The History of the Borgel WatchCopyright © Notice
Although best known in the form of the Borgel Officer's watch or Borgel Trench watch, so called because they came into popular use during the First World War (WW1), were bought by Officers and used in the trenches, Borgel watches have a history that stretches back into the nineteenth century when in Geneva, Switzerland, François Borgel started a business making watch cases. Borgel patented the eponymous Borgel watch case in 1891, making at first pocket watch cases, and then later wristwatch cases as the fashion changed from carrying a watch in a pocket to wearing it on the wrist.
François Borgel was a talented inventor and successful businessman, and the business he created was to grow into one of the most important Swiss watch case manufacturers. Early adopters of the Borgel screw case included Longines and the International Watch Co. (IWC). After Franç ois Borgel’s death in 1912, the business was carried on by his daughter Louisa Borgel. Louisa Borgel sold the business in 1924 to the Taubert family of Le Locle, who carried it on until the 1970s, supplying many watch manufacturers including the illustrious Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin.
There is a great deal of misinformation concerning the history of Borgel watches and the development of the waterproof watch case, such as the suggestion that one Francis Baumgartner made cases based on the Borgel patent, and was involved in the design and development of waterproof cases culminating in the Rolex Oyster. Francis Baumgartner is in fact a chimera: no watch case maker of this name ever existed. The name seems to have arisen because of the similarity of the initials of two real Geneva case makers, François Borgel (FB) and Frédéric Baumgartner (also FB) and the two identities became conflated, in the process turning "François" into the Anglicised "Francis".
NAWCC Bulletin September/October 2012
Here I am going to try to set the history of the Borgel and Taubert companies straight, based on factual evidence. This page is about Borgel, there is another page about the Taubert family. I am sure that in the attempt I will get some things wrong, so please forgive me and point out my mistakes as gently as possible. If you have any comments, corrections, requests or suggestions, then please feel free to email them to me at Please don't give out my email address, refer anyone interested to this web site. I try to answer all emails I receive so if you don't get a reply in a few days please check your junk or spam folders.
I have now split this page into two, this one on Borgel and the following one on Taubert. I have also put some place markers in the box on the left to help you jump straight to sections. You can always do Ctrl-Home to get back to here (Hold down the Ctrl key, and briefly press the Home key).
A longer version of this web page has been published in the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC) Watch & Clock Bulletin. The first part of this article, concerning François Borgel and covering the period from about 1880 to 1912, was published in Volume No. 399, the September/October 2012 issue, the cover of which is shown here. The watches are top left - a Borgel wristwatch with a Longines movement, centre - a Borgel wristwatch with an IWC movement (the earliest Borgel wristwatch I have seen, IWC have verified that it was made in 1906), bottom right a Borgel pocket watch, and bottom left a Borgel pocket watch with an IWC movement belonging to Ralph Ehrismann with Borgel's patented method of case decoration. This watch was made in 1894 and sold by IWC in 1895.
The second part of my article, about Louisa Borgel and covering the period from about 1912 to 1924 including the huge take up of Borgel wristwatches during WW1, was published in Volume No. 400, the November/December 2012 issue of the NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin. The third part, about the takeover of the Borgel company by the Taubert family and their development of new waterproof watch designs, was published in Volume 402, the March/April 2013 Bulletin. The fourth part describing some of the many watch manufacturers who used Taubert cases, including Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Alpina, Mido, Movado and The West End Watch Co. was published in Volume No. 403, the May/June 2013 Bulletin.
I understand that copies of all NAWCC Bulletins can be purchased from the NAWCC.
Copyright © Unless otherwise indicated, all of the text and images on this web site are my copyright.
I have spent a lot of time over the last eight years researching the history of the Borgel company, piecing it together from fragments of information and writing this research up for this page. Many of the images I have used are not just straight scans or copies, I have cleaned them up, enhanced them and rearranged them so that they are clearer and easier to read and understand. As such they not the same as the originals but are my copyright images and bear the digital signatures of my editing, even though I don't write my name across the front of them. Where I have used information from other sources I have acknowledged this, and I have obtained permission to use other people's copyright images.
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François Borgel, Louisa Borgel, the Taubert family
Watch Case Makers of Geneva
Towards the end of the nineteenth century in Geneva, Switzerland, François Borgel set up in business making watch cases. Not content with making ordinary watch cases, he soon developed a technique for making a steel case appear to be encrusted with gold, a process he patented in 1888. In 1891 Borgel patented the screw watch case design that most often bears his name today, the Borgel Case. This Borgel screw case was used for Borgel pocket watches before achieving wide use during the First World War for Borgel wristwatches, often purchased by Officers to wear in the cramped conditions of the trenches in place of the standard issue pocket watches of the day, hence the terms Borgel Officer's watch or Borgel trench watch for these wristwatches.
François Borgel - Early Life
Dennis Harris records that François Borgel was born on Friday the 22nd of August 1856, the son of Laurent Borgel and Marie Besson. He started in business under his own name in 1880 at age 24. In local records he is described as a "watch case fitter". An advert in the 1888 edition of the Indicateur Davoine records his workshop address as 17 Place Cornavin, Geneva, and states that he makes watch cases by mechanical methods.
Jaquet and Chapuis illustrate the workshop of a Geneva chamber worker, or cabinotier, in the St-Gervais quarter of Geneva at 16 Rue de Cornavin. The subject of the illustration is an "emboîteur" or boxer-in, one of the principal case making trades of the boxer-in or springer, the joint finisher and the polisher. Cabinotiers Geneva was the name given to the 4,000 watchmakers of the city during the second half of the 18th century. These watchmakers working in "cabins", sometimes tiny, under the roofs of houses. The English term is "garrets". So it seems that François Borgel started his business as a watch case maker or fitter in a garret workshop in the watchmaking district of Geneva, surrounded by other workers in the watchmaking trade.
