Longines: Ernest Francillon & Co.Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2021 all rights reserved.
Longines is Swiss-French and therefore the "g" is pronounced like the "j" in jeans and the "s" is silent: "Lon-jean".
Longines is one of the most important companies in Swiss watch manufacturing. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it was probably the most important Swiss watch manufacturer, due to its advanced and integrated production methods.
From its foundation in 1867 Longines produced high quality watches using the latest machine production methods, and quickly gained a reputation for high quality. Initially most exports were sent to America, but from 1876 Longines watches began to be imported into Britain by Baume & Company. Longines watches scored highly in observatory tests in Switzerland, France, America, and in Britain in the watch trials run at Kew and later at Teddington.
In 1877 Jacques David, technical director of Longines, brought news to Switzerland of the threat posed by mass produced, machine made, American watches. Swiss manufacturers were reluctant to change their ways, but David doggedly and almost single handedly persuaded them that they had to modernise to address the threat. This resulted in the transformation of the Swiss watch industry from using traditional hand craft methods to using automatic machines, but retaining the variety and diversity of production that differentiated Swiss watches from uniform American factory production.
The most important date in the origins of Longines is 1867, when a new factory was built in St. Imier on water meadows beside the river Suse called “Les Longines”, and the name Longines was adopted from this. However, the watchmaking roots of Longines, if not the name, can be traced back much further in history.
Origins of Longines
Jonas Raiguel is thought to have been the first professional watchmaker in Corgémont, a small town in the valley of St. Imier a few miles north east of St. Imier itself. The Raiguel family had been important in Corgémont since the second half of the seventeenth century, family members were mayors and notaries, justices and church elders. Others were master tailors, tanners, shoemakers, wood turners and locksmiths. It is not known when Jonas started to make watches, but it is known that he died before 1789. Jonas' son Abram Raiguel is recorded as a watchmaker in Corgémont in 1771. Assuming that he was around 20 when he was recorded as a watchmaker in his own right, he would have been born around 1750, which suggests that Jonas might have been born around 1730, and that he might have started to make watches in circa 1750.
The town of Saint Imier is located in the valley formed by the Suze river. The valley and town are named after Saint Imerius, who lived in the valley in the seventh century as a hermit. Until the beginning of the eighteenth century St. Imier was an agricultural centre. Its fairs were important, especially that of St. Martin, which atttracted merchants, artisans, farmers and buyers from near and far. The first watchmaker mentioned in St. Imier is David Fallet, in 1717. Between 1730 and 1760 St. Imier experienced period of watchmaking growth. Local families embraced the profession because the watch industry was gaining in importance in the region. By 1817 two hundred workers were working on watches and parts in small workshops or at home.
Abram Raiguel's younger brothers Jean-Pierre and Jean-Henri Raiguel were also watchmakers, recorded working in Corgémont in the 1780s. The Raiguel family made gold watches with verge escapements. The business founded in Corgémont by Jonas Raiguel and his sons, Abram, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Henri, was continued by Jean-Pierre's son Pierre-Henri Raiguel as "Raiguel le Jeune" (Raiguel the younger) in both Corgémont and St. Imier. By 1800 the St. Imier branch was dominant and the business was called Raiguel le Jeune de St-Imier et Corgémont.
In circa 1820 Raiguel formed a partnership with his brother-in-law Florian Morel, "Raiguel Jeune & Cie". In 1832 Raiguel offered Auguste Agassiz a partnership in his "comptoir" (watch making workshop and dealership).
Auguste Agassiz was one of four children born to Pastor Louis-Rodolphe Agassiz and his wife Rose (nee Mayor). His siblings were Louis, a famous naturalist, Cecile and Olympe. Through his mother Auguste was related to the Fornachon family, bankers in Neuchâtel. The Fornachon bank was involved in financing several watchmaking businesses at the start of the nineteenth century. Auguste married a Fornachon cousin and worked at the bank, gaining contacts and knowledge of the businesses of finance and watchmaking.
The history of Longines is traced back to 1832 when Agassiz joined Raiguel because Agassiz created the business that, with his financial support under the control of his nephew, became Longines. In my view it would be fair to trace it back further, to the business founded in Corgémont by Jonas Raiguel in perhaps 1750, but Longines don't do that. This stands in stark contrast to some watch companies that have sprung up in recent years claiming early founding dates purely on the basis of adopting the name of a long dead watchmaker with whom they have no connection whatsoever.
In 1838 Raiguel left the partnership and Agassiz and Morel took over the business, acquiring ownership of the buildings from Raiguel. 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 manufactured watches by the établissage method. Materials, blanks or rough parts were delivered to people working in their homes or small workshops, and finished parts later 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 mass production of watches by the new American watch companies that had just got into their stride, led by the American Watch Company of Waltham, Massachusetts. Aaron Dennison had designed a new cheap "soldier's watch" before he left the Waltham company in 1862. 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, formerly an employee of Abry and originally from the Neuchâtel Jura. Robert married a Swiss woman named Wittnauer. Her brothers, Albert and Louis, followed and began work for Robert's company. Albert Wittnauer eventually took over the business of his brother-in-law and renamed it A. Wittnauer & Co.
Robert would have been aware of the dramatic increase in output of watches by American watch factories. The first American factory had only been founded in 1850, and many problems had been encountered in mass producing watch parts, but by the time of the civil war several rival factories had been established and good quality watches were being mass produced at cheap prices. Robert would have discussed this, and the impact it was having on Swiss imports, with Francillon. What was needed were high quality Swiss watches with lever escapements and at prices that were lower than American made watches.
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 Factory and the River Suze
In March 1866 Ernest Francillon bought two plots of land and an old mill 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. The land bought by Francillon included an ancient water mill, the river Suze 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 machinery in the factory 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.
From the outset Francillon was determined to create high quality stem wound watches with lever escapements. The vast majority of watches made in Switzerland at the time had cylinder escapements, but Francillon knew that the American factories had never made cylinder movements. They were turning out large numbers of movements with jewelled lever escapements, and he was determined to compete with them on technology, quality and price.
