One of the key differentiators for modern watchmakers is heritage. Although most brands have complicated histories, some claim centuries-long history as a key to their identity. Blancpain, for example, lists “JB 1735” on its logo, Breguet’s logo contains the subscript “Depuis 1775”, Girard-Perregaux says “since 1791”, and Bovet Fleurier recently changed its name to “Bovet 1822”! But none of these companies has uninterrupted lineage from those years.
Longines has long claimed to be “the oldest trademark or logo still in use,” and after researching the history of the Longines factory I became intrigued by this claim. Although it is certainly a long-running and successful company, was today’s Longines really the oldest watch brand, let alone the world’s oldest trademark? And what about all those others?
Today, Longines is the oldest trademark or logo still in use in its original form registered with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). As early as 1867, Longines was using the winged hourglass symbol and the tradename “Longines” as a guarantee of quality in order to combat counterfeit products aimed at taking advantage of the reputation already established by the company.Longines Web Site, 2022
My research shows that this claim is mostly true: Longines is indeed the oldest trademark and logo still in use in the watch industry. But this claim is very nuanced!
Patents and Trademarks in Switzerland
Switzerland was not particularly early to adopt patents and trademarks. Although the use of brands and stamped hallmarks dates to antiquity (the Egyptians and Romans used them), the modern concept of a brand and logo dates to the industrialization of production in the 19th century. France passed the first “Manufacture and Goods Mark Act” in 1857, and the United Kingdom, Australia, United States, and Germany soon followed suit.
Most early brands and trademarks are historic, based on the family name or heritage of the company. For example, the Stella Artois and Löwenbräu names are seen in the 14th century, and Bass Brewery used the same red triangle for their pale ale since the 18th century. So it is no surprise that these are some of the earliest registered brands, with Bass in particular claiming to be the world’s oldest surviving registered brand since it was the first approved by the UK in 1876.
Swiss watchmaking was historically dispersed according to the etablisseur system established by Daniel JeanRichard rather than focused on mass production. Thus, Swiss law required that the watchmaker’s own name be used in commerce and forbade the use of fictitious brand names. This is why, even today, most Swiss brands use the names of watchmakers, including Blancpain, Bovet, Breguet, and so on. With industrial production of watches being established in Switzerland in the 1870s by Ernest Francillon (Longines) and Georges Favre-Jacot (Zenith), the industry recognized a need to move from the existing law to one that would allow fictitious names to be associated with the Sociétés Anonyme that produced these new watches.
After much discussion, the Swiss Confédération adopted a law concerning Marques de Fabrique (corporate brands) in 1879. The principal driver for this was the appropriation of Swiss brands by foreign companies, specifically the unbelievable case of a British company that registered the name Patek Philippe and sought to prevent the famous Geneva firm from using it! Swiss companies hoping to register their trademarks were encouraged to submit them to the Federal Council, which began approving and publishing the brands and trademarks later in the year.
Amusingly, the underlying companies and brands could not use a person’s name unless someone of that name was employed there. Thus we have strange situations of companies hiring employees based on their name just to secure valuable historic brands like Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Tissot! We also get some odd cases of “name collisions” where a watchmaker is prevented from using his name because he shares it with an existing company.
The First Swiss Trademarks
The Swiss Federal Council handled the earliest trademark applications, approving an initial set on November 1, 1880. This “first batch” of approvals was dominated by watch brands and companies and were given registry numbers roughly in alphabetical order. Thus, it was Agassiz Fils (an offshoot of the original company that would become Longines) that received the first watch-related trademark (number 22), but a large number of other familiar names were also approved that day.