Borgel's registration of his trademark
From the Archives de l'Horlogerie
Swiss patent specifications do not carry the address of the patentee, but the British version of Borgel's patent for the screw in watch case, No. 20,422 dated 1891, gives his address at the time as 1 Place Cornevin, Geneva. This address contains a spelling mistake and must refer to the Place Cornavin. I am not sure whether Borgel has moved from 17 Place Cornavin or whether this is simply another mistake.
Coat of Arms of Geneva
Borgel registered his "marque de fabrique", or makers mark (trademark), in Geneva on 17th March 1887 as shown in the registration published in the official Swiss trademarks register, the "Archives de l'Horlogerie. Marques de fabrique et de commerce Suisse. Enregistrés par le Bureau fédéral à Berne." The registration shows that François Borgel was a manufacturer (fabricant), an important distinction from a mere reseller of others items, and his registered (déposée) trademark proudly bears his initials FB and the Clé de Genève (Key of Geneva), a symbol from the coat of arms of the town of Geneva, which was well known as an important centre of watch making. It also shows he was making "Boîtes de montres" literally boxes for watches, or watch cases, in gold (or) silver (argent) and steel (acier), and also other horological items.
Borgel's First Patent
On the 3rd of December 1888 Borgel was granted Swiss patent number 16 (yes, this was only the sixteenth Swiss patent, they only introduced patent law in 1888) on a new process for making metallic plates for watch cases, medallions and other jewellery. (Brevet No 16. Nouvelle composition des plaques métalliques servant à la fabrication des boîtes de montres, médaillons et autres bijoux.)
Borgel's process was to apply a layer of gold onto an iron or steel plate, then remove some of the gold with a graver (an engraving tool) to expose the iron or steel below. Depending on the amount of gold removed, this could give the appearance of a gold item with the contrasting base metal showing though, or a steel item with pieces of gold attached to it. An addition to this patent was granted on 28th March 1889, Brevet Additionnel No 9, for applying several layers of different colours of gold (green gold, red gold, etc.) so that these different colours could be revealed by selective use of the graver, creating the effect of a rainbow of colours.
Borgel evidently used this process with success for his own watch cases. Harris quotes from a report by Mr Tripplin on the French International Watch and Clock Making Exhibition of 1889. Tripplin recorded that "A Geneva exhibitor, M. Borgel, shows artistic case making, a steel case with encrustations of gold struck us favourably..." Having established his own business, and now attracting favourable comment with this eye catching patented technique, Borgel was starting to forge his own way in the world and make a name for himself.
Borgel Patent CH4001
Borgel's One Piece Screw Watch Case
Borgel's famous patent for the one piece screw in watch case design that now most often bears his name was published on 28th October 1891 with the Swiss "Brevet" or Patent, number 4001. (CH4001, François Borgel à Genéve. Nouvelle boîte de montre.) This patent was also registered in the UK on 24th November 1891 with British Patent number 20,422, and in America with patent number US 478,734 dated 12 July 1892.
The image to the left here is a figure from the Swiss patent. The case back is labelled "A" and the threaded carrier ring "C". The threaded carrier ring "C" engages with a screw thread in the opening at the front of the case at "a".
Exploded View of a Borgel Screw Case
The Borgel screw watch case was an early attempt to make wristwatches resistant to dust and moisture. The case back and middle part are in one piece, so there is no opening at the back. The front opening of the case is thickened and threaded internally with a fine thread. The movement, complete with dial and hands, is mounted in an externally threaded carrier ring, and the bezel carrying the crystal is mounted onto the end of this carrier ring. The assembly of carrier ring with movement, dial, hands, bezel and crystal is then screwed into the case from the front.
At the time, the major concern of watch manufacturers was dust entering the case and contaminating the lubricating oil on the movement, causing it to thicken and become abrasive, slowing the action and wearing the pivots. The single front case joint which was closed tight by the fine thread of the carrier ring virtually eliminates the opportunity for dust or water to enter the case and the Borgel screw case was considerably more dust resistant than a normal case with hinged or snap on backs and bezels. Although many Borgel screw cases now have a considerable degree of play in the threads of the case and carrier ring after 100 years or so of being screwed together and unscrewed, when they were new these threads engaged closely and the bezel screwed down tightly onto the case. When new a Borgel screw case was considerably better sealed than many people think.
The picture to the right shows an exploded view of a Borgel screw wristwatch case. From the top we have:
The bezel and crystal
The movement, complete with dial and hands
The threaded carrier ring
The case screws
The Borgel screw case itself
To assemble the watch from this condition, the movement drops into the threaded carrier ring and is held in place by the case screws. The bezel is then pressed into place on the end of the threaded carrier ring. The bezel is a friction fit on the end of the threaded carrier ring, which has a key that engages in a slot in the bezel to prevent it rotating.
The whole "movement assembly" of carrier ring with movement and bezel is then screwed into the case. To do this, the crown, which is spring loaded into the position shown, is pulled away from the case. This withdraws the portion of the stem which is just visible in the picture, clearing the way for the movement assembly to be screwed in. The movement assembly is offered up to the front case opening and gently rotated until the threads on the carrier ring and in the front opening of the case engage, and then the movement assembly can be screwed fully into the case, gripping the milled edge of the carrier ring.
A Borgel Open Faced Pocket Watch
The picture to the right shows a Borgel cased open faced "Lépine" pocket watch, the picture below left shows a Borgel cased wristwatch with the movement unscrewed from the case. The wristwatch has a Borgel screw case with London import hallmarks for 18 carat gold, the date letter "t" for the hallmarking year 1914/1915 and the sponsor's mark CN for Charles Nicolet of Stauffer & Co. The movement is an IWC calibre 64 "savonnette". On the wristwatch you can see the screw thread on the carrier ring, which carries the movement, dial, bezel and crystal. The two holes visible in the carrier ring are where the winding stem and hand setting push pin mounted on the case engage with the movement.
