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.
I hope that this somewhat-pointless research project into Dulfi, Mulfi, and Henri Müller helps illustrate my approach to learning about the history of the watch industry and my reliance on primary sources for information. We can trace the foundation of Henri Müller & Fils with confidence and can definitely know the dates of establishment of Mulfi and Dulfi. We even have some images of ads and watches that came along the way.
Automatic watches were hot in the 1950s, and chronographs were cool in the 1960s. But bringing these technologies together was not at all straightforward! Three different automatic chronograph movements were launched in 1969, and the story of their creation reflects the state of the industry at that time as well as the inevitability of technological progress.
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!
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.