The History of the Borgel WatchCopyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2015 all rights reserved.
Pronunciation: M. Borgel was a Swiss-French and therefore would not sound the "g" in Borgel as a hard sound, rather it would be a soft sound, and so it would sound something like "Borzshel".
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 François 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 questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact me page.
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 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
When researching Borgel the only published information I found was a short article by Dennis Harris "François Borgel: Watch Case Maker 1856 - 1912" published in the Horological Journal November 1997. Where I rely on information from that article I refer to "Harris".
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 22 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 3 December 1888 Borgel was granted Swiss patent number 16 (yes, this was the sixteenth Swiss patent, patent law was only introduced in Switzerland 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 black oxidised dragon case
Image by permission © Ralph Ehrismann
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 the first patent was granted on 28 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 selectively revealed by careful use of the graver, creating the effect of a rainbow of colours.
The picture here shows an IWC pocket watch with a case made by Borgel using this technique to create a striking dragon design. The watch was sold by IWC in 1895 to Didisheim Goldschmid of La Chaux-de-Fonds. The movement is an IWC caliber 52, 19 ligne H7, manufactured in 1884. The case is described in the IWC archives as acier è vis oxide, which means an "oxidized steel screw case".
The steel base metal revealed by paring away the gold to create the intricate dragon design has been blackened by a process called black oxidising which involves immersing steel in hot caustic soda to produce a surface layer of black magnetite. Because of the temperature and the caustic materials involved, it is a dangerous process. Borgel first removed part of an overlying layer of gold to form the design and then dipped the case in the hot solution to blacken the exposed steel. Presumably, he must have discovered that the blackening process did not affect the gold or that the gold could be polished after the steel was blackened. This must have been a difficult process to get right, but the results are stunning.
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.
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Borgel Patent CH4001
Borgel's Patent 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".
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 - I describe below an experiment I did on one of my Borgel watches to see how waterproof it really was, and I was quite surprised by the result.
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A Borgel Open Faced Pocket Watch
For the first 10 or more years after the patent was granted in 1891 the only type of case produced was for pocket or fob watches. The picture to the right shows a Borgel cased open faced or "Lépine" style pocket watch. Because of the way the movement screws into the case it was not easy to make a Borgel case in the savonnette or hunter style, where a hinged metal cover protects the crystal, and I am not aware that any Borgel pocket watches with hunter cases exist. Some wristwatches had hunter lids added in England during the Great War, but I am sure that the Borgel company in Geneva never produced a savonnette or hunter case.
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.
A Borgel wristwatch in 18 carat gold
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.
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 wristwatches such as those at Kew often refer to positions such as "pendant up" and "pendant down" as a carry over from testing pocket watches. If you mentally substitute "crown" for "pendant" you will understand the orientation.
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Removing the Movement from a Borgel Case
The picture of a Borgel wristwatch with the movement out of the case gives an idea of the first stage of removing the movement - it is first unscrewed out from the front of the case.
To unscrew the movement from a Borgel screw case you first pull the crown outwards and hold it out. This disengages the piece of the stem that is attached to the crown from the movement, and keeps it clear of the movement while it is being unscrewed from the case. You then turn the milled bezel and crystal with your fingers, and the movement unscrews out of the front of the case.
Inserting the movement back into the case is the reverse of this procedure. The threads in the case and on the carrier ring are very fine, so be careful that they are properly engaged and don't get them cross threaded. If everything is lined up correctly the movement should screw back into to case easily. When the movement is nearly filly screwed in and the 12 on the dial is approaching the correct position, release the crown and continue turning the bezel, you will see and feel the stem snap back into place and the movement stop turning.
If you have any doubts about doing this, please refer to the diagram and detailed explanation of the Borgel screw case belwo so that you understand how it works. If you click on the diagram it will enlarge to give you a clearer view.
It is not a good idea to lever the bezel off a Borgel screw case watch with the movement in the case, or snap it back on with the movement in the case. When the bezel is pressed back on the case threads can be damaged, making it difficult if not impossible to subsequently remove the movement. I have a Smiths of Trafalgar Square watch where this has been done, resulting in the carrier ring / case threads becoming crossed, and I haven't yet managed to get the movement out.
With the movement removed from the case you can line up the bezel correctly and put the carrier ring on a firm surface and press the bezel onto the carrier ring without any danger to the screw threads in the case.