Another feature of the wristwatch is that it has a tube projecting from the case with the winding crown mounted on the end of it. This is a carry over from the pocket watch, where the tube is called the pendant. On a pocket watch the pendant carries the bow or ring to which is attached a chain or leather fob, and the watch hangs from this, hence the name pendant. Most wristwatches do not have a pendant, the winding stem simply projecting straight through the wall of the case, with the crown mounted directly onto the end it. But in a Borgel watch, the pendant tube is required to enable part of the stem to be withdrawn so that the movement can be screwed in and out of the case.
A Borgel Wrist Watch in 18 carat gold with IWC calibre 64 movement
Even for wristwatches without any trace of a pendant, the term pendant is sometimes used instead of crown, causing great confusion for those not familiar with pocket watches. For instance timing trials of early wristwatches often referred to positions such as "pendant up" and "pendant down" as a carry over from timing pocket watches.
How Waterproof is a Borgel Screw Case?
At the time Borgel invented this case the wristwatch was only a novelty item for ladies to wear, and real men carried pocket watches. The working environment for a pocket watch is relatively benign, tucked away in a warm dry pocket, only pulled into the outside world occasionally when its owner wants to know the time. For this environment, the Borgel case was an excellent solution. A case that provided pretty well complete protection against dust for the movement, but didn't inconvenience its owner when he needed to wind the watch or set the time. When watches started to be worn as wristwatches, the working environment got a lot harsher than Borgel would have anticipated, but the Borgel screw case was up to the challenge.
By eliminating the back case joint and improving the sealing of the front case joint, Borgel had designed a watch case that was considerably better sealed than the typical case of the time. The winding stem and pin-set mechanism were still obvious points for dust and water to get in, but even these are better sealed than you might think - the crown is pulled tight onto the end of the stem by a spring, and the pin is held in place by a strip steel spring that circles the inside of the case, and covers the inside of the push-pin hole.
I tried an experiment with one of my Borgel wristwatch cases, one that is rather battered and showing its age. I held it under water in a sink for a few minutes. It didn't let in water. Although I was cautious enough to try this experiment with the movement out of the case - just in case - I was surprised by the result. I am sure that when they were new and "factory fresh", Borgel watches were in fact quite resistant to the kinds of water challenges found in every day life; the odd splash from hand washing or getting caught in the rain for example. The proof of this can be seen in the very good state of preservation of movements found in Borgel cases when compared to those in ordinary cases.
Borgel Split Stem
Detail from Patent
Borgel Split Stem and Hand Setting
In order to get the movement in and out of a Borgel watch case the winding stem is split, that is, it is made in two pieces. In the original 1891 patent specification Borgel shows a split winding stem with part of the stem D in the movement, and the other part of the stem D' in the pendant tube E, attached to the crown. The part in the pendant tube is held in place with screw e through the wall of the pendant tube, which engages with a groove around the stem.
To insert or withdraw the movement it would have been necessary to undo screw e and withdraw part D' of the stem from the pendant, leaving the movement free to rotate as it was unscrewed. However, if this design was ever used, it must have been for only a short time because all of the Borgel watches that I have seen have the part of the stem in the pendant spring loaded, so that they can be held out of the way of the movement by simply pulling on the crown. This is described in the section below.
Borgel's original design with a screw to hold the stem in place would work just as well as the spring in normal use. In fact I have a Borgel watch where the spring retaining collar has been lost and someone has fitted a screw just like the patent design and it works perfectly. There is no reason for the stem to move axially during normal use, it only needs to move when the movement is to be removed from the case. I don't know why Borgel changed the design, but by pulling the crown onto the end of the pendant tube the spring ensures a better seal in that area than if the screw were used and this may have been the reason.
Because of the split winding stem, the method of setting the hands of a Borgel watch is unusual. The crown in its normal position winds the spring as usual, but obviously the pulled out position is now used to release the movement and so cannot be used to set the time. To allow setting of the hands, a pin just below the crown on the side of the case is pressed in, and the crown then moves the hands instead of winding the movement. This is called "pin set" or sometimes "nail set" because one has to use a finger nail to press in the pin. This method of hand setting is unusual, but not was not unique to Borgel watches and was found on other types of watch before the current stem set mechanism was widely adopted.
Removing the Movement from a Borgel Case
The diagram to the left shows a cross section through a typical Borgel screw case.
The split stem has one piece of the stem D in the movement with a square section on its outer end. The other piece of the stem D', with the winding crown, is spring mounted in the pendant tube E on the side of the case. This part of the stem has a hollow square in its end, which engages with the square end of the piece of the stem in the movement. A spring j keeps the outer stem coupled to the inner stem. The spring j is retained in the pendant tube E by the collar K, which is held in place in the pendant tube by a small screw.
The movement B, with dial H, is carried by the carrier ring C which has a screw thread on its outer face. The thread on the carrier ring engages at a with a thread in the front opening of the case. The movement is held in the carrier ring by the case screws S. The bezel F with crystal G is a press fit onto the outer end of the carrier ring.
To insert or remove the movement, the crown and outer part of the split stem are pulled out against the spring, so that the piece of the winding stem in the pendant disengages from the piece in the movement and is pulled clear of the movement. Then the bezel with the crystal and the attached movement can be unscrewed out of the front of the case in one piece.
The bezel is a friction fit over the outer edge of the carrier ring. If you wish to remove the movement from the carrier ring, and you have the right tools, technique and experience, then this is how you do it. You should see a joint between the bezel and the carrier ring just above the beginning of the threads. Insert a case knife into this joint and gently pry the bezel off the ring. Work around the ring to avoid the risk of twisting the bezel, and be careful not to slip because you might chip the dial.
Once the bezel and crystal are removed, the movement can be removed from the threaded carrier ring by finding and removing (or loosening, if they are half headed) the case screws. These are sometimes on the top plate, but are sometimes on the bottom (pillar) plate down in one of the channels between the bridges, engaging slots cut into the side of the ring. Once these screws are removed or loosened, you can push the movement from the back out of the carrier ring.
