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Longines: Ernest Francillon & Co.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved.

Longines is Swiss-French and and therefore the "g" is pronounced like the "j" in jeans and the "s" is silent: "Lon-jean".

The most important date in the origins of Longines is 1867, when a new factory was built and the name Longines adopted from its location. However, the watchmaking roots of Longines, if not the name, can be traced back much further.

In 1782 Jonas Raiguel of Saint-Imier, Switzerland, began trading in watches. In 1832 his son Henri Raiguel offered Auguste Agassiz a partnership in his "comptoir" (watch making workshop and dealership) "Raiguel Jeune & Company". Auguste was one of four children born to Pastor Louis-Rodolphe Agassiz and his wife Rose (nee Mayor): Louis, a famous naturalist, Auguste, Cecile and Olympe. The history of Longines is often traced back to the point where Agassiz joined Raiguel because Agassiz created the business that under the control of his nephew, and with his financial support, became Longines.

When he joined Raiguel's comptoir Agassiz was made an associate along with Florian Morel. In 1838 Raiguel left the company and Agassiz and Morel acquired the buildings of the old company. The firm was renamed Agassiz & Co. In January 1847 Morel left and Agassiz became the sole owner, renaming the company Auguste Agassiz. Family contacts in the United States meant that a lot of the watches were exported there.

The comptoir assembled watches with crown wheel and verge escapements according to the établissage method. Materials, blanks or rough parts delivered to people working in their homes, and finished parts collected. The parts were then assembled into complete watches in the watchmaker's workshop or établissement hence the name of the process. The person controlling the whole operation was called the établisseur.

A nephew of Agassiz, the first son of his sister Olympe, Ernest Francillon joined the company in 1852. He was a qualified economist. By this time Agassiz was suffering with his health and his involvement with the factory tailed off to the point at which he seldom went to Saint-Imier. Ernest Francillon took over the helm of the comptoir on 1 July 1862, although Agassiz remained a sleeping partner and provided capital to the business.

Export of watches to America was an important part of the business. In New York Auguste Mayor, Charles Fornachon and J. A. Abry successively acted as representatives for Agassiz. During the civil war of 1861 to 1865 Swiss exports to America declined. This was in spite of a boom in sales of watches to the soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The Swiss didn't know it at the time, but the slowdown in their exports was not due to the war but to the rise of American watch companies that had just got into their stride, led by the American Watch Company of Waltham, Massachusetts.

Before he left the Waltham company in 1862 Aaron Dennison had designed a new cheap "soldier's watch". It was the development of this watch, which Royal E. Robbins who owned the company considered unnecessary, that resulted in Dennison being dismissed. Ironically the new watch was a great success as the "William Ellery" model and sold in great numbers during the civil war, accounting for 45 per cent of sales by 1865.

In December 1865 the New York agency of Longines was taken over by J. Eugene Robert, an employee of Abry originally from the Neuchâtel Jura.

Robert must have been aware of the rise of the American watch factories and discussed this with Francillon. In 1865 Ernest Francillon told his uncle Auguste Agassiz that he wanted to set up a factory to manufacture watches with extensive use of machinery like in the American factories. Agassiz approved of the idea, but pointed out that traditional watchmakers had no experience of mass producing parts by machines. An engineer was needed and Jacques David, a relative of Agassiz and Francillon was recruited to the post.

Foundation of Longines

Longines
Longines Factory and the River Suze

In March 1866 Ernest Francillon bought two plots of land on the right bank of the river Suze in St-Imier at a place called "Les Longines", meaning "the long meadows". The riverside location was important because there was no electrical grid at the time, and there was no railway to St-Imier to bring coal for a steam engine, so hydraulic power was needed to drive machinery. One of the plots bought by Francillon included an ancient water mill, the river had been diverted from its natural channel to create a fall to dive the mill wheel.

A new factory was built. The building was finished in spring 1867 and a ten horsepower water wheel with horizontal shaft to drive the machinery was installed. All of the workers making watch parts were brought together under one roof. Initially the watchmakers used traditional techniques and hand tools as the necessary machinery, which could not be bought because it did not exist, was created by Francillon and David and a new recruit, Edouard Chatelain; an old watchmaker who understood machines but was a difficult character to work with.

The Longines watch brand was born. The Longines headquarters and museum are still there today, in a beautiful location just outside the town of St-Imier amongst rolling countryside and wooded hills. The image shows part of the current Longines building with hills in the background and the river Suze in the foreground.

