Tavannes Watch Co., Schwöb Frères and CymaCopyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved.
Tavannes is in a French speaking canton so the s is silent: it should be pronounced ‘ta-van’.
Henri-Frédéric Sandoz (usually just Henri Sandoz; born 1851 Le Locle, died 1913 Tavannes) founded a watch manufacturing company in his own name in 1870 in Le Locle. Henri departed from the company in 1891 and another family member, Jules Sandoz, continued the business.
In 1891, Henri Sandoz set up a watchmaking company in Tavannes, a small municipality in the French-speaking canton of Bern in the Jura mountains. The factory had been constructed by the municipality of Tavannes to attract just such a business to the town.
The Tavannes Watch Company was founded on 25 September 1895 as a public limited company. The capital of 360,000 francs of the company was jointly provided by two companies of La Chaux-de-Fonds; Schwöb Frères et Cie, founded by Théodore Schwöb, and Schwöb et Cie, founded by Joseph Schwöb. Henri Sandoz was appointed director.
Schwöb Frères had extensive contacts for sales and marketing which was used to sell the products of the new company. The brand Cyma was created for this purpose.
The Sandoz brand continues to this day used by at least four different companies around the world. The brand Cyma also continues to this day. The brand Tavannes has been resuscitated. Schwöb Frères has disappeared completely.
Tavannes Watch Co.
Sandoz was a talented engineer and under his direction the company developed its own calibres (watch movements) and also advanced automatic machines (specialised lathes, milling machines, etc.) to manufacture them. Tavannes also supplied watchmaking machinery to other manufacturers under the name Tavannes Machines Co. SA.
Schwöb Frères had a well developed distribution network, established over their 30 years in the business, through which they could market and sell Tavannes watches. This instantly gave the Tavannes Watch Co. access to a large market instead of having to develop it from scratch.
Sandoz was a prolific inventor. Between 1889 and 1907 he registered 39 patents for improvements to watches in his own name, and a further 11 were registered by the Tavannes Watch Co. SA under his direction before his death in 1913.
Although Tavannes suffered like many Swiss watch companies during the “quartz crisis” the brand was resuscitated in 2008 by a husband and wife partnership who have a genuine interest in the brand and its history. One of the new owners, Florin Niculescu, actually came to my workshop in Cheshire to see my Tavannes Submarine watches and interview me about them - you can see my Submarine watch on their history page at Tavannes Watches History.
Schwöb Frères (Schwöb Brothers) was founded in 1862 in La Chaux-de-Fonds by Theodore Schwöb as an établisseur, an assembler of watches. They purchased ébauches (bare movements), cases, dials and hands and assembled these into watches. Schwöb Frères trademarked a number of brand names over the years and developed an extensive overseas distribution network to market and sell their watches. In 1874 Schwöb Frères established an American distributorship.
Cyma is pronounced see-mah.
It appears that Schwöb Frères created the name Cyma as a brand name for Tavannes watches sold through the Schwöb Frères network. Cyma was short and easily pronounced, although being of Swiss-French origin it should be pronounced see-mah, which is not immediately apparent to English speakers. Eventually the name Cyma became much better known than either Tavannes or Schwöb Frères.
The arrangement between Tavannes and Schwöb Frères wasn't an amalgamation; the two companies remained separate and watch continued to be made under the Tavannes name. The Tavannes Watch Co. sold watches as well as machinery to other companies, and Schwöb Frères continued to sell other watches under its other brand names.
Sometimes it is said that "cyma" means summit in French but this isn't right, the French word for summit is "sommet". It appears that cyma came from the same Latin root as the French word "cime", which is usually translated as top or crown.
Cyma-Tavannes was one of the few Swiss companies that up until the 1950s produced most of its own movements. They were a manufacture, not just assemblers who bought movements from other companies and put them into cases with their name on the dial. Cyma-Tavannes finally ceased all in-house production in 1966, the rights to the brand name were purchased by Chronos Holding.
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U.S. Pat. 24 May 1904
US Pat 24 May 1904
Tavannes Watch Co. movements often bear a reference to a US patent "U.S. PAT 24 May 1904" or "U.S. PAT 24 MAY. 1904" (the stamp is poor in the P and it often looks like "U.S. FAT 24 May 1904" as shown in the image here). This is a reference to patent US 760647 for a negative set stem winding and setting mechanism granted to Henri Sandoz on that date, a US version of a Swiss patent CH 28243 granted to Sandoz in 1903. US Pat 24 May 1904
This mechanism was designed on the negative set or "American system" principles. If a negative set mechanism is present in one of these movements, the setting lever screw, which normally releases the stem, is not present and the legend "U.S. PAT 24 May 1904" is stamped where the setting lever screw would otherwise be, as shown in the picture on the immediate left where the "Y" of May or the "19" of the "1904" part of the legend is where the setting lever screw would be on a movement with positive stem setting.
