AeglerCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.
The Aegler watchmaking company was established in Biel / Bienne in 1878 by Jean Aegler. Biel / Bienne is on the language boundary between the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland, hence the dual name for the town. Biel is German, Bienne its French counterpart. Because this is a bit of a mouthful and I am discussing Aegler in the context of Rolex, which is headquartered in Geneva in the French speaking part of Switzerland, I shall refer to the town as simply Bienne.
Aegler advert from 1899
Jean Aegler was born on 25 January 1850 in Krattigen, a small Swiss village about 90 kilometres south east of Bienne situated on a hill overlooking Lake Thun. He was the son of Johannes Aegler and Susanna nee Isler. Jean Aegler trained as a watchmaker before founding his own company. Johannes Aegler is recorded as being an "instructeur, huissier et facteur", so Jean could perhaps have studied under him, but it seems more likely that he was sent to Bienne for his apprenticeship. Jean Aegler married Anna Maria Ramser on 26 July 1873 in La Neuveville. He died on 2 August 1891 in Bienne at the young age of only 41 years.
In 1881 Jean Aegler acquired a workshop in the Rebberg district of Bienne on La Haute-Route, overlooking the city centre. The history of this factory is virtually unknown. A press release announcing the new Rolex factory in Bienne in 2012 said that between 1890 and 1895 the Aegler factory began to produce its own ébauches. This is not correct. The advert reproduced here from April 1899 says that the watchmaking factory Jean Aegler of Rebberg, Bienne, makes a speciality of stem wound watches (remontoirs au pendant) and has a new system of setting the time, the most advanced that exists (le plus perfectionné qui existe). This was the subject of a Swiss patent granted to Jean Aegler in 1888. So the Aegler factory was certainly making complete movements by 1888 or 1889.
Jean Aegler had probably not started out making complete ébauches in 1881, because it would have taken him time to accumulate the capital to buy the necessary machinery, work out the designs for the movements, recruit and train workers etc., so he most likely started out either making or finishing component parts for other companies, gradually building up his factory and workforce until he had the capability to produce the complete movements.
In 1886 Jean Aegler was present at a meeting of horological workers of Bienne and the surrounding area at which the formation of a syndicate to control prices and working conditions in the industry was agreed. Aegler was named in a list of workers who specialised in "small pieces". In view of Aegler's later reputation for making small watches it is likely that this refers to small movements rather than small component parts. This view is supported by a letter of 1888 announcing the formation of of the "Syndicat de fabricants d'horlogerie". Jean Aegler was one of the signatories to the letter as a secretary to the syndicate.
Swiss patent No. 243
Figure from Aegler patent 243 of 1888
On 15 November 1888 Jean Aegler was granted Swiss patent No. 243 for a Mécanisme de mise à l'heure par la couronne; a mechanism for setting the hands to the correct time using the crown. This patent is referenced at the bottom of the advert: "Brevet pris on Suisse sous No. 243" — Swiss patent is taken under No. 243.
The mechanism, or "keyless work", was a variation on the sliding sleeve mechanism invented by Adrien Philippe in 1845. In common with many patents taken out on stem winding and setting mechanisms based on Philippe's invention, Aegler's patent concerned the arrangement of levers that moved the sliding pinion between the winding and setting positions.
In the figure from the patent you can see the Philippe pinions clearly, the crown or winding pinion is labelled C, the sliding pinion B. Pulling upwards on the stem causes lever F to press down on lever A, which is engaged in the slot around the sliding pinion. Lever A rotates around its securing screw as shown by the dotted lines and the sliding pinion is pressed downwards into the hand setting position. When the stem is pushed down, the spring a pushes the lever A back, which returns the sliding pinion to the winding position.
When Jean Aegler died 1891 his widow Anna Maria took over the business, which was renamed Veuve Jean Aegler (widow of Jean Aegler), often abbreviated to Vve. Jean Aegler.