Borgel 1894 advert
World's Columbian Exposition
Pritchard records that Borgel exhibited watches at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. Named after Christopher Columbus, the Fair was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World.
The World's Columbian Committee on Awards recorded the following comments about Borgel's exhibition:
F. Borgel, Geneva, had something new in his waterproof cases made in a single piece without hinges; many of them were made of oxidized steel inlaid with gold. A number of the smallest watches made, beautifully decorated with diamonds and enamels, in small globes, bracelets, and chatelaines were very attractive and showed great skill in this most delicate department of watchmaking.
The Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review report of the exhibition stated:
François Borgel shows the latest novelty in economical and waterproof watch cases. These are made in a single piece to screw without a hinge and are patented in all countries. The line is shown largely in oxidized steel with inlaid gold ornaments. One has the face of the Pope, another that of President Carnot. A line of oxidized steel and gold watch bracelets is also shown.
Tissot report 1894
In a report on the exhibition, Charles-Emile Tissot commented:
... a special kind of watchcase by François Borgel of Geneva. What he presents is of a construction completely different from that of the current cases, the movement is placed in a ring which is threaded on the outside and that screws into the case, the crystal and bezel fits onto the middle and this combination provides a tightly closed and waterproof case, bowl shaped, elegant and slim.
The advert reproduced here was published in the trade journal "La Fédération Horlgère Suisse" in 1894. After advertising that his " new economical and impermeable watch case" is "patented in all countries" (Brevetée dans tous les pays) and " counterfeiters will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law" (Les contrefacteurs seront poursuivis avec tout les rigueurs de la loi) and that the case is "made in all sizes and for all kinds of movements" (Fabrication en toutes grandeurs et pour tous genres de mouvements), Borgel records a "Great success" at the Chicago exhibition. He was awarded a medal and diploma for his exhibit, recognising the impermeability, elegance, strength and economy of his watch cases.
The two notices at the bottom of the advert advise watch manufacturers that Borgel has signed up Dubail, Monnin, Frossard & Co. of Porrentruy, and Fabrique de Fontainemelon, a very large maker of mass produced ebauches (bare movements), to make movements specially designed to fit into Borgel screw cases. This means they would supply their movements with the short split winding stem and pin-set hand setting mechanism, ready to drop straight into the carrier ring of a Borgel case. All the "manufacturer" would need to source in addition would be the dial and hands, and he could then assemble complete watches!
Dubail, Monnin, Frossard & Cie was founded in Porrentruy in 1873. It it was the first Swiss watch company to register the design of a movement calibre. The company registered a trademark of a phoenix rising from a fire, first spelt "Phönix" then "Phenix" from 1887. On February 3rd 1900, Dubail, Monnin, Frossard & Cie and Société d'horlogerie de Bassecourt merged as 'Société Horlogère de Porrentruy. The new firm inherited the trademarks of the Phenix from Dubail, Monnin, Frossard & Cie and Rooster with Chickens from Société d'horlogerie de Bassecourt, which had been registered in 1883. The new firm won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition in 1900. The Société Horlogère de Porrentruy changed its name to the Phenix Watch Co. in the 1920s.
Fabrique d'Horlogerie Fontainemelon (FHF) was established in 1793 by Isaac and David Benguerel-dit-Perrenoud, with Julien and François Humbert-Droz, to supply Swiss manufacturers with the large volumes of ebauches they required. It was the first step towards large scale mechanised manufacture of watch movements. In 1879 the Journal Suisse d'Horlogerie said in a report L'Industrie Horlogère Suisse that in the preceding 40 years the Fontainemelon factory, along with Japy Freres in Beaucort, France, had supplied nearly all the ebauches used in the cantons of Neuchatel and Berne. In 1880 the company employed 400 workers and produced 240,000 ebauches a year. In 1926 FHF merged with AD Michel SA of Grenchen and A Schild SA, also of Grenchen, to form Ebauches SA. At the time these three factories manufactured more than 75% of all Swiss ebauches. Ebauches SA eventually became ETA, the movement maker now part of Swatch Group SA.
1903: A "New" Borgel Screw Case
In 1903 François Borgel patented a three piece screw watch case. The Swiss patent number CH 28389 was registered on 12 June 1903. The movement was carried in an externally threaded dust ring very similar to the movement ring in his earlier two piece case. Onto this dust ring was screwed the middle part of the case, and then the bezel and case back or bottom were screwed onto the parts of the dust ring that protrude from the screwed on middle part.
This advert appeared in 1905 in the La Chaux-de-Fonds trade journal "La Fédération Horlogère Suisse". You can see that it is quite different to the usual Borgel two piece case design, and I have never seen an actual watch with one of these screw together cases, If you have one, I would be really grateful if you would get in touch. Any information or pictures would be gratefully received and acknowledged.
Three Piece Borgel Screw Case 1903
The text is in watch industry jargon of the time, which would presumably be well understood by readers of La Fédération Horlogère Suisse, but doesn't make for easy translation. Here is an approximate translation:
New Borgel Screw Case
Hermetic in Three Pieces
This new hermetic screw case is formed of three pieces; the bezel, the bottom and the middle, all three are screwed on the dust ring in which is fitted the movement. The closures are hermetic and the case is very strong, due to the fact that the dust ring supports on each side the bottom and the bezel, once they are screwed on. These cases are made in all shapes and sizes, of ultra-thin cases very elegant. The casing is simplified, the winding stem fixes the middle part, which can be hollowed out internally as those for ordinary gold cases to be economical of material. Craftsmanship meticulous and faithful. Advantageous prices for large series. No case, to date, has been more practical, solid and elegant; they are made in gold of all grades, silver and gold plated steel and galonne.