Among many now-forgotten names, we find the following companies that have survived to the present day:
- (52) L. Audemars, manufacture d’horlogerie, au Brassus (today’s Audemars Piguet)
- (78) Fabrique d’horlogerie de Fontainemelon (part of the ETA movement maker)
- (95) LeCoultre & Co, manufacture d’horlogerie, Sentier (today’s Jaeger-LeCoultre)
- (114) G. Thommen, fabricant, Waldenburg (today’s Revue Thommen)
- (118 and 119) Ernest Francillon, fabricant d’horlogerie mécanique, St-Imier (today’s Longines)
- (156-158) Fritz Bovet, négociant, Fleurier (namesake of Bovet 1822)
- (176) Albert Bovet, fabricant d’horlogerie, Fleurier (watchmaker for Bovet)
- (179-180) Frères Bovet, fabricants d’horlogerie, Fleurier (predecessor of Bovet 1822)
- (223) Chs-F. Tissot & fils, fabricants d’horlogerie, Locle (today’s Tissot)
- (231) Girard-Perregaux, fabricant d’horlogerie, Chaux-de-Fonds (today’s Girard-Perregaux)
- (234) Fabrique d’ébauches, Cortébert (part of today’s ETA)
More familiar brands were established on the following days, and all of these deserve equal mention to those mentioned above since all were submitted and approved in the first “batch” of trademarks:
- November 2, 1880 – (258) Louis Brandt & fils, fabricants d’horlogerie, Bienne (today’s Omega)
- November 20, 1880 – (303) L.-U. Chopard, fabricant, Sonvillier (today’s Chopard)
- December 3, 1880 – (330-332) Vacheron & Constantin, fabricants, Genève (today’s Vacheron Constantin)
- December 27, 1880 – (366-368) Georges Favre-Jacot, fabricant, Locle (today’s Zenith)
Many of these brands are shown alongside their trademark logo. The Journal requested a copy of these logos but quite a few did not submit an example and are not shown. Still, it is clear that a large number of companies actively submitted trademarks and logos in the first batch to be approved by the Swiss Federal Council in 1880, not just Longines.
Is Longines Really the Oldest Watch Brand?
This brings us to our core question: Is Longines really the oldest watch brand? After all, over a dozen current brands submitted their trademark at the same time and were approved on the same day!
Longines’ claim is not based solely on the approval of the Swiss Federal Council in November 1880. They claim that their brand name and winged hourglass logo pre-dates this approval and furthermore that it has been in continuous use ever since. The quote shown above claims that Ernest Francillon’s company used the name “Longines” and the winged hourglass as early as 1867 as a way to protect their intellectual property, even though such trademarks and brands were not yet legally recognized in Switzerland.
As discussed in my deep dive into the history of the Longines factory, Ernest Francillon established his water-powered factory in 1866 along the Suze river below Saint-Imier in an area known as Les Longines. This represented a major break from historic practice and forced Francillon and company to develop their own movement designs, tooling, and methods of production. The factory was certainly operating to some extent by 1867, and in 2018 a collector located a watch manufactured that year that includes the distinctive logo and name! Although it is surprising to see such complete branding on one of the first watches produced, it does support Longines’ contention.
Longines no longer uses the original winged hourglass logo featured in those 1880 trademark registrations, however, and has not for many decades. Today’s winged hourglass is quite different, and no longer features the circle (“Patent Longines”) or the words “E. Francillon Longines Suisse” as shown. This may seem pedantic, but such elements were considered crucial enough to the trademark to be registered separately in 1880! It is also important to note that “Longines” was not registered as the company name (that was still “Ernest Francillon”) until April 20, 1900.
Still, Longines’ claim to be “the oldest watch brand” is credible, since the company was certainly one of the first to use a fictitious name (“Longines”) and distinctive icon (a winged hourglass) and maintains both components to this day. Such branding elements were extremely unusual in the 1860s, and Ernest Francillon deserves to be credited with bringing them to watchmaking!
Blancpain, Breguet, and Patek Philippe
Although their logo and trade name are recognized as oldest, Longines is a relative newcomer in the rarified world of historic Swiss watchmakers. Even if we include the heritage of Auguste Agassiz from 1832 (which some might argue against), Longines is nowhere near as old as Blancpain, Breguet, and many others. But these are all family names related to watchmakers, not invented brands like Longines. And most changed over time, or lacked a consistent logo.
