The history of Rolex watches
Rolex – In 1905 Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis founded “Wilsdorf and Davis” in London. Their main business at the time was importing Hermann Aegler’s Swiss movements to England and placing them in quality watch cases made by Dennison and others. These early wristwatches were sold to Jewellers who then put their own names on the dial. The earliest watches from Wilsdorf and Davis were usually hallmarked “W&D” inside the case back.
In 1908 Wilsdorf registered the trademark “Rolex” and opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The company name “Rolex” was registered on 15 November 1915. The book The Best of Time: Rolex Wristwatches: An Unauthorized History by Jeffrey P. Hess and James Dowling says that the name was just made up. One story, never confirmed by Wilsdorf, is that the name came from the French phrase “horlogerie exquise“, meaning “exquisite clockwork” or as a contraction of “horological excellence”. Wilsdorf was said to want his watch brand’s name to be easily pronounceable in any language. He also thought that the name “Rolex” was onomatopoeic, sounding like a watch being wound. It is easily pronounceable in many languages and, as all letters have the same size, allows to be written symmetrically. It was also short enough to fit on the face of a watch.
In 1914, Kew Observatory awarded a Rolex watch a Class A precision certificate, a distinction which was normally awarded exclusively to marine chronometers. In 1919 Wilsdorf left England, due to wartime taxes levied on luxury imports, as well as export duties on the silver and gold used for the watch cases, thus driving costs too high and moved the company to Geneva Switzerland where it was established as the Rolex Watch Company. Its name was later changed to Montres Rolex, SA and finally Rolex, SA. Upon the death of his wife in 1944, Wilsdorf established the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation in which he left all of his Rolex shares, making sure that some of the company’s income would go to charity. The company is still owned by a private trust and shares are not traded on any stock exchange.
Among the company’s many innovations are:-
- The first waterproof wristwatch “Oyster”, 1926
- The first wristwatch with an automatically changing date on the dial (Datejust 1945)
- The first wristwatch case waterproof to 100 m (Perpetual Submariner 1953)
- The first wristwatch to show two time zones at once. (GMT Master 1954)
- The first wristwatch with an automatically changing day and date on the dial.(Day-Date 1956)
- The first watchmaker to earn Chronometer certification for a wristwatch.
The history of International Watch Company (IWC) watches
IWC – An interesting fact you may or may not know: International Watch Company (IWC) is it is possibly the only major Swiss watch company whose founder was an American! During the 1860’s, three manufacturers dominated the American watch industry: Elgin, Howard and Waltham. Combined, these firms produced upwards of 100,000 pocket watches. Times were changing in the industry as pocket watches went from being a status symbol that only the wealthiest individuals could afford, to an everyday item available to the middle class. As a result, production methods had to be improved; for example, most parts for watches were still being made by hand. Costs were also high because the pool of available, qualified watchmakers was relatively small. In Boston, Massachusetts, Florentine Ariosto Jones, who had worked in the American watch industry for a number of years, keenly observed the failure of Aaron Lufkin Dennison, a leader in the watch business, whose efforts to move production to Switzerland to benefit from lower wages and Swiss watchmaking know-how, failed miserably. Undaunted, Jones took over the failed enterprise and soon set up his own company in Switzerland. His plan was to assemble watches in Switzerland and import them into the United States, hence the name International Watch Company.
Fortuitously, Jones made the acquaintance of one Johann Heinrich Moser, a watchmaker whose hometown of Schaffhausen was conveniently located near the Rhine. Following Moser’s advice, a dam was built in order to harness the mighty river and generate hydro-power to drive the machines used in manufacturing facilities throughout Schaffhausen. A watch factory was built in Schaffhausen to take advantage of the cheap hydro-power and production commenced in 1868. Despite the company’s unique business plan, the enterprise was doomed from the start. For one thing, Jones had trouble selling the watches in America, due to a high tariff on imported finished watches. An even worse problem: Jones was undercapitalized and encountered technical problems with the machines. By 1875, he was scrambling to find new investors, amid allegations by disgruntled stockholders that the company was on the verge of collapse. Inevitably, the company filed for bankruptcy and Jones was forced to relinquish control of his company.
A Swiss consortium acquired IWC’s shares and put another American, Frederick Seeland, at its helm. Although the company’s fortunes improved somewhat, the improvement was not deemed sufficient enough. As a result, the company was put up for sale again. This time, one of IWC’s stockholders, Johannes Raschenbach-Vogel, bought the company at auction for 280,000 francs. Technical achievements and increased sales soon followed with the production of the first pocket watches with digital time indication, as well as development of the famous Calibre 52 movement, which at the time was quite revolutionary in its concept and construction.