An additional patent No. 243/104, an extension to No. 243, was granted to Madame Veuve Jean Aegler in December 1891. This patent, with the same title as the original 243, was for an improvement to the mechanism of levers that moved the sliding pinion between the winding and setting positions. The difference is very small, only slight changes to the shapes of the levers. Today this would not be accepted as a new "invention". Swiss patent law had only been introduced in 1888 and in the first years many designs that would not have been patentable in Britain or the USA were granted patents in Switzerland. Swiss manufacturers evidently saw it as a good way to both protect their designs and gain a bit of status by stamping patent numbers, or references to patents with the word Brevet or the symbol of the Swiss Federal cross , on their products.
By 1902 the business under the direction of Hermann and Hans Aegler, the sons of Jean and Anna Maria, was manufacturing small ébauches with lever escapements. The business gained a reputation for the mechanised manufacture at reasonable prices of good quality lever movements on the gauged and interchangeable system, which made it easier to fit replacement parts if required. The name "Rebberg", after the Rebberg part of Bienne where the factory was located, was registered in 1902 as a trade mark.
Partnership of the sons of Jean Aegler formed 1906
In April 1902 Swiss patent No. 23382 was granted to "Witwe Jean Aegler" for a "Taschenuhrgehause", a pocket watch case. The language used is German, Witwe means widow in German. The case design extends the bezel and back over the middle part of the case, also called the case band, so that the bezel and back meet in a single joint and the middle part of the case is umschließen und nach außen unsichtbar machen — enclosed and invisible to the outside.
In 1905 Hans Wilsdorf of Wilsdorf & Davis in London placed a large order for wristwatches with Aegler. In the Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum, Wilsdorf says that the first line of wristwatches that he placed on the market were silver watches with leather straps for men's and ladies' wear, and that their success was immediate so that the range had to be widened, in particular to watches with gold cases. In view of the prevailing fashions of 1905 the success must have been with the ladies' models. This view is implicitly confirmed by Wilsdorf himself, who says that an expanding metal bracelet was launched in 1906 and our little gold watch became increasingly popular throughout the empire. A little gold watch on an expanding metal bracelet sounds to me like a ladies' wristwatch and not the sort of thing that an Edwardian gentleman would be seen dead wearing.
In July 1906 the trademarks and patents of Veuve Jean Aegler were transferred to a new company, a "nom-collectif" or partnership "Les fils de Jean Aegler, fabrique Rebberg" (The sons of Jean Aegler, makers of Rebberg). Presumably Madam Aegler had decided to retire.
When Wilsdorf coined the name Rolex in 1908 he decided that he wanted to have only this name on the watches supplied to Wilsdorf & Davis by Aegler. Aegler felt that as the maker their name should be on the watches, but ultimately Wilsdorf got his wish.
Aegler advert from 1910 mentioning first class certificate for 11 ligne Rebberg movement with lever escapement
In 1910 an 11 ligne lever escapement Rebberg watch was awarded a first class certificate at the Bienne rating office. This is described in the Rolex Jubilee Vade Mecum as the first Rolex wrist-watch chronometer.
The Aegler advert here from March 1910 celebrates this feat but doesn't mention Wilsdorf or Rolex. This is often reported to be the first time a wristwatch had obtained a chronometer certificate but the advert doesn't mention this, which seems a curious omission and missed advertising opportunity.
In 1913 Aegler registered Rolex as a trademark for the manufacture of watches and watch parts. From this point on the history of Wilsdorf & Davis, Aegler and Rolex becomes virtually impossible to untangle from information publicly available, and the modern Rolex foundation never divulges any of its history.
What appears to have happened is this. Wilsdorf & Davis owned the name Rolex, which Hans Wilsdorf was very proud of. He wanted it to appear only on the best watches supplied to him, the ones made by Aegler. Accordingly he kept pressing Aegler to increase the use of the name Rolex, and as Wilsdorf & Davis were one of Aegler's largest customers they went along with this, describing themselves in adverts as both "Manufacture d'Horlogerie Rebberg" and "Rolex Watch Co.". The name Rolex was used by liberally by both Aegler and Wilsdorf & Davis in ways that can be very confusing. The single word "Rolex" was used as a brand name on the best watches produced by Aegler for Wilsdorf & Davis, but it was never the name of an actual company. Conversely, the name "Rolex Watch Co." on a watch does not mean that it is a "Rolex" watch, only that it was a product sold by the Rolex Watch Co.