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. Although Francillon wanted to concentrate on stem wound and set watches, Longines also continued to make key wound and set movements for a number of years.
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From its foundation in 1867, Longines became one of the most modern Swiss watch manufacturers, pioneering the use of automatic machines to mass produce interchangeable parts. Manufacturing tolerances, the absolute accuracy to which each part could be made by machine, meant that these parts were not fully interchangeable, but the use of gauges to sort parts into batches of similar size, and selective assembly of parts that would fit together with no further work, meant that finishing parts by hand was reduced or completely eliminated in many operations.
In 1876 Jacques David, technical director of Longines, attended the American Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Along with other Swiss visitors, David was shocked at what the Americans had achieved and recognised that it was a major threat to the Swiss watch industry.
David visited the main watch factories, the American Watch Company at Waltham and the Elgin National Watch Company. These were producing good quality jewelled lever watches cheaply, 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.
Tissot report 1894
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 taste and 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.
The opportunity to show the world what they had achieve since the shock of 1876 was presented to Swiss watchmakers by the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. Judging by the report written in 1894 by the watchmaker Charles-Emile Tissot, official delegate of the Swiss government to the exposition, the 34 Swiss watchmakers present at the Fair had a huge success.
Of Longines, Tissot said their exhibit showed “quality of simple and chronograph watches and movements, with special and patented calibres ..., also a pretty collection of watches for women, richly decorated with diamonds, pearls, enamel, etc. ... The products of this company are universally known and rightly appreciated; they largely contribute to maintaining the good reputation of the Swiss watch.”
In contrast, the American Watch Company of Waltham “has not made any important modifications to its calibres for some years” and “one finds in these products the inevitable monotony of mechanical work.” The exhibition of the dollar-watch factory Waterbury was dismissed as “cheap watches piled up in a considerable number”
In conclusion, Tissot said “Switzerland has incontestably demonstrated to all that today as yesterday it occupies first place in the manufacture of watches ... our foreign competitors should be convinced that we are strong for the fight, that we progress year by year, and that we continue to perfect the various branches of our national industry.”
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Longines in 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.
A machine that mass produced parts would be set up by a tool setter to make the parts the right size, and then the parts produced checked against accurate gauges. Once tool wear resulted in the parts going out of the allowed tolerance on the size, the machine would be stopped and reset. Any parts that were the wrong size were simply scrapped.
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Geneva Exhibition 1896
Geneva Exhibition 1896
Longines exhibited at the Swiss National Exhibition in Geneva 1896. This was reported in the trade paper under the heading shown here. The phrase "Hors concours" translates literally as "out of the competition", which means that the company was excluded from competing for a prize because it was without equal or unrivalled. The implication is that if Longines had been allowed to compete, no other manufacturer would have been awarded a prize because there would have been none left!
Longines are the only manufacturer to have been awarded 10 "Grand Prix" at international exhibitions, and 29 gold medals. This lead to the marketing phrase "The world's most honoured watch". If they had not been excluded from competitions, no doubt this would have been more.
The report continued:
The establishment of Longines, founded in 1866, the first in Switzerland to combine the complete manufacture of the watch under one roof, is currently the most important by the number of workers and employees : more than four hundred and fifty people are this day busy in the factory. Tools of incomparable perfection, created and built entirely by the technical service and the mechanics of the house, mechanically produce the movement and its case. The precision of the work was pushed far enough to allow to remove any prior assembly, parts of the movement, wheels, escapement, winding, meeting only at the time of final reassembly. This result is particularly remarkable in the quality of traditional watchmaking in Longines. The annual production is 60,000 watches, with an average value of about 35 francs. They are essentially broken down into stem wind lever escapements from 11 to 21 lignes, in metal, steel, silver and gold cases, universally known as "Longines". As specialities, the house manufactures chronograph-counters, the centre seconds, precision watches (chronometer-lever), with in-house or observatory certificates. It has developed lately a lot of watches in the field of 11 lines with rich decorations, enamels and jewellery.
The exhibition of Messrs. Francillon & Co presents:
32 lever movements from 11 to 21 lignes in various calibres and qualities, time setting by pin set, lever and pendant:
2 movements 21 lignes lever stopwatches, regulated by Longines, with 30-45 day in-house certificates:
6 steel watches 11, 14 and 17 lines, lépines and savonnettes, matt oxide and luxury gloss finishes:
19 silver watches 11 to 21 lines, plain, guilloché, engraved and niello:
1 watch 13 lines open face, centre seconds:
2 watches 21 lignes open face, centre seconds, chronometer movement:
60 gold watches 11 to 21 ligne, plain, guilloché, engraved, enamelled and other rich decorations:
40 watches 11 lignes lépine and savonnette with varied decorations of the latest fashion, richly engraved, jewelled, coloured enamel with pearls, roses and brilliants, forming a superb collection:
3 watches 21 lignes lépine and savonnette with chronometer movements, similar to those already mentioned.
All the exhibited items are part of the usual production of the Longines factory.
It must have been quite a sight.
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Longines in the USA
Export of watches to America was an important part of the Agassiz business even in the Comptoir days before the formation of Longines. 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 mass production of watches by the new American watch companies that had just got into their stride, led by the American Watch Company of Waltham, Massachusetts. Aaron Dennison had designed a new cheap "soldier's watch" before he left the Waltham company in 1862. 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, formerly an employee of Abry and originally from the Neuchâtel Jura.
Robert married a Swiss woman named Wittnauer. Her brothers, Albert and Louis, followed and began work for Robert's company. Albert Wittnauer eventually took over the business of his brother-in-law and renamed it A. Wittnauer & Co.
The USA imposed high import duties on foreign watches. On watches with precious metal cases, silver and especially gold, the cost of the case was a significant part of the cost of the watch. However, cases could be made quite easily without specialised equipment, it was the cost of the precious metal that made them expensive, whereas watch movements could be made very cheaply once a large investment had been made in automatic machinery. To reduce the cost of import duty, watch movements made in Switzerland were sent to America bare, and put into silver and gold cases made in America.