The screw case of one piece, watertight, is also produced for movements with negative time set. New simplified casing.
No other house is authorized to make these various kinds of patented screw cases.
All counterfeiters will be pursued rigorously.
Insist that the trademark and patent numbers are stamped in the bottom of each case.
Factory and office in Saint-Jean, 6 - GENEVA.
Thanks to Joel Pynson for correcting my initial translation in several places! Joel has a specific interest in chronographs from 1860 to 2000, and you can find some of his articles on his website www.invenitetfecit.com.
The garde-poussiere, or dust ring, in which the movement is mounted will be very familiar to anyone who has examined a two piece Borgel case, as in that design it is the ring which carries the movement and is attached to the bezel. It would have been fairly easy for the Borgel factory to start producing these cases as they already had the tooling and techniques for the very similar two piece design.
Note the address: Factory and office in Saint-Jean, 6 - GENEVA. This is number 6, Rue de Saint-Jean in Geneva. Borgel has moved from the Place de Cornavin, presumably to larger premises where he can have an office and workshop.
1912 Borgel Advert
Borgel Produces Wrist Watch Cases
This advert appeared in a 1912 issue of Revue Internationale de l'Horlogerie. Borgel is still promoting his "new" three piece screw together case. In fact, this is the most prominent item at the top of the advert, which I would normally be inclined to think meant that it was the company's best selling product, which would make it all the more curious that they appear to be so rare now. Perhaps the prominent position is actually an attempt to increase sales?
The 1912 advert is very similar to one published in 1908, but in the 1912 advert there is a new twist. Below the three piece case is the familiar one piece screw in pocket watch case, but to the right of this is shown an example of "Boîtes pour Bracelets" - a watch case which has been adapted with wire lugs to take a "bracelet" and be worn as a wristwatch!
The advert goes on to say that this wristwatch case design has been "specifically requested by motorists and members of the English and colonial army." From this difference between the 1908 and 1912 adverts we can infer that sometime between 1908 and 1912 Borgel recognised an increasing demand for wristwatches and started including wristwatch cases as part of their standard range, although they had certainly been making wristwatches for several years before 1908.
The earliest Borgel wristwatch I know of was made in 1906 - see below. But Borgel wristwatches made before WW1 are rare; my 1906 watch is the only one I have ever seen of that date. I know of several dated 1909, which corresponds with period of the advert, but I think the market for wrist watches was very small until demand suddenly took off for military men in WW1.
At the bottom of the advert is stated "Aucune boîte, à ce jour, n'a été plus pratique, solide et élégante; se fait en or, tour titres, argent, acier, plaqué or et galonné." which translates as "No case, to date, has been more practical, strong and elegant; it is made in gold, all grades, silver, steel, gold plate and galonné." (Galonne is a term meaning mechanically gold plated silver, as opposed to electroplated. It apparently wore off very easily.)
Note the address towards the top of the advert, Usine et Bureau à St-Jean 78 (Factory and Office 78 Rue de St-Jean). The business has relocated again farther out, from number 6 Rue de St-Jean to number 78, presumably due to further expansion.
Thanks to Joel Pynson for supplying me with the scan of this advert.
International Watch Co. (IWC) and Borgel
From 1894 the London branch of Stauffer, Son & Co., a firm named Stauffer & Co., was supplied with watches by IWC, and from 1898 the movements of these bore the mark "S&Co." under a crown inside an oval, together with the words "Peerless" and Swiss made. These were both Stauffer trademarks, the S & Co. mark with a crown inside an oval was registered by Stauffer Son & Co. in 1880, and Peerless was a trademark registered by Stauffer, Son & Co. in 1896.
Both bare (uncased) movements and complete watches were supplied by IWC to Stauffer & Co. Some of the complete watches were supplied in Borgel cases, and many of the bare movements supplied by IWC were put into Borgel cases. Whether this was done by Stauffer & Co. in London, or in Switzerland before export to the UK, is not known. The cases were clearly made in Switzerland and imported to the UK, as evidenced by the UK Assay Office import hallmarks, but the hallmarks do not show where the movement was put into the case.
1906 IWC Borgel
The Earliest Known Borgel Wrist Watch?
The earliest Borgel wristwatch known to me was made by IWC in 1906. IWC records show that the order to the Borgel factory in Geneva for the case was made on September 15, 1906. The finished watch was supplied to Stauffer & Co. on January 9, 1907, the IWC sales record showing that the Borgel case was in polished silver "avec anses", that is "with handles", the term used at the time for the wire loop strap lugs of a wristwatch. IWC have provided me with an official "extract from the archives" for this wristwatch, which confirms that it was supplied as a complete watch to Stauffer & Co.
The markings inside the case back are the FB-key trademark and "BREVETE + CH 4001", a reference to the Borgel screw case patent which doesn't appear in later cases. There are no UK hallmarks, because the date of supply to London in January 1907 was before it was discovered by the UK authorities that the Customs had been allowing complete watches into the country without being hallmarked as required by law. (You can read more about this surprising anomaly on my page about Cases and Hallmarks.) IWC records show that it was supplied to Stauffer as a single piece, not as part of a batch, and it is tempting to think that it might have been ordered as a prototype to evaluate the viability of the wristwatch design, but further research is needed to confirm this.
Numbers inside a Borgel case back
Borgel Case Numbers
If you own a Borgel screw cased watch, and here I am talking about the early screw in cases made to Borgel's 1891 patent CH4001, then after finding out that it was made by François Borgel, and deciphering the sponsor's mark and the hallmarks, you may, like me, have wondered what the numbers stamped in the case back mean. I mean the long numbers like the 3130633 that you can see in this Borgel case back.
It seems that Borgel cases left the factory with just Borgel's FB-key trademark and a few other single or double digit numbers in the bottom of the case back, but not the long serial numbers seen in the middle of the back. The long serial numbers were applied to the case by the watch manufacturer to fit in with their recording system. Longines watches have the serial number of the movement repeated in the case back. IWC watches that were cased by IWC have an IWC-assigned serial number which is different from the serial number of the movement and is recorded in the IWC archives.
