The name “Jaquet Droz” has had many different meanings since the birth of Pierre Jaquet-Droz 300 years ago. For two decades after its formation in 1961, the Coopérative de Fabricants Suisses d’Horlogerie and SAH were leading producers of Swiss watches, commanding a double-digit share of exports and revenue. Was this a success or a failure? And why does the modern haute horology company consistently skip any mention of this history?
On October 24, 1994, Walter Lange introduced the first watches to bear the A. Lange & Söhne name in nearly 50 years. Once the top name in complicated pocket watches, the famous Glashütte watch brand was destroyed by allied bombs on the last day of the war in Europe and disappeared behind the iron curtain. Now, with the help of Günter Blümlein and IWC, A. Lange & Söhne has returned to its place at the height of the watch market. But there is also a dark past that has not been widely told.
Blancpain is billed as “the world’s oldest watchmaker”, but the history of the company is far more complex. Founded before 1735 in Villeret, the modern Blancpain traces its heritage to 1981, when Jean-Claude Biver purchased the name to be a mechanical rebuke of quartz watches. Blancpain and movement specialist Frédéric Piguet would be acquired by what is now the Swatch Group in 1992, with Biver leading the renaissance of mechanical watchmaking.
Zenith was “the first manufacture”, one of the greatest watch companies in Switzerland, and the economic force behind Le Locle. Then it was purchased by an American electronics company and ordered to destroy its mechanical watchmaking assets. This is the story of the mighty Zenith, brought low, and returning thanks to a machine tools baron, a humble watchmaker, and two other famous brands.
On January 12, 1979, the Swiss watch industry announced the thinnest watch ever made: The Delirium, developed by Ebauches SA for Concord, Eterna, IWC, and Longines, measured just 1.98 mm thick. It wasn’t a big seller, but was a PR exercise to show the world that the Swiss were innovating like the Japanese. And the novel design paved the way for another announcement four years later, the Swatch.
On November 7, 1984, Gérald Genta finally went too far. His audacious new watch collection was a scandal at the prestigious Montres et Bijoux and he was forced to remove it from the fair. But history shows that Genta was right again, and his designs laid the foundation of today’s luxury watch industry.
Photovoltaic cells were invented in the 1940s, and Patek Philippe produced a novel clock that used them. Once integrated circuit technology improved enough to build a quartz watch, American inventor Roger Riehl created the first solar-powered watch. His Synchronar paved the way for the solar digital watches that brought the technology to the masses in the 1970s. Then there was Uranus, with their wild calculator watch!
Spend some time looking at old watches and you’re bound to stumble across an unusual watch with an off-center dial, fancy exposed balance, and 8-day power reserve. The dial will likely say “Hebdomas” and “8 Jours” and not much more. Is this some exotic high-end watch or a mass-market pretender? That’s the story I’m telling today!
On Christmas Day, 1969, the Seiko Astron was launched; this was world’s first quartz wristwatch. Or at least that’s how the story goes. But the truth is much, much more complicated, as I have been researching and writing about for months. Only a few examples of that Cal. 35 SQ Astron were produced, and it was so expensive that not many were ever actually sold. And a raft of other watches (the CEH Beta 1, Longines Ultra-Quartz, various Beta 21 models, and even the Bulova Accuquartz) could make a credible claim. So what was the first?
The development of the quartz wristwatch was a turning point for the timekeeping industry and shifted the balance from Switzerland to Japan and the United States, despite the fact that the Swiss industry developed the first such watch. This is the story of the tumultuous and controversial creation of the world’s first quartz watch by the CEH in Neuchâtel.