The Blancpain family began making watches in Villeret by 1735, though Jehan-Jacques Blancpain likely started before this. This eponymous watchmaking firm was handed down through seven generations before becoming a brand under a company called Rayville in 1932 and being absorbed into SSIH in 1961. But Blancpain’s history was interrupted in the 1970s, with production halted and the name retired in favor of Omega, Tissot, and Moeris. The Blancpain name was purchased by Jean-Claude Biver in 1981 and re-established in Le Brassus near the workshop of Frédéric Piguet. This today’s Blancpain is distinct from the historic firm. Plus, Blancpain never registered a unique trademark or brand name.
Breguet is perhaps the most famous name in watchmaking, and the current company traces its roots to the famous Swiss watchmaker, Abraham-Louis Breguet. Born in 1747 in Neuchâtel (then part of the Kingdom of Prussia), Breguet opened a watchmaking workshop in Paris in about 1775. Breguet would build watches for the King of France, and was responsible for many important inventions, including automatic winding, a free escapement, and tourbillon. His workshop was handed down to his great-grandson but was taken over by the Englishman Edward Brown in 1870 and by the Chaumet brothers a century later. Although the Breguet name has been used continuously, the current company has almost no connection to the famous 18th century watchmaker. And most of the design elements that can be thought of as Breguet “trademarks,” including their distinctive hands and numerals, have long been considered generic.
Patek Philippe has been one of the most respected names in watchmaking ever since its founding in 1839 as Patek, Czapek & Co. It was later known as Patek & Co. until gaining the modern name, Patek, Philippe & Co. in 1851. The company has remained in operation in Geneva and retained its place at the top of the watchmaking industry ever since. Like Vacheron & Constantin, Patek Philippe faced bankruptcy in the 1930s but was saved thanks to an infusion of cash from Jacques-David LeCoultre and dial makers Stern Frères, the descendants of whom still own the company. Patek Philippe did not trademark their name as quickly as others in the watch industry and were late in adding a distinctive logo, adopting the so-called Calatrava Cross only in the 1920s but rarely using it in advertising.
The Case For Vacheron Constantin or Girard-Perregaux
Two companies that do have a solid case for consideration as the oldest watch brands are represented in the first batch of trademark registrations. Both Vacheron & Constantin and Girard-Perregaux registered their brand and icon in 1880 and both still use substantially the same branding to some extent. Furthermore, both are older than Longines and have remained in operation to the present day.
Vacheron Constantin is often considered to be the oldest continually-active watchmaker. Founded in 1755 by Jean-Marc Vacheron, the company was also known as Vacheron-Girod, Vacheron-Chossat, and Vacheron & Constantin (with a brief renaming to Vacheron & Cie.) through the 19th century. It almost ceased production in the 1930s but was saved by Jacques-David LeCoultre, who merged it into his holding company. After World War II, Vacheron & Constantin emerged stronger under George Ketterer and once again became an independent company. It was sold to a Saudi investor in 1985 and purchased by Vendôme (now Richemont) in 1996. It was at this time that the ampersand was dropped from the company name. Thus, the company (but not the exact name) remained in continuous operation for over 250 years.
It should be noted that Vacheron & Constantin also registered their famous Maltese cross logo as early as December 3, 1880. Since the company continues to use this exact iconography today, and is said to have used in the 1870s at least, Vacheron Constantin could make a fair claim to be the world’s oldest brand. If not for that 1867 Longines pocket watch with the winged hourglass, and the removal of that pesky ampersand in 1985, Vacheron Constantin makes a good case!