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.
Francillon was proud of the Longines brand name and the winged hour glass logo. When the Swiss trademark registration law was introduced in 1880 the name Longines was registered with the Federal Office of Intellectual Property. In 1893 the Longines name and winged hour glass logo were filed with the United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property, the forerunner of the World Intellectual Property Organization WIPO. Today Longines is the oldest brand name registered with the WIPO that is still in use unchanged.
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Longines movements were always finished to a high standard. For most markets they usually have a conventional appearance; the brass parts are nickel plated, which gives them a grey metallic colous, the winding wheels are visible, the screws are polished but not blued, and they carry the Longines name and logo on the movement, and the Longines name on the dial. The finish and branding for the British market was quite different.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was usual in Britain for watches to be branded, if they were branded at all, with the name of the retailer, not the manufacturer. This was a requirement of British retailers; the names of foreign manufacturers were simply not allowed on the goods they stocked. As a consequence of this, almost all Swiss watches imported into Britain until the 1920s were unsigned on the dial and movement. If any name appeared on the dial, it was the name of the British retailer, e.g. Harrods, Asprey. etc. These names were usually added to the dial in enamel paint, which is nothing like as durable as the vitreous enamel of the dial itself and has often become badly worn or disappeared altogether.
From the very beginning in 1877, when Longines watches were first imported by Baume & Co., Longines movements for the British market were given an increasingly “English” appearance to make them look more like traditional English watches, and so more acceptable to British customers. This included a “frosted and gilded” finish to the plates. Frosting is a fine matt finish given to the brass plates, bridges and cocks, which are then gilded or gold plated. The winding wheels, the crown and ratchet wheel, were usually concealed below the barrel bridge, and the screws heads were blued. All these details were typical of high class English work.
Longines on the Dial
Another feature of Longines watches imported into Britain before the late 1920s is that they don't have the name Longines on the dial. I have seen some early pocket watch movements that have the Longines winged hour glass logo on the movement, sometimes also with the Longines name on the movement, but never with the Longines name on the dial. By which I mean the name in fired vitreous enamel and not simply painted on, which has invariably been done later.
The advert by Baume & Co. from the Horological Journal of 1911 reproduced here is evidence of this practice. Longines watches were very highly regarded by the watch and jewellery trade in Britain, and took numerous top places in observatory competitions. But the advert says that they are supplied “without any distinctive name or mark except that of the retailer”.
This is not something that Baume or Longines wanted to do. If the Longines name were put prominently onto the watches, British retailers would simply refuse to order them. Baume and Longines were immensely proud of the quality of their watches, but they were also pragmatic; they needed to 'shift product' in order to make a sales and a profit. Given the intransigence of the British retailers, they made a virtue out of necessity and made it clear in advertising like this that they were willing, even if they were not happy about it, to supply watches without branding.
The earliest Longines watch that I have seen which has British import hallmarks, showing that it was sold in Britain, and which has the Longines name on the dial, dates to around 1927. All the dials that I have seen from British market Longines watches of this period have the Longines name enamelled in an arc above the small seconds as shown in the image here. This of course left plenty of space above the centre of the dial below the 12 o'clock free for a retailer's name.
The placement of the Longines name in an arc above the small seconds dial was a first step, leaving space for a retailer's name to be placed in a more prominent position in the top half of the dial. At some point (1930s?) the Longines brand became, in the eyes of British consumers, more important than that of the retailer and consequently the Longines name was placed in the top half of the dial. This is later than the period that I normally study, but I am looking out for evidence of when this transition took place.
Longines watches supplied to other countries often had Longines fired onto the dial. If you have an earlier British market watch, most easily identified by British import hallmarks in the case, with Longines on the dial (by which I mean the name in fired vitreous enamel and not simply painted on) then please let me know.
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The first “Campaign” wristwatches sold by by the British jewellers Mappin & Webb were 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 supplied by Longines and had the legend Mappin „Campaign” on the dial. The low left double quotation mark is a continental punctuation not used in Britain, a clear indication 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 a hot ultrasonic clean, which is interesting because the name words Mappin and Campaign have not been affected at all. A retailer's name or logo that was painted onto an enamel dial using enamel paint, as was usually done, stands no chance at all in an ultrasonic cleaning and disappears without trace, along with any traces of the original radium lume.
The Mappin „Campaign” on this dial were unaffected by the ultrasonic cleaning 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 by the dial maker as the dial was being made, which was most likely done in Switzerland.
Longines told me that the requirement for the Mappin name and Campaign brand on the dial is recorded in their archives, showing that the dial was made to order in Switzerland and the watch left the St Imier factory in 1916 with this branding on the dial.
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Longines Pocket Watch from 1877
The pocket watch shown in the images here is a quite early Longines, made only 10 years or so after the factory was established. The serial number is 94,237 which, according to published tables of Longines serial numbers, would put its date of manufacture at around 1875. But this is not accurate, Longines records show that it was invoiced to Baume & Company in London on 11 August 1877.
This watch won the competition run by Longines in 2017 to find the oldest Longines watch in the UK.
The watch has a key wound and set 15 jewel Longines calibre 19B movement, with right angle lever escapement and club tooth escape wheel. This calibre was first produced by Longines in 1872 as one of three closely related versions of a 19''' movement, referred to as 19B, 19M and 19V. Although Francillon wanted to abandon key winding, problems with stem winding, possibly in producing sufficient quantities of the keyless mechanism components to keep up with production, meant that the 19B and 19M were key wound. The 19V was stem wound.
When I got the watch the bow, the ring at the top of the pendant, was made of brass. This was a replacement for the original sterling silver bow that was worn though by the clip used to attach it to the owner's Albert chain, which itself was attached to a waistcoat button hole for safety. Many pocket watches of this age have had their bows replaced because of wear from the clip.