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. The bezel is a friction fit over the outer edge of the carrier ring. 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.
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Exploded View of a Borgel Screw Case
The Borgel Case in Detail
The diagram to the left shows a cross section through a typical Borgel screw case when assembled - click on it to get a larger view. The Borgel case itself is coloured green, the crown and part stem that pulls out yellow, and the carrier ring and bezel that contain and hold the movement are coloured red.
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.
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" that hold the movement in place in the carrier ring
The Borgel one piece 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.
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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.
Borgel Split Stem
Detail from Patent
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.
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. However, using a spring to pull the crown onto the end of the pendant tube ensures a better seal in that area than if the screw were used, and this was probably the reason the design was changed for the production models.
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 looks unusual today, but not was not unique to Borgel watches and was quite commonly found on other types of watch before the current stem set mechanism was widely adopted.
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How Waterproof is a Borgel Screw Case?
When I first started collecting Borgel watches I read statements that the Borgel screw case was not very waterproof; that it didn't have a waterproof crown, and that the pin-set was not waterproof. At first I went along with this view, but as time went on I started to question it more and more.
François Borgel advertised his screw watch case as "imperméable", which strictly means "not allowing fluid to pass through", and so it is evident that he considered his screw case to be waterproof - and this claim was not qualified in any way, or limited to the front bezel where the movement was screwed in. Borgel and the people who worked with him were skilled craftsmen and inventive engineers. Although we are surrounded by modern technical marvels that Borgel and his contemporaries would be amazed by, the laws of physics have changed over the last one hundred years, and people haven't become any more intelligent, so I think it would be arrogant to simply dismiss the Borgel screw case as "not very waterproof" without considering it properly.
A note on terminology: we all know that standards of advertising have changed since 1891 and that the use of terms such as imperméable or waterproof has been tightened up since then, so that even the Omega Seamaster that I am wearing as I write this is called "water resistant to 600m/2000ft" rather than "waterproof". But what I mean by "waterproof" in the context of a hundred year old Borgel screw case watch is what I think Borgel himself meant, it was sealed so that it wouldn't let in water during everyday use. And that is what I mean here.
It is evident that by eliminating the back case joint (and here I mean joint in terms of a junction between two parts, not the case maker's term for a hinge) Borgel had produced a watch case that was better sealed than the typical "jointed" cases of the time, with their hinged and snap-closed case backs. However, I think Borgel screw cases were much better sealed than many people appreciate today.
So how waterproof was Borgel’s one-piece screw case? Ignoring the point where the crystal is set into the bezel, which can be made tight in the factory and does not need to be disturbed later, there are three areas that water might get in, as shown in the picture, (1) the joint where the bezel meets the case, (2) the pin-set used when setting the hands, and (3) the pendant or stem tube where the winding stem enters the case. Let's look at each of these in detail:
1. Bezel to case joint. The need for the movement to stop rotating when the 12 on the dial is exactly at the 12 o’clock position means that careful adjustment is necessary to get the bezel to screw down tightly onto the case. I haven't made a separate drawing to show this joint but if you want o see a cross section it is the joint where the red bezel meets the green case in the drawing in the section entitled "The Borgel Case in Detail".
The tightness of this bezel to case joint relaxes with wear and tear in the screw threads as the watch is serviced over the years, and on some watches the bezel is now positively quite loose. This is made worse because most cases are gold or silver and screw threads cut into these relatively soft materials are prone to wear with repeated undoing and doing up again. This gives a misleading impression about how good the seal would have been when the new case left the Borgel factory in Geneva. Screw cases with relatively unworn threads unscrew and screw up again smoothly, and the joint between the bezel and the case is tight. All new, factory fresh, Borgel screw cases would have been tight like this.
Pin set push piece
Borgel crown detail
2. Hand-set push-pin. The push-pin for the pin set hand set mechanism is held in place by a flat piece of spring steel that wraps most of the way around inside the case as shown in the figure. The flat piece of spring steel is wider than the pushpin, which is welded into it. The flat spring covers the inside of the hole though the case for the pin. I think this was not an accident, I believe that this was carefully designed to close the hole to the ingress of dust and moisture. Obviously this joint is open when the hands are being set, but that only happens relatively infrequently and the user can choose when to do it. The same consideration applies to a screw down crown, which must be unscrewed in order to set the hands. In both cases the owner is unlikely to do it when water might get into the watch.