Although the company experienced significant growth, following World War I, the company’s fortunes again hit rock bottom under the proprietorship of Ernst Homberger-Rauschenbach. Fortunately, a major modernization effort paid off when the advent of World War II resulted in increased military demand. It was thus during World War II that IWC created the first oversize anti-magnetic pilot’s watch, followed by the famous Mark X, featuring its new in-house movement, Calibre 83. In 1944, IWC had a close call when the Allies mistakenly bombed Schaffhausen. As luck would have it, the factory narrowly escaped destruction.
In the aftermath of the war, International Watch Company lived up to its name and became a company of international scope. Exports to the United States increased and the brand became best known for its specialty watches, such as the Mark XI and Ingenieur – the first automatic IWC with a soft-iron inner case that protected the movement against magnetic fields – as well as for its elegant dress watches. Needless to say, vintage IWC’s from the 1940’s and 50’s are highly collectible today and in great demand, as they are somewhat under-priced compared to other high-end watch brands of that era.
In closing, the company’s philosophy is best summed up by IWC’s current CEO, Michael Sarp, who recently stated: “We shall produce watches of the highest quality with unique technical and design characteristics and thus continue to experience the pleasures of innovation.” If you should have an opportunity to examine an IWC, you will quickly realize that Mr Sarp speaks the truth.
The history of Omega watches
Omega – Today, seven out of ten people throughout the world are familiar with the Omega watch brand – a truly amazing rate of awareness to which few other watch brands can lay claim. The reason behind this success is said to be the reliably fine quality of every Omega watch. From its modest beginnings in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1848 the assembly workshop created by 23-year-old Louis Brandt gradually gained renown. Louis Brandt assembled key-wound precision pocket watches from parts supplied by local craftsmen.
After Louis Brandt’s death in 1879, his two sons Louis-Paul and Cesar took over control of the business. In 1880, the two brothers rented a floor in a Bienne building to set up a modern watch production unit. Among the names they chose for their watches were “Helvetia”, “Jura”, “Celtic”, “Gurzelen”, and “Patria”. With the introduction of the “Labrador” lever movement in 1885, the watches achieved a precision of within 30 seconds a day. The company’s banker, Henri Rieckel, suggested the name “Omega” for the new watch. The overwhelming success of the “Omega” name led to it being adopted as the sole name for all the watches of the company from 1903.
Louis-Paul and César Brandt both died in 1903, leaving one of Switzerland’s largest watch companies – with 240,000 watches produced annually and employing 800 people – in the hands of four young people, the oldest of whom was Paul-Emile Brandt. The Omega name made its sports debut at the international ballooning contest for the Gordon Bennet cup in 1909. Britain’s Royal Flying Corps decided to choose Omega watches in 1917 as their official timekeepers for its combat units, as did the American army in 1918. Omega had their first victory at the observatory timing competitions in Neuchâtel in 1919 with their chronometers winning the competition. The economic difficulties brought on by the First World War would lead him to work actively from 1925 toward the union of OMEGA and Tissot then to their merger in 1930 within the group SSIH. By the seventies, SSIH had become Switzerland’s number one producer of finished watches and number three in the world.
In 1957, the “Omega Speedmaster” was created. After rigorous evaluation and testing, NASA decided to use the “Speedmaster Professional” chronograph wristwatch in 1965 as it’s official timekeeper. In 1967, the one millionth chronometer was certified. On 21st July 1969, astronaught Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on the moon. As he made the famous steps quoting “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, he was wearing his Omega Speedmaster Professional chronograph. In 1972, Omega received their two-millionth chronometer certificate.
Following the severe monetary crisis and recession of 1975 to 1980, SSIH was bailed out by the banks in 1981. In 1985 the holding company was taken over by a group of private investors. Immediately renamed SMH, Societe suisse de microelectronique et d’horlogerie, the new group achieved rapid growth and success to become today’s top watch producer in the world. Named Swatch Group in 1998, it now includes Blancpain and Breguet. Dynamic and flourishing, OMEGA remains one of its most prestigious flagship brands.
The history of Jaeger LeCoultre watches
Jaeger LeCoultre – Today, the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso is one of the most famous watches ever produced, but the company actually got its start producing ebauches (unbranded movements) for other companies. A little known fact about Jaeger-LeCoultre is that in addition to producing movements for its own watches, the company has also produced movements for famous watch houses such as Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and IWC. In the early part of the 20th Century, Jaeger-LeCoultre even supplied ebauches to the great firm of Patek Philippe. Then as now, Jaeger-LeCoultre was considered one of the finest watchmakers in Switzerland.
The year was 1833 when thirty-year-old Antoine LeCoultre, son of Vallee de Joux watchmaker Jacques LeCoultre, opened a small factory in the town of Le Sentier. Amazingly enough, the current Jaeger-LeCoultre factory is only a few feet away from the site of the original factory. LeCoultre soon proved himself to be a gifted watchmaker, but an even more brilliant inventor.