How do I know that the original bow was sterling silver? Because the case has London Assay Office hallmarks and the assay office would not hallmark the case without the bow, and they would not hallmark anything unless all parts were made of sterling silver, including the inner case back, which is not shown here but is also hallmarked. The bow would have had a "part hallmark", the sponsor's mark and the lion passant of sterling silver. I have made a new bow in sterling silver, which has been hallmarked with my sponsor's mark and the English lion passant standard mark, just like the original would have been.
The inside case back has London Assay Office hallmarks for sterling silver with the date letter "B" for the hallmarking year 1877 to 1878. Hallmark date letters span two calendar years because the punches were changed when new wardens were elected. At the London Assay Office after the restoration this took place on 29 May, the birthday of King Charles II, and also the day that he returned to London in 1660. So this watch was hallmarked at Goldsmiths' Hall in London between 29 May 1877 and 28 May 1878.
The sponsor's mark AB in curly letters in cameo within an oval surround was entered by Arthur Baume at the London Assay Office on 18 November 1876. The hallmarks show that this Longines watch was imported into Britain within one or two years of Baume first entering his punch mark in 1876, the same year that Baume & Co. became sole agents for Longines in the UK.
Baume & Co. had been importing Swiss watches into Britain since 1844. At that time, imported gold or silver watch cases were not hallmarked in Switzerland – Swiss hallmarking of gold and silver watch cases started in 1880 – or in Britain. In 1874 some importers started to get small numbers of Swiss gold and silver watch cases hallmarked in British assay offices. Initially Baume & Co. did not do this, continuing to import Swiss watches without hallmarks.
In 1876 Célestin Baume became the sole representative of Longines for Great Britain and the whole of the British Empire. Soon after this Célestin was succeeded as head of the company by his nephew Arthur Baume. Longines watches were high quality and it appears that Baume decided that British hallmarks in their cases would be a useful endorsement of this, which is most likely why he registered his details and a punch mark at the London Assay Office in November 1876, shortly after the agency agreement was made with Longines.
The practice of getting Swiss watches cases hallmarked in British assay offices was effectively stopped from 1 January 1888 by the Merchandise Marks Act. During the period from 1874 to 1887 when it did happen, only a minority of imported Swiss watches, of high quality where the extra expense was worthwhile, were hallmarked in this way, so it is quite unusual to find a nineteenth century Swiss watch with British hallmarks. British hallmarking of all imported gold and silver watch cases became compulsory from 1 June 1907. See Foreign Watches with British Hallmarks for more details about this.
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UK's Oldest Longines Competition
From 6 March to 28 May 2017 Longines held a competition to find the oldest Longines watch in the United Kingdom and I entered my Longines Pocket Watch from 1877. At the end of March 2018 I was notified that my watch had been shortlisted, and that an event was be held on Friday 18 May at the Longines Boutique in central London for the winner to be announced. All the owners of watches on the shortlist were invited to a champagne reception at the Boutique for the announcement, followed by a slap up lunch at a posh Mayfair restaurant.
When I entered the Longines Boutique, my watch was in a display case with all the other entries. But it was right at the front, which was interesting. When the result was announced, my watch had won the competition! There were some great entries, but none came even close to my watch in age, the next oldest was dated 1907, a cool 30 years later than mine. (You might not have heard about the competition and have an earlier Longines in the UK; if you do, please let me know – but it's too late to win the competition sorry!)
When I had previously inquired about this watch, Longines were unable to tell me exactly when it was shipped to Baume in the UK, but due to the competition they had another wider search in the archives and found the relevant entry; the watch was invoiced to Baume on 11 August 1877.
The image below shows the watch in a display case at the Longines London Boutique on Oxford St in Mayfair, London, on 18 May 2018. It's now safely back in Cheshire with me so unfortunately you won't be able to pop in and see it. The image shows the new hallmarked sterling silver bow, it looks so much better than the brass bow that was fitted when I got the watch. The display label reads:
HISTORY OF THE WATCH
0.925 silver open face pocket watch. It is fitted with a Longines manually wound mechanical movement, calibre 19B. It was invoiced on 11 August 1877 to the company Baume & Co., which was at that time our agent for the UK.
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Longines Wristwatch Lugs
Most early wristwatches have fixed wire lugs, simple pieces of wire soldered to the case. Longines wristwatches usually have very distinctive swinging lugs.
The design of these lugs was registered by Longines in 1907. The drawings shown here are from Longines through time : The story of the watch by Stéphanie Lachat.
A tube soldered to the watch case carries a bar that the lugs, which are made from a loop of wire that has widened ends with holes for the bar, are attached to. The bar though the tube usually does not move due to friction, so the lugs swing on it, and the holes in the lugs get bigger through wear until they fall off.
The wristwatch shown here was made in 1910 and invoiced to Baume & Co. in London in February 1911. When I got it the lugs were badly worn and one had been replaced by an incorrectly shaped piece. This was my first attempt at repairing them; not perfect but I was in a bit of a rush because I wanted to wear the watch a few days later during my visit to the Longines factory. The wristwatch is described as part of my visit to the Longines Museum.
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Longines Wristwatch Movements
In this section I show some early wristwatch movements. These are mostly 13 ligne, which makes a good size man's watch.
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Longines Calibre 13.34
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
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
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 Calibre 13.56 movement
This is the movement from a Longines wristwatch with a Borgel case. The case has London Assay Office import hallmarks for sterling silver, the date letter "p" for the year to 1910 to 1911, remember that date letters span two calendar years. The sponsor's mark is the AB in cameo within a rectangular surround of Baume & Co. Longines informed me that the watch was invoiced to Baume on 17 February 1911. Even though the watch is well over 100 years old you can see what an excellent job the Borgel case has done in protecting the movement.
Interestingly there is no indication of the manufacturer visible. The only markings are Swiss Made, 18 Jewels, Fast Slow, and 13.56, the Longines calibre reference. This watch was imported at a time when British retailers did not allow manufacturers, with very few exceptions, to make their name visible. The movement has also been customised for the British market, with concealed winding wheels, frosted and gilded plates and bridges, and blued screws.