The river Suze looks too small to provide a serious amount of power, but by using the fall that had been created for the mill wheel, later supplemented by a dam that allowed water to accumulate while the factory was not at work, enough power was generated to drive the machinery. In 1874 St-Imier was connected to the Swiss rail network which meant that coal could be transported cheaply and steam power was introduced.

The first Longines movement, produced in 1867, was the 20 ligne calibre 20A with lever escapement and stem winding and setting. This was probably a development of a calibre produced by the Comptoir, but it was the first to have stem winding and setting. It was given an award at the Universal Exposition in Paris in the same year. Longines also continued to make key wound and set movements for a number of years.

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Swiss Mechanisation

Longines became one of the most important Swiss watch manufacturers, pioneering the use of automatic machines to mass produce interchangeable parts.

In 1876 Jacques David, technical director of of Longines, attended the American Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and also visited the main watch factories, the American Watch Company at Waltham and the Elgin National Watch Company. These were producing cheap but good quality jewelled lever watches using machinery to mass-produce interchangeable parts. David and was shocked by the high level of mechanisation and automation that had been achieved by the American manufacturers. On his return he wrote two reports that triggered a wide-ranging debate within the Swiss watch industry.

David's first report was a detailed description of the current state of American watchmaking, a summary of the state of Swiss watchmaking and recommendations of changes he thought necessary to counter the threat to Swiss watchmaking from America. This confidential report was presented to the Intercantonal Society in January 1877. The report was not well received by other Swiss makers who were, like British watch makers, comfortable with doing things the way they had always done them. Less than two months later David presented a second report vigorously complaining about a lack of action in response to his first report and predicting the end of watchmaking in Switzerland if action was not taken.

The Swiss manufacturers eventually reacted by increasing the level of automatic machinery they used. But they did not bring all the separate functions of watch production into large factories as the Americans had done. Instead they retained a high degree of separation that allowed them to produce many different styles of watch in response to changes in fashion. Within a few years they had overtaken the Americans and once again dominated the world watch market until the "quartz crisis" of the 1970s.

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Longines in 1885

Letter by "Cosmopolitan", Horological Journal 1885.
Letter in Horological Journal 1885. To read the letter in full click on the picture or here

A letter was published in the Horological Journal of July 1885 that gives an interesting insight into the Longines factory at the time. The beginning of the letter is shown in the image here, clicking on the image or the link will take you to a transcript of the full letter.

The letter says the factory at Longines was founded in 1866 for the production of watches by machinery on the "gauged and interchangeable" principle. This is interesting because it gives an insight into how mass production was organised before full interchangeability was achieved.

The fundamental problem with making mass produced items is making the parts to such accuracy that any part will fit where it is intended to go without any further work. This gets more difficult as the parts get smaller and the allowable errors in the dimensions, called tolerances, get tighter. Automatic machines can be created to machine hundreds or thousands of parts that are ostensibly identical, but as the cutting tools wear the dimensions of the parts will vary. This is less of a problem today because tools are made from steel alloys or carbides that are very wear resistant, but in the nineteenth century tools were made from hardened carbon steel and wear was a severe problem.

In a watch the most demanding point of fitting is the pivots of the train wheel arbors in their bearings. The difference between a good fit and a poor one is measured in hundredths or even thousandths of a millimetre. When watches were made by hand, the fit was established by trial rather than measurement, the worker would turn down the pivot until it would nearly enter the hole, and then would remove small amounts until it went in and "felt right". But this was not possible when machines were used to make parts automatically that needed to fit without any extra work.

To overcome the problem of tool wear producing batches of parts with differing sizes, accurate gauges were used to sort the parts into batches of the same nominal size. The parts could then be matched to the other items they were meant to fit. For instance, a machine would be set up to machine pivots of a certain size. As the tool wore the parts would be measured until a limit was reached when the machine would be stopped and re-set. The parts that were produced would be gauged and divided into, say, small, medium and large. These would then be matched with plates that had pivot holes drilled in them, and as the drill wore the holes had gone from the initial largest diameter through medium to the smallest allowed before the drill was changed for a fresh one.

One of the consequences of this was that the serial numbers of the movements became important when spares were needed. Details of the movement were recorded, such as that it had been large pivots. When an order came in for a replacement part, the serial number was checked and the records consulted, so that a part from the correct size range could be set out. This was not full interchangeability, it is called "selective assembly", but it was fully automatic production.