3. Crown to pendant or stem tube joint. When the movement is screwed fully home, the crown is pulled onto the end of the stem tube by the spring that keeps the outer part of the split stem engaged with the part in the movement. This is shown in the figure "Borgel crown detail". I have made the spring red and added a red arrow showing how the spring pulls the yellow crown down onto the end of the green pendant, making quite a tight joint between the crown and the pendant or stem tube.
The Borgel crown is similar in this respect to a screw down crown, where the screw thread keeps the crown tight against the end of the stem tube. In the Borgel screw case, the spring that causes the split stem to engage with the stem in the movement also holds the crown against the end of the stem tube. This is not described in Borgel’s patent for the screw case, which describes a screw holding the split stem in place, but I think it was an intentional design feature that was an improvement to the patented design. Obviously the crown to pendant joint is opened if the crown is pulled away from the watch, but this only happens if the movement is being removed from the case.
More waterproof than you might think
These considerations made me realize that the Borgel screw case was carefully designed and does provide good resistance to the ingress of dust and water in all three areas; the bezel, stem, and push-pin joints. And in fact, this is evidenced by the very good state of preservation of many movements in Borgel cases.
A Borgel under water
Obviously all three joints are metal-to-metal joints with no gaskets. But there is nothing wrong with a metal to metal joint if the mating faces are smooth; in fact in many respects you are better off if you don't have to reply on a gasket, and there were no good gasket materials available in Borgel's day, it was a choice of leather or string. Modern "O" rings came along much later, in the twentieth century.
Which all still leaves open the question "just how waterproof is a Borgel screw case?" To try to answer this question I decided to try an experiment. I took one of my Borgel watches (not one of my best ones for obvious reasons), and removed the movement. This particular watch has suffered from someone trying to lever the movement out, so there are a few gouges around the bezel, and the crown and push-pin are well worn.
Even though it was not in “factory fresh” condition, when I submersed it in water in a sink for a few minutes as shown in the picture - you can see the water level at the top of my thumb - it did not let in water.
Of course I’m not about to go diving in any of my Borgel screw case watches, but it does show that the Borgel screw case, even a rather battered one like the one I tested, is much more “waterproof” than many people today give it credit for. I am sure that a newly made case leaving the factory would be quite “tight”, and without doubt very much superior in this regard to the standard jointed watchcases of the time.
One must also remember that people didn't expect to go swimming wearing their watches — or rather carrying them in a pocket in their bathing costume, since pocket watches ruled the day when François Borgel was designing his screw case. Recreational diving didn't come along until Commander Yves le Prieur invented the Scuba set in 1925.
The Rolex Oyster is often regarded as the first waterproof wristwatch, although there were many other waterproof watches, and even waterproof wistwatches, before the Oyster, as I relate on my page about waterproof watches. The Rolex Oyster had a better sealed crown than the Borgel screw case, and there was no pin-set for setiing the hands, but at first the Oyster case was screwed together by hand, using milling on the bezel and case back identical to that seen on Borgel cases. It wasn't until 1931 that the "Easy Oyster opener" was introduced to allow cases to be screwed together more tightly than could be achieved by hand. Hans Wilsdorf didn't claim the Rolex Oyster was suitable for diving, it simply didn't occur to him, leaving Omega to claim production of the first "dive" watch in 1932 in the Omega Marine.
But for use in damp and dusty conditions, the Borgel screw case was well up to the job. This is why so many of the adverts during the Great War for "Service" or "Military" wristwatches, aimed at Army officers getting their kit together to go to the Western front, are for wristwatches with Borgel cases.
The advert here from 1915 by the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company Ltd. is quite typical. It doesn't mention Borgel by name, but the drawing of the watch, with its milled bezel, onion crown on a pendant, and pin set, together with the description ... a patent solid one-piece silver case into which the entire movement screws, thus making the watch securely dust and damp proof. makes it abundantly clear that this is a Borgel watch. It is priced at three pounds and three shillings, which is what the £3 3 0 means, three pounds, three shillings and zero pence.
The advert also mentions that a large selection of other luminous watches are available from £2 2 0, two pounds and two shillings. The Borgel watch is clearly the most expensive at three pounds three shillings, which is 50% more than the cheapest. However, the advert persuasively says that it is .. the most satisfactory luminous watch, and is unequalled for Naval and Military service, for which it is specially adapted.
