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.
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.
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?
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.