Guitar Aficionado

The Story Behind Martin's Two-Millionth Guitar, the New D-200 Deluxe

Martin collaborated with the RGM Watch Company on this exquisite, 
one-of-a-kind showpiece instrument.
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Martin collaborated with the RGM Watch Company on this exquisite, 
one-of-a-kind showpiece instrument.

This is a feature from the March/April 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Ricky Gervais and the return of his guitar-playing alter ego David Brent, plus GA’s annual motoring section, including features on the Doobie Brothers’ Pat Simmons and his antique Harley-Davidsons, John Oates and his life-long fascination with cars and racing, and the untold story behind Led Zeppelin's McLaren M8E/D racecar, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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TIME MACHINE: To commemorate the company’s two-millionth guitar, C.F. Martin & Co. collaborated with the RGM Watch Company to craft an exquisite, one-of-a-kind showpiece instrument.

By Chris Gill | Photography by John Sterling Ruth

It took C.F. Martin & Co. about 171 years between the company’s beginnings in 1833 and 2004 to build its first million guitars. Remarkably, it took the company only 12 years to complete its next million guitars, hitting the two-million mark sometime in late 2016. To celebrate this impressive milestone, Martin built a commemorative, one-of-a-kind showpiece instrument like it did to celebrate the company’s first millionth and 1.5-millionth guitars.

“My ancestors would be amazed,” says C.F. “Chris” Martin IV, the CEO of Martin Guitars. “Martin has been around for 184 years, and our guitars are as popular and successful as they’ve ever been. Some people are predicting gloom and doom for the guitar’s future, but they forget just how long the guitar has lasted. The dreadnought just had its 100th anniversary, for example. There aren’t many products from 100 years ago that are still popular, but the guitar has defied the odds.”

The pace of Martin’s production has increased so rapidly that the milestone approached almost before the company completed its commemorative two-millionth guitar. Work on the instrument started in 2013, but the finishing touches on the guitar were not completed until October 2016. The guitar made its public debut at the 2017 Winter NAMM convention in Anaheim in January.

Whereas Martin’s previous one- and 1.5-millionth guitars featured the work of independent craftsmen like inlay artists Larry Robinson and Harvey Leach and engravers Bob Hergert and Tara Mitchell, the two-millionth guitar was crafted with input from an entirely different sort of artisan: watchmaker Roland Murphy of the RGM Watch Company of Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. RGM is truly America’s premier watch company, handcrafting and hand finishing beautiful heirloom-quality watches in a small workshop that employs only 11 craftsmen.

“About five years ago I went on a tour of the Martin factory,” Murphy recalls. “I saw that they do a lot of custom work, and I thought it would be cool to embellish a guitar with guilloché, which is an engine-turning process where geometric patterns are cut into rotating metal surfaces with a stationary cutting tool. We use that process for many of our watches, and it’s really a lost art. I contacted Martin, got Tim Teel’s name and email address, and sent him some photos of our work. He was interested, but he didn’t have anything particular in mind at the time.”

Two years passed and Murphy still hadn’t heard anything back from Martin. Then one day, Martin Custom Shop director Scott Sasser decided that he wanted to build a special showpiece guitar and he discussed ideas with Teel, who is Martin’s director of instrument design.

“Scott mentioned that he always wanted to do a watch-themed guitar,” Teel recalls. “We talked about how we could do that. Around the same time, we realized that we were going to need to come up with an idea for Martin’s two-millionth guitar, which was quickly approaching. We put two and two together and realized that the watch idea was perfect for that guitar. Once Chris Martin approved of the idea, we hired Robert Goetzl to do some concept drawings. Scott mentioned that he knew of a watchmaking company in Lancaster called RGM watches. I told Scott that they had reached out to me, so I reached out to Roland, who invited us to his workshop. When Scott and I visited them we were blown away by his operation.”

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Once RGM was brought into the creative process, the overall idea developed quickly. Murphy made suggestions for and corrections to the graphic designs for the top, back, and neck, which were inspired by a watch movement.

“At some point we recommended using our Caliber 20 watch as the inspiration for the guitar,” Murphy says. “Since we already had CAD files for the Caliber 20’s movement, that made it easier to come up with a design that was an accurate depiction of a watch movement. We also thought it would be cool to embed a real working watch into the headstock.”

That decision led to yet another challenge: how to fit the tuners and the watch into the headstock without making the headstock overly long and unattractive. The solution involved building a special mounting plate that had the tuners for the G and D strings built into it to save space. All of the tuners were custom built for the guitar, and as a literal crowning touch the tuner buttons were carved from stainless steel to resemble watch crowns and decorated with rose gold inserts with guilloché engraving.

