Portrait of Dietrich Gruen, n.d.

Portrait of Dietrich Gruen, n.d.

Dietrich Gruen


After learning the watchmaking trade in the Black Forest region, Dietrich Gruen immigrated to the United States, where he eventually patented an improved center pinion for watches. This innovation became the foundation of Gruen’s business ventures, which included the Gruen Watch Company, a leading watch manufacturing firm that operated for half a century.


The Gruen Watch Company, which operated under a number of different names from 1876 until 1958, expertly blended European watchmaking traditions with the innovations and efficiencies of American manufacturing. Founded by Dietrich Gruen (born February 22, 1847 in Osthofen, Hesse; died April 10, 1911 on board the S.S. Berlin, near Algiers) the business involved nearly the entire Gruen family, from Dietrich’s brothers to his sons and grandsons. Begun during the era of the pocket watch, the Gruen business was quick to adapt to the twentieth century wristwatch, becoming a leader in its production and design.

Family Background

Dietrich Gruen, the son of Johann George and Susanna (née Weigand) Grün, was born in Osthofen, on the Rhine River, a year before the Revolutions of 1848. Osthofen was a market town with a population of 2,750 in 1862.[1] Located about six miles north of Worms, Osthofen was part of the Rheinhessen province, which was controlled by the Grand Duchy of Hesse beginning in 1816. Known for its wines, Rheinhessen boasted a number of vineyards, which were located primarily along the Rhine River.

Dietrich had two older brothers, Jacob and John, who immigrated to the United States during the 1850s, eventually settling in St. Louis, where Jacob opened a saloon in 1864. He went into partnership with John under the name J. Gruen & Bro. in 1868. In addition to operating the saloon, the brothers imported Rhenish wines and sold them on a wholesale and retail basis. The wine business was eventually incorporated as Jacob Gruen & Bro. Wine Company in 1891. According to their nephew, John was wealthier than Jacob, who tended to follow John’s lead in business matters.[2]

Jacob Gruen was a prominent member of the St. Louis German community. He served as vice-president of the German Mutual Fire Insurance Co. and was a member of the St. Louis Turn-Verein (a gymnastics club) as well as the local Liederkranz (singing society).[3] His son William became an architect in St. Louis and was a member of the Liederkranz, the Tower Grove Turn-Verein, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church.[4]

The Gruen brothers eventually became major stockholders in Dietrich’s first watch business, the Columbus Watch Company.[5] Their liquor business and financial investments put them in a position to support their younger brother’s watchmaking venture.[6] Family patriarch Johann George Gruen (born around 1819) joined his sons in the United States in the late 1870s. He lived with Jacob, in St. Louis, until his death in 1885 from emphysema.

Business Development

Dietrich Gruen began his watchmaking career as an apprentice. When he was fifteen, his family sent him south to the Black Forest region to learn the watchmaking trade. He apprenticed first in Eichstetten, and then in Karlsruhe, Wiesbaden, and Freiburg. He may have also studied in Switzerland.[7] Although best known for producing cuckoo clocks, the Black Forest region was also home to highly skilled makers of pocket watches, with whom Gruen studied.

In 1866, after studying watchmaking for four years, Dietrich relocated to the United States, where he joined his two older brothers in St. Louis. He spent about a year living in the apartment attached to Jacob’s saloon on 7th Street, during which time he worked as a watchmaker for jeweler William Reinholdt. From there, he moved to Delaware, Ohio, where he worked as a silversmith and watch repairman.

During his time in the city of Delaware, Dietrich developed an improved center pinion for watches. He submitted his patent on June 12, 1874, explaining that his pinion design would protect the wheel train of a watch if the mainspring broke or became detached. Dietrich’s design may have been influenced by the years he spent working as a watch repairman, for he had seen the damage that could result from a broken mainspring. Gruen’s “safety pinion,” as it became known, was the foundation of his business ventures. Dietrich used the date on which the patent was issued, December 22, 1874, as the founding date for both the Columbus Watch Company and the Gruen Watch Company.

Dietrich moved from Delaware to nearby Columbus in 1876 and started the Columbus Watch Company. Financing for the new company came partly from William J. Savage, who sold his half of a Columbus wholesale jewelry business to become the secretary and treasurer of the Columbus Watch Company, and partly from Dietrich’s brothers in St. Louis.

Initially, the Columbus Watch Company relied on the import of unfinished movements from Madresch-Biel, Switzerland, which they would then finish, adding Dietrich’s patented safety pinion as well as decorative flourishes.[8] Cases were made by other companies, as was typical for the American watchmaking industry in the late nineteenth century.

By 1882, the Columbus Watch Company was ready to expand. The company was incorporated that year, and, on July 27, 1882, Gruen moved into a new factory, which encompassed nearly two acres at the corner of Thurman and New Streets.[9] The factory was designed by Columbus architect and German immigrant George H. Maetzel and was located in the “German Village” section of town.[10] By the 1890s, the Columbus Watch Company employed about 400 people.

Dietrich Gruen lost the Columbus Watch Company after the Panic of 1893, a severe economic depression that caused the failure of hundreds of banks, businesses, and manufacturers throughout the country. The Columbus Watch Company was placed in receivership at the beginning of 1894, following the petition of creditors Carl T. Pfaff and Louis Lindeman, both members of the company’s board of directors.[11] The company was found to have about $250,000 worth of debts (approximately $6.74 million in 2011[12]) that were due or about to become due. Efforts to reorganize the company and raise capital had proved insufficient.