The Tavanne's Mystery
Tavannes with mysterious apostrophe
Occasionally watches are seen that have "Tavanne's Watch" on the dial. This is a grammatical error and a mystery. The name of the town is Tavannes, which is singular and requires no apostrophe. The name of the company was "Tavannes Watch Company" and again an apostrophe would be wrong.
The addition of an apostrophe as in "Tavanne's Watch" would be the correct punctuation for watch that belongs to Tavanne, which is clearly ridiculous. The words on the dial usually appear to be painted rather than fired into the enamel, so they were added after the dial was made, but when is impossible to say. The first time I saw this I thought that someone had painted it onto the dial of a watch they were selling, perhaps thinking it would increase its value in some way, but it appears too often to have been a one off occurrence.
The movements are often clearly branded Cyma, the reason for putting the name Tavannes on the dial of one of these watches, especially as "Tavanne's Watch", is a mystery.
Stayte, Admiral and Tacy
Tavannes "Stayte" branding.
Over the years of their existence, Schwöb Frères and Tavannes registered dozens of brand names which are listed in Pritchard and Kochmann so I won't repeat them here, but one name that doesn't appear in either Pritchard or Kochmann is "Stayte". I have seen the Stayte brand on a Tavannes movement in a wristwatch with a Dennison made case, with the brand "Stayte" appearing on the dial and on the distinctive central finger as shown in the picture here.
Sometimes the name Admiral, a Tavannes brand, or Admiral Tacy (a combination of TAvannes and CYma) appears on Tavanes or Cyma watches, and Stayte might be a further development of the Tacy theme.
Watches with some or all of the brand names Stayte, Admiral and Tacy on the movement are often found with cases made by the Dennison Watch Case Company.
Albana U W Co.
Watches are seen with the dial signed Albana U. W. Co., Swiss Made. These usually (always?) have Dennison English made cases. Their movements are stamped Swiss Made and US Pat 24 May 1904, which is a Tavannes patent, showing that the movements were made by Tavannes.
It is not clear what the initials U. W. stand for. Possibly this was an attempt to imitate the Alpina Union Horlogère; the name Albana is written in script on the dial, which could be mistaken for Alpina, and the U taken for Union.
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Langbourne Trench Watches
During the Great War, Tavannes supplied Langbourne trench watches to Birch & Gaydon who were one of the premier jewellers in London at the time, later acquired by Asprey.
The Langbourne watch has a screw back and bezel case similar to the Submarine watch also made by Tavannes and described in the next section. The Langbourne case is not waterproof; it does not have the gland in the stem tube or recesses for gaskets in the screw back and bezel that the Submarine case watch has. Langbourne cases all carry a reference number 3305910, only three digits short of the reference number seen in all Submarine watch cases, 3305913. This suggests that these numbers are Tavannes case design reference numbers, and that the fully waterproof case of the Submarine watch was a development of the Langbourne case.
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The Submarine Wristwatch
In December 1917 at the height of the Great War (World War 1, WW1) the following brief article appeared in the British Horological Institute's "Horological Journal". It reports a waterproof wristwatch created at the request of two British submarine commanders. I think it is rather fascinating so I have transcribed it here in full.
In fact, the Horological Journal was rather late in reporting this watch, because there is evidence that the “Submarine” wristwatch had been in use since October 1915, or over two years, before the time the article appeared.
Reproduced below is the entire article as it appeared in the Horological Journal, there are no more details about the watch or the manufacturer, or unfortunately about the two submarine commanders mentioned in the article and who apparently caused these wristwatches to be made.
From The Horological Journal, December 1917.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE "SERVICE" WATCH.