Is this all a semantic exercise in splitting hairs? Maybe. But today some people advertise Rolex Watch Co. watches as if they are Rolex watches, which can trap the unwary into paying too much for a watch that more seasoned collectors do not regard as a Rolex watch, so it is good to be aware of the arguments. And caveat emptor.
Aegler partnership name change 1912
Aegler S.A. registration 1913
In November 1912 the registered name of the Aegler company was changed to Les fils de Jean Aegler, Fabrique de montres Rebberg, Final & Rolex (The sons of Jean Aegler, manufacturers of Rebberg, Final and Rolex watches). The reason for this change evidently defeated the composer of the announcement shown here, which says "The partnership known collectively as .... is modified for the reason as follows:" and then simply recites the new name without trying to give a reason. In Switzerland the names of at least one of the active partners had to appear in the business name of the company, so this probably signifies the retirement of Madam Aegler.
This mouthful of a company name didn't last long though, because as the next notice shows a new company was registered on 26 September 1913, "Aegler S.A.". Notice that the composition of the company changes from a "nom collectif", a partnership, to an S.A. or "Société Anonyme", a joint-stock company. The notice states that the new company Aegler S.A. was formed for the purpose of the acquisition and continuation of the previous partnerships Les fils de Jean Aegler, Jean Aegler and Witwe Jean Aegler. Aegler S.A. became the legally registered name of the company and after this date any other names used by the company such as "Manufacture des Montres Rolex" or "Manufacture des Montres Gruen" were trading names with no legal significance.
In Swiss/French the word for shares in a company is "actions" so a société par actions is a joint stock company with shareholders who appoint a board of directors to run the company. Note that shares in a such a company do not have to be offered to the public, they can be held privately by the people who founded the company or sold at their discretion to raise capital. A joint stock company is a legal entity and its finances are separate from the personal finances of the shareholders, unlike a nom-collectif or partnership, where the partners are jointly and severally liable for any debts incurred by the partnership. Limited liability and joint stock companies are formed when the business is getting bigger and if unseen problems arose the consequences could be catastrophic for the individual partners, so the formation in 1913 of Aegler S.A. was a sign that the business was booming.
Wilsdorf & Davis opened an office in Bienne in 1916. This increased in importance when high import tariffs were imposed by the British government during the Great War (1914-1918). Previously all watches sold byWilsdorf & Davis had been sent to London for inspection before being sent on to retailers both within Britain and the rest of the world. The high import tariffs meant that this added extra cost to watches that were destined for markets outside Britain so the Bienne office took over the duty of inspecting these watches and dispatching them direct to their destination.
In 1919 a new company was incorporated in Geneva by Wilsdorf & Davis as Montres Rolex SA. Its manufactory was listed as "Manufacture des Montres Rolex, Aegler S.A." but the two companies, Aegler S.A. Bienne and Montres Rolex S.A. Geneva, were legally separate entities. Aegler also had other customers, the largest of which was the US firm Gruen.
Over the next few years this remained the situation. Aegler supplied Rolex branded watches to Montres Rolex S.A. who organised their distribution to approved outlets, and advertising and marketing. Aegler also supplied watches to Gruen, who sold them in the USA, and to others. Montres Rolex S.A. and Gruen were Aegler's biggest customers and they had a mutually beneficial arrangement where Gruen would only sell watches in the USA and Montres Rolex sold watches to the rest of the world. As the USA was the wealthiest consumer market in the world at the time this was not so unbalanced as it sounds.
Montres Rolex and Gruen did not take all the watches that Aegler could make, so Aegler also continued to supply watches to other companies. At the same time, Wilsdorf was interested in making watches that could be sold at lower price points than the top line Rolex branded watches, so he bought in movements and watches from other manufacturers such as Fontainemelon and Valjoux to be used in watches carrying names such as Marconi, Unicorn and Tudor.
