What Can We Learn From Watchmaking In The 1960s?
Some of the most sought-after watches of today have their design roots in the 1960s. It is hard to believe, but this was a pinnacle of the Swiss watch industry just before the quartz crisis. I find it very instructive to look back at the history of some of the great watch brands in this era. In many cases, the journey of these storied names is linked to a specific watch they developed. Whether successful or not, the stories create part of the patina of the brand’s history.
Delving into the twists and turns of some specific watches can be illuminating. It is helpful to know where brands have come from; it sets a direction of travel. It also creates an understanding of why some watches from history are so sought after by collectors. Interestingly, our friendly watch collector, The Watch Whisperer, has pointed out on many occasions that the story is so important to collectors.
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In today’s rarefied world of Swiss watchmaking, many of these watches would not be considered worthy. Perhaps the watch movement would not be considered “in-house.” Or worse, the movement would not be regarded as worthy because it was assembled from ebauches. Or perish the thought, a tractor movement had been utilized with a complication plate.
History would reject these strict interpretations. If we take a step back into the late nineteen sixties, it was flower power, flared jeans, and there was no sign of the impending quartz crises in Switzerland. Most of the watchmakers were family-owned or at least under independent management.
It Was Time Measuring Equipment
Another aspect that jumps out from this period is that many of the watchmakers were not principally watchmakers! Many were more focused on making timing equipment or gauges for scientific equipment or machinery. Some of Today’s most well-known brands billed themselves as makers of scientific equipment rather than watchmakers back in the day.
There were many makers of watches and timing equipment back then; these were all independent watch brands. These businesses did not have the financial backing of the vast international conglomerates controlling many of the best-known names of watchmaking today. These small, focused enterprises had limited resources to invest in developing and manufacturing movements.
It Was Volume Production
During this period, the vast majority of watchmakers would purchase ebauches. These movement kits were then assembled in-house. Some watchmakers took it a step further and modified specific components of the ebauches, using these modified movements in their watches and timing equipment.
Out of necessity, collaborations between brands were struck. The necessity was that a single watch brand was generally unable to afford the investment required to develop every aspect of a watch from beginning to end. The result was a vast network of watchmaking specialists throughout Switzerland, all focused on watches, or more accurately, the business of measuring time.
Collaboration Was Key
The collaborations of the 1960s did not get negotiated in lawyers’ offices, with haggling over words and details. Many agreements were struck through personal relationships within the industry and sometimes just between golfing buddies. Sometimes, the development was not between just two watchmakers but between five different companies. Each company brought something different, unique, and necessary to achieve the objective. That objective could be to create a new watch or even a new movement that would ultimately be used in multiple watch executions across different, competing brands.
Interestingly, some watches made through these collaborations have turned into some of the most collectible watches in the market today. A watch that initially cost a few hundred dollars when it was first released now sells at auction for over two million dollars.
Do you not believe me? Let’s have a look at one story in particular.
One Story In Detail
This company, let us call them Company A, focused on timing equipment and stopwatches. Their efforts in watches were secondary, especially if considered in terms of the value of sales. Nevertheless, they were committed to expanding their wristwatch offering. The problem was they had a particular weakness, and the market was moving away from them.
Company A’s watches focused on sports timekeeping. Their watch collection featured many chronograph watches, but their best-selling watches were manual. Company A had identified this weakness in the early 1960s with the shift towards automatic watches.
The problem was that creating an automatic chronograph watch remained a technical challenge in the 1960s. The specific challenge was the size of the final movement. When the tractor movement was combined with the additional complications of the chronograph function, the complete movement was too large to be a wristwatch. What was needed was a new tractor movement that was small enough so that when the chronograph complications were added, the final movement remained a manageable size.
How Did They Solve The Problem?
It may be surprising that they did not start by developing a movement with engineers. What they did was to look around the market and see if someone else had already developed the necessary technology. This search started in 1963, but it was not until 1967 that Company A found an automatic movement that met their requirements.
The next challenge for Company A was to make sure it all worked together and required the skill of watch movement engineers. The engineers had the task of integrating the chronograph complication plate onto the base tractor movement. Things became expensive at this point; the quotation for this work was CHF500,000. Remember, this was in the late 1960s, so that was a lot of money. In today’s money, that is about CHF1,500,000.
The Money Conundrum
Company A had a lot of demands on their capital. They were expanding production to meet orders for stopwatches from the United States government and Hong Kong. The result was that they did not have sufficient money to invest in developing their new watch. Yet, creating the watch was critical to maintaining its position in the watch market. It was a Catch 22 situation.
The CEO of Company A came up with the idea of finding a partner with whom they could split the development costs. It turned out that one of the CEO’s golfing partners, who just happened to be the CEO of another watch brand, was interested. Together they struck an agreement to develop the new chronograph movement.
Looks Are Important Too
With the technological issues overcome, next on the list were the commercial requirements. Company A knew that they would be releasing a great watch to the market, and they needed a remarkable case to house this watch. Again, they did not go to the designers and develop their designs. Company A talked to a watch case manufacturer and selected one of the case manufacturer’s new designs. It was no ordinary watch case, though; it was a patented watch case. It was a world-first for watch case manufacturers.
