You may be surprised to hear it, but it may not be a stretch to call Maryland a microhub for American watchmaking. The state is home to at least three watch brands and a concerted effort to create an American-made movement (well on its way with the MD-1 from Maryland Watch Works). While two of the state’s brands, Tsao and Hager, are more traditional microbrands, Towson Watch Company occupies quite a different space. Founded in 1998 by two German engineers who had moved to the U.S. with dreams of starting a watch brand, it started by offering bespoke gold watches. Since its inception, though, Towson Watch Company’s catalog has branched out to offer a variety of models (very few of which can be had in gold).
Recently, the brand was purchased by young entrepreneur Spencer Shattuck. I had the chance to visit the brand’s showroom (due to Covid, I wasn’t able to visit the workshop), and met Shattuck and his partner Taylor Classen. Occupying a small set of glass-walled rooms in a building owned by Under Armour (another Baltimore-based company), the showroom is equal parts display and assembly line. Nestled up against each other, with the sunlight shining in from the adjacent main lobby, a watchmaker’s bench shares space with a jet-black Snap-On tool cart filled with the brand’s watches. The showroom shares a frosted glass wall with a sparsely furnished meeting room, used to chat with customers and sniveling watch reviewers.
The pair were affable and were as eager to share the brand’s story as they were to share their vision of growing Towson Watch Company into a modern American watchmaking icon. While ambitious, the two seem earnest in their aims. They’ve got their work cut out for them, though: the existing catalog is filled with traditional watches with guilloche dials, 7750 chronographs with predictable if elegant layouts, and railroad-style watches. That’s why, when offered my pick of the brand’s lineup for review, I chose the Towson Watch Company Martin M-130 chronograph, arguably the brand’s most forward-looking design.
On the Wrist
The dial is the best part of the Towson Watch Company Martin M-130. It’s a near 1:1 replica of the cockpit clock found in the Martin M-130 plane that inspired the watch. The Martin M-130 aircraft, built in 1935 by the one-time Baltimore-based Glenn L. Martin Company, was an enormous “flying boat,” only three of which were ever made. The planes provided various service between the U.S. and the Philippines, but two crashed and one disappeared, resulting in a total loss of 57 lives. It’s not the inspiration I’d latch on to for a watch design, but the cockpit clock is admittedly pretty cool, so here we are. The dial’s use of color and texture make for a fun experience on the wrist and allow for easy reading of every element.
The watch sits well enough on the wrist, especially for an automatic chronograph, some of which can measure a good bit thicker than the Martin M-130. The concave bezel catches and bends light in a way not often seen at this price point, where brands seem to favor beveled or convex bezels. The strap, while underwhelming, is pliable and easy on the wrist.
The colors and text on the Martin M-130 dial are exceptionally engaging and a treat to look at. The handset is unique, and I love the Towson Watch Company shield logo. Frankly, there’s very little to dislike about this dial. But, as ever, I found something: looking at the date window, you can see the foot of the 7 peeking out above the 6. While this shot is slightly angled, I can attest that the issue arises when looking straight-on. It’s a bit of a letdown, and as this is clearly a custom date wheel, might’ve been solved by shrinking the sizes of both the font and the window (which would have obviated the need to cut into the 3.
The radial subdials are a great accent, but there are two things I want to point out here. One, the use of “Towson Maryland” at the base of the dial, instead of some insincere grab at calling the watch “Swiss Made.” Hometown pride is a big thing for Shattuck, and this dial reinforces that. Second, I love how the yellow six pulls double duty as a main hour marker and a subdial marker. It’s a relief they didn’t carve into the 6 or eliminate it altogether.
The lume was a surprise. I expected a slightly subpar glow, as lume is often an afterthought on chronographs. But the Martin M-130 chronograph’s simple lume design seems to have allowed for even application that lets the watch shine adequately in the dark.
Case and Strap
The Towson Watch Company M-130 chronograph features a stainless steel case made in Germany by Ickler, a renowned casemaker. The watch feels sturdy and the finishing is good. The jumbo crown is very on-point for the pilot inspiration and has a faint etching of the TWC logo on its cap; it’s satisfying to operate and easy to grip. Given the more generic styling of the case, the pump pushers are fitting. I do like the pop of red on the start/stop pusher, which echoes the red accents on the dial. You can barely see it, but the bezel is concave, something commonly seen from much higher-end brands. This model seems to be an effort by the brand to evolve towards more modern, fun offerings; while the sapphire crystal features just a slight dome, I wonder if a flat sapphire may have edged them further along in that effort.
Have you ever seen the caseback of the IWC Petit Prince, or the IWC Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (both featuring the same 7750 movement as the Towson Watch Company Martin M-130)? Those watches have detailed reliefs of the namesake tiny royal and the author’s P-38 Lightning, respectively. They are simple, but exceptionally done, set against frosted backgrounds. That is the caliber of finishing one should expect in this price segment (the IWC models are priced about $1,300 higher, certainly in the same price bracket). This laser etching lacks depth, creativity, and forethought. It’s what I might expect on a $300 quartz watch with a pop-off caseback.
This strap is the Larry Bird of plainness. I hate to go back to price, but at $4,200, I expect a custom buckle and a nicer strap. The generic catalog buckle is unbranded and thin. It doesn’t communicate the brand’s purported message and it doesn’t cohere with the case or dial. Bafflingly, the brand has a branded deployant buckle. Why is that not on this and every leather strap it includes with its watches? It’s a disappointment.
The Towson Watch Company Martin M-130 chronograph strives towards fun and takes a chance with a design that diverges from the rest of the brand’s catalog. The design itself—what may have been put on paper—is good. While I like quite like the dial and the case is better than decent, other things seemed rushed and, in some cases, not even considered. When I encounter generic strap with an even more generic buckle, a poorly-executed date window, and a half-assed caseback on a $4,200 watch, I balk. If you are interested in a Towson Watch Company chronograph, I’d stick with the more traditional styles that it’s been offering since its founding. For just $250 more than the Martin C-130, the Choptank S1 has a Swiss automatic complete calendar chronograph movement, a guilloche dial, blued hands, and a far more unique tonneau case.
Having visited the showroom, met with the new brand owner, and had this model for some time, my optimism for Towson Watch Company’s success is very cautious. The lofty ambitions to create a great American brand might be hindered by not enough attention paid to basic details. The fixes aren’t difficult though, so for the sake of the brand—and Baltimore—I hope I’m proven wrong. Only time will tell.
Check out more chronograph reviews at The Watch Clicker
Check out the Towson Watch Company website
Towson Watch Co. Martin M-130 Specs
*Height of the watch from the wrist to the top of the crystal