Many officers heading to the front in the Great War strapped a Borgel wristwatch onto their wrist before setting off. Then as much as now, military men didn't like to economise on the kit on which their life might depend; revolver, field glasses, and most important before modern radio, when operations across the vast battlefields were synchronised by time, a luminous wristwatch with unbreakable glass.
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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 ébauches (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 ébauches 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 ébauches used in the cantons of Neuchatel and Berne. In 1880 the company employed 400 workers and produced 240,000 ébauches a year. In 1926 FHF merged with AD Michel SA of Grenchen and A Schild SA, also of Grenchen, to form Ébauches SA. At the time these three factories manufactured more than 75% of all Swiss ébauches. Ébauches SA eventually became ETA, the movement maker now part of Swatch Group SA.
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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.
The similarity between the 1903 Borgel three-piece screw case and the early case of the Rolex Oyster is readily apparent; the threaded movement carrier ring of the Rolex Oyster is very similar - I might even go so far as to say identical to the carrier ring used in the Borgel one-piece and three-piece screw cases and their later Taubert developments. The case back and bezel of the Oyster case screw onto the carrier ring that projects from either side of the middle part of the case in exactly the same way as they do in the 1903 Borgel three-piece case.
A correspondent sent me a photograph of one of these Borgel three-piece screw cases in silver with London import hallmarks for 1919/20 and the Wilsdorf and Davis “W&D” sponsor's mark, showing that these cases were being supplied to Rolex before they started work on the Oyster. By then the 1903 patent had expired at the end of its maximum 15 year life, and and anyone was free to copy the design. You can read more about the Rolex Oyster case and its first maker at the Rolex Oyster case.
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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.
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Borgel and the International Watch Co. (IWC)
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.
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Borgel and Longines
Borgel was a long time supplier to Longines in St. Imier. Many Longines wristwatches from the Great War era have Borgel screw cases.
I assume that Borgel supplied Longines with cases for pocket watches, but I have never actually seen one of these (as far as I remember!). This is not too surprising because I really collect early wristwatches. If you have or know of a Longines pocket watch with a Borgel case, please let me know. I do have one Longines pocket watch, but it is not in a Borgel case. It is an open face pocket watch in sterling silver with a Longines mechanical manually wound movement caliber 19B. It has the sponsor's mark of Arthur Baume, Longines' long time London agent, and London hallmarks for 1877 to 1878.
The earliest Longines wristwatch that I have has a Longines calibre 13.67 movement and London import marks for 1908 or 1909. This watch is a bit of a curiosity because Longines records show that the movement was made in 1909, and that the watch was invoiced to Baume in 1915. It is clear that the case was sent to Britain in 1909 to be hallmarked, with Baume acting as sponsor, and then returned to the Longines factory in Switzerland for assembly with the movement into the complete wristwatch, which was then held in stock until it was called off by Baume and invoiced to him by Longines in 1915.
Most Longines watches of the Great War era have Longines calibre 13.34 movements. The 13.34 movement was introduced in 1910 and superseded the 13.67 movement, like the one found in my 1909 Borgel wristwatch.
It is not known when the last Borgel screw case was made, but it may well have been for Longines; a Longines catalogue of 1939 lists a wristwatch with a Borgel screw case. By then the Borgel screw case had been in production for nearly 50 years!
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Borgel and Rolex
With the end of the Great War in 1918, global trade resumed, and Rolex found that they were sending many watches to the far reaches of the British Empire. The humid tropical climate soon rusted the movements of watches in conventional cases, so a damp proof case was urgently required. In their book "The Best of Time: Rolex Wristwatches: An Unauthorized History" Jeffrey Hess and James Dowling noted that Rolex produced a small series of watches using the one-piece Borgel screw case in 1922. They remarked that Despite the small number of watches produced in this case style, it is a very important development in Rolex watch design. It was the first model produced by Rolex in which the case was specifically designed to give protection against some of the elements. These Borgel screw case watches were the start of a line of development that would culminate in 1926 in the Rolex Oyster. Just how much involvement did the Borgel Company have in developing the case of the Rolex Oyster? Rolex is famous for keeping its archives secret, so we don't have any direct evidence, but we do have some circumstantial evidence, including the Dowling and Hess information about the 1922 series of Borgel-cased Rolex watches, which shows that the two companies must have had some sort of commercial relationship.