The war has led not only to new inventions, but to the development and improvement of things previously known. In the latter category may be included the wristlet watch, little used by the sterner sex before the war, but now to be seen on the wrist of nearly every man in uniform and of many men in civilian attire. The first wristlet watch was naturally a small pocket watch fitted into a leather holder and strapped on the wrist. This was soon improved by soldering to the sides "knuckles" or loops, through which the strap was passed. But such a watch worn on the wrist was so open to dust, and so much exposed to the effects of the weather, that it quickly became dirty. To obviate this the case was next made in one piece, into which the works were screwed; but this device was found to have certain disadvantages. With the advent of war a great demand arose for a watch that would stand the hard wear incidental to "service" use, and it is claimed that the demand has now been adequately met. Two submarine commanders approached a certain firm, and asked them to consider the construction of a special watch suitable for their work. It was explained that it must fulfil certain conditions. (1) It must be water-tight; for even when a submarine is on the surface the deck is always more or less awash. (2) It must be non-magnetic; for under water the submarine is driven by electricity, and in such a limited space watches made of magnetic materials are necessarily affected. (3) As, for the same reason, a compensation balance of the ordinary kind is impossible, the balance must be of some material which shows a minimum of expansion and contraction with variations in temperature. This condition is met by the employment of an alloy of iron and nickel, which expands and contracts so little that this factor may be disregarded. (4) The face must be quite legible at any time, and as the usual yellow luminous figures, when placed on a white dial, are not really discernible in moonlight, twilight, or subdued artificial light, a black dial is used, thus making it easy to read the exact hour in any light. A watch fulfilling every one of these conditions, and fitted in addition with a small luminous seconds-hand, has now been on the market for some months, and appears to have before it a distinctive sphere of usefulness.
Submarine Watch Advert May 1916
One of these Submarine wristwatches is in the possession of a good friend of mine, Richard Edwards, and the pictures of the watch further down the page are reproduced with Richard's kind permission. I now also have one of these Submarine watches which is shown in the photograph here. It is in unrestored condition. The hands are black painted brass, presumably steel hands were not used because the watch had to be anti-magnetic. Unlike Richard's watch, this one still has Brook & Son Edinburgh faintly visible in grey enamel paint on the dial.
The Submarine watch is made water tight by having a screw back and screw bezel fitted with gaskets, and a waterproof gland seal in the pendant, the tube on the side of the case where the stem, the shaft connected to the crown, enters the case. This is the area that watchmakers found most difficult to seal. In the Submarine watch this seal was effected by a gland that was compressed against a smooth section of the stem by a gland nut.
The Submarine watch was made by Tavannes and advertised for sale during the Great War by Brook and Son, Edinburgh's foremost jewellers at the time who, in the 1916/17 Edinburgh & Leith Post Office Directory announced that they were “Goldsmiths to H.M. The King, H.R.H. Princess Louise, The King's Bodyguard for Scotland (the Royal Company of Archers), watch and clock makers, ...”
The advert by Brook and Son reproduced here for one of these Submarine wristwatches is from May 1916 in the middle of the Great War. No details of the manufacturer are given. This is one of the earliest adverts I have found for the Submarine wristwatch, and the first with a picture of the watch. The earliest advert I have seen is dated 15 April 1916. Brook and Son advertised that they were the sole agents for the watch. However, there is evidence that the first Submarine watches were delivered in 1915.
The article in the Horological Journal December 1917 said that the watches had been on the market for “some months.” In fact, the Submarine watch was made and sold much earlier than this, in 1915. The Scotsman newspaper of 6 April 1916 contains an advertisement by Brook & Son as follows:
The Scotsman: 6 April 1916
Naval Officer writes : — “The ‘SUBMARINE’ wristwatch purchased six months ago has been a great success.” The “Submarine” is the only water-tight Wrist Watch made.
Brook & Son, 87 George Street, Edinburgh.
This must surely be from one of the submarine commanders who originally ordered the watch, and “great success” must mean that it had been in use in wet conditions on a submarine, being the specific conditions for which the watch was ordered. The date of the advert, at the beginning of April 1916, and the six months elapsed period suggests that the submarine commander took delivery of his watch in October 1915.
At the outbreak of the Great War, the British Royal Navy Submarine Service was rather looked down upon by regular sailors in surface ships. The first Royal Navy submarine had been taken into service in 1901. The designs of the boats (submarines are always called boats) had been slowly developed before the war, but they were limited in endurance and capability. It required particularly resilient individuals to sail these underdeveloped and unproven machines on the high seas, plunging below the cold waters of the North Sea or the Atlantic, or even under the warmer but no less dangerous waters of the Mediterranean.
During the Gallipoli campaign British submarines carried out operations in the Sea of Marmara after having run the treacherous and heavily mined Dardanelles straits. HMSub E14 remains the only vessel in the history of the Royal Navy to have had two separate commanders awarded the Victoria Cross, Lieutenant Commander Courtney Boyle and Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey White (posthumously). E14 was followed into the Sea of Marmara by the even more famous E11, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith, who was also awarded the Victoria Cross after the first of three sorties and later promoted to Commander.
It seems that two (currently unknown) members of this tough, resourceful and determined class of men sauntered into Brook and Son's shop on Edinburgh's George Street some time in the spring or summer of 1915 and inquired about the possibility of obtaining waterproof wristwatches for their wet and dangerous work. They must have had some clout, because it appears that Brook and Son wasted no time in exploring the possibility with Swiss manufacturers. It is easy to imagine that the two submarine commanders were most likely well known, and probably well connected, members of Scottish society and regular customers of Brook & Son.
