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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What exactly does “Montbrillant” mean? Although the word has been associated with Breitling for over a century, the answer might surprise you! Montbrillant is not a person or even a place, really. It’s an idea, and represents brilliant marketing a century in the making!