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Mappin Campaign"

Mappin Campaign Dial
"Mappin Campaign" Fired onto Dial

The first "Campaign" wristwatches sold by Mappin & Webb were small fob watches in leather wristlets. Adverts by Mappin & Webb during the Great War state that their "Campaign" watch was first used in great numbers at Omdurman. The battle of Omdurman was fought on 2 September 1898 when a British army commanded by General Sir Herbert Kitchener defeated the army of Abdullah al-Taashi as part of British efforts to re-conquer the Sudan.

Mappin continued to use the Campaign name for many years. During the Great War many Mappin Campaign wristwatches were fitted with Longines movements and had the legend Mappin „Campaign” on the dial. The use of the low left double quotation mark is a sign that this legend was not put on in the UK.

The dial shown here is from a wristwatch with a Longines 13.34ZZ movement. This dial has been through an ultrasonic clean, which is interesting because the name words Mappin and Campaign have not been affected. This is because the words are vitreous enamel fired into the enamel of the dial, the same as the tracks and numerals, not painted on later with enamel paint as is usually the case with British retailer's names. This shows that the name was put on in Switzerland by the dial maker as the dial was being made. Longines told me that the requirement for this dial is recorded in their archives showing that the watch left the St Imier factory in 1916 with this branding on the dial.

Longines watches supplied to other countries often had Longines fired onto the dial. From about the mid-1920s this began to be accepted in Britain.

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Trademarks and Sponsor's Marks

Longines Logo
Longines Logo
Longines Logo, the winged hour glass

Longines' trademark of a "winged hourglass" dates back to 1867 and was registered in 1874 when a system of registration was introduced in Switzerland. It is one of the oldest registered trademarks for a watchmaker still in existence. Two versions of this are shown here, an early form from 1886 at the top and a modern version at the bottom. The older version shows the wings more clearly, the modern version at the bottom has abstracted them the point where it is difficult to see them as wings unless you know that is what they are supposed to be. The modern version perhaps shows the hourglass more clearly, with two horizontal lines showing the levels of sand in the top and bottom parts.

AB Arthur Baume
AB: Arthur Baume

Longines' agent in London for many years was Baume & Co. British hallmarking of imported gold and silver watches has a rather curious story. British law required t hat all gold and silver items be assayed and hallmarked before they were exposed for sale. For some unknown reason this was not applied to imported watches until in about 1874 some Swiss gold and silver watch cases began to be hallmarked in English assay offices. The English watchmakers objected to this, saying that a hallmark misled people into thinking that the watch itself was made in England. In 1887 the Merchandise Marks Act altered the requirements for imported watches and put an end to the practice from 1 January 1888. Swiss watches were then imported with Swiss hallmarks until 1 June 1907 when the law again changed to require that all imported gold and silver watches were assayed and hallmarked in a British assay office. This is explained in detail on my page Foreign watches with British hallmarks.

Gold and silver items sent to a British assay office to be hallmarked must first be stamped with a registered sponsor's mark to show who was responsible for submitting the item. The AB mark shown here was entered by Arthur Baume at the London Assay Office in 1876. It was used until 1887 when the British hallmarking of imported watches was effectively stopped until it recommenced in 1907. I doubt that there are any British hallmarked watches with the AB sponsor's mark dating from between 1888 to 1906, but if you find one, please do surprise me.

Baume also entered a mark at Birmingham in January 1901. I have never seen a watch case hallmarked at the Birmingham Assay Office with this sponsor's mark and I suspect that it was used on items of gold or silver that Baume had made in Birmingham, which had many gold and silversmiths and jewellers.

From 1 June 1907 following a change in British law, Baume again started sending gold and silver watch cases to the London Assay Office for hallmarking.

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Longines Agents

Longines exported watches to agents in many countries, they were a watch manufacturer first and foremost and let agents who knew the country, its language and social conventions and requirements do the selling. This was mainly wholesaling to retailers, the agents didn't sell direct to the public.

United KingdomBaume - mark B&Co. with three stars.
SwitzerlandWirth
ArgentinaJaccard
EgyptKramer
SwedenGrosjean Freres - mark G•F in an oval

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Longines Movements

Over the many years of its history, Logines produced many different movement calibres. Patrick Linder's book (Ref. 2) lists nearly all. It is a monumental book, weighting in at over 4kg, which makes it physically quite difficult to read, as well as being a bit dry in the subject matter. I am not going to even think about showing examples of every Longines movement in this section, I intend to highlight just a few that are encountered in the watches I am most interested in, early wristwatches with 13 ligne movements.