The premises of Brook & Sons at 87 George Street, the “spiritual home” of the Submarine watch, were taken over in the 1950s by Hamilton & Inches, who are still at the same address today, Warrant Holders to Her Majesty the Queen and Scotland's leading jewellery and luxury goods store.
Images by permission © Richard Edwards
The Submarine Wristwatch
The Submarine wristwatch is made water tight by having a screw-on back and screw-on bezel, which are both fitted with compressible gaskets to improve their water tightness, and a waterproof compressed gland seal in the stem tube to prevent water entering the case through the hole where the winding stem enters.
All the Submarine wristwatch cases that I have seen carry the same number 3305913 and a shorter three of four digit number. The number 3305913 appears to be a case design reference number, the shorter number seems to be a serial number for the specific watch. The case measures a shade under 35mm diameter, about 34.8mm. This is a typical case size for a Great War era wristwatch with a 13 ligne Swiss movement.
During the Great War, Tavannes supplied watches to Birch & Gaydon who were one of the premier jewellers in London at the time, later acquired by Asprey. The Langbourne has a screw back and bezel case similar to the Submarine watch. The Langbourne case is not waterproof; it does not have the gland in the stem tube or recesses for waxed cotton gasket in the screw back and bezel that the Submarine case watch has. Langbourne cases all carry a reference number 3305910, only three digits short of the reference number 3305913 seen in all Submarine watch cases. This suggests that these numbers are Tavannes case design reference numbers, and that the fully waterproof case of the Submarine watch was a development of the Langbourne case.
The first picture shows the black dial with luminous hands and numerals as described in the Horological Journal article. To make the numbers and hands easily visible in low light and in the dark they were painted with radioactive luminous paint, a clear varnish that acted as a binder containing radium and a fluorescent material, doped zinc sulphide, which glowed all the time. The numerals have lost their radium paint over the years, a common occurrence because the varnish is degraded over time by the radiation.
It is interesting to note that someone has thought carefully about making the numbers on this dial as visible as possible in low light conditions, . Watches with black dials either have the numerals outlined in skeleton form on an overall black dial, relying on infill paint to make them visible, or blocked out in white as this watch. Block white numerals such as this give the greatest contrast to the black of the dial and are clearly visible even when the paint is missing. The white background of the numbers ensured that light emitted backwards from the luminous material was reflected forward, maximising the luminous effect, rather than being absorbed in the dial as it would be with a black background. The hands are skeletonised to carry luminous paint, and unusually for a watch dial of this period, the seconds hand is also skeletonised and carries luminous paint, as described in the Horological Journal article. It is usually only the hour and minute hand that carry luminous paint and the seconds hand is a simple unadorned baton.
The next picture shows the means of sealing the winding stem. There is a gland or packing ring in the stem tube, secured and compressed by a round brass nut which is externally threaded and screws into the end of the stem tube. The original gland was oiled leather and has been replaced with one of modern rubber. The gland is compressed by the nut onto a perfectly smooth section of stem and gives a very effective seal. In this picture you can also see the threads on the middle part of the case for the screw bezel and screw back. The case back and the bezel have milling around their edges, just visible in the picture of the face of the watch above, to grip whilst turning to screw them on and off.
The next picture shows the case back, which carries the Glasgow Assay Office town mark for imported wares, two block letters F opposed and prone, the date letter "u" for the Glasgow hallmarking year 1917 to 1918, and the 925 of Sterling silver. The sponsor's mark JW appears to have been registered by James Weir of Glasgow. There is also reference (Brevet +) to a Swiss patent, but unfortunately no patent number. The recess machined into the case back inside the screw threads carries a sealing gasket. This was originally a plaited washer impregnated with either grease or wax.
A longer version of this article was published in the NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin in 2014. At the time of writing I didn't know about the connection with Brook and Son of Edinburgh discussed on this page.
Click this link to DOWNLOAD the article in full! D10643
The movement was made by the Tavannes Watch Co. It is a Tavannes 13 ligne 3B calibre fitted with a special balance spring and balance.
The balance is solid white metal and the balance spring is a white metal, rather than the cut bimetallic compensation balance and blued carbon steel balance spring usually seen in these movements. I have tested with a demagnetiser and the balance spring does not respond to the magnetic field at all. I have not tested it for response to temperature, but I think it is safe to say that the balance spring is made from the "low expansion non-magnetic" alloy described in the Horological Journal article.
