned to Ayoub for a fresh look for the brand’s emblem. “George and I often say that we collect artists,” says Hartwig Balke. “We met Patrick three years ago. He had done watch design before and our Towson Watch logo needed to be made more distinctive. I asked him if he would do me the favor of cleaning up the logo and he said, ‘No problem.’ When I saw the logo shape he came up with I thought to myself, ‘That’s a nice shape. That could be a watch case.’ I drew up a few lines on the shape and asked Patrick what he thought about it.”
The next day Ayoub called Balke and told him he had something special. “He said, ‘I have a present for you. Go to your computer and see,”” Balke recalls. “It was the first layout of the watch. I said ‘Wow! We have to make this.’ That was the beginning of the project.”
Now all TWC’s leaders needed was a theme in keeping with the rest of their line. Inspiration didn’t strike immediately. But in fact it could be said that the genesis of Balke’s idea for the new watch was more than three decades in the making.
A Sailing Machine
As a Baltimorean and avid sailor himself, Hartwig Balke had followed the exploits of the City’s prized ambassador. In search of an appropriate logical icon upon which to theme TWC’s new watch, Balke had a brainwave.
“We have our Skipjack, Bay Pilot, Choptank, Potomac models,” Balke affirms. So we were looking for a Chesapeake Bay theme. I had the Constellation (USS Constellation, the famed 1854 Baltimore Sloop-of-war war which would be the last sail-only warship designed for the US Navy) in my mind and Thomas Point (a renowned 1875 Chesapeake Bay Shoal Lighthouse) and other things. Then all of a sudden because I’m a sailor and I like ships, I thought of the Pride of Baltimore. It’s absolutely beautiful!”
Janet Cadlo, director of development for Pride of Baltimore Inc., the non-profit organization that operates Pride II, recalls Balke walking into her office in 2008 with the idea for the watch.” “I was floored! He sat down and we talked for quite a while and he said he needed a photo of the Pride II so that we can put an image of it on the watch.”
Balke was quick to make another creative request. He wanted an image of Pride II to use as the basis for an engraving on the watch’s caseback. Caslo suggested the work of commercial photographer and longtime Pride of Baltimore II chronicler Bill McAllen. It’s one of the many touches that make TWC’s Pride II watch stand out. Another is the timepiece’s crown, which mimics the look of the winch on a sailboat, lending it one more distinctive maritime touch.
“It’s a very generous gesture” says Caslo enthusiastically. Captain Jan Miles is equally enthusiastic about the connection of the sailing machine and time machine. “Id there one vanity that I have it’s that I admire the heck out of watches,” he admits. “And I suppose that the same kind of passion that has helped us keep alive the tradition of tall ships sailing and Baltimore Clippers in particular must have played a dominant role in how a lot of the traditional watchmaking processes and concepts have been preserved.”
Aye’ Aye’ Captain. And through TWC’s efforts there’s now an American watch that unites the iconic profile of the Pride of Baltimore II with a distinctive new timepiece, bringing together the traditions of historic sailing and watchmaking.