Although the company’s directors asked Dietrich to remain with Columbus Watch on a straight salary, he chose to leave. His son Frederick (1872-1945) later recalled that Dietrich declared “Gentlemen, you can have the business!” as he walked out.[13]

The failure of the Columbus Watch Company resulted in years of financial distress for its investors. In 1898, William Savage was still fending off the company’s receiver, Philip H. Bruck.[14] Dietrich’s brothers, Jacob and John, as principal stockholders, were sued by Carl T. Pfaff in a case that dragged on for nearly a decade while the courts dealt with the complexities of applying Ohio law to stockholders residing in Missouri.[15]

The New Columbus Watch Company, as it was called, continued operations without Gruen until 1903. Carl T. Pfaff, the principle creditor involved in the company’s failure, was voted onto the board of the new company in January 1895; his business partner William Reel became the secretary and general manager.[16] Pfaff, a German immigrant, was a prominent businessman in Columbus and a member of the German Independent Protestant Church, the Columbus Männerchor (men’s choir), the Turner Society, the Odd Fellows, the Free Masons, and the Humboldt Society.

Undaunted by the failure of his first business, Dietrich launched a new company with his son Frederick in 1894. Financing for the new venture came, again, from Dietrich’s brothers in St. Louis, as well as from family and friends in the cities of Delaware and Columbus.[17] D. Gruen & Son, as the company was called, became the second watch manufacturer in Columbus, with modest headquarters at 58 Wesley Block.

Frederick, also known as Fred or Fritz, had recently finished his education, having studied mechanical engineering at Ohio State University before enrolling at the Deutsche Urhmacherschule (German Watchmaking School) in Glashütte, Germany. He graduated with high honors from the Watchmaking School in 1893, returning home just in time to start a new company with Dietrich. He had worked briefly at the Columbus Watch Company, introducing greater organization and efficiency to the jeweling department, before his father quit the company.[18]

Fred used his contacts in Glashütte to find a new factory for their movements, avoiding direct competition with the New Columbus Watch Company.[19] While studying in Germany, Fred had become acquainted with Paul Assmann, whose father Julius was the founder of a successful and highly-regarded watch company that Paul had taken over in 1886. Among the Assmanns’ clients was A. Lange & Söhne, a premiere German watchmaking company.

In 1894, Fred, Dietrich, and Paul Assmann formed their own company in Glashütte; it was called Grünsche Uhrenfabrikation Grün und Assmann. An 1894 photograph taken to mark the founding of the new business shows a pleased Dietrich sitting arm-in-arm with Fred and Paul.[20] The Assmann factory produced unfinished movements according to Gruen’s specifications, combining Glashütte watchmaking traditions with Gruen’s innovations. Fred stayed in Glashütte for a year, helping the Assmanns upgrade their factory.[21] New machinery was brought from the United States, and existing equipment was improved, allowing the Assmanns to produce far more precision movements than was previously possible. Lower-quality movements were produced in larger numbers. The movements were completed in Ohio, which meant that the Gruens avoided the high import duties that would have been levied if the movements had been completed in Europe. Fred Gruen made frequent trips to Glashütte to oversee factory operations, using the nickname Fritz in his German correspondence.[22]

The new D. Gruen & Son company was an immediate success and expanded quickly. Many changes occurred in 1898. Dietrich’s son George John Gruen (1877-1957) joined the family business that year, leading to a slight change in the company name, which became D. Gruen, Sons & Co. Unlike his brother Fred, George had studied business, which prepared him to serve as the company’s treasurer and financial officer.

In 1898, the newly renamed company relocated to Cincinnati and also established a West Coast office in San Francisco.[23] In Cincinnati, the Gruen office was located in the Johnston Building at Fountain Square in the heart of downtown, two blocks away from their newest business venture, the Queen City Watch Case Manufacturing Company. The Gruens were now the general distributors and sole agents for Queen City, effectively securing custom case production for their movements, reducing their costs and expanding their business line. [24]

Located on the top floor of the Lion Building at the corner of 5th and Elm Streets, Queen City billed themselves as manufacturers of high grade gold and silver watch cases, and as repairers and reconstructors who were willing to fill any style of specialty case.[25] The partnership with Queen City was a success: in December 1900, the company became a subsidiary of D. Gruen, Sons & Co., with Dietrich as vice-president. [26] A new factory for the watch case company was established in the Butler Building at 15-27 West 6th Street.[27]

A second watch case company was formed in 1904; it was headquartered at a new office in the Johnston Building.[28] The Gruen National Watch Case Company specialized in low-priced gold cases, which it produced for Gruen as well as other watch manufacturers.[29] The two case companies, Queen City and Gruen National, operated as separate subsidiaries until 1921, when Queen City was reincorporated as Gruen National Watch Case Company, as part of a larger company restructuring.[30] Despite the official name change, the company continued to advertise in trade journals as Queen City Watch Case Co. until 1929.

The cases that the Gruens used for their watch movements came from Cincinnati, and the supply was secure. The movements themselves, however, came from Europe, and problems there forced the Gruens to find a new manufacturer. Their partnership with the Assmann company came to an end in 1900, perhaps due to pressure from A. Lange & Söhne, one of Assmann’s principle clients. Fred Gruen later recalled that they left Glashütte because there was too much resistance to their modern approach to manufacturing.[31]

The Gruens returned to Madrestch-Biel for movements, this time establishing their own factory there. They maintained their friendship with the Assmann family: in 1905, Paul Assmann’s son Ernst relocated to Ohio to work for the Gruens.