Until about 1930, Longines movements were identified by their size in lignes and then a unique number. For example, the number 13.34 identifies a 13 ligne movement calibre that was first introduced in 1910. The 13 before the decimal point is the line size, the 34 after the line size is the unique number and doesn't mean any else. The 13.34 calibre is a savonnette layout, ideal for small hunter pocket watches or wristwatches. At the same time as the 13.34 a Léine version was introduced, the 13.33. Most of the parts of the 13.34 and 13.33 calibres are identical and interchangeable.

Longines movements for the British market are usually "frosted and gilded". Frosting is a fine matt finish given to the brass plates, bridges and cocks, which are then gilded or gold plated. They also usually have blued screws. This was to make them look more like traditional English watches and so more acceptable to British customers. For the same reason the winding wheels, the crown and ratchet wheel, are usually concealed below the barrel bridge, and the movements are often unsigned, a requirement of British retailers until the 1920s.

Longines movements for other markets usually have a more conventional appearance; the brass parts are nickel plated, the winding wheels are visible, the screws are polished but not blued, and they carry the Longines name.

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Longines Calibre 13.34

Longines 13.34 movement
Longines 13.34 movement with 18 jewels: Click to enlarge
Longines 13.34 movement
Longines 13.34 ZZ movement: Click to enlarge

Introduced in 1910, the Longines 13.34 savonnette movement was used in many wristwatches during the Great War. The number 13.34 shows that is a 13 ligne movement, the unique number 34 after the decimal place identifies the savonnette layout. At the same time a Lépine version was also introduced, the calibre 13.33.

Often they do not carry the name Longines visibly, but the movements are quite easy to identify. The calibre number 13.34 is stamped on the top of the bottom plate and is visible next to the escape wheel. If you click on either of the pictures here and get an enlarged view you should be able to see the 13.34, just inside the case screw next to a copper coloured dot that is the end of a dial foot.

You should also be able to make out on the 18 jewel movement the "B & Co." mark of Baume & Co. who were Longines agent in the UK for many years.

The shape of the plates and bridges is very distinctive. The 18 jewel movement has the top plate that is most often seen, with individual cocks for the third, fourth and escape wheels.

The 13.34 ZZ movement is a variation on the basic design with the same barrel bridge shape but the three individual cocks of the third, fourth and escape wheels fused into a single bridge. This movement does not carry the Longines name, as required by many British retailers. This watch was sold by Mappin & Webb and carries their own "Mappin Campaign" name on the dial. The name is fired into the enamel and Longines told me that the requirement for this dial is recorded in their archives.

There is a third variant, the 13.34 AS, with all the train bearings in a single three quarter plate, only the balance has its own cock. This is a very "English" layout and I am sure that this calibre was created for the British market.

All variations of the Longines 13.34 movement operate at 18,000 vibrations per hour (vph) giving five ticks per second. They have a straight line Swiss lever escapement, a cut bimetallic temperature compensation balance with gold timing screws, and a blued carbon steel balance spring with a Breguet overcoil. All parts apart from the visible bridges and cocks are interchangeable between all three variants.

The lowest grade 13.34 movements imported by Baume had 15 jewels. The 13.34 ZZ movement shown here has this jewel count. The 13.34, which dates to 1913, has an extra three jewels, taking the jewel count to 18. The three extra jewels are a jewel bearing for the centre wheel top pivot, and two cap jewels for the escape wheel; the polished steel setting for the top escape wheel cap jewel stands out in the picture. The visible train jewels are set in "chatons", metal settings that are fixed in place with small screws.

When jewels were first used in the eighteenth century it was found difficult to make the jewel an exact size on its outer diameter with the hole exactly in the centre, so pierced jewels were set into metal settings called that could then be turned so that their outside was the desired diameter and concentric with the hole. Early jewels were often made from small pieces of gem stone that had been cut from a larger stone in the process of shaping and polishing it. These small pieces were called "kittens" by the gem cutters, or in French "chatons", which is how these settings came to be called by this name. By the time this movement was made the techniques of jewel grinding had advanced and the metal settings were no longer necessary, but they look good and so "top of the range" movements such as the Longines movement in the picture were fitted with them. They were an expensive piece of window dressing that had no effect on the going of the watch, which is why they are only fitted to the visible top holes, the ones the customer sees; the jewels in the bottom holes were rubbed in as usual.

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Longines calibre 13.67 movement

Longines 13.34 movement
Longines 13.67 movement: Click to enlarge

This is an earlier 13 ligne movement, a calibre 13.67.

The calibre 13.67 was the only new design added to the Longines range in 1894, which was unusual because the company usually added a significant number of new designs to its range each year.