Longines Catalogue 1939
The Last Borgel Screw Case?
The Borgel one piece screw case had a long life. Even though the company was producing other types of case by the mid-1920s, Dennis Harris' article shows the extract from a Longines catalogue of 1939 reproduced here, which clearly shows a one piece Borgel screw case. It is described as a "screw in movement watch" and has the classic swinging lugs which seem to have been used only on Borgel cases made for Longines.
The prices quoted in the advert seem quite high, eight pounds for a silver watch, twenty pounds and 15 shillings (£20.75) for a 9 carat gold watch, and twenty nine pounds five shillings (£29.25) for 18 carat gold. It is interesting to note that the gold watches were slightly smaller than the silver watch. This was presumably because of the high cost of gold, and the gold Borgel wristwatches that I have seen do on the whole tend to be slightly smaller than the majority of silver ones, although smaller silver ones were also made.
Other Case Types made by the Borgel Company
Borgel's screw case was very successful and was made until the 1930s - Harris quotes a 1939 Longines catalogue advertising a wristwatch in a Borgel screw case. However, other case designs were also manufactured by the Borgel company alongside the screw case. These other cases were made either because they were cheaper, or because of a certain manufacturers preference for a particular case design. These cases were obviously stamped with the Borgel FB-key trademark and so get described as Borgel cases even though they were not designed by Borgel. These non-Borgel cases made by the Borgel company alongside, not superseding, the original Borgel screw case are broadly as follows:
Swing ring case - designed and patented in 1879 by Ezra Fitch.
One piece case with a screw on bezel - designed and patented in 1920 by Charles Rothen.
Hermetic double case - designed and patented in 1921 by Jean Finger.
One piece case with screw on bezel - designed and patented in 1931 by 1931 by Schwob Frères & Cie SA.
In the mid 1920s to early 1930s, new designs of screw case were developed by the Tauberts, who took over the Borgel company in 1924. These cases were also stamped with the Borgel FB-key trademark, although by then the company had changed its name to Taubert & Fils. These recognisably modern cases gradually superseded the original Borgel screw case and the other cases described above and were:
One piece case with movement in threaded carrier ring. Screws in from the back, and the back screws on to a protruding section of the carrier ring. I have one example of this design hallmarked Edinburgh 1926/27.
One piece case with movement in plain carrier ring, and the back with milled edge screws into case. I have one example of this design hallmarked London 1928/29.
One piece case with movement in plain carrier ring, and the back with 10 decagonal flats screws into case. This design was patented by Taubert & Fils in 1931.
I describe these cases in greater detail on the page about Taubert & Fils (The link will open in a new tab or new page).
François Borgel Patents
François Borgel was obviously an inventive man, and he went on to patent numerous further ideas as shown in the following table.
|8 October 1891||CH 4041||Montre avec boîte à fond fixe et raquette renversée||Watch case with fixed back and reversed regulator|
|12 November 1891||CH 4145||Boîte de montre perfectionnée||Improved watch case|
|20 April 1894||CH 8232||Montre perfectionnée à boîte vissée et tige brisée||Improved screwed watch case with split stem|
|25 June 1895||CH 10412||Moteur à ressort pour vélocipèdes||Spring engine for bicycles|
|12 June 1903||CH 28389||Boîte de montre perfectionnée||Improved watch case|
|23 July 1910||CH 53105||Dispositif de fixation de pendant aux boîtes de montres-calottes||Method of fixing pendants to watch cases|
Louisa Borgel takes over
Louisa Beauverd-Borgel Registration
Archives de l'Horlogerie
Manufacture of Borgel cases continued after the death of François Borgel in his 56th year on 7th March 1912. The business was taken over by his daughter Louisa Borgel.
The "Journal de Genève" of 2nd October 1884 records the birth of Louisa-Henriette Borgel at some time between 28th September and 1st October. When taking over the business in March 1912, Louisa would have been 27 years old. Louisa had a sister called Blanche but I have never seen her name mentioned in connection with the Borgel company.
To the right is a notice from "La Federation Horlogere Suisse", a trade paper for the watch making industries of La Chaux-de-Fonds. It shows that on 8th June 1912 the company of F. (François) Borgel was struck off, and the assets and liabilities were taken over by L. (Louisa) Borgel, identified as a manufacturer of waterproof Borgel screw watch cases.
1920 Indicateur Davoine
On 25th October 1917 Louisa renewed the registration of the FB marque. She had evidently married a M. Beauverd, but retained her maiden name as was common custom at the time.
In the 1920 edition of the Indicateur Davoine we find the advertisement shown to the right, promoting the business of Louisa Beauverd-Borgel as the successor of Louisa Borgel. The text roughly translated says "L. Beauverd ~ Borgel, successor of Borgel L. (Impermeable Borgel screw cases. - Case caps of one piece with screw-on dust guard. New Type. - Cases of 3 pieces with screwed on dust guard. - In gold of all purities, silver, steel, gold plate). - Factory and Office rue des Pecheries 10, Geneva."
Note another new address; 10 Rue des Pecheries (The Street to the Fisheries, or to the fishing wharfs on the banks of the river Rhone). The business has moved again, from the Rue de St-Jean to the Rue des Pecheries. Again, this was presumably due to the expansion of trade requiring larger workshops, but I don't yet know when this occurred. The Rue des Pecheries is even further from the centre of Geneva, on the opposite bank of the river Rhone, and therefore presumably a more commercial/industrial district.
