There are few names in the golden age of watchmaking as revered as Vénus, which produced some of the best chronograph movements of the 1940s. But the history of this small Swiss company is not well documented, and the story reveals the surprisingly-connected world of watchmaking at the time. Vénus rose and fell in just a few decades, but the legacy of their chronograph movements, especially the legendary rattrapantes used by Breitling, lives on.
Although it is located in a tiny village of less than 1,000 residents, the factory in Fontainemelon looms large in the history of Swiss watchmaking. The oldest and largest ebauche factory in the country was established there early in the 19th century, and Fabrique d’Horlogerie Fontainemelon (FHF) was a founding member of Ebauches SA 100 years later. Even today, the Fontainemelon factory remains a cornerstone of the Swatch Group. Let’s look at the history that made Fontainemelon the dominant supplier of ebauches in the 19th century.
Today, a “Lépine” movement is one with small seconds opposite the crown. But this is not one of the many innovations we should associate with Jean-Antoine Lépine, one of the greatest watchmakers of all time. Watchmaker to King Louis XV and George Washington, Lépine changed the course of watchmaking forever, with his plate-and-bridges movement design still used today. So why do we contrast “Lépine” movements with “savonnette” or “hunter” and what’s all this about small seconds?
The Bulova Accutron was the most important watch of the 1960s, bringing a new level of accuracy and technology and shifting the balance of power in horology from Switzerland back to the United States. It was also a dead end, delaying the development of other electronic watches and distracting the American and Swiss industries from the rise of quartz. How did something with such promise fail to have a lasting hold on the market?
Leonidas is a familiar name to chronograph aficionados, but the history of the company is long and interesting, dating back to 1841 and connecting two great names in Swiss watchmaking, Bourquin and Jeanneret, and the company was linked to both Heuer and Berna.
Berna is perhaps the greatest forgotten watch brand of Saint-Imier, and the Droz factory on Marronniers 20 is just as unknown. But it was the first large and modern factory in Saint-Imier and should be remembered along with the waterproof pocket watches and industrial control stopwatches produced there. Equally important is the involvement of industry pioneers Alcide Droz, Ernest Degoumois, and the Jeanneret family, and the later integration of Berna with Leonidas.
Initially just a small villa, Usine Centrale would become a large and important employer in Saint-Imier, producing Moeri & Jeanneret’s revolutionary inexpensive anti-magnetic movement. It later housed electronic timing specialist Fabrique Chasseral, balance maker Romano Sieber, and produced millions of watch cases under Roger Parel and Jacques Beiner.
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?
Longines isn’t just the name of the biggest watchmaker in Saint-Imier today, it represents a factory and a critical shift in the industry to industrial-scale mass production. Ernest Francillon and Jacques David were critical to the development of the horology industry in the 19th century, abandoning the etablissage system and industrializing watchmaking, and becoming champions for the integration of manufacturing in the 20th century.
Although modern advertising is finely crafted, it can’t compare to the impact of the classics. To my eyes, the greatest watch advertisements came off the press of Auguste Fiedler of La Chaux-de-Fonds between World Wars I and II. His poster style advertisements mixed elements of German Plakatstil and French Art Deco movements, and are just as striking today as they would have been on the avenues of the 1930s.