A Gruen advertisement from 1907 indicated that the company had facilities in Cincinnati, Madretsch, and Dresden.[32] Very little is known about the Dresden operation. The Gruens carefully eliminated any reference to their German ties during World War I. After the war, George J. Gruen published an article about the state of manufacturing in Germany following a month-long trip, but he did not mention any business affiliations.[33]

In 1903, the Gruen Watch Manufacturing Company was established in Madretsch-Biel, producing movements that were finished and cased in the U.S. The Swiss factory produced movements whose quality exceeded anything that could have been made in Ohio, mostly on account of Switzerland’s long-standing horological traditions. Fred Gruen testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in 1913 that the very thin model and the very small ladies’ watches simply could not be made in the United States.[34]

Import tariffs continued to be a challenge for the Gruen company throughout the twentieth century, as American manufacturers sought to gain advantage over Swiss imports. Gruen was in competition with American movement manufacturers who were not subject to the same tariff regulations imposed on imported movements. Those U.S. companies attempted to increase tariffs on imports, claiming that they could not compete with their prices. Fred Gruen testified that the Swiss industry was, in fact, suffering severely from competition with mass-produced American watches.[35] Gruen petitioned for a 20 percent ad valorem duty.

The new Gruen factory in Switzerland was equipped to manufacture Gruen’s latest innovation: the “Verithin” (also spelled VeriThin and Veri-Thin) movement, which was about one-third thinner than conventional movements. Introduced in 1904, the VeriThin became one of Gruen’s most popular models. Later advertising campaigns gave credit for the extra-thin movement design to both Dietrich and Fred, casting it as a long-held dream of the father that was finally realized by the son.[36] The company continued to produce thicker pocket watches, which they later rebranded as “SemiThin” and sold for half the price of the VeriThin watches. Originally made as a pocket watch, the VeriThin design was modified for wristwatches after World War I.

Gruen watches, with their German and Swiss precision movements, were among the more expensive watches made in the United States. Whereas companies like Ingersoll and Waterbury promoted their inexpensive “dollar watches” for the masses, Gruen priced their least expensive watches at around $25. The VeriThin pocket watches were priced at $50 and up – a steep price at a time when the average wage was around 22 cents per hour.

D. Gruen, Sons & Co. were members of the Cincinnati Wholesale Jewelers’ & Manufacturers’ Association and the National Jewelers’ Board of Trade. The company was incorporated in 1908 with $150,000 in capital (approximately $3.78 million in 2011) by Dietrich, Fred, George, and Fred’s new wife, Mathilda Louise.[37] Their capital was increased to $500,000 in 1915 (approximately $11.5 million in 2011).[38] They were listed on the Cincinnati and New York Stock Exchanges.

Dietrich Gruen died in 1911; at the time of his death, he was onboard the S.S. Berlin and was headed to a health spa in Bad Nauheim, Germany, where he had gone every spring for several years.[39] Following Dietrich’s death, Fred took over as president of D. Gruen Sons & Co., and George became vice-president of the Queen City Watch Case Manufacturing Company.

Under Fred’s guidance, D. Gruen Sons & Co. launched an advertising campaign, hiring the J. Walter Thompson agency to help promote their brand. Gruen’s first print advertisement appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on October 7, 1911, six months after Dietrich’s death. The ad combined text and images to promote VeriThin Precision pocket watches; a background image depicting a scenic village in the Swiss Alps added romantic charm while reminding potential customers of Switzerland’s reputation for high-quality watches.[40]

The Gruens launched a new line of watches in honor of their father in 1913.[41] The “Dietrich Gruen” watch was available in three versions: the first had a winding indicator, the second had a minute repeater, and the third, the most complicated version, had a minute repeater and a split-seconds chronograph. The Dietrich Gruen was the company’s most expensive watch, priced between $285 and $650 (approximately $6,680-$15,200 in 2011), depending on the optional features selected.[42]

The VeriThin was followed in 1916 by the Very VeriThin, which was the same movement housed in an extra-thin case. The UltraThin model was introduced around 1918 and was Gruen’s most expensive watch, retailing between $200 and $650 (approximately $2,990 to $9,710 in 2011), depending on optional features. The Ultra-VeriThin, introduced in 1924, was priced closer to the VeriThin, ranging from $85 to $100 (approximately $1,120 to $1,320 in 2011).

Gruen added a line of wristwatches for women in 1912, using the name “wristlet” to encourage consumers to think of them as elegant, timekeeping bracelets.[43] Early advertisements declared that “All Europe is wearing the new watch bracelet,” and recommended the wristlet as a graduation gift for daughters.[44] The wristlets were available with gold or platinum cases, ornamented with diamonds or embossed decorations, and strapped to the wrist with an adjustable ribbon. [45]

Wristwatches became a masculine accessory during World War I, after British officers began using specially-designed wristwatches to help coordinate maneuvers in the trenches. Military wristwatches were designed for hard use, with steel cases and sometimes protective outer cases. By 1916, it had become fashionable for all men to wear military-style wristwatches. Gruen launched their line of military watches in 1918. Unlike wristwatches issued by the military, Gruen’s Military Watches came in silver or gold cases, priced between $15 and $200 (between $224 and $2,990 in 2011).[46] A patriotic “Liberty” khaki strap was available as an alternative to the standard leather strap.