For an extra bit of "eye candy" the top jewel bearings for the centre, third and fourth wheels are set in gold chatons that are held in place by small screws. This is purely for visual effect, the corresponding jewels in the bottom plate are rubbed in, as was usual at the time, which you can see from the image of the bottom plate. For more about jewel bearings in watches, see Jewel Bearings.
The calibre 13.56 is a savonnette movement that was first manufactured in 1891. It was used in savonnette (hunter) pendant watches, with a lid over the crystal, or for wristwatches. The 13.56 was made in at least two visually different forms, one with a single bridge for the third, fourth and escape wheels, the other with three separate cocks as in the example here. Apart from the bridges and cocks, all other parts are identical.
This movement has a jewelled straight line Swiss lever escapement, cut bimetallic compensation balance with gold timing screws, and a steel balance spring with a Breguet overcoil. It is jewelled to the centre wheel, with end stones or cap stones for the escape wheel. The top end stone for the escape wheel is held in the polished steel setting screwed to the end of the escape wheel cock. Both the top and bottom pivots of the escape wheel have end stones, only the top bearing of the centre wheel is jewelled. This gives of a jewel count three greater than the usual “fully jewelled” 15, making a total of 18 jewels, as engraved on the top plate.
Only top bearing of the centre wheel is jewelled, the use of a single jewel bearing rather than two is is for practical reasons rather than for economy. The top bearing of the centre wheel takes a greater radial thrust from the mainspring barrel than the bottom bearing, because the centre pinion is closer to the top plate than the bottom plate. This usually causes the bearing in the top plate to wear more than the bearing in the bottom plate, so a jewel for the top bearing extends the life of the watch. A jewel bearing in the bottom plate would not add much life because that bearing wears little, but would make it extremely difficult to remove the cannon pinion without breaking the jewel. In a watch with a jewelled top centre bearing, it is important to support the centre arbor when refitting the cannon pinion to avoid breaking the jewel.
The watch is stem wound and set. The keyless mechanism uses a rocking bar to change between winding and setting. In the image the rocking bar is in the normal winding position. A pinion riding on the stem engages with a central wheel, the top and bottom teeth of which are visible in the image. The central wheel turns two wheels on opposite ends of the bar, the one to the left engages with the barrel to wind the mainspring, the one to the right engages with the minute wheel of the motion work to set the hands. The rocking bar mechanism is normally held in the winding position by the spring, and is moved into the hand setting position by a push piece, with a pin set in an olivette on the case near to the crown.
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Longines Calibre 13.81
This is a Longines calibre 13.81 movement from a wristwatch. The serial number 2,799,551 suggests a production date in 1912. The case is nickel, so not hallmarked, but the dial has skeleton hand and numerals for luminous paint, so it is most likely from the time of the Great War.
The 13.81 is a Lépine calibre which was first manufactured in 1903. Because it is a Lépine movement, when used in a wristwatch the small seconds would be at 9 o'clock, so in this wristwatch the small seconds have been omitted. A sibling movement of the 13.81, the 13.82 has a savonnette layout which is more suitable for use in wristwatches.
The 13.81 was made with at least four variations of the top plate. The first version had a barrel bridge that partially exposed the winding wheels, a long centre bridge, and cocks for the fourth and escape wheel pivots. Soon after the 13.81 was introduced three variations were produced, F, ZZ and A. The meaning of these designatory letters, and the purpose of the variations in appearance, is not known. They did not affect any other aspect of the calibre, i.e. all parts apart the top plates remained the same and were interchangeable between the different versions.
The 13.81 F has a plate that covers the winding wheels completely, and has a bearing for the centre wheel. Three cocks carry the bearings for the third, fourth and escape wheels. The 13.81 A has a three quarter top plate that completely covers the winding wheels and has all the bearings except for the balance. The variation shown in the images here is a 13.81 ZZ, which has a main plate the same as the 13.81 F, but the three separate cocks for the third, fourth and escape wheels combined into one plate.
If this 13.81 movement was made in 1912 as the serial number suggests, then that presents a bit of a puzzle. The calibre 13.34 had been introduced in 1910 and went on to become one of the most successful movements produced by Longines. Both calibres are 13 ligne, shown by the two leading digits of their calibre reference. It is difficult to understand why the 13.81 was still being made in the years after the introduction of the 13.34. And also the logic behind the choice of designatory suffix numbers, with 34 following after 81, is a mystery.
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Longines created a number of chronograph pocket watches, but the most famous Longines chronograph is the 13.33Z, the first chronograph movement for a wristwatch. Putting a chronograph movement into a wristwatch immediately made it useful for occupations where a hand could not be spared to hold a pocket chronograph, such as aviation. This started Longines on a path that ultimately lead to some of the most famous aviator's watches ever made.
The calibre 13.33Z was first manufactured in 1913. It was based on the Lépine calibre 13.33 from 1910 with the addition of a chronograph mechanism operating a sweep centre seconds hand and 30 minute counter sub dial at 3 o'clock. The small seconds of the base 13.33 Lépine calibre appeared on the dial at 9 o'clock. The functions of the chronograph, start, stop, reset, were controlled by a single or “mono” pusher brought out through the centre of the crown.
The 13.33Z was followed in 1936 by the 13ZN chronograph movement with the world's first flyback function, which allowed the chronograph to be reset without stopping, a feature very useful to aviators
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CH 16831 Raquette Brisebard
The symbol of the Swiss Federal cross stamped onto a watch movement indicates a Swiss patent. The number 16831 alongside this in the centre of the regulator pivot on a balance cock indicates a Swiss patent titled “Raquette Brisebard”.
Patent CH16831 was granted to Charles Brisebard of Besançon, France, on 21 May 1898. The figure here taken from the patent shows the idea. Instead of being made in one part as was usual, the regulator lever was made in two parts. One part comprises a ring with a long pointer/lever that points to the Faster/Slower scale on the balance cock. A second partial ring that carries the curb pins fits tightly around the ring on the end of the lever. The tight fit of the partial ring around the regulator lever ring means that moving the lever will normally cause the partial ring to move with it, but the the partial ring can also be turned on the regulator lever ring by holding one and turning the other.