During the Great War Emile Borer, nephew and ultimately successor to Hermann Aegler, joined the Aegler factory personnel as an engineer. He soon became responsible for developing new technology and developed an automatic winding system that was patented by Aegler in 1931. Emile Borer was appointed as a director of Aegler in 1931 and subsequently became Chief Technical Director, and then in 1944 General Manager of Aegler S.A.
Business between Rolex and Aegler flourished until by 1920 Rolex was Aegler’s largest customer. The post war slump that culminated in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression hit Montres Rolex's business hard, and Hermann Aegler invested in the survival of his largest customer by acquiring 6,960 shares of Montres Rolex S.A. and was appointed to the board. It is said that he was given these shares, but there must have been some sort of quid-pro-quo. As business recovered both Rolex and Gruen became large shareholders in Aegler.
Bloomberg © 2016 overview of acquisition of Aegler by Rolex
The Aegler company adopted the trading name "Aegler, S.A., Fabrique des Montres Rolex & Gruen Guild A". Gruen and Montres Rolex adverts of the period show pictures of the Aegler factory with either Rolex or Gruen on the factory roof, implying that it was a Gruen or Rolex owned factory. As the Gruen adverts were for US display and Montres Rolex adverts for display outside the US this dichotomy was not obvious to consumers. Over the years various names were used to identify the Aegler factory more and more closely with Rolex, but these were just trading names. The legal entity that owned the factory was Aegler S.A., which was owned by the Aegler and Borer families.
In the 1930s Gruen and Montres Rolex S.A. sold their shares in Aegler S.A. back to the company, and Aegler S.A. sold its shares in Montres Rolex S.A. to Wilsdorf. In 1936 Gruen ceased purchasing watches from Aegler and Montres Rolex S.A. Geneva agreed to take up the entire production of the Aegler S.A. factory in Bienne, and the factory was renamed “Manufacture des Montres Rolex S.A.”, although it was now wholly owned again by the Aegler family.
In 1969 Harry Borer, son of Emile Borer, took over management of Aegler S.A. and oversaw the expansion of the company, with eventually seven new production buildings being built in the Champs-de-Boujean industrial area of Bienne.
This continued to be the situation until 31 December 2004. The company overview by Bloomberg reproduced here tells the story in a few words. The company now called Manufacture des Montres Rolex S.A. was incorporated in 1913. This is clearly the company that was incorporated in 1913 as Aegler S.A. The two companies remained separate until 2004 when Harry Borer sold Aegler S.A. to Montres Rolex S.A. and Rolex finally owned the Rolex movement factory. As the Bloomberg report shows, the manufacture in Bienne is still a separate company called Manufacture des Montres Rolex SA, a wholly owned subsidiary of the company now called simply Rolex SA.
Aegler manufactured movements in its ébauche factory in the Rebberg district of Bienne, and as a consequence of this Rebberg was a registered as a trade mark by Aegler, hence these movements are often referred to as "Rebberg" movements, even if they are not stamped with the Rebberg name. If they are stamped Rebberg it is often on the bottom plate and under the dial so not normally visible.
Aegler supplied Rebberg movements to Wilsdorf & Davis, and to a lot of other companies. In fact it is most likely that Aegler supplied complete, cased, watches. Wilsdorf & Davis and the other companies in London that Aegler supplied were simple import operations with no factory capability in England to put movements into cases and test the finished watches. All the silver cases that are seen with Rebberg movements, and gold cases until 1915, were made in Switzerland, so it is most likely that the movements were cased and the finished watches tested at the Aegler factory.
The image of the Rebberg Watch Co. movement is courtesy of eBay member allthatsparkles69. The image of the Rolex 13 ligne savonnette movement is of my grandfather's wristwatch movement. All the other movements here are by kind permission of Owen Gilchrist who allowed me to photograph movements of his.
Movement stamped "DF & C" for Dimier Freres & Cie: Click to enlarge.
Movement stamped "F & D" for Fulda & David: Click to enlarge.
Movement marked Gruen on train bridge: Click to enlarge.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated August 2016. W3CMVS.