Gruen also offered a Military Pocket Timepiece to accompany the wristwatch. Like the military wristwatch, the pocket watch’s hands and hour markers were painted with radium, making them glow in the dark. Gruen’s marketing declared that every officer needed two watches: “The wrist watch for convenience—the pocket watch for accuracy.”[47]

One military wristwatch stood out from the others: the Moisture-Proof Military Wrist Watch was the world’s first hermetically sealed wristwatch. Developed by Fred Gruen in 1918, the watch was patented in 1919. The movement and dial were housed in a normal-looking case, which was nestled inside a protective outer case that screwed shut, keeping out “pouring rain in a trench” or “sudden immersion, as in fording a stream.”[48] Gruen’s marketing department put heavy emphasis on the ruggedness of the watch, which, ironically, was available only in silver or gold cases.

A Doctor’s and Nurse’s Military Watch was included in Gruen’s new line of wristwatches. It was more elegant in design than the standard wristwatch, and featured a large-sweep seconds hand for use in checking a patient’s pulse and blood pressure.[49]

A wristwatch marketed to doctors and nurses featured a sweep seconds hand (as opposed to a seconds hand that jumped from second to second), making it a practical device for checking a patient’s blood pressure.[50] Interest from the medical profession inspired Gruen to develop the “Techi-Quadron” watch, which was introduced in 1929 and displayed the seconds as a separate dial for easier use. The Techi-Quadron was available with an expanding buckle, allowing doctors and nurses to wear the watch on the forearm, rather than on the wrist.[51]

Gruen advertising in the 1920s encouraged men to own two watches: one pocket watch, and one “strap watch,” which they described as “the watch of convenience, to be worn by busy men for busy hours.”[52] Women were offered a choice between a “distinctive pocket watch, a sturdy strap model for the outdoors, or a dainty, beautiful wristlet for dress.”[53]

Marketing the Gruen image was an important part of Fred Gruen’s leadership of the company. During Dietrich’s lifetime, the company focused its marketing efforts on developing relationships with retailers and did no commercial advertising. Fred spent much of his time, prior to 1911, traveling on sales trips to visit retailers. Just before Dietrich’s death, the Gruens began preparing for their first marketing campaign. As president of the company, Fred continued the plan to reach consumers directly.

By 1912, a romanticized version of Dietrich Gruen’s life had become part of the Gruen marketing campaign. “One word from a woman’s lips” was a phrase that was repeated endlessly in Gruen ads from 1912 through 1917. By 1915, the phrase had become the title of a company booklet; Gruen’s ads cautioned readers that “everyone should read” the booklet before buying a timepiece.[54] That “one word” was “yes” – a reference to the moment when Dietrich’s proposal of marriage was accepted by his American sweetheart, prompting him to stay in this country instead of starting his business in Switzerland.[55] Gruen’s writers liberally rewrote the company’s history to better market the Verithin line of watches, even changing the profession of Dietrich’s father-in-law from barber to watchmaker.

In 1916, a new line of advertisements claimed that Dietrich Gruen had been a Swiss watchmaker and that Fred had studied horology in America and Switzerland, with no mention of their German connections.[56] At the time, during the height of World War I, acknowledging their German roots would have likely destroyed their business. Even Fred’s nickname, Fritz, was eradicated: advertisements in 1916 referred to him as Fritz; those same advertisements, when they appeared again in 1917, used the name Fred.[57]

The public eradication of their German heritage must have been difficult for the Gruens; during a 1914 business trip to Europe, Fred was given a tour of a German military airship. Afterwards, he was quoted in the Cincinnati newspaper as stating that the airships would be “one of the most demoralizing factors of the European war.”[58] Cincinnati’s German community was placed in a difficult position, balancing their loyalty to the United States with their loyalty to Germany. At least one Cincinnati German, Gerhardt Engel, returned to Germany to enlist in the Kaiser’s army, while others found that being naturalized U.S. citizens disqualified them from German service.[59] The Gruens cemented their loyalty to the United States by publicly offering the use of their newly installed wireless station to the U.S. Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker.[60] The wireless had been installed primarily to receive the official time from the Arlington Observatory and had a receiving radius of 3,000 miles.

The second phase of Gruen’s image makeover involved the construction of a picturesque new factory building for their case-making operations. In 1913, the Gruens purchased land on McMillan Street in Cincinnati for a new factory building, which was completed in 1917.[61] Designed by Guy Burroughs and John Henri Deeken, “Time Hill” deliberately mimicked the style of Swiss chalets. More specifically, the factory’s architects drew their inspiration from the medieval Swiss guild system at the behest of Fred Gruen, who had been inspired by the Guild halls in Brussels.[62] In the face of an increasingly mechanized world, Fred sought to associate his company with prestigious Swiss watchmaking traditions.

Fred Gruen capitalized on the new Time Hill factory, publishing a Gruen history, illustrated by the acclaimed artist Ernest D. Roth, in 1918.[63] The book, A Worthy Company of Watchmakers, referred to Time Hill as the “Gruen Guild House,” and traced the Gruen history to the medieval European craft guilds, declaring that Dietrich Gruen sought to “keep alive the fine watchmaking ideals and traditions” of the watchmaking guilds. No mention was made of the Gruens’ connections to Germany, perhaps because anti-German sentiment was strong at the end of World War I. This new history of the Gruen company placed heavy emphasis on their venerable Swiss connections.

Time Hill, as lavishly described in A Worthy Company of Watchmakers, was dramatically different from the typical factory building of the era. The guild concept was not just part of an advertising campaign: Fred Gruen sought to create a nurturing environment for his employees. Surrounded by rock gardens, ferns, flowers, and a fountain, Time Hill resembled a mansion or a club house more than a factory.[64] The exterior was ornamented with decorative Rookwood tiles, along with wood and stucco panels. The main entrance boasted antique lamps, while the entrance hall was paneled with dark wood and more Rookwood tiles. A massive fireplace and wood-beamed ceiling added to the picturesque aesthetic of the building, which was meant to evoke the Swiss watchmaking guild system.