This was a fairly early use of temperature compensating alloys and throws light on another interesting area of horological development. During my research into the Rolex screw crown I tried to find out more about the two inventors of the screw down crown whose patent Hans Wilsdorf purchased, Perregaux and Perret. In the course of these investigations I came across one Paul Perret (1854 - 1903), and what a very interesting fellow he was.
Paul Perret was a Swiss watch timer, experimenter and inventor. He took out the very first Swiss patent, No. CH 1, in 1888. When Charles Édouard Guillaume announced the discovery of Invar, an iron-nickel alloy with very low temperature coefficient of expansion, Perret immediately requested a sample of the material which he made into a balance spring.
When Perret tested a watch fitted with the balance spring made of this new material, he found that rather than going more slowly as the temperature increased, the watch actually gained. This must have surprised Perret; he had discovered that Invar has a positive temperature coefficient of elasticity. Unlike a normal carbon steel balance spring that got weaker as it got hotter, a balance spring made from Invar got stronger as it got hotter.
Guillaume says that this was independently confirmed later by Marc Thury, but it was clearly Perret who made the discovery. Guillaume was only looking for a material that was dimensionally stable for his standards of length measurement, but Perret was trying to improve watch escapements and hence his interest in any new material such as Invar with properties that might be useful for balance springs.
After Perret had informed Guillaume of discovery the two agreed to collaborate on research into the elastic properties of nickel-steel alloys, which they did during the summer of 1897. The most accurate and convenient way of measuring the elastic modulus of these alloys at the time was to make them into balance springs and observe the rate of a watch fitted with them at different temperatures. Guillaume depended on Perret for this.
Paul Perret Balance Springs
On 6 May 1897 Perret registered in Switzerland a claim for a patent on an escapement with a balance spring whose strength increased with temperature sufficiently to compensate for the increase in moment of inertia of a plain (uncompensated) balance. This patent was published in Switzerland on January 15, 1898, as CH 14270, in Great Britain on February 5, 1898, as GB 25,142 and in the United States on March 12, 1901, as U.S. 669,763. Perret founded his own company to make these balance springs.
The advertisement from La Fédération horlogère suisse shown here is from September 1901. Under the title “Timing of watches” the ad says that “The best timing is obtained, especially for non-magnetic watches, with balance springs of nickel-steel, contact the manufacturer Paul Perret, Fleurier.”
Examples of changes in daily rate caused by increases in temperature are given and range from ordinary non-magnetic balance springs, which are said to vary from 15 to 18 seconds per degree centigrade, through to Paul Perret’s nickel-steel non-magnetic compensation balance spring, which is said to vary from 0 to 1 seconds per degree centigrade. The remark at the bottom of the ad says that the nickel-steel balance springs allow the elimination of the cut bimetallic balance and that balances made all of brass ("tout en laiton") give the best results.
Perret continued to work with Guillaume, and if he hadn't died in 1903 at age only 49 his name would be much better known today. After Perret's death his daughter Emma granted the rights to use Perret's patent to Spiraux Réunies.
Throughout his career Perret continued to work on compensating balance springs. In studies into balances and compensating balance springs that were published in 1905 after his death, one of the companies he mentioned working with was Tavannes. Tavannes was founded in 1891 by Henri-Frédéric Sandoz who was a talented and inventive watchmaker, designing his own calibres and the machines to make them. It is surely not a coincidence that it was Tavannes that made the Submarine watch.
The one question that puzzles me is why so little is known about these historically important watches that were waterproof, non-magnetic, and with auto compensation for temperatures effects? I have never seen them mentioned in any book or article. They were clearly fully waterproof more than ten years before the Rolex Oyster, which many people think of as the first waterproof watch, or at least the first waterproof wristwatch.
The Submarine watch was also remarkably practical compared to the Rolex Oyster - there is no need to unscrew the crown to wind or set the watch, and therefore no threads on the stem tube to wear. Thread wear was a major problem for the early Oysters before automatic winding was introduced. The Submarine watch also remained waterproof while either winding or setting the watch, which the Oyster didn't; there is no need to remember to screw down the crown after winding to make the watch waterproof again, a feature that has caused grief to many Rolex Oyster owners over the years. The compressed gasket sealing for the stem is not as ultimately waterproof as a screw down crown in withstanding water pressure at diving depths, but then Rolex didn't make any claims about this for the first Oysters and left the stage clear for Omega to make the claim of producing the first dive watch; the 1932 Omega Marine.