The similarity between the 1903 "new" Borgel three piece screw case and the early case of the Rolex Oyster is readily apparent; the threaded carrier ring is very similar - I might even go so far as to say identical - to the carrier ring used in both the Borgel one-piece and three-piece cases and later Taubert developments. The case back and bezel screw onto the parts of this carrier ring that project on either side of the middle part of the case in exactly the same way as in the 1903 Borgel three-piece case, and a correspondent sent me a photograph of a 1919/20 Borgel three-piece screw case with a Wilsdorf and Davis "W&D" mark, showing that these Borgel cases were supplied to Rolex. Of course by 1926, when Wilsdorf patented the Oyster case, the patents for both Borgel designs had long expired. Although Wilsdorf and Rolex were therefore under no restriction on the use of this design, the similarity is striking. And the Borgel Company, then owned by the Taubert family, did not object to the Wilsdorf patent for the Oyster case on the grounds of "prior art," which they could easily have done, given its similarity to the 1903 Borgel three-piece case.
I have discovered evidence showing who made the first Rolex Oyster cases. A survey of eight early Oyster cases dating from 1927 to 1936 revealed that they all bear the Poinçon de Maître of a hammer head bearing the number 136, which shows they were made by C. R. Spillmann SA of La Chaux de Fonds and later Chêne-Bourg. I had noted in my December 2010 Watch & Clock Bulletin article, "The Rolex Screw Down Crown," the involvement of C. R. Spillman in the transfer of the screw crown patent CH 114948 from Paul Perregaux and Georges Perret to Hans Wilsdorf but I hadn’t realized then that Spillman was a casemaker for Rolex. It appears that the design of the the early Rolex Oyster cases was a joint effort by Spillman and Rolex, paid for by Rolex because the patent for the case was registered by Wilsdorf.
In 1929 Hans Wilsdorf of Rolex purchased the rights to one of the Taubert Company’s patents, which I discuss in part three of this series. I wonder if this was in some way compensation for work done on the Oyster case, or more likely for not objecting to the Oyster patent, which they could have done on the basis of the cases made by the Borgel company that the Oyster cases were very similar to.
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Numbers inside a Borgel case back
Borgel Case Serial 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 actually finding out that it was made by François Borgel, and deciphering 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.
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 with the long serial numbers seen in the middle of the back. These long serial numbers were applied to the case by the watch manufacturer to fit in with their recording and record keeping systems.
For more information about numbers in the case backs of watches, including numbers scratched in by hand, and numbers on movements, see Numbers on movements and cases.
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Longines Catalogue 1939
The Last Borgel Screw Case?
The Borgel one piece screw case had a long life. Even though the company under the new management of the Taubert family 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 with pin set for hand setting. It is described as a "screw in movement watch" and has the Longines design of hinged or swinging lugs.
The prices quoted in the advert is noticeably higher than the prices quoted during the Great War; 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 may have been 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.
By the late 1920s the fashion had become for much smaller watches, and in the early 1930s stainless steel cases were talking over from silver, so these Borgel screw cases would have looked decidedly old fashioned in 1939. One wonders if these watches were still being made at the time, or whether they were the last of some old stock that had been sitting on the shelf for many years; the latter I suspect.
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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).
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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|
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.
Louisa Borgel takes over
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.
Louisa Beauverd-Borgel Registration
Archives de l'Horlogerie
On 25 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.
1920 Indicateur Davoine
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 is a more commercial/industrial district. Several watch companies had factories in the Rue des Pecheries, including Patek Philippe.
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Borgel hunter cases
Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Borgel hunter
A hunter or “savonnette” watch has a metal lid over the crystal and dial to protect them. I am certain that the Borgel company never produced a hunter case, but the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company, Ltd. advertised Borgel cased watches with hunter lids throughout the Great War. The advertisement from 1916 reproduced here shows a typical watch with a solid hunter lid hinged at 12 o’clock; The only screw-case watch with an attached cover.
A watch with a metal lid that fully covers the dial is called a "full hunter". Later Goldsmiths and Silversmiths advertisements showed a watch with a circular crystal in the centre so that the time could be read without opening it. This design is called a half- or demi-hunter and is said to have been originated by Napoleon, who got so frustrated with having to keep opening the case of his full hunter watch to read the time that he took out a knife and cut a hole in the lid.