The red arrows show how the parts are assembled to pivot in the normal way around a disc fixed to the balance cock by two screws.
The green arrow indicates a small rectangular part which carries the curb pins and is fixed by a screw (not shown) to a slot in the carrier. The slot in the carrier allows the curb pins to be moved inwards or outwards.
The purpose of the design was to allow the watch springer and timer to adjust the balance spring for isochronism, setting the curb pins in the correct place to bring the movement to time. Possible alternative positions of the curb pins are shown ghosted in the figure, which would normally cause the regulator pointer to be off centre on the scale. Holding the partial ring in the correct position, the regulator lever can be turned so that the pointer lies in the centre of the regulator scale on the balance cock.
CH 22107 Moteur Perfectionné Pour Montres de Poche
The “moteur” or motor of a mechanical watch is the barrel and mainspring. This patent is for an improved (perfectionné) mainspring barrel design which has the collet for the central eye of the mainspring screwed to the barrel arbor. This arrangement has a single bearing in the barrel for the arbor, allowing the barrel cover to be omitted resulting in a lower height barrel suitable for slimmer movements.
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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, social conventions and requirements do the selling wholesale to retailers. Agents didn't sell direct to the public.
|United Kingdom||Baume & Company - Trademark B&Co. with three stars. For more about Baume see the separate page Baume & Co.|
|USA||A. Wittnauer & Co.|
|Czechoslovakia||Wolfgang Guth, Prague.|
|Russia||Schwob Frères. Founded 1862 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, developed extensive overseas distribution network, best known for link with Tavannes.|
|Egypt||L. Kramer & Co., Watchmaker and Jeweller, Rue Mousky (Mooski) and Rue El-Manakh, Cairo|
|Sweden||Grosjean Freres - Mark G•F in an oval|
|Ottoman Empire and Turkey||Nacib K. Djezvedjian & Fils in Constantinople / Istanbul. Djezvedjian was a well known distributor of high end Swiss watches, including Longines and Vacheron Constantin, and official watch supplier to His Majesty Sultan Mehmed V.|
|India||West End Watch Co., Bombay.|
|Argentina||Jaccard and/or Perusset – at different times I think.|
There are no agents listed here for Australia, Canada or New Zealand, because Longines watches for these countries passed through Baume & Co. in London.
Longines watches are seen "with Henry Birks & Sons Limited" on the dial, London Assay Office import hallmarks in the case, and Baume's sponsor mark. Henry Birks was a Canadian, born to parents who had emigrated from Yorkshire, England before his conception. Henry Birks opened a jewellery shop in 1879 in Montreal. In 1893 he took his three sons into partnership. Birks & Sons became a chain of high-end Canadian watch and jewellery stores.
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Longines Serial Numbers and Production Dates
Longines have a superb archive of hand written ledgers recording details of every movement produced between 1867 and 1969, a total of fifteen million movements. On my visit to the factory I went into the room where the ledgers are kept. The image here shows one corner of the room, the shelves of ledgers line three walls of the room from floor to ceiling.
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, especially to the US agent (Robert, then 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 from that on the movement.
Over the period between 1867 and 1969 there were two world wars and several economic slowdowns, including the great crash of 1929 and the full blown recession of the 1930s. Because the machines had to be carefully set up for each calibre, the Longines factory manufactured movements in large batches in anticipation of demand. Although output could be adjusted in response to sales, a sharp unexpected downturn would inevitably mean that more movements had been produced than were immediately required, so some had to remain in stock for longer than usual. The serial number gives the date when the movement was manufactured, not when it was actually sent out from the factory. In times of slowdown a watch could remain in stock for several years and the dates of manufacture and dispatch be far apart.
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.
|Longines Serial Numbers From 1867 to 1969|
|Year||Month||Serial No.||Year||Month||Serial No.|
Reading the Numbers
The serial numbers tell an interesting tale. Between 1867 and 1870 the average rate of production was about 5,000 watches per annum. By 1885 it had reached around 20,000 per anuum, and by 1900 50,000. There is a rapid increase between 1900 and 1905 to an average rate of production of around 110,000 to 120,000 per annum. Production peaks at 150,000 during the Great War and then falls off after the war. This is partly due to the post war depression, which started in the early 1920s, but Longines production was falling well before then. This was because stocks of movements had been built up during the war and the end of hostilities meant that orders from newly commissioned officers for wristwatches came to an abrupt halt.
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A Visit to the Longines Watch Factory
A Longines watch of mine from 1877 won the competition in 2017 to find the oldest Longines watch in the UK. Part of the prize was a visit to the Longines factory in Saint-Imier, Switzerland, so in September 2018 I flew from an overcast, cool and wet Manchester to a sunny and surprisingly warm Geneva; the temperature was over 30°C!
I stayed overnight in Neuchâtel, a town with many interesting ancient buildings on the side of the large Lake of the same name. In the morning I was collected by a Longines driver and we headed north to Saint-Imier. As the car climbed up into the mountains that separate Neuchâtel from the Saint-Imier valley my ears popped like when taking off in an aeroplane. At the highest point of the road, a col between towering peaks of the Jura mountains, the SatNav indicated an elevation of 1,119 metres. From this point the road snaked down through woods into the valley of Saint-Imier, to the town of Saint-Imier itself.
I didn’t have the presence of mind to take a photograph, but the scene looked almost unchanged from that in the postcard dated 1920 shown here, with Saint-Imier in the background and the Longines factory in the immediate foreground. The road from Neuchâtel enters the image just above the bottom left corner
I was welcomed to the factory by the ebullient Mr Walter von Känel, who has worked at Longines since 1969 and been President since 1988. I had taken two Longines watches with me, the pocket watch from 1877 that won the UK competition, and a wristwatch that I had recently cleaned and restored. The wristwatch was quite a bit newer than the pocket watch, the Longines’ heritage department had told me that it had been invoiced to Baume & Co. in London on 17 February 1911. We had a lively chat about Longines, my interest in the company and research, and my collection of Longines watches.