I suppose the answer could be found in the way the Submarine watch came about, during the depths of WW1 as the result of a request by two submarine commanders. The extra work involved in making the watch waterproof and anti magnetic would have made it more expensive. Was it regarded as too expensive to be commercially viable, or was it that no one involved saw that the public might want a waterproof watch? 1915 was long before recreational diving became popular following the invention in 1925 of Scuba diving by Commander Yves le Prieur.
The promotion of a waterproof watch as something for the average person to want or need seems to have been a particular vision of Hans Wilsdorf, similar to the way that Steve Jobs had a vision for the iPod and iPad and almost single handedly created markets for portable mp3 players and tablet computers. But without such a visionary to champion its cause this watch faded into obscurity.
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Schwöb Frères Patent 155519 – 1930s cushion case wristwatch
Cyma cushion case wristwatch
Pictured here is a watch with an interesting case. The trademark of the initials FB over a Geneva key shows that the case was manufactured by the Geneva case making company Borgel, which was then owned by Taubert & Fils. It was made to a design patented by Schwöb Frères. These watches are sometimes thought to be related to the Rolex Oyster because they look similar, but that is the only connection, a visual similarity.
The movement in this watch is a 15 jewel Cyma, and the watchcase is 9 carat gold. These watches are also seen with movements marked only Tavannes, and sometimes with both Cyma and Tavannes. Whatever the marking, the movements were made in the Tavannes factory.
The case is marked inside at the top with the Taubert & Fils / Borgel trademark of the initials FB over a key of Geneva, and at the bottom with the collective responsibility mark or Poinçon de Maître of Manufacture Taubert, the Geneva key with the number 11 on the lever. I have highlighted this mark because it is not easy to see on the reduced size image.
Then, working down from the top, the other marks are:
- Reference to a Swiss patent: the word PATENT followed by the Swiss federal cross with underneath the Swiss patent number 155 519.
- The Glasgow import mark of two opposed block letter "F"s prone, and the date letter "n" for the hallmarking year 1936 to 1937.
- The 9 with 375 standard mark for 9 carat gold.
- The initials SFC in a fancy shield, the registered sponsor's mark of Schwöb Frères.
Although the sponsor's mark SFC in a fancy shield was registered at the Edinburgh and Glasgow Assay Offices the address given was Schwöb Frères & Co. Ltd. S.A. of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. It is strange that a Swiss address is given, registrants had to have a UK address for obvious reasons - where to send invoices, if no other reason. The Edinburgh book of registrations indicates that a similar SFC mark was registered by Robert Pringle & Sons, so it seems that Pringle acted as UK assay agents for Schwöb Frères, but that Schwöb wanted to have their own distinctive sponsor's mark.
Swiss patent CH 155 519
Swiss patent CH 155519 entitled "Boîte de montre" was deposited on 17th March 1931 by Schwöb Frères & Cie SA of La Chaux-de-Fonds and granted on 30 June 1932. The objective of the patent is rather difficult to understand but it is broadly concerned with fitting a round movement into a "forme" or shaped case, in this instance a cushion case.
There is no mention in the patent of any claim for the case being waterproof or étanche. However, the advert reproduced here by Stockall Marples from July 1933 clearly shows one of these watches and calls it ‘The Watertight Tavannes’, saying that a patent had been applied for. Since this is a year after the Swiss patent had been granted it implies that an application had been made for a British patent, but I have not been able to trace that.
Case Construction Details
The shaped outer case is made in two parts, a back part that carries the lugs and a loose front "cover".
The movement is held by case screws in a carrier ring with a snap on rear dust cover. In the figure from the patent I have coloured this carrier ring green. The carrier sits in an internal flange that is welded to the back part of the case, I have coloured this flange yellow.
The movement carrier is fixed to the internal flange by two pinned joints, one at nine o'clock and another at three o'clock. In the Fig 1 at the top of the image from the patent reproduced here I have ringed the locations of these two pinned joints in red. The joint at nine o'clock acts like a hinge so that the movement carrier can be swung out from the case when the pin across the stem tube has been removed.
At the nine o'clock joint the carrier ring has a short tube soldered to it, and there are two corresponding short tubes on the internal flange. A pin connects all three tubes. At three o'clock there are two short tubes on the internal flange either side of a cut out for the stem tube. A pin passing through these two tubes goes over the stem tube as shown in Fig 3 in the middle of the image.
In attempt to make this clearer I have added some coloured detail to Fig 2, the circle divided at 45° and coloured green and yellow. The green part represents the tube soldered to the carrier ring, the yellow part represents the tubes soldered to the flange at nine o'clock. In reality of course these tubes are full circles. There is no green tube at three o'clock next to the crown, there the pin passes over the stem tube that is attached to the carrier ring.
