Looking Back: When the Watchcase Saved Sag Harbor

The project to renovate the old Bulova Watchcase Factory by Sag Development Partners/Cape Advisors LLC. Photographed on November 15th, 2011

The whaling business was practically “dead in the water” in the last decades of the 1800s.  At the time, the New York Sun described Sag Harbor as “a deserted village with a waste of empty cellars, vacant lots, tumble down cooper shops, and deserted buildings.”  The town lost more than a third of its population between 1855 and 1874.  But then, like the plot of a romance novel, love came to the rescue.  In 1856 a man named Joseph Fahys had married Maria L’Hommedieu Payne, the daughter of Captain Charles Payne of Sag Harbor, thus binding Fahys to the village.  In fact he already had business interests here as part owner of the Montauk Steam Cotton Mill.

When the cotton mill burned down in October 1879, Fahys thought about the aged condition of his Carlstadt, New Jersey, watchcase factory and decided to move his business into a new facility in Sag Harbor on the same site as the late cotton mill.  Builders designed his factory with open interiors and an expanse of windows to bring natural light inside for craftsmen working on precision products.  On October 21, 1881, a steam whistle declared its opening and in December 1882, smelting of silver and gold began.  By 1890 watchcase production reached 1200 cases per day, employed several hundred people and fostered a housing boom.  Each day $6000 worth of gold was smelted, and annual “sweepings” of gold amounted to $80,000 in a year.  In fact, there were vaults for precious metals on each floor.  In the latter part of the 19th century, Fahys was the largest manufacturer of gold and silver watchcases in the United States.  (Note: until World War I essentially all timepieces were pocket watches, so their cases were larger, required more metal, and of course provided more room for engraving.)  Many of the craftsmen that Fahys brought here from New Jersey were from Germany.  Joined by immigrants from Hungary, Poland and Italy, the local population became widely diversified.

Between 1886 and 1888, some fifty Jewish men and their families arrived.  Local historian Karl Grossman says his grandfather from Hungary worked in the watchcase factory.  Engraving was a major art among Hungarian Jews and Fahys recruiters sought them when they arrived on Ellis Island and took them by boat to Sag Harbor.  Working hours were from 8 to 6 with a half day on Saturday.  Pay was three dollars a week.  The new Jewish community established Temple Adas Israel in 1898, the first on Long Island.  Years later The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger reported a brief conflict when the factory manager refused to let Jews take off from work on Yom Kippur.

Factory worker Sal Engineri related in the East Hampton Star that he and his father before him worked at the watchcase factory.  “We lived on Howard Street in a ten-room house…My uncle lived on one side and we lived on the other.  Five dollars a month rent…”  At the age of 14, when he obtained  working papers,  Engineri left school to work at the factory which  in 1910 employed some 900 people.  “I worked 60 hours a week at five cents an hour.  On Saturdays you worked nine hours and they paid you for ten.  Three dollars a week…I had to bring my paycheck home to my father and maybe he’d give me a dime…Of course a dime was as good as $10 then.”

As noted earlier, until World War I practically all watches were pocket watches and Fahys produced cases for Elgin, Waltham, Illinois and Hamilton.  But during the “Great War” soldiers found it inconvenient, if not dangerous, to fumble for pocket watches while in battle and began strapping them to their wrists.  After the war, people at home picked up the style of returning soldiers and wristwatches quickly became popular.

In 1895 The Alvin Corporation, a silver company, moved here from Irvington, NJ and in 1897 was purchased by Joseph Fahys and Company.  Many years later the business was sold to Gorham Silver Company of Providence, RI.  The Fahys factory spawned other industries.  John Emmel started The Bottling Works in 1896.  Other offshoots were the Eaton Engraving Company, and the Eaton Dial Company.  By the early 1900s it was estimated that more than half   the Harbor’s population consisted of foreign nationalities.  This diversity caused inevitable annoyance from families that may have been here for generations.  To ease tensions Fahys and the Russell Sage Foundation supported community facilities and programs.

Joseph Fahys died in 1915. His heirs had failed to invest in upgrades to the factory and to meet competition from abroad, mainly from Austrian watchmaker Joseph Bulova.  The great depression was well underway when Joseph Fahys & Company closed its doors after 50 years of watchcase manufacturing in Sag Harbor.  A Sag Harbor Citizens Committee that formed in 1931  established The Sag Harbor Guild.  The guild approached Arde Bulova, Joseph’s son, who ran the American branch of the Bulova Watch Company and asked him to establish a Sag Harbor operation.  In 1937 a Bulova subsidiary leased the second floor of the old watchcase factory.

During WW II, Bulova employed nearly 500 people, more than half women, to work on defense-related projects, including parts for fuses, timing devices, telescopes and airplane instruments, while continuing to manufacture watch cases.   At its peak it produced 30,000 watchcases per week, mostly for women’s watches decorated with gold, silver and diamonds.  Once again heirs had failed to stay competitive and Bulova became a target of takeovers in the 1970s.   A decision was made to close the doors in 1980.  Environmental concerns and the need for extensive remediation of metals which had seeped into the soil took many years before the old watchcase factory finally was sold and refurbished to become today’s condos and townhouses.