It Was A Team Game Then
Let us take a pause and recap on who is involved in the process so far. Company A had purchased a watch case from the watch case manufacturer. They had purchased a patented tractor movement from another watchmaker. The development costs for integrating the tractor movement with the complications were too high for them to manage alone, so they brought in a partner, Company B, to help with the costs for developing the movement. That is five partners in this development.
The point to note is that at the end of this development, all these pieces would be assembled in Company A’s factory and sold under the name of Company A. Noone doubted that it was not a product of Company A at that time. But today, it seems, the standards are different.
And It Is Still A Team Game
The process I have just described is similar to how many watch brands develop their watches – including at SNGLRTY. Unfortunately, many watch collectors seem to think that if a watch is not 100% designed and manufactured within the walls of the brand, it is somehow an inferior timepiece.
To the purists, I respond the market has spoken. It is clear that whether a watch is developed 100% “in-house” or through a collaborative effort, they are still sought after and appreciated. It is a little more complicated though, the watchmaking is one part, but the story behind the watch and even the owner of the specific watch has a significant influence.
You do not believe me? Watches from this very collaboration have sold at auction for over US$ 2.2 million! So what is this watch?
Iconic Watches Are Not Made
The Heuer Monaco is an innovative watch of its time and also has a fantastic story behind it. It came from humble beginnings, where passion counted for more than the marketing budget. Perhaps that is something we should be more aware of today. At the time, what Jack Heuer achieved was stunning, given the resources he had at his disposal. The ultimate success of the Heuer Monaco had a good amount of luck in the story too, or perhaps serendipity is a better description. But then again, you create your luck, don’t you?
Let’s look at the story in more detail, so we can understand why this watch is so important to watch collectors and why some of these watches sell for over US$2 million.
The movement we are talking about is the Calibre 11, but it started life as Project 99. It was around 1967 and, the sales of manual chronographs were declining. What Heuer needed was an automatic chronograph. The issue was that the whole assembly became impossibly thick when the stopwatch complication was placed onto the automatic tractor movements. What was needed was a slimmer tractor movement.
When Fairs Were Critical For Business
At the Basel Watch and Jewelry Fair of 1967, Buren, a Swiss watchmaker, unveiled their patented and crucially, thinner, micro-rotor movement. It featured a power reserve of 42-hour – this was massive at the time. Heuer immediately saw the potential and worked to negotiate a supply of the Buren movements.
Next, Heuer teamed up with Dubois-Dépraz, the most famous Swiss watch engineers, to work out how the complication plate could be assembled onto the Buren movement. Unfortunately, Dubois-Dépraz presented Heuer with a quotation of CHF500,000 to develop and integrate the complication plate with the Buren movement. Heuer could not afford this expenditure, so Jack Heuer turned to his golfing buddy, Willy Breitling, to join the team and share the development costs. To develop the movement, there were four different parties. The burden of creating the very first automatic chronograph movement was shared between Buren, Dubois–Dépraz, Breitling, and Heuer. These were the founding partners of “Project 99.”
The Swiss Watch Business Was A Team Sport
Breitling was an excellent fit for Heuer, initially because Willy Breitling and Jack Heuer were friends but mostly because there was a sound business rationale. Breitling was focused on aviation and had strong distribution in Italy and France. On the other hand, Heuer was focused on auto sports, and their distribution was strong in Germany, the UK, and the US. There was, therefore, little competition between the two partners. The two key partners also agreed on a price range for their watches, and the new movement would be named “Chronomatic.” Interestingly, Breitling still uses the name today, while Heuer dropped it for “Automatic Chronograph” soon after launch because it was easier for the American audience to understand.
Heuer’s initial thought was to put the automatic movement into the popular manual chronographs they were already selling. The “Autavia” chronograph was famous amongst car racing and aviation enthusiasts. Jack Heuer wanted to create an outstandingly innovative and eye-catching product, something bordering on the avant-garde.
The Unsung Hero – Watch Case Manufacturer
This is where Piquerez, the leading watch case manufacturer of the time, came into the equation. On one visit to Piquerez, Heuer was introduced to a new, patented square case that they had developed. This watch case was a world first because it was square and water-resistant. Until this point, it had not been possible to manufacture a square watch case that was also water-resistant.
Heuer was able to negotiate an exclusive deal to use the watch case for chronograph watches. For Heuer, this was critical because when the new Chronomatic movement was launched, even though the movement would be the same as Breitling, Heuer would have a distinctive watch to differentiate themselves in the market.
Left Is Right
One detail of these original Monaco watches was that the winding crown was on the left side of the case. The marketing would have you believe that the crown was put on the left because it is an automatic chronograph and does not need winding every day. With the crown only used for time setting, the wearer would take the watch off anyway. The truth is somewhat different. The way the complication plate is attached to the tractor movement meant that the winding crown needed to be on the hand left side of the case.
A Great Story For A Great Watch
The Heuer Monaco was at the forefront of watch innovation at its time. It was a collaboration of five companies to create a single watch. The achievements of the time are remarkable and are now sought after by watch collectors, for very good reason.
No one seems to complain that it does not have an “in-house” movement!