(© Rick Reanier/Jochen Hemmleb)
A Borgel Watch on Mount Everest
Mount Everest was identified as the highest mountain in the world in 1856 by the Great Trigonometric Survey of British India. The first European to make a substantial climb of the mountain, to nearly 23,000 feet, was George Mallory during the first expedition in 1921. It was an exploratory expedition not equipped for a serious attempt, but Mallory discovered a promising route to the top via a northern approach. Mallory returned in 1922 for an unsuccessful attempt to climb the mountain and then again in 1924 for a third attempt.
The expedition left Darjeeling at the end of March, trekking overland and reaching their base camp location at the end of April. Setting up the higher camps and stocking them with supplies and equipment took up May. Two attempts on the summit were planned. The first attempt, without the use of supplementary oxygen, was made by George Mallory and C. Geoffrey Bruce on June 1 but was driven back by harsh icy winds. A second attempt was started on June 2 by Edward F. Norton and Dr. T. Howard Somervell. Also climbing without oxygen, they were overcome by fatigue before they reached the summit.
On June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made a third, previously unplanned, attempt on the summit, this time using supplementary oxygen. They never returned. They were seen briefly through a break in the clouds by another member of the expedition, Noel Odell, who said they were only a few hundred feet below the summit. There has been intense speculation in the mountaineering community as to whether Mallory and Irvine actually reached the summit, 29 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did in 1953.
On this expedition Mallory wore the Borgel wristwatch shown here. The watch was found on his body when it was discovered in 1999. It was missing its crystal and hands, and was found in a pocket of Mallory’s clothing. There has been speculation that it was damaged and lost its crystal during a climbing maneuver, an arm jamb in a rock fissure while ascending the second step, but the lack of damage to the watch - there are no marks on the bezel or the delicate enamel dial, let alone any damage that would actually stop the watch - does not support this theory. There has also been speculation that the position of the hands could indicate the time at which the arm jamb took place, but as the balance staff is unbroken and there is no damage apart from the lost crystal and damaged hands, there is no reason to suppose that the watch stopped as a result of the crystal being lost; in fact, this is very unlikely.
The most likely course of events is that the crystal was lost either as a result of a small knock that snapped it out of the bezel — quite easy if caught at just the wrong angle — or that it was an “unbreakable” plastic crystal, and the intense cold at high altitude caused it to shrink and simply drop out, a known problem with early plastic crystals. When Mallory noticed the crystal had been lost, he would have removed the watch from his wrist and put it in his pocket to protect it. An x-ray of the watch is supposed to show that the main spring was not fully wound down when the watch was discovered, which is thought to add weight to the theory that the watch stopped as a result of some event. I have seen the x-ray and I am not sure what it actually shows, but if the watch did stop before the spring was fully unwound, it was probably as a result of the hands becoming entangled in Mallory's pocket. The complete lack of damage to the bezel and fragile enamel dial shows that the hands were not damaged as the result of a violent event, such as the watch being jammed against a piece of rock.
The watch, now in the keeping of the Royal Geographical Society in London, is a typical Borgel screw cased watch of the period. The case is silver with London import hallmarks for sterling silver and the date letter “u” for the hallmarking year 1915/1916. The sponsor’s mark is GS, showing that it was imported to the United Kingdom by the firm of George Stockwell. It originally had radium based luminous paint on the hands and numerals, which appears to have washed off over the years on the mountain; you can see how the remaining paint follows the outlines of some of the numerals, particularly the "2" and the "1" but also on the "8," "9," and "12." The splines on the "onion" crown are very well worn, indicating that the watch had been well used; being a manually wound watch, it would have to be wound by this crown every day to keep it going. The watch is remarkably undamaged considering its history, and it is reported that when the hand stubs were removed during its examination, it started ticking.
The movement is well finished, with perlage (engine turning) to the plates, and cap jewels for the escape wheel pivots as well as the balance, and was made by the Fontainemelon factory. Further details and a picture of the movement of Mallory's watch can be seen on my movement identification page.
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Louisa Borgel Patents
Louisa Beauverd-Borgel patent CH 75467
Louisa Borgel registered at least 3 patents. It was from the first of these that I discovered her first name. The patents are shown in the table, the first under her own name only, the second and third with Charles Rothen and Achille Faivre. Charles Rothen's name occurs again later, but this is Achille Faivre's only appearance in the story.
Note that the Swiss patent office was now showing both the original registration date and the publication date on patents: previously only the publication date was shown. I have used the original registration date in the table, which is usually over a year earlier than the publication date, but is the priority date from which the invention is protected, when and if the patent is finally approved and published.
|24 November 1916||CH 75467||Dispositif de fixation d'un fond de boîte de montre à la carrure de celle-ci||Louisa Beauverd-Borgel|
|19 October 1917||CH 78295||Boîte de montre||Louisa Beauverd-Borgel, Charles Rothen and Achille Faivre|
|12 July 1919||CH 84785||Dispositif de fixation d'une couronne à la tige de remontoir d'une montre||Louisa Beauverd-Borgel, Charles Rothen and Achille Faivre|
Watch with Charles Rothen CH88223 Case
Charles Rothen went on to publish at least four patents under his own name alone. The first one, CH 88223, a figure from which is shown here, was registered 5th March 1920 and published 16th February 1921.
The case back and middle part in this design of Rothen's are made in one piece like the original Borgel screw case. The movement, with dial and hands, is carried in a carrier ring d somewhat like the Borgel screw case, but this assembly instead of screwing into the case simply drops into the case back, the pendant tube for the winding stem e passing through a slot cut into the side of the case. The upper part of this slot is closed by a tongue of metal f soldered to the stem tube. There is usually a cover over the back of the movement which snaps or presses onto the inner end of the carrier ring, this is not shown in the figure from the patent. For clarity I have coloured the ring d, pendant tube e and tongue of metal f, which are all soldered together to form one part, in red.
