This year, I’m going to take a look at the nominations for the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) awards and pick my favorites. Although my selections don’t usually make the cut, I’m going to enjoy making selections rather than try to pick the winners. I’ll also offer some historical perspective on the best entries.
Industrialization of watchmaking came to Switzerland in the late 19th century and is embodied by the huge Longines factory on the Suze river in Saint-Imier. But steam power came first, enabling the construction of factories across Europe and the United States, including Usine du Parc, home and namesake of Excelsior Park. This is the story of the rise and fall of steam power in Saint-Imier and the exceptional stopwatches made there. It is also the story of the end of steam and of the Excelsior Park factory, and the reasons for its failure.
On April 25, 1981, attendees at the European Watch, Clock, and Jewellery Fair in Basel got their hands on something completely new. IWC introduced the Porsche Design Titan chronograph, the first titanium watch available for sale. The revolutionary material caught the watchmaking world off guard, and the Titan helped IWC and their partner Jaeger-LeCoultre survive the quartz crisis. This is the story of the watches created by legendary designer Ferdinand Alexander Porsche and the radical utilitarian watch designs he created with IWC. It’s also a story of how materials and design can spark customer enthusiasm and sales.
Around 1900, a small watch factory was built at Rue des Roses 2. This little cottage with a factory wing was soon augmented by an ornate Beaux-Arts factory befitting a captain of watchmaking like Ernest Degoumois. This was then expanded for dial maker Fluckiger and both buildings were expanded or replaced in the 1950s. Then a modern office building was added in place of the original mansion on Rue du Stand, and this became home to Cartier Group in the 1980s. Thus, this single factory complex in Saint-Imier exemplifies the various architectural trends seen in 20th century watchmaking.
This is the story of a simple postcard that compelled me along a deep and complicated path of research and discovery! Titled Les Grandes Fabriques d’Horlogerie de St Imier, the historic 1900 postcard shows “the five great watchmaking factories” of this small town. Over the past year, I’ve been learning more about these companies, in which the Jeanneret family was intimately involved, including Excelsior Park, Francillon’s Longines, Fritz Moeri’s Moeris, Droz & Cie and Ernest Degoumois’s Montres Berna, Ferdinand Bourquin’s Leonidas, and more. This is the first in a series of posts on the great factories found in these engravings!
Last year I published an article on the long and complicated story of Hebdomas, the 8-day watch with the exposed balance wheel. As I discussed then, the watch dates all the way back to 1889 and remains in production to this day, a remarkably long life for a fussy old fashioned design! But I did not then have access to some of the sources of information that inform my research today, and a few readers pointed out some areas I missed. Today I am diving deep into the origins of the Hebdomas, the inventor Irénée Aubry, the watchmaker Arthur Graizely, and the industrialist Otto Schild.
What was the first automatic watch? English inventor John Harwood certainly deserves credit, and his unusual design was produced in some volume by A. Schild, Fortis, and Blancpain starting in 1926. And Leon Leroy produced a few “perpetual” watches a few years earlier. But one watch that stands out among the many self-winding watches released following the expiration of Harwood’s patent in 1931: Eugène Meylan’s automatic winding module, produced in volume by Glycine and Pretto, was the first practical and widely-produced automatic winding mechanism. And the man behind it has a fascinating story of invention, entrepreneurialism, and dedication with a truly heartbreaking ending.
I hope that this somewhat-pointless research project into Dulfi, Mulfi, and Henri Müller helps illustrate my approach to learning about the history of the watch industry and my reliance on primary sources for information. We can trace the foundation of Henri Müller & Fils with confidence and can definitely know the dates of establishment of Mulfi and Dulfi. We even have some images of ads and watches that came along the way.
Chronographs are so popular that cheap fashion watches today often feature bogus subdials with non-functional hands and pushers. But once upon a time, a chronograph was a simple tool seen more as an advanced stopwatch than a true complication. What was once a utilitarian tool for soldiers became an upscale choice for doctors, then an iconoclast choice for young people, and now a sign of fine watchmaking.
Automatic watches were hot in the 1950s, and chronographs were cool in the 1960s. But bringing these technologies together was not at all straightforward! Three different automatic chronograph movements were launched in 1969, and the story of their creation reflects the state of the industry at that time as well as the inevitability of technological progress.