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.
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.
Although modern advertising is finely crafted, it can’t compare to the impact of the classics. To my eyes, the greatest watch advertisements came off the press of Auguste Fiedler of La Chaux-de-Fonds between World Wars I and II. His poster style advertisements mixed elements of German Plakatstil and French Art Deco movements, and are just as striking today as they would have been on the avenues of the 1930s.
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!
Chronographs are so popular that cheap fashion watches today often feature bogus subdials with non-functional hands and pushers. But once upon a time, a chronograph was a simple tool seen more as an advanced stopwatch than a true complication. What was once a utilitarian tool for soldiers became an upscale choice for doctors, then an iconoclast choice for young people, and now a sign of fine watchmaking.