When the two pins are in place the carrier ring is securely fixed to the back part of the case. The loose front cover is then dropped into place. The bezel has a milled top for grip and underneath this an external screw thread. This engages with an internal thread in the movement carrier ring. Screwing down the bezel clamps the front cover of the case to the back part. This is shown clearly in Fig. 2. There is no gasket or any other provision for hermetically sealing the joint between the front cover and the back part of the case, but if both parts are flat and square the joint is quite tight.
Unfortunately one or both of the hinge-like joints is often broken or missing, most often the tubes where the pin crosses the stem tube. This leaves the movement carrier ring not firmly attached to the back part of the case, which is not good because the clamping together of the front cover and back part of the case depend on the carrier ring being firmly fixed to the back part of the case.
The damaged joint is usually at three o'clock where the pin should pass between two tubes and over the stem tube. This seems to be because the tubes have been torn away from the internal flange by someone levering up the bezel next to the crown instead of unscrewing it.
Watches with this case are often compared to the early Rolex Oysters because of their visual similarity. But that is all it, a similar appearance. The Rolex Oyster was designed in 1926, some six years before this case, and the Oyster's screw case and screw down crown were designed to be waterproof, which this case is not, despite the claim to be watertight in the advertisement reproduced above. Advertising standards were less tight in the 1930s than they are today!
There are no obvious waterproof features in the Schwöb Frères case - for instance the two halves of the case simply press together and there is no gasket to make the joint waterproof. The Schwöb Frères patent contains no reference to the cases being waterproof, or even dust proof - making a sealed or "tight" (étanche) case does not appear to be one of the objectives of the design. However, the cases are well made, as would be expected of the Borgel / Taubert company, and the screw bezel presses the front and back of the case tightly together so that the movement is relatively well protected against dust and damp.
It is evident that Schwöb Frères designed and patented the case, and then had cases to this patented design manufactured by Taubert & Fils to take Tavannes / Cyma movements, and then they were imported them into Britain, probably by Robert Pringle & Sons who arranged for them to be hallmarked and then sold them on to retailers.
The images of the complete watch and inside case were kindly supplied to me by Simon Collier, who usually has some interesting watches for sale at All Time Classics. The image of the dismantled watch is mine.
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Case Reference Numbers
Sterling 935 with one Bear
The cases of some Tavannes watches appear to have a consistent series of reference numbers. For example, see the case in the image here. It has two numbers, 3305900 and 17548. The longer number appears to be a case design reference number, because it fits into the series shown below.
- 3305900: The case in the image with a jointed (hinged) back.
- 3305910: Screw back and bezel case, used for the Langbourne wristwatch.
- 3305911: Borgel screw case wristwatch.
- 3305913: Screw back and bezel case with stem gland, used for the Submarine wristwatch
- 3305932: Cushion case with fixed wire lugs and snap on back
- 3309910: Borgel screw case dated 1931/32 by hallmarks
The case of the Submarine watch is very similar to that of the Langbourne, the screw back and bezel look identical but the Langbourne case doesn't have the recesses for gaskets which the Submarine case has. The Submarine case has the additional feature of a compression gland in the pendant (stem tube) to seal the entry point of the stem into the case.
I have seen the number 3305911 in a Cyma watch with a Borgel screw case. Its position in the list, between the screw back and bezel cases used for the Langbourne and Submarine wristwatches is interesting, suggesting that these three designs of wristwatch all originate from a similar period around the beginning of the Great War.
The other shorter numbers seen in cases, such as 17548 in the case in the image here, is most likely a serial number. This might correspond to the movement serial number.
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Tavannes Cyma Cal. 330/331/332/333
The photograph shows a 13''' (thirteen ligne) Tavannes Calibre 330 series 13''' (13 ligne) movement from a Borgel wristwatch. Although this particular movement has the legend "Tavannes Watch Co" engraved on the ratchet wheel, these movements are often seen without any reference to the manufacturer. The shape of the main cock (not a bridge) holding the pivots of the centre, third and fourth wheels is very distinctive.
This particular movement is in a Borgel screw case watch hallmarked 1928/29. The plates and cocks are decorated with Côtes de Genè, or Geneva Stripes. This movement is seen in several grades from basic 15 jewel with no decoration to movements with extra jewels, jewels set in chatons, and decoration including Côtes de Genè as here, and perlage.
The insert to the right shows the entry in the 1936 edition of Jobin "La Classification Horlogère des Calibres de Montres ... Suisse". It shows that the movement is a 13 ligne calibre. Given the four numbers below the calibre size under the Réf, the meaning of the "3B" is not clear.