Charles Rothen Patent CH88223
The bezel c carrying the crystal screws onto the case from the front, in a way somewhat reminiscent of the original Borgel case, but in this design by Rothen the carrier ring holding the movement does not rotate with the bezel. This design provided an alternative to the original Borgel case which was possibly easier to manufacture, and which because the movement does not need to rotate to be screwed into or out of the case, did not need the split stem arrangement of the original Borgel case and therefore could accommodate stem set movements. However, it was not so well sealed as the original Borgel screw case, the tongue on the pendant tube sealing the gap in the case side rather less than perfectly. The inner cover over the back of the movement was no doubt introduced to improve this. It seems that this design was not very successful because examples occur much less frequently than the original type Borgel case.
The picture of one of these cases shows the slot in the side of the case and the tongue of metal soldered to the stem tube to close the slot. The movement simply drops into the case and is positioned and secured by the screw on bezel, unlike the swing ring case described next where the movement is hinged to the case.
Because Charles Rothen's name appears along with Louisa Beauverd-Borgel on two of the patents mentioned above, he was presumably at the time an employee of the Borgel Company. But the four patents listed below are registered in his name alone. The first patent, CH 88223, which I discussed above, plays a part later in the story when the rights to it are purchased from Rothen by Louisa Borgel and then sold on to the Taubert family.
|1921||CH 88223||Boîte de montre.||Charles Rothen|
|1923||CH 102074||Dispositif de fixation d'une anse à une boîte de montre, de boussole, de médaillon etc.||Charles Rothen|
|1923||CH 105158||Brevet additionnel subordonné au brevet principal nº 102074 Dispositif de fixation...etc.||Charles Rothen|
|1928||CH 124164||Boîte de montre hermétique.||Charles Rothen|
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Swing Ring cases
A 1924 Swing Ring case made by Borgel
An alternative design very similar to the Rothen case discussed above sometimes crops up with the Borgel FB-key trademark. This case has essentially the same one piece case back and middle with screw on bezel as the Rothen design, but the bezel was carried down much closer to the tube for the winding stem, so that the tongue of metal, item f in Rothen's design, was not needed. Unlike the Rothen design, the movement does not simply lie in the case, but is carried in a ring hinged to the middle part of the case. This style of case was often used for American pocket watches when it was called a “swing ring” case. The swing ring case is actually a much older design than the Rothen and the hermetic, being patented in the USA in 1879 by Ezra Fitch, US patent number 214642.
The picture shows one of these cases manufactured by the Borgel company with the FB-key trademark. The case back is hallmarked with the London import mark and the date letter "i" for the hallmarking year 1924/1925. The movement is by Fabriques d'Horlogerie de Fontainemelon (FHF), one of the big Swiss ébauche manufacturers, set up in 1793 to supply the Swiss watch industry with bare movements. In 1891 FHF registered a trade mark of an arrow through an apple, a reference to William Tell, the folk hero whose defiance of the established order led to a rebellion and the formation of the Swiss Confederation, and this mark can be seen on the bottom plate when the dial is removed.
These cases are sometimes referred to as the "semi-tropical" or "semi-hermetic" because of some similarity in appearance to the hermetic watches. Hermetic watches used a double case design where the watch was entirely enclosed in an outer case with a screw on bezel, the outer case hermetically protecting the watch contained within. The swing ring case as usually found resembles the hermetic only in that it has a screw on bezel, although the original design patented by Ezra Fitch in 1879 had a screw cap over the crown and would have been hermetic. In the swing ring cases usually encountered the stem is brought out through a hole in the side of the case which is not sealed, and there is nothing actually “hermetic” about the case. I have seen mention of gaskets being used with this design to seal around the winding stem tube where it passes through the case side. I have several watches with this type of case and examining them with a lens reveals no sign of any gasket, or any possibility of one because there is no groove in the case wall where the stem tube passes through which could carry a gasket.
This type of case should properly be called a "swing ring" case as it was at the time it was made.
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I have seen many instances of watch cases bearing an FB mark, or waterproof cases in general, being attributed to Francis Baumgartner. This is an error, probably based on the common initials of FB for François Borgel and another Geneva case maker, Frédéric Baumgartner. The two identities appear to have been conflated, in the process turning "François" into the Anglicised "Francis". The fact is that there never was a case making company called Francis Baumgartner.
Patek Philippe case back
This image is from an 18 carat gold Patek Philippe case back, and it bears the collective responsibility mark of a small key with the number 2 stamped on the lever. Thanks to TimeZone member candle7 for permission to use the image, and for the information that the watch is a 1962 Patek Philippe ref. 3434. The collective responsibility mark number 2 was registered to F. Baumgartner SA of Geneva. Candle7 has informed me that the case is a simple snap back. Just metal on metal, no rubber gasket, and no marking anywhere to indicate the watch was ever intended to be water resistant. The 1949 edition of La Classification Horlogère Suisse reveals that F. Baumgartner SA of Geneva, case maker, was Frédéric, not Francis, Baumgartner!
Frédéric Baumgartner was the maker of the 1932 Omega Marine, the first dive watch, and was the designer and maker of the 1939 Omega Marine Standard, a waterproof rectangular watch with a clip back case. You can read more about this in my section on Omega.
These Omega watches appear to have been Frédéric Baumgartner's only waterproof watches. I have found a series of 11 patents issued to Frédéric Baumgartner starting in 1929 with the design of a hinged case for a small clock or pocket watch. There is no provision for making this case waterproof, and apart from three patents issued to Baumgartner for the Omega Marine Standard design in 1940 - 1941 all his other patents concern the appearance of watches rather than their waterproof qualities. I think this proves that Fré déric Baumgartner was not in any way involved in the design of the waterproof case for the 1926 Rolex Oyster.
To return to the top of this page and start reading the true Borgel story, click on this link: Top of page
To read the next chapter in the story, the takeover of the Borgel company by the Taubert family, click on this link: The Taubert Family.
- Dennis Harris "François Borgel: Watch Case Maker 1856 - 1912 Horological Journal November 1997
- Kathleen H. Pritchard: Swiss Timepiece Makers 1775-1975