But if the Borgel company in Geneva didn't make hunter cases, what's going on here? The watch without question has a Borgel case - the advertisement says that ... it is contained in a one-piece solid silver screw case that makes it dust and damp proof. This is undoubtedly a Borgel case, no one else was making a case of this description at the time, but how does it come to have a hunter lid, described in the advert as a patent cover to protect the glass?
The advertisement refers to Patent No. 11376/15, a British patent filed on 6 August 1915 and granted on 27 January 1916 to "Percy Harman Ball, manager, and the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company Limited". The patent doesn't mention Borgel by name but does say that the invention is specially applicable to watches wherein the movement screws into the case from the front - clearly a Borgel screw case - and continues Such watches are particularly suitable for use in exposed places, as the back not being made to open, dirt or moisture can only enter at the front and this is well sealed by the close fitting of the bezel against the case when the movement is screwed home. The added cover then protects the glass from damage, and has a further use for war purposes in that it can be dulled and thus the reflection from the glass which is likely to attract the notice of enemy snipers is prevented. The patent notes that screw cases are not normally made as hunters because a hinge attached to the case would interfere with screwing the movement in, but that the patent design overcomes this by attaching the hinge to the bezel.
The patent holds the answer to how Borgel watches came to be fitted with attached hunter lids; the lids were fitted in England to the order of the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company after the watch had been imported from Switzerland. NB: Don't confuse the "Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company, Ltd." with "The Goldsmiths' Company", the London guild of goldsmiths which has operated the London Assay Office since 1300. The Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company was a company of retail jewellers and silversmiths established in 1880, converted into a limited liability company in 1898, and in 1952 merged with Garrard & Co. Ltd., the Crown Jewellers.
How many of these conversions of standard open face Borgel screw cases to hunters were performed is difficult to estimate, I have to date seen only four. I would imagine that not very many were made; it would have added cost to what was already an expensive watch, it doesn't seem very necessary - a detachable shrapnel guard could easily be added to a standard watch when required - and it was also not a very good design from a durability view point. The land cut into the bezel is a reasonable size, but the hinge has to be very small, a consequence of the small size of the wristwatch case, and it has only three knuckles; two on the lid and one on the case. Such small hinges are suitable if they are not to be used very often, but with constant opening of the hunter lid to read the time this hinge wouldn’t have lasted very long.
The added cost was also significant. The advert gives a price of £3.12.6 for the watch with a hunter lid, and £3.3.0 for the same watch without a cover, so the extra cost of the cover was nine shillings and sixpence.
The major problem with a full hunter wristwatch is that to read the time you must use your right hand to open the lid as well as using your left arm to bring the watch into sight. This rather defeats the object of the wristwatch as a device that can be easily read by moving one arm while leaving the other hand free. The demi-hunter style with a small crystal in the centre of the lid improves the watch in this area, and certainly by 1918 Goldsmiths and Silversmiths ads were showing demi-hunter wristwatches. This of course defeats one of the objects of the patent, to provide a metal lid that can be dulled to avoid attracting the notice of enemy snipers. This naturally isn't mentioned in the adverts for the demi-hunter version, and I don't think the claim that reflections from wristwatches attracted sniper fire has ever been shown to be a significant concern.
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George Mallory's watch
(© Rick Reanier/Jochen Hemmleb)
George Mallory's watch: a Borgel 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.
George Herbert Leigh Mallory
(18 June 1886 – 8/9 June 1924)
George Mallory was born in Mobberley, Cheshire, just a few miles from where I live. He was a keen mountaineer from an early age after being introduced to climbing in the Alps by one of his masters at Winchester College.
Once when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest Mallory is said to have replied Because it’s there; a pithy reply that has become the most famous phrase in mountaineering.
The story of the Everest expedition was closely followed by the public with regular dispatches published in The Times. Shortly before his final climb Mallory wrote The third time we walk up East Rongbuk Glacier will be the last, for better or worse ... We expect no mercy from Everest.
At age 37 Mallory was aware that there would be no chance of him joining another expedition to Everest in the future. The third attempt on the summit was the last of the expedition, and Mallory's last chance to conquer Everest. If he got within striking distance of the summit he would have pushed on under any circumstances.