Gruen’s second major advertising campaign was launched sometime around 1920. The company rebranded itself as “Gruen Guild Watches” and strove to present the Gruen watch as a work of art coupled with American precision manufacturing.[65] Fred was widely credited with founding the Gruen Watch Makers Guild in order to “perpetuate the old guild idea of a workman’s taking pride in the beauty and perfection of the product he makes.”[66]

The company was reorganized in 1920: the name D. Gruen Sons & Co. was dropped and replaced by the Gruen Watch Company. Fred continued as the company’s president, with George as secretary and treasurer. Their watch case operation, newly consolidated as the Gruen National Watch Case Company, was headed by George as president and Fred as vice-president.

Gruen saw a stock increase in 1921, along with a growth in their retail business. The Gruen Watch Company was incorporated in 1922, officially replacing D. Gruen Sons & Co.[67] The company boasted some $2,400,000 in assets (approximately $32.2 million in 2011), which included stock in the Gruen Watch Manufacturing Company in Switzerland and the Gruen National Watch Case Company in Ohio.[68]

Gruen continued to contract with watch case manufacturers. Beginning in the 1920s, many of their watches were housed in movements made by the Wadsworth Watch Case Company, which specialized in the production of inexpensive cases.

Next, the Gruens turned their attention to their manufacturing operations in Biel. Their “Precision” factory, as it was called, was given a new building to match Time Hill. Guy Burroughs collaborated with a Swiss architect on the project, which was completed in 1922. Gruen’s highest quality movements, marked “precision,” were made there. Taking advantage of modern technology, the two facilities were connected by radio communications.

Gruen’s new Precision factory was located across from Aegler, a manufacturer that supplied Gruen with movements. In the absence of their own factory, Gruen continued to rely on other Swiss manufacturers to keep up with the demand for their watches. Gruen was Aegler’s second largest client; their largest client was Rolex. During the 1920s, both Gruen and Rolex purchased shares in Aegler and ran advertisements suggesting that the factory was theirs alone. In 1925, the company was renamed Aegler, SA, Manufacture des Montres: Rolex et Gruen Guild A, a reflection of its joint ownership by Gruen and Rolex.[69] In 1934, Gruen sold their interest in Aegler, which became the primary factory for Rolex movements

Gruen also purchased movements from another Biel company, Alpina Union Hologère. Gruen merged with Alpina in 1929 to form the Alpina Gruen Guild SA (Alpina-Gruen Guilde Fabriques d’horlogerie), with a distribution network of 1,575 retailers. Fred and George Gruen sat on the Alpina-Gruen board of directors, as did the president of Aegler.[70] The goal was to expand Gruen’s European market, but the partnership did not go well. Frequent disputes over business practices, from funding Alpina’s annual catalogue to marketing Alpina’s products in the U.S., created friction between Gruen and Alpina.[71] The Gruen and Alpina partnership ended in 1937.[72] Gruen expanded into Geneva in 1931, when the Gruen Watch Manufacturing Company of Biel partnered with Weber et Cie of Geneva to form the Gruen-Weber Case Company.[73] Gruen had previously contracted with Stern Frères of Geneva to make specialty dials for the Gruen “Louis XIV” line of VeriThin pocket watches.[74]

Rumors of a merger with Elgin Watch Manufacturing of Illinois, the Wadsworth Watch Case Company of Kentucky, and the Keystone Watch Company of Pennsylvania were reported on in March 1929, but nothing came of it.[75]

The Great Depression in the United States and the accompanying economic crisis in Europe took its toll on Gruen. Each year saw their profits steadily decrease until 1932, when they posted a net loss of more than half a million dollars.[76] By 1935, the company’s debts had reached $1.8 million (approximately $29.5 million in 2011). The company was reorganized, and Fred stepped down as president, hiring Benjamin S. Katz (1892-1969) to replace him. Under Katz’s direction, Gruen issued new shares of stock to help eliminate their debts, which included a $55,000 mortgage on one of the subsidiaries.[77] Sales began to improve, and the company began seeing annual net profits return and even increase. In 1941, Gruen was able to announce that those debts had been paid off and cancelled.[78] The company continued to finance its operations through a combination of loans and stocks, taking out a $2 million loan (approximately $25.6 million in 2011), to be paid for through the issuance of stock shares, in 1944.[79]

In 1940, Gruen became the official timepiece for three airlines: Canadian Colonial Airways, Continental Air Lines, and Chicago & Southern Air Line. Gruen wristwatches were standard issue to stewardesses on these airlines.[80] A similar contract with Pan American World Airways led to a new line of wristwatches: the Gruen Pan American, featuring a twenty-four-hour dial for “air-world time,” was launched in 1943. Gruen’s advertising dubbed it “the watch of the future,” but cautioned consumers that the company’s wartime military contracts would have to be filled before any civilian models could be made available.[81] The “watch of the future” was finally available to consumers in 1945.[82]

In 1945, George T. Gruen, Dietrich’s grandson and a graduate of the horological school at Le Locle, Switzerland, started the Gruen Watchmaking Institute for disabled war veterans. By 1950, twenty-one percent of the school’s graduates had become Gruen employees, while another forty-one percent had started their own businesses. [83] The school published A Course in Wristwatch Repair in 1948; it was aimed at watch enthusiasts who were interested in learning the basics of watch repair.

