In an industry as full of folklore and puffery as watchmaking, it is refreshing to uncover first-hand knowledge. As I was researching the history of Zénith, Universal, and the Martel watch factory I stumbled on a real gold mine: A 1991 interview with Charles Vermot, the watchmaker who saved the legendary El Primero watch movement from the scrap heap, and a look at how the watchmaking profession was viewed in 1991, as the industry was just recovering. I enjoyed the video enough to translate it and present it here for my readers.
La Chaux-de-Fonds is sometimes called “Watch City” because it is home to so much watchmaking history. It is said that “Chaux-de-Fonnier” factories produced half of the world’s watches in the first half of the 20th century! It’s no surprise that some historic sites are forgotten, but the Palais Invar deserves a closer look: It was one of the most recognizable buildings in La Chaux-de-Fonds for most of the 20th century, housing brands like Montre-Invar, Alpha, Venus, Le Phare, Sultana, and Jean d’Eve, and it was home to the first Salon Suisse de l’Horlogerie in 1933.
The pattern of high demand, over-production, and collapse is common in all industries, but especially in the history of Swiss watchmaking. We see it repeated throughout the 20th century, from ebauches to complete watches, but all of these efforts trace their roots to a crisis focused on the humble balance spring. Surprisingly, this very first attempt to create a cartel was also the most successful and disruptive! This is the story of Société des Fabriques de Spiraux Rèunies, which cornered the market for balance springs in 1895. The FSR was the template for Ebauches SA, ASUAG, and the Swatch Group, and we would be wise to study the lessons of this “cartel crisis”!
Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, died on March 24, 2023. Although many touching tributes are currently being published to this titan of the technology industry, most overlook what Moore himself called his greatest mistake: Intel’s attempt to corner the digital watch business. Intel bought Microma, a hot Silicon Valley startup, in 1972 but gave up the business just six years later. Moore continued to wear his “$15 million watch” for decades as a reminder of this failure – and to stay out of consumer products!
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.