Analysis of the chronology of events and the equipment used by Mallory and Irvine indicates that they probably got very close to the summit, and knowing it was their last opportunity, they may have pushed on for the summit late in the day. This would have meant descending in dusk or dark conditions, which Mallory had done on Alpine expeditions, but which was much more dangerous high on Everest. Given Mallory's determination to summit Everest and knowing that this was his last chance, it seems likely that they did press on to the summit, and then in attempting to descend in the dark they fell, with tragic consequences.
A tribute in The Times after the news had reached London said Mount Everest has taken one of the finest mountaineers that this or any other generation has produced. The deaths of Mallory and Irvine were regarded as a national tragedy at the time, and the mystery of whether they achieved the summit has caused much speculation and discussion. Many books and articles have been written on the subject, and interest continues to this day.
The 1924 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 1 June, 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 the watch lost its crystal and stopped during a climbing manoeuvre, an arm jamb in a rock fissure while ascending the second step, and that the position of the hands could indicate the time at which the arm jamb took place. However, this theory was evidently proposed by someone who is not a watchmaker and knows little if anything about mechanical watches. I have no hesitation in saying that the complete absence of any significant damage to the watch means the theory is simply and completely wrong.
The watch as found was missing its crystal, and the delicate tracery of the hands had rusted away leaving only stumps on the central bosses - these are not visible in the picture because they disintegrated when the watch was subsequently examined. Apart from this there was no other damage to the watch. There are no marks on the silver case, on the bezel, or on the enamel dial. In fact, there are no signs that the watch has even been scratched lightly against a rock, let alone crushed against or between rocks during a hand jam. When the watch was examined it was found that the balance staff pivots are unbroken and the movement is in good working order. Watches of this age do not have shock protection for the balance staff pivots, which are very delicate and can be easily broken if the watch is knocked sharply against a hard object. The fact that the balance staff pivots are not broken shows that the watch did not sustain any such damage. It was reported that when the rusted stumps of the hands were removed the movement started ticking, clearly showing that the only thing that had stopped it running was the hands touching something or being rusted together, probably at first touching something and then later rusted together.
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. Once in his pocket, without the crystal to protect them, the hands would have come into contact with things in the pocket, which would have stopped the watch. All watchmakers know that if the hands of a watch touch either each other, the dial or the crystal, even lightly, the watch will stop, but otherwise it is difficult to stop a watch that is running well without either breaking the delicate pivots of the balance staff or beating it flat with a hammer.
An x-ray of the watch showed 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. However, it is most likely that the watch stopped before the spring was fully unwound because the hands came into contact with something in Mallory's pocket, or the material of the pocket itself, or were bent and became entangled.
The watch, now in the keeping of the Royal Geographical Society in London, is a typical Borgel wristwatch of the period, the dust proof screw case invented by François Borgel of Geneva, patented in Switzerland in 1891. These were the best wristwatches for demanding conditions that were generally available at the time. They were more expesive than watches with the normal style of hinged case, but had been especially favoured by officers during the Great War for the difficult conditions in the trenches, so it is no wonder that one found its way onto George Mallory's wrist. The watch case is silver, with London import hallmarks including the date letter “u” for the hallmarking year 1915/1916. The sponsor’s mark is GS, showing that it was imported by the company of George Stockwell.
The dial and hands originally had radium based luminous paint to illuminate the hands and numerals in the dark. This appears to have come off or moved about during 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 brown staining on the dial is probably traces of this paint, and also the arms of the hands that rusted away. It is notable that although the hands were rusted away there was no noticeable rusting of the movement under the dial, the amount of moisture affecting the watch must have been very small.
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 a typical high quality Swiss movement of the period, with a straight line lever escapement, bimetallic temperature compensated balance and 17 jewels, cap jewels for the escape wheel pivots as well as for the balance staff pivots increasing the more normal count of 15 jewels by two. It is nicely finished with perlage (engine turning) to the plates. It was made by the Fontainemelon factory. Further details of the movement of Mallory's watch can be seen on my movement identification page.
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Louisa Borgel Patents
Louisa Borgel registered at least three 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.
Louisa Beauverd-Borgel patent CH 75467
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 because it takes time to examine and approve a patent. If a patent for the same invention is received during this time, the priority date determines which patent has priority.
|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|
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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 on 5 March 1920 and published on 16 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
Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2015 all rights reserved. This page updated November 2015. W3CMVS.