The entry in Jobin indicates that this movement was made in both savonnette (Ref 330 - 332) and Lépine (Ref 331 - 333) forms. The movements shown in the photograph and the picture from Jobin are both savonnette layout, suitable for wristwatches with small seconds at 6 o'clock.
This movement was made with both normal stem winding and setting and negative or American set. It seems quite likely that the 330/331 forms were normal set and the 332/333 variants were negative set.
Sometimes the name Admiral, a Tavannes brand, or Admiral Tacy (a combination of TAvannes and CYma) appears on the watch. I have also seen this movement with the brand "Stayte" on the distinctive central finger.
U.S. PAT 24 May 1904
US Pat 24 May 1904, no setting lever screw.
These movements often bear a reference to a US patent "U.S. PAT 24 May 1904" or "U.S. PAT 24 MAY. 1904" (the stamp is poor in the P and it often looks like "U.S. FAT 24 May 1904"). This is a reference to patent US 760647 for a negative set stem winding and setting mechanism granted to Sandoz on that date, which is a US version of Swiss patent CH 28243 that was granted to Sandoz in 1903.US Pat 24 May 1904, US PAT 24 MAY 1904.
When this legend appears on the movement it shows that the keyless mechanism was designed on the "negative set" or "American system" principles. These movements are seen with either normal or negative set mechanisms. In Britain the negative set versions are usually in Dennison cases, which is not surprising given that the Dennison watch case company was set up to make cases for imported American Waltham movements.
If negative set keyless mechanism is present in one of these movements, the setting lever screw, which normally releases the stem, is not present and the legend "U.S. PAT 24 May 1904" is stamped where the setting lever screw would be. The movement shown in the photograph above has a setting lever screw, which you can see just above the crown wheel, slightly off to the left towards the screw that holds the barrel bridge in place. The barrel bridge shown in the picture on the immediate does not have a setting lever screw, which would be about where the "19" of the "1904" part of the legend is. I have inverted this photograph compared to the main one above to make the legend U.S.Pat.24 MAY.1904 the right way up.
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Tavannes Cyma Cal. 370/371
The pictures show a 13''' (thirteen ligne) Tavannes Calibre 370 savonnette movement from a Borgel wristwatch. Thanks to Marc for providing the photo. These movements are also seen branded Cyma.
The drawing to the right shows the entry in the 1936 edition of Jobin La Classification Horlogère des Calibres de Montres ... Suisse. The entry shows that this calibre was size 13''' (13 ligne, about 29.3mm diameter). I don't know what the "-7" means, perhaps it was the seventh 13''' calibre they made. The entry also shows that the same basic movement was made in two layouts, calibres reference 370 and 371.
The Ref. 370 is a savonnette movement, the type used in savonnette or hunter pocket watches with a metal lid to protect the crystal, and also in open face wristwatches with the small seconds at 90° to the crown, that is with the crown at 3 and the small seconds at 6.
The Ref. 371 is a Lépine movement for open face pocket watches with the crown at 12 and the small seconds at 6. In a wristwatch, this layout would put the small seconds at 9 o'clock. If this calibre was used in a wristwatch, the small seconds would usually be omitted.
Most of the parts, the wheels, escapements, spring barrels, etc. of these movements are interchangeable, and also interchangeable with other 13''' Tavannes calibres of the same age, but the two main plates are different for the two layouts. The savonnette version is the one most often seen in wristwatches; pocket watches with either calibre and the Lépine version of the movement are much rarer, I have never seen one.
On some of these movements, the calibre reference is stamped on the top of the bottom plate, visible underneath the balance.
The movements in both pictures have a simple form of engine turning called damascened or damascening (pronounced with a soft "c" like "damaseened"). Damascening originates in the technique used by swordsmiths of Damascus of repeated forging and folding metal into many layers like mille-feuille pastry to produce sword blades of legendary toughness, which produces intricate banded patterns on the surface of the finished blade.
Damascening is different in appearance to the Côtes de Genè (Geneva Stripes) or perlage seen on other Swiss movements such as the Tavannes 13''' -3B and the Schild Calibre 137 on this page, although the process for making the patterns was similar. The style of damascening on the movements pictured here, individual straight or wavy lines rather than overall decoration of the plates with a repeated pattern, was principally used by American manufacturers, and in America is called damaskeening. It was done either by hand or machine, and in the highest grade of America watches was much more elaborate than the simple version seen here. Decoration such as damasceening was particularly important to American manufacturers when movements and cases were selected separately at the point of sale; a movement needed to catch the customers eye.
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1. Tavannes: Rebuilding a Brand by Bruce Shawkey, NAWCC Watch & Clock Bulletin No. 402 March April 2013
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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated May 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.