“The watch is based on our Caliber 20 and has many of the same parts,” Murphy says. “However, we decided to make it wedge-shaped, like the headstock, so we changed the shape of the movement. It has a precise moon phase, and the seconds are displayed on a small disc up around the one o’clock area. It’s a manual-wind movement that is entirely hand built and hand finished. It’s very special.”

In addition to the headstock-mounted watch and tuners, RGM also made a removable titanium pickguard/soundhole cover featuring engine-turned engraving as well as an engine-turned titanium plate inlaid in the top for the graphic depiction of a moon phase and an engine-turned rosette.

The gears inlaid in the top, back, and fingerboard are made of various metals, pearl, and exotic woods. “Pearl Works helped us get those elements machined and cut,” Teel says. “Aluminum was an easy choice for some of the gears because we’ve used aluminum for guitars before, and I knew how it was going to react tonally. We also used brass for some pieces. The most challenging part was the blue screws. We tried several different techniques to get that look, and we ended up using heat-treated stainless steel to get that blue color. Roland did that for us, and it was a difficult process.”

Most remarkably of all, the movement design is layered to give the graphics a three-dimensional appearance. “The entire top is only 1/8-inch thick, and the back is less that 1/8-inch thick,” Teel explains. “The challenge was how to layer the gears to give the whole thing some depth and make it look deeper than it actually is. Once we laid all the gearing in place, we poured a very specific type of epoxy that is water clear over it to keep everything in place. It was difficult to pour without getting any air bubbles or dust in it. It took us six months to figure out how to do that.”

Other notable features of the showpiece guitar include its Engelmann spruce top with heavy bear-claw figuring and the flamed koa inlays that surround the top to mimic a watch’s bezel.

While the showpiece guitar is a unique instrument that will find its permanent home in the museum at the Martin factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, Martin is also producing a very limited number of D-200 Deluxe guitars featuring many of the same design elements.

“It’s going to be an unbelievably rare and collectible guitar,” says Martin special projects director Dick Boak. “It’s a work of art and a piece of history. When we made the one-millionth guitar, we also offered the D-100, and we made only 50 of those. It took us about 10 years to sell them all. I don’t know how many D-200 guitars we are going to make, but if somebody wants one, they can order one from us.”

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While the design for the top and back of the D-200 is not as intricately detailed, the fingerboard on the D-200 and the showpiece guitar are essentially identical. The D-200’s top will feature an inlaid graphic gear design on an ebony pickguard that is also inlaid into the top, and it has similar flamed koa inserts surrounding the top. Instead of having a watch embedded in the headstock, the vertical C.F. Martin logo is inlaid in aluminum surrounded by abalone pearl.

RGM is also making a special watch that is only available with the D-200 Deluxe. “We designed something classic that has a hint of a guitar feel,” Murphy says. “We designed a dial with a larger hole in the middle to resemble a guitar’s soundhole, and we did engine-turning on the solid-silver dial. It comes in a leather watch box that goes into a special pocket built into the case.”

“Even the case is a significant part of the package,” Teel adds. “It’s a Zero Manufacturing case, which is the kind of case that you see in James Bond films. It’s molded aluminum and has a hygrometer built into the side of the case. It’s very protective but also attractive in its own right.”

While this magazine has frequently written about the relationship between watches and guitars, this collaboration between Martin and RGM transcended the usual similarities. Both companies are family owned, both are from Pennsylvania, and both emphasize an extremely high level of handcraftsmanship and precision. Even the RGM logo resembles the vertical C.F. Martin logo featured on the D-45.

“I think that most people will appreciate the craftsmanship as well as the risk and challenge of building something like this,” Murphy says. “The commitment that Martin dedicated to this project was inspiring. Very few companies would commit to a project like this where you don’t know how much it is going to cost you and you’re willing to let people be craftsmen and do things the best way possible. Most companies are only concerned with how much something is going to cost. Martin didn’t limit us that way, and that is so rare. They only wanted us to make the guitar as best as we could.”

This is a feature from the March/April 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Ricky Gervais and the return of his guitar-playing alter ego David Brent, plus GA’s annual motoring section, including features on the Doobie Brothers’ Pat Simmons and his antique Harley-Davidsons, John Oates and his life-long fascination with cars and racing, and the untold story behind Led Zeppelin's McLaren M8E/D racecar, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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