In 1844, LeCoultre revolutionized the watch industry with the invention of the millionometer, an instrument with which measurements of up to one thousandths of a millimeter could be made accurately. As a result, precisely finished components could be manufactured, resulting in greatly improved accuracy in timekeeping. Likewise, the metric system became the universal measuring standard in watchmaking, while other systems were rendered obsolete.
LeCoultre’s motto — “we must base our experience on science” – was particularly true when it came to manufacturing precision movements and tools. The artistry came later at the hands of a master watchmaker, who assembled, decorated and regulated the movements. In short order, LeCoultre became the leading supplier of movements, parts and tools to the watchmaking industry in Switzerland.
LeCoultre movements were so highly regarded, in fact, that until 1910, the company provided Patek Philippe with most of its raw movements. It was only in later years that Patek Philippe built its own movements from scratch. In the meantime, other companies had come to rely exclusively on LeCoultre’s products, from which they would create finished watches. LeCoultre’s success was so great that between 1900 and 1919, 40,000 raw movements were produced.
In 1925, the grandson of the firm’s founder, David LeCoultre, merged his company with that of Edmond Jaeger, the exclusive supplier of watch movements to Cartier. This is when the modern company known as Jaeger-LeCoultre first came into existence. Incredibly enough, up to this point, Jaeger-LeCoultre had not sold any watches under its own name. The merger, however, prompted further technical innovations, not the least of which was a case made from stainless steel, as well as the creation of the smallest mechanical movement in the world, which weighed less than one gram.
The year 1931 saw the introduction of the Reverso, a wristwatch that could be turned 180 degrees within the case, thereby protecting the crystal and dial. It was a fantastic creation and one that was enthusiastically received by the public. Unfortunately, the worldwide economic crisis and World War II conspired to prevent the Reverso from achieving its full potential. Changing fashions coupled with the advent of waterproof watches might have forever doomed the watch to obscurity, had it not been for an Italian dealer who visited the factory in the 1960’s and noticed a number of unused Reverso cases sitting in a watchmakers’ drawer. The Italian dealer bought the cases and fitted them with movements. The finished watches were an instant sell-out and the rest is history. Today, the Reverso is by far Jaeger-LeCoultre’s most popular model.
Another interesting story concerns David LeCoultre’s bid for Patek Philippe. In 1932, Patek Philippe was in major financial straits and looking for a white knight. LeCoultre, whose company manufactured movements for Patek, wanted to acquire a majority interest. He came close to finalizing a deal, but the Stern brothers, whose company supplied the dials used in Patek Philippe watches, ultimately acquired the company. Although Patek Philippe has certainly prospered under the Stern family’s management, it is nonetheless interesting to contemplate what effect a Patek Philippe/Jaeger-LeCoultre merger may have had on the Swiss watch industry.
Needless to say, the company has continued to thrive, introducing such innovations as the Memovox, Futurematic, Atmos Clock and strikingly original movements such as the world’s thinnest automatic with a thickness of just 2.35 mm, just to name a few. The thin automatic movement in particular was an incredible success, as both Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet featured it in wristwatches advertised as being the world’s slimmest self-winding timepieces. During the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Jaeger-LeCoultre produced a 36 jewel, self-winding calibre for Patek Philippe. Once again, both companies had come full circle.
On a final note, it is worth noting that Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of the few companies in Switzerland that still produces its own movements, cases, dials, hands, and bracelets. Virtually every single component in a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch is hand-finished, produced in-house, and this in turn results in strict quality control. As a result, Jaeger-LeCoultre watches are recognized as being among the very finest hand-crafted watches available and evidence of this can be seen in the fact that Jaeger-LeCoultre regularly produces such masterpieces as the Reverso Tourbillon and Reverso Minute Repeater. There is also the Master Control series of watches, which boast 1,000 hours of testing and assembly at the patient hands of a master watchmaker.
If you are contemplating the purchase of a Jaeger-LeCoultre wristwatch, you’ve made an excellent choice. It’s a highly prestigious and respected brand with a long and wonderful history, as well as a proven track record.
The history of Breitling watches
Breitling – A specialist of technical watches, Breitling has played a crucial role in the development of the wrist chronograph and is a leader in this complication. The firm has shared all the finest moments in the conquest of the skies thanks to its sturdy, reliable and high-performance instruments. The world’s only major watch brand to equip all its models with chronometer-certified movements, the ultimate token of precision, Breitling is also one of the rare companies to produce its own mechanical chronograph movement, entirely developed and manufactured in its own workshops. This family business is also one of the last remaining independent Swiss watch brands.
In founding his workshop in the Swiss Jura in 1884, Léon Breitling chose to devote himself to an exclusive and demanding field: that of chronographs and timers. These precision instruments were intended for sports, science and industry. Thanks to its high-quality products and its constant quest for innovation, the brand accompanied the boom of competitive sports and of the automobile – as well as the first feats of the aviation pioneers.