Sales reached a record high in 1940-41; profits reached a record high in 1943-44; and Katz declared 1945-46 to be the most successful year in the company’s entire history, with a net profit of $1,071,837 (approximately $13.4 million in 2011).[84] Plans for expansions to Time Hill and their Bienne factory, and for a new building for the Gruen National Watch Case Company were announced in conjunction with the 1945-46 report. Gruen announced a $3,000,000 (approximately $28 million in 2011) expansion of its Cincinnati facilities in 1948.[85]

Gruen, like other American watchmakers, struggled to compete with Swiss imports in the years following World War II. The American Watchmakers’ Union placed the blame on lowered tariffs, which suddenly made Swiss watches less expensive than American ones.[86] Prices for Gruen watches dropped considerably during the 1940s. Wristwatches were no longer luxury items: they were affordable to the masses, although still expensive enough to require payment plans. Gruen’s wristwatches retailed for as little as $37.50 in 1948 (approximately $350 in 2011).[87]

Fred Gruen retired in 1940 as chairman of the board. He was succeeded by his brother George, who had been serving as vice-chairman. Fred remained on the board until his death in 1945. Following the death of George Gruen in 1953, the family sold its shares in the company. Benjamin Katz left the company the following year, selling his Gruen stock back to the company for $2 million (equivalent to approximately $16.7 million in 2011).[88]

After several years of legal and financial difficulties, the Gruen company was sold off in 1958. Time Hill was shut down, and the company records were destroyed. The Precision Factory in Switzerland was sold to Rolex. The Gruen Precision brand name continues to be used today for cheap quartz watches made in China for M.Z. Berger and Company.

Social Status, Networks, Family and Public Life

On May 6, 1869, Dietrich Gruen married Pauline Wittlinger (1849-1905), a German immigrant. Pauline’s father, Christian Wittlinger, was born in Wittenburg in 1811. The family arrived in the United States in 1852. Christian worked as a barber during the 1860s and 1870s. [89] He retired from the barbershop and acquired a dairy farm in the 1870s. The 1870 United States Census listed Dietrich as a silversmith living in Delaware, Ohio, with his wife, Pauline. Although most of their neighbors were born in Ohio, several others were German immigrants.

In Columbus, Dietrich was involved with an Anti-Prohibition group composed of dozens of members of the local German community. In 1882, he served on a committee that coordinated a “grand demonstration,” which included fireworks, banners, and a parade.[90] For the most part, however, Dietrich appears to have dedicated virtually all of his time to running his business.

Fred Gruen later wrote that his father was “a lovable character, a hard worker who knew his business, a square shooter, a man you could trust and fine to work with.”[91] In 1905, he developed heart trouble, which Fred attributed to the stress of their various business endeavors over the years. Shortly before he died, Dietrich advised Fred to set an annual business goal of half a million a year, no higher, as he would then “have a nice, comfortable business” and would “make some money and not have any money worries.”[92] Dietrich’s estate, worth just over $60,000 (approximately $1.47 million in 2011), was divided equally among his children.

Dietrich and Pauline had five children: four sons and a daughter, Flora. The eldest son, Fred, studied horology; George studied business management; and Frank became an attorney. The youngest son, Charles, died in 1927 at the age of forty-five. The three older sons were all involved in the Gruen watch business. Fred helped develop the company’s movements and case designs, managed sales and manufacturing contracts, and eventually succeeded Dietrich as president of the firm. George helped manage the family business, serving as secretary and treasurer of the watch company and as vice-president of their case-making companies.

Frederick and George Gruen socialized with other Cincinnati Germans, occasionally making the society pages, and attending charity events. As their fortunes increased, they hired live-in servants, nearly always German immigrants. Fred was also a founding member of the Hamilton County Golf Club, and was respected as a Cincinnati business leader. He was a director of the Ohio National Life Insurance Company. Additionally, he was an honorary life member of the Horological Institute of America and an honorary member of the Alpina Urhmacher Genossenschaft of Berlin. He was a Mason and he belonged to the Queen City, Cincinnati and Maketewah Country Clubs.

George John Gruen was president of the Cincinnati Association of Credit Men from 1920 to 1922 and served as chairman of their Investigation and Prosecution Committee.[93] George was also a member of the Business Men’s Club, the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, the Queen City Club, and others. He served as president of the Cincinnati Wholesale Jewelers’ and Manufacturers’ Association, was honorary vice-president of the National Jewelers’ Board of Trade, and was a trustee of the Cincinnati College of Music.

George’s son, George Thauwald Gruen, studied horology in Switzerland before succeeding his father as secretary of the Gruen Watch Company. George’s other son, Robert Dietrich Gruen, published a brief history of the company in 1991.

While Fred and George established themselves in Cincinnati, siblings Frank and Flora relocated to Dayton, Ohio. Frank and Flora’s husband, Charles W. Bieser, served on the board of directors of the First Savings & Banking Company of Dayton. Bieser, the son of a German immigrant, was the owner of Everybody’s Book Shop, which was incorporated by Frank Gruen and two others in 1913.[94] Bieser was a Republican delegate to at least twenty-one state conventions, and a member of the Harugari and the Liederkranz singing society.

The third son, Frank, worked independently as an attorney, but also served on the Gruen board of directors. Frank was vice-president of the Gruen business from 1911 until the 1920s.

Flora’s son, Carl Bieser, joined the Gruen company after graduating from the University of Michigan Engineering School. He eventually became vice-president of the Gruen National Watch Case Company.[95] Another son, Irving Gruen Bieser, served as legal counsel for the Gruen company following the death of his uncle, Frank Gruen, in 1939.