On the same day that Longines’ logo and icon were approved by the Swiss Federal Council, Girard-Perregaux also received approval for theirs. Notably, the company’s name was listed simply as “Girard-Perregaux” rather than in the name of their founding watchmaker, as was the case for Tissot, Audemars, and even Ernest Francillon (Longines)! And the registration included an elaborate logo: A stylized shield featuring an eagle, anchor, and the words “Marque de Fabrique” signifying that this was a branded company, not an individual watchmaker.
Girard-Perregaux has long claimed heritage to the 18th century, often including the claim, “since 1791.” But the company’s official story starts with Constant Girard in 1852, becoming Girard-Perregaux in 1854 when he married. The earlier date refers to the Geneva workshop of Jean-Francois Bautte, established in 1791 and purchased by Girard-Perregaux’s son Constant Girard-Gallet in 1906. Either way you look at it, Girard-Perregaux could be seen to pre-date Ernest Francillon’s Longines: If Longines can claim Agassiz’ establishment in 1832, certainly Girard-Perregaux can have Bautte’s 1791 date!
Girard-Perregaux faltered after World War I and was purchased by Otto Graef, who merged it with his company, MIMO, over the next decade. But Girard-Perregaux rose again thanks to international sales, and became a credible competitor for companies like Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and even Patek Philippe. And the eagle logo remained in use in advertisements through the 1940s, even as the look was streamlined and modernized.
Today, Girard-Perregaux no longer highlights the old eagle-and-anchor logo but it can still be found on the plates of their manufacture movements. The Cal. GP3300 pictured here has the logo opposite the winding stem, for example. And it has been occasionally featured with more emphasis on special edition watches. Although not as prominent as the Longines winged hourglass, it is still in use!
The name and logo registered by Constant Girard-Perregaux in 1880 remains in use, the company can be said to pre-date Longines, and it has existed continuously with no more interruption than prominent companies like Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. It’s even an independent company once again, now that Kering divested it to its management firm, Sowind Group. Thus, Girard-Perregaux can be said to have a strong case for being “the oldest watch brand”. But it is still the name of the founder, and the eagle and anchor are rarely noticed today.
What Is a Brand?
A brand isn’t just a name or a logo. Modern marketers know that a brand can make or break a product, and a great one can become the soul of the company. Too many watch companies rely on stuffy “heritage” to sell their products, linking them to a long-ago watchmaker or evocative village. But the most successful brands, then and now, are those that are able to connect with the consumer in a meaningful way.
Ernest Francillon saw the value in mechanized production as a way to differentiate his watches from the competition. Swiss watches in the 19th century were mostly hand made and had acquired a reputation as unreliable and difficult to repair. Francillon broke from the past (and from his uncle Auguste Agassiz’ firm) by building watches in a new water-powered factory in Les Longines, the meadows below Saint-Imier. A smart businessman, Francillon used this pleasant-sounding name as a trademark for his watches.
Due to the fame of his factory, Francillon soon discovered unscrupulous competitors selling similar watches to his. Thus, he began stamping a unique hallmark on the movement plates he produced, a winged hourglass. This name and logo were officially recognized in 1880 as symbolic of the products produced by Francillon’s company. Thus, he created the world’s first truly modern watch brand!
The same can not be said of many others in the watch industry. Even Vacheron Constantin and Girard-Perregaux, which use a distinctive logo as a trademark and registered at the same time as Longines, use the last name of their founder rather than a unique brand name. Soon, though, many other novel watch brands appeared, some of which I have covered here: Zenith, Glycine, Excelsior Park, Moeris, Revue, Leonidas, Rolex, Omega, and so many more. And most of these include iconography, just like Longines.
The Grail Watch Perspective: Branding and Logos Started with Longines
Although many companies have a credible claim to pre-date them, Longines stands apart thanks to its brand and logo. Ernest Francillon added the name of his new factory to his watches from the very start, and evidently added distinctive iconography to go with it. This shows a remarkably modern sense of product marketing that is the hallmark of Longines through the 20th century and deserves to be recognized. Although there are nuances, it is clear that Longines deserves credit for the world’s oldest watch branding!