In 1915, it heralded the emergence of the wrist chronograph by inventing the first independent chronograph push-piece. In 1923, it perfected this system by separating the stop/start functions from that of resetting. This patented innovation thereby made it possible to add several successive times without returning the hands to zero – which proved extremely useful both for timing sports competitions and for calculating flight times.
In 1934, Breitling set the final touch to the modern face of the chronograph by creating the second independent reset push-piece – a decisive breakthrough that was soon adopted by the competition. In 1969, the brand took on one of the greatest 20th century watchmaking challenges by presenting the first self winding chronograph movement. In 1984, Breitling heralded the rebirth of the mechanical chronograph by launching the famous Chronomat, which has since become its leading model. In 2009, the firm’s engineers once again made their mark on the history of the chronograph by creating Caliber 01 – the finest self winding chronograph movement, entirely developed and manufactured in the workshops of “Breitling Chronométrie“. A leader in the field of mechanical chronographs, the brand has also established itself in the vanguard of electronic watchmaking by developing an entire range of high-tech instruments first and foremost dedicated to aviation.
Aviation pioneers needed reliable and efficient instruments, and therefore soon took an interest in Breitling’s pocket chronographs, and later its wrist chronographs. In the early 1930s, building on its reputation for precision and sturdiness, Breitling enriched its range with a “specialty” that would earn it worldwide fame: onboard chronographs intended for aircraft cockpits. These instruments indispensable to secure piloting enjoyed great success with the various armed forces, including the Royal Air Force which used them to equip its famous World War II propeller-driven fighter planes. In 1952, Breitling launched its legendary Navitimer wrist chronograph featuring a circular slide rule serving to perform all navigation-related calculations. A cult object for pilots and aviation enthusiasts, it has been continuously manufactured for almost 60 years – making it the world’s oldest mechanical chronograph still in production. In 1962, a Navitimer accompanied Scott Carpenter on his orbital flight aboard the Aurora 7 capsule, thus becoming the first space-going wrist chronograph.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Breitling played a key role in the boom of commercial aviation, as its onboard chronographs became standard equipment, first on the propeller-driven planes and later on the jet aircraft of many airplane manufacturers and airline companies. The brand thus quite naturally earned the status of “official supplier to world aviation”. Today, Breitling is perpetuating these authentic and privileged ties with aviation by co-operating with the world’s elite pilots. Several exceptional teams fly the firm’s colours, including the famous Breitling Jet Team with its spectacular aerobatics. It is associated with the greatest airshows on the planet, such as the famous Reno Air Races (Nevada/United States). By supporting the restoration of legendary aircraft such as the Breitling Super Constellation, one of the last flightworthy “Super Connies” in the world, the brand with the winged B asserts its determination to preserve the aeronautical legacy – the magnificent adventure with which its own history is so intimately entwined.
Trained in the tough school of aviation, a domain where safety is of vital importance, Breitling displays the same obsession with quality in all its 100% Swiss made “instruments for professionals”. Breitling is the world’s only major watch brand to submit all its movements (both mechanical and quartz) to the merciless tests of the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC) – the highest benchmark of precision and reliability. The brand built an ultra-modern facility named Breitling Chronometrie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, dedicated to the development and production of mechanical chronograph movements.
In order to produce its own high-performance Manufacture calibres, the firm has developed an industrial production chain that has revolutionized traditional movement assembly. Each movement is individually monitored by an ultra-sophisticated computer program that automatically directs it towards the appropriate workstation, along a route alternating between entirely automated workstations and others requiring manual intervention. This is because for some operations, nothing can equal the latest high-tech advancements, and industrialization results in infinitely more accurate tolerances than manual workmanship.
Breitling thereby guarantees the large-scale authentic production reliability of its “instruments for professionals”. The brand also stands out in the field of electronics by using exclusively thermocompensated SuperQuartzTM movements that are ten times more accurate than standard quartz. Not forgetting the Emergency, the first wristwatch with a built-in emergency micro-transmitter. Whether in terms of the sturdiness and water resistance of its cases, the clarity and readability of its dials, or the robustness and comfort of its bracelets, each detail of the watch exterior is designed to withstand intensive use in the most trying conditions, and is subjected to countless controls throughout the production process.
With the Emergency, the company in 1995 presents as unique world novelty, an expedition watch which can save lives in an emergency. It is a quartz watch with built-in mini transmitter that can emit emergency signals at the frequency 121.5 MHz.
The high popularity of the company is further increased, when it acts as main sponsor of the first non-stop balloon flight around the earth: The balloon Orbiter 3 of the Swiss Bertrand Piccard and the Briton Brian Jones appears almost for three weeks in all news with the unmistakable signature “Breitling”, before the flight, after a period of exactly 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes, is completed successfully on 21 March 1999.