Over the years, the Gruens weathered numerous challenges, from large-scale financial depressions to tariff regulations. Although their German heritage was a defining part of their lives, they chose to identify themselves publicly with Switzerland rather than Germany, in an attempt to escape anti-German sentiment during World War I. Time Hill, their Swiss chalet-style factory in Cincinnati, still exists today as a landmark building and has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. The Gruen Watch Company ceased operations in the late 1950s, but the watches it produced remain highly sought after collector’s items.


[1] Alexander Keith Johnston, Dictionary of Geography, Descriptive, Physical, Statistical, and Historical, Forming a Complete General Gazetteer of the World (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1862), 905.

[2] Frederick G. Gruen, “Historical Facts about the Development of Gruen Watchmakers Guild,” in James W. Gibbs, Buckeye Horology (Columbia, PA: The Art Crafters, 1971), 85.

[3] John W. Leonard, ed., The Book of St. Louisans: A Biographical Dictionary (St. Louis: The St. Louis Republic, 1906), 242.

[4] Walter B. Stevens, St. Louis: History of the Fourth City, 1763-1909, Volume II (Chicago and St. Louis: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909), 100-01.

[5] Carl T. Pfaff, Appellant, v. Jacob Gruen and John Gruen, Respondants, St. Louis Court of Appeals, February 25, 1902.

[6] An 1888 newspaper article (The Daily Democrat, October 6, 1888) reporting on a burglary at Jacob Gruen’s home noted that the thief helped himself to $10,000 in government bonds, $150 in cash, $200 in jewelry, and $4,000 in other securities. The bonds were recovered immediately.

[7] Alfred Emory Lee, History of the City of Columbus, Capital of Ohio, Volume II (New York and Chicago: Munsell & Co., 1892), 817. According to family lore, Gruen apprenticed with a Mr. Martens, an accomplished watchmaker in Freiburg, for about five years starting when he was fifteen. No further information on Martens has been found. After completing his apprenticeship in Freiburg, Gruen – as family tradition holds – spent two or three years in Switzerland, working in several watch factories. This version of Gruen’s early years is basically identical to the account offered in a series of Gruen company advertisements published shortly after Dietrich’s death. This version varies significantly, however, from the biography of Dietrich Gruen published in Lee’s history of Columbus. Lee’s history was published in 1892, the time when Gruen was president of the Columbus Watch Company. Because the 1892 biography matches the historical record much more closely than the version published in company advertisements and repeated by the family, it is believed to be correct.

[8] John C. Hover, et. al., eds., Memoirs of the Miami Valley, Volume III (Chicago: Robert O. Law Co., 1920), 326.

[9] Lee, History of the City of Columbus, 335.

[10] Ibid., 814.

[11] “The Columbus Watch Co. in the Hands of a Receiver,” The Jewelers’ Circular (January 10, 1894), 10.

[12] All current values (in 2011 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[13] Gruen, “Historical Facts about the Development of Gruen Watchmakers Guild,” 83.

[14] “William J. Savage Answers Receiver Philip Bruck,” The Jewelers’ Circular (June 29, 1898), 16.

[15] Pfaff v. Gruen et. al., Court of Appeals at St. Louis, Mo., February 25, 1902.

[16] The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review (January 30, 1895), 61.

[17] Gruen, “Historical Facts about the Development of Gruen Watchmakers Guild,” 85.

[18] Ibid., 84.

[19] The Jewelers’ Circular, Western Supplement (August 24, 1898), 40.

[20] “Grünsche Urhenfabrikation Grün und Assmann in Glashütte,” Glashütte Uhren Website, last accessed on March 23, 2014).

[21] Gruen, “Historical Facts about the Development of Gruen Watchmakers Guild,” 85.

[22] Letter from Frederick Gruen, signed Fritz, to Carl Schill of Osthofen. Written on Gruen company stationery.

[23] The Jewelers’ Circular, Western Supplement (August 24, 1898), 40.

[24] The Jewelers’ Circular, Western Supplement (August 3, 1898), 37, and The Jewelers’ Circular, Western Supplement (March 3, 1897), 28.

[25] The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review (December 16, 1896), 24.

[26] Acts of the Legislature of West Virginia at its Twenty-Fifth Regular Session (Charleston, WV: The Tribune Company, 1901), 711.

[27] The Williams Directory Co., Williams’ Cincinnati Directory (Cincinnati: The Williams Directory Co., 1902), 720.

[28] The Williams Directory Co., Williams’ Cincinnati Directory (Cincinnati: The Williams Directory Co., 1905), 686.

[29] The Jewelers’ Circular Weekly (August 27, 1902), 33.

[30] American Jeweler (February 11, 1921), 74.

[31] Gruen, “Historical Facts about the Development of Gruen Watchmakers Guild,” 89.

[32] Gruen advertisement, The Cincinnati Enquirer (July 21, 1907), 35.

[33] George J. Gruen, “How are Things in Europe? Liberal Credits Should be Granted Abroad,” The Credit Monthly (December 1922), 17-18.

[34] Fred G. Gruen, “Brief of the Gruen Watch Manufacturing Co., Cincinnati, Ohio,” House Documents, Volume 132 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1913), 6066.

[35] Ibid., 6068.

[36] Gruen advertisement,Cosmopolitan (October 1916), 99.

[37] “Incorporations,” American Jeweler (February 1, 1908), 78.