The factory is quite unlike most that I have previously visited. There is no need for hard hats and protective footwear, no noise of heavy machinery bashing metal or flashes of welding. In the Longines factory everything is calm and quiet, the only regular sound a cheery ‘bonjour!’ from everyone I pass.
But the virtually silent factory is actually hard at work. It is bursting at the seams with workers, the atmosphere is calm but positively charged. Everywhere are figures sitting at workbenches, looking intently though eyeglasses or microscopes at watches, manipulating parts into place, vacuuming away any trace of contamination, and contrôling, contrôling, contrôling.
Here I want to mention that in French, ‘contrôle’ does not mean the same as the apparently similar word ‘control’ in English. In English, to control means to make something happen, e.g. you control the flow of water into a sink by turning the tap. In French, to ‘contrôle’ means to observe or examine, e.g. ‘contrôle des passeports’ means that passports are examined. In the Longines factory, contrôle means to examine something to make sure it is working properly and that it looks right; that all the functions operate correctly, the hands line up, and that there is no dust or anything else that shouldn’t be there under the glass.
Unlike making movements, which is mainly done by robots these days, fitting dials and hands and casing requires humans: no machine has the fineness of touch or the clarity of vision to produce something that is visually perfect and will pass the scrutiny of even the pickiest customers. Unfortunately I was not allowed to take photographs in the production areas, so I hope my descriptions will conjure up the atmosphere
Manufacturing a Longines watch is divided into stages called T0 to T4. The manufacture of basic components is T0, assembly of these into a movement is T1, fitting the dial and hands and casing the movement is T2, fitting the strap or bracelet is T3, and T4 is the documentation and final contrôle before dispatch. The word contrôle is repeated like a religious mantra, which in this factory is exactly what it is.
Stages T2 to T4 are performed at Saint-Imier by Longines, as well as all design and development work on new watches. Because of the workload there are also three other Longines T2 departments at other sites. In 2017 Longines made one and a half million watches, of which the T2 department at Saint-Imier assembled half a million. They are aiming to achieve two million watches per annum within a few years.
Longines stopped making movements in-house in 1987 and today uses movements made by ETA. There are two lines of T1 movement manufacture in the Saint-Imier factory, operated by ETA, making L592 and L888 movements. The ‘L’ prefix indicates that although these are based on standard ETA movements they are specially customised for Longines, as are all the movements used in Longines watches.
I was kitted out with a lab coat and overshoes and we went into the T2 assembly area. Here people were quietly putting together watches, with an emphasis on cleanliness, quality and contrôle. Dust is the major enemy, hence the lab coat and overshoes. Every workstation is equipped with three hoses, two vacuum and one blower, and the vacuum hose with a fine brush was in constant use at every stage. After every stage the watches were carefully contrôled under magnification before passing on to the next.
The final stage in the T2 area is regulation and pressure test. The watch timing machines take 16 watch heads at a time, and the testing is computer controlled. Watches are pressure qualified to either 30 metres water depth, equivalent to a static pressure of 3 atmospheres, which is adequate for everyday use, or 200 metres for diving. Watches qualified to 30m undergo pressure and vacuum tests in air. Watches qualified to 200m are also submerged for a period in water pressurised to 300 metres. They are then put on a heated bench and allowed to warm up and a drop of water at room temperature is placed on the glass. If more than a minute amount of condensation forms on the inside of the glass, the water resistance is suspect. A very tiny amount of condensation is not unexpected during this test, because normal air contains some water as humidity, more or less depending on the season.
The split between mechanical and quartz watches manufactured by Longines today is about 80/20: 80% mechanical, 20% quartz. I was surprised to learn that the majority of watches made are simple ‘three hand’ models displaying hours, minutes and seconds. Watches with ‘complications’ such as chronographs form only about 7–8% of production.
Stock and Shipping Department
In the stock and shipping department the watches are fitted with a metal bracelet or leather strap, the T3 stage. The split of bracelets to straps is about 80/20; 80% metal bracelets, 20% leather straps.
The details of the watch are then contrôled and entered into the computerised production records. Every watch produced by Longines since No. 1 in 1867 has a serial number against which all the details of movement type, case style and material, bracelet or strap etc are recorded. When I visited they were logging serial numbers in the 48 million range. The watches are then labelled and bagged along with their documentation, guarantee card and so on, ready to be put into retail packaging.
All Longines watches, from the T2 department I saw and the other, off site, T2s come into this department for the T3 and T4 stages. The numbers are huge. On an average day they receive 6,000 to 9,000 watches. On one day in November 2017, in the run up to Christmas when every retailer wants stock, they received 12,000.
I was shown through a window the compact warehouse where there are no humans but robots are constantly shuttling boxes of watches in three dimensions: new watches being placed into stock, and stock being called off to fill customer orders. The assembled orders pass to the packing department on the ground floor where they are put into transport boxes and dispatched all over the world.
The department does not occupy a huge area and such large numbers of items to be manually processed, checked, documented and put into store, and then allocated to customers’ orders and dispatched, requires rapid handling and a swift and sure logistical system. The whole process from instructing the T2 departments how many of which models of watches to produce in anticipation of orders, through all the production stages to finally calling off stock in response to customer orders, is handled by the planning department using a sophisticated computerised production and stock control system.
Customer Service Department
The customer service department handles the service and repair of customers’ watches from all over the world. There are two sections: one that handles servicing and repair of modern watches, and the heritage department which handles repairs to older watches.
In the heritage workshop are ten watchmakers who service and repair watches that cannot be handled by the service department. In addition to the benches and equipment found in any watch repairer’s workshop, there is a machine room with heavier machines that can be used to replicate any missing or damaged part, so that any Longines mechanical watch can be repaired and restored.