The 13.67 was a Lépine calibre intended for use in open face fob watches with the pendant and crown at 12 o'clock and small seconds at six o'clock. If this calibre was used in a wristwatch its layout would have put the small seconds next the 9 o'clock, so in a wristwatch the small seconds sub-dial was omitted.

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Longines Calibre 12.92

Longines 13.92 movement
Longines 12.92 movement: Click to enlarge

The Longines 12.92 movement was first made in 1903. It is a 12¼ lignes savonnette measuring 27.80mm x 4.10mm. The savonnette layout was used in hunter cased pocket watches, and for wristwatches. A Lépine version, the 12.91, was first made later, in 1906.

Often movements imported into Britain before the mid to late 1920s do not carry the name manufacturer's name visibly, this was not allowed by British retailers. Longines movements are usually quite easy to identify. The calibre number is usually stamped on the bottom plate and is visible next to the escape wheel. If you click on the picture here and get an enlarged view you should be able to see the 12.92, just inside the case screw near to a copper coloured dot that is the end of a dial foot.

You should also be able to make out on the bottom plate next to the foot of the balance cock part of a "B & Co." mark followed by three small stars, a trademark of Baume Company who were Longines agent in the UK for many years. Be aware that not all movements stamped with this trademark are Longines, Baume also imported watch from other makers.

The Longines 12.92 movement works at 18,000 vibrations per hour (vph) giving five ticks per second. It has a straight line Swiss lever escapement, a cut bimetallic temperature compensation balance with gold timing screws, and a blued carbon steel balance spring. The balance spring is flat, without an overcoil.

Longines movements imported into Britain were customised to suit British tastes. In addition to the absence of a maker's name, the plates are gilded and the screws blued to a purplish colour favoured by Longines. These finishes were traditionally used by the best English watchmakers and added to the cost. They were not used in other markets, for which Longines used the standard Swiss finish of nickel plating and polished screws.

As far as I can make out, all Longines movements imported into Britain were fully jewelled with 15 or more jewels, for other markets sometimes fewer jewels, e.g. 7 jewels, were used.

All these features, cut bimetallic temperature compensation balance with gold timing screws, gilded plates, blued screws, full jewelling and an overall high level of finish, show that Longines was making watches intended for the top end of the British market. In nineteenth century Britain, English watches were regarded as the best in the world and Swiss watches had a reputation as being basic and cheap. Longines were countering this by making watches of a quality that anyone would be proud to show off to their friends.

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Longines Serial Numbers and Production Dates

Many of the tables of Longines serial numbers published on the internet appear to be seriously in error. The table below is compiled from data in Ref. 1 and is broadly in accord with the dates of watches seen. The achievement of each million movements made must have been a notable milestone worth recording.

A complete watch leaving the Longines’ factory up to the serial number 15,000,000 had the same serial number on the case and on the movement. After that the case and movement number were not necessarily the same. Today, only the case bears the serial number, not the movement. However, Longines also sold uncased movements with dials and hands, for example to the US agent (Longines Wittnauer) when the case was produced locally. When that happened the factory serial number is on the movement only, the case bearing a local reference number which is different.

Over the period covered by this table were two world wars and several economic slowdowns. The serial number gives the date when the movement was manufactured, not when it was actually cased up and sent out from the factory. In times of slowdown a bare movement could remain in stock for several years and the two dates far apart.

YearMonthSerial No.YearMonthSerial No.
18671 1922Oct4,000,000
187020,000 19254,250,000
1875100,000 19264,500,000
1882250,000 19284,750,000
1888500,000 1929Oct5,000,000
1893750,000 19345,250,000
1899Feb1,000,000 19375,500,000
19011,250,000 19385,750,000
19041,500,000 1940June6,000,000
19051,750,000 1945July7,000,000
1907Jul2,000,000 1950May8,000,000
19092,250,000 1953July9,000,000
19112,500,000 1956May10,000,000
19122,750,000 1959April11,000,000
1913August3,000,000 1962May12,000,000
19153,250,000 1966June13,000,000
19173,500,000 1967Feb14,000,000
19193,750,000 1969Feb15,000,000

References

  1. Longines, Daria Marozzi, Gianluigi Toselli, Edizioni Giada s.r.l., Bologna 1990.
  2. At the Heart of an Industrial Vocation - Longines Watch Movements (1832 - 2009), Patrick Linder, Editions des Longines, 2009.

If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me via my Contact me page. Back to the top of the page.

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2017 all rights reserved. This page updated December 2017. W3CMVS.