[38] “News of the Month,” American Jeweler (June 1, 1915), 268.

[39] “On a Steamer Bound for Italy,” The Cincinnati Enquirer (April 13, 1911), 14.

[40] Gruen advertisement,The Saturday Evening Post (October 7, 1911), 75.

[41] Robert Dietrich Gruen, “A Few Unusual Gruen Watches,” NAWCC Bulletin (October 1988), 372.

[42] Gruen advertisement, The Literary Digest (November 14, 1914), 964.

[43] Fuller’s Priceless Possession of A Few proffers 1908 as the date of the introduction of women’s wristwatches by Gruen; Fred Gruen did not specify a date in his “Historical Facts.” The full-scale launch of the Gruen wristwatch does not appear to have begun until 1912.

[44] Gruen advertisement,The Saturday Evening Post (May 11, 1912), 28.

[45] Gruen advertisement, The National Geographic (November 1920).

[46] Gruen advertisement, The Jewelers’ Circular (June 19, 1918), 80.

[47] Gruen advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post (September 28, 1918), 52.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Gruen advertisement, The Jewelers’ Circular (June 19, 1918), 80.

[50] “Gruen Watches,” The Hospital World (July 1919), 192.

[51] Gruen catalogue, 1929.

[52] Gruen advertisement, The Literary Digest (July 26, 1924), 4.

[53] Gruen advertisement, Cosmopolitan (November 1922), 136.

[54] Gruen advertisement, McClure’s Magazine (December 1915), 63.

[55] Gruen advertisement, The National Geographic Magazine (March 1917).

[56] Gruen advertisement, The American Magazine (April 1917), 64.

[57] Gruen advertisement, The American Magazine (1916), 67.

[58] “Many Arrive Home,” The Cincinnati Enquirer (August 27, 1914), 14.

[59] Ibid.

[60] “Use of Wireless Station Tendered to United States by a Cincinnati Citizen,” The Cincinnati Enquirer (March 28, 1917), 8.

[61] “New and Enlarged Shops,” American Machinist (September 25, 1913), 75.

[62] Gruen, “Historical Facts about the Development of Gruen Watchmakers Guild,” 88.

[63] Roth, a German immigrant, was known for his etchings of European and American architecture.

[64] “Rare Example in Factory Construction,” Brick and Clay Record (June 18, 1918), 1133.

[65] Gruen advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post (May 28, 1921), 84.

[66] James T. White, ed., The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (New York: James T. White & Co., 1947), 50.

[67] “Incorporations,”American Jeweler (December 1, 1927), 458.

[68] “Gruen Watch Company: Long-Established Cincinnati Concern Does Successful New Financing,” United States Investor (March 11, 1922), 408.

[69] “Registre du commerce,” La Fédération Horlogère Suisse (October 17, 1925), 769.

[70] “Registre du commerce,” La Fédération Horlogère Suisse (July 24, 1929), 581.

[71] Frédérique Constant SA, Alpina: 130 Years of Watchmaking History, 2013.

[72] “Registre du commerce,” La Fédération Horlogère Suisse (December 22, 1937), 311.

[73] “Registre du commerce,” La Fédération Horlogère Suisse (September 19, 1931), 553.

[74] Gruen, “Historical Facts about the Development of Gruen Watchmakers Guild,” 89.

[75] “Rumor Connects Watch Concerns in New Merger,” Chicago Daily Tribune (March 9, 1929), 23.

[76] “Gruen Watch Loss,” The Wall Street Journal (May 30 1932).

[77] “Gruen Watch,” Wall Street Journal (December 1, 1938), 8.

[78] “Changes by Gruen Watch,” The New York Times (June 27, 1941), 25.

[79] “Chicago Corp. Stock Offering Is Quickly Sold,” Chicago Daily Tribune (November 22, 1944), 22.

[80] “Air Stewardesses Get Gruens,” Gruen Time Magazine (May 1940), 5.

[81] Gruen advertisement, Life (November 8, 1943), 7.

[82] Gruen advertisement, The Times Recorder (November 21, 1945), 2.

[83] “President’s Report,” Gruen Annual Report for 1950, 7.

[84] “Gruen Watch Nets $1,071,837 in Year,” The New York Times (June 14, 1946), 32.

[85] “Watch Firm to Expand,” The Sandusky Register (February 3, 1948), 11.

[86] Peter Edson, “National Capital Observations,” The Eagle (February 16, 1949), 8.

[87] Pollock’s Jewelers advertisement, The Times Recorder (November 29, 1948), 9.

[88] “Gruen Watch Buys Out Katz Holdings,” The Daily Reporter (March 25, 1954), 18.

[89] Although Gruen company advertisements and family tradition state that Pauline Wittlinger was the daughter of a watchmaker (or of a jewelry store owner who sold watches), extensive research by the Delaware County Genealogical Society indicates that her father worked as a barber and as a farmer; no evidence suggests that he was a watchmaker.

[90] “Anti-Prohibitionists on the Move,” The Cincinnati Enquirer (September 26, 1882), 1.

[91] Gruen, “Historical Facts about the Development of Gruen Watchmakers Guild,” 86.

[92] Ibid., 86.

[93] “Past President Gruen Feted at Cincinnati,” The Credit Monthly (December 1922), 28.

[94] “Business Notes,”The Publishers’ Weekly (June 7, 1913), 2002.

[95] Robert Dietrich Gruen, A Brief History of the Gruen Watch Company (Indianapolis: KenRo Printing Company, 1991), 24.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Dietrich Gruen
  • Coverage 1847-1911
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 15, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018