The heritage workshop has stocks of original factory components dating back to the nineteenth century, a benefit of the unbroken history of watchmaking on the site. They also have an active policy of buying up old spare parts from around the world wherever they can be found. Before my visit they had recently acquired 200kg of spare parts from an overseas company, to be catalogued and placed into the drawers and cupboards in the stock room.
There is a goldsmith jeweller attached to this department who performs repairs to cases and bracelets. He showed me a gold case from a Longines 13ZN chronograph for which he was rebuilding the lugs from scratch.
The department that services more recent watches is, of course, very well organised. When a watch is received it is first photographed to document the state in which it arrived. It is then examined to establish what work needs to be done and confirm the availability of spare parts. If spares are not available because of the age of the watch, then it becomes a candidate for the heritage workshop. Once availability of any necessary parts is confirmed an estimate is prepared and, if this is accepted, work begins. The case is passed through an automatic cleaning system: ultrasonically cleaned in soap and water, rinsed in ultra-pure water to avoid spotting and then dried with warm air. The movements are stripped, cleaned, reassembled and oiled, with parts replaced as necessary.
Longines policy is to put into stock enough spare parts for servicing watches for at least 15 years after the model has ceased production. Spares are often available for much longer than this, but I was shown a Longines ‘leaf’ watch that had come in for repair from a Chinese customer. The Leaf is an extremely thin, less than 2.0 mm, Longines quartz watch that requires a special thin battery. Unfortunately the manufacturer of the battery ceased production some years ago. At that time Longines bought a large number of the batteries for stock but, like all batteries, they had only a limited shelf life which has now passed, so the Leaf watch can no longer be serviced.
While the problems about batteries were explained to me, my 107-years-old Longines wristwatch was quietly ticking away on my wrist. I have mentioned that a mechanical watch is the most reliable timekeeper for space travellers; evidently this is also the case for time travellers!
Longines has a long history of timing sporting events, and supplying timepieces to explorers and aviators. The museum has many interesting artefacts covering this aspect of the brand’s history which I will not describe here, but if you are a collector of Longines watches from any era, a visit to the museum should be at the top of your priority list. However, my principal interest on this visit was to examine the ledgers where details of my Longines pocket watch and wristwatch were recorded as they made their way through the factory 141 and 118 years before.
My Longines pocket watch that won the competition to find the oldest Longines watch in the UK has the serial number 94,237. It has a key wound and set 15 jewel Longines calibre 19B movement, with right angle lever escapement and club tooth escape wheel. It was invoiced to Baume & Company in London on 11 August 1877.
The image here shows the watch resting on the page of the ledger that records its production as one of a batch of six numbered 94,233 to 94,238. You see more images and read a full description of it at Early Longines Pocket Watch.
The case of this watch is unusual for a Swiss watch at the time, in that it is made in sterling silver, including the inner cuvette. Swiss hallmarking of watches was not introduced until 1880, and this watch was made before then. When this watch was made in 1877, Swiss silver watches were usually stamped ‘Fine Silver’ without a fineness, which was probably ·875, the higher of the two standards for silver made legal for hallmarking in 1880. The inner cuvette was usually made of base metal and stamped ‘metal’ or ‘cuivre’.
This watch with its case made of sterling silver is one of the small number of Swiss watches that were made between 1874 and 1887 that had their cases hallmarked in a British assay office. This required silver of sterling standard, which is ·925, and the inner cover also had to be made of the same grade of silver or the case would not be hallmarked. If you look at the wording in the box directly underneath the watch, the word sterling is visible in the top line, and the word anglaises in the bottom line. There also appears to be mention of the name Baume and gilt ½, all of which suggest that this watch was made to a specification of Baume's, with sterling silver case and gilt half plate movement in the English style. If you can read the rest of what its recorded, please let me know what it says!
The Longines wristwatch that I was wearing carries the serial number 2,422,201. It is fitted with a Longines manually wound mechanical movement, cal. 13.56. The cal. 13.56 is a 13 ligne savonnette movement with straight line Swiss lever escapement, first manufactured in 1891 when it would have been fitted to small pendant hunter watches. When a demand for men’s wristwatches arose, the 13.56 was the correct size and layout for an open face wristwatch. Details of the movement of this watch can be seen at Longines Calibre 13.56 movement.
Wristwatch number 2,422,201 was one of a batch of six with serial numbers from 2,422,197 to 2,422,202 which, with a number of others, were invoiced on 17 February 1911 to the company Baume & Co.
In the image here the wristwatch is shown lying on the page of the ledger where a clerk recorded the details of the progress of the batch of six movements through the factory during December 1910 and January 1911. On the facing page (not shown) the first date recorded is 16/12, 16 December 1910. This is followed by 19/12 for the gold plating, 23/12 for the movement complete, 10/1 (January 1911) for the escapement, including the specialised work of vibrating and fitting the balance springs. The batch then entered regulation on 16/1 and was passed nine days later on 25/1. Casing took from 27/1 to 30/1. The final entries in the left-most column show that the batch was finished on 6 February, and blue stamp marks against every entry on the page show that they were all invoiced to Baume & Co. on 17 February 1911.
The wristwatch has a case manufactured by the Geneva company of François Borgel. Longines manufactured many of their own watch cases in house, a visit by the BHI in 1905 reported that there was always about 1,000kg (that's a ton!) of silver bullion in the factory being processed into cases. But cases made by Borgel to his patented design were recognised as being exceptionally robust and well-sealed, and Longines was a long-standing customer. Many officers heading to the front during the Great War selected wristwatches with Borgel cases as being the best protection for a watch destined for the mud of the trenches. This wristwatch was almost certainly originally bought by a British officer in the years before the Great War.
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- Longines, Daria Marozzi, Gianluigi Toselli, Edizioni Giada s.r.l., Bologna 1990.
- At the Heart of an Industrial Vocation - Longines Watch Movements (1832 - 2009), Patrick Linder, Editions des Longines, 2009.
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Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2021 all rights reserved. This page updated August 2021. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.