History of Heuer II: 1930s and 1940s

Last time out, we looked at the formation of Heuer in 1860 and followed it through a number of decades of ups and downs. We left it in good health, with official representation at 3 consecutive Olympic Games and making inroads into the US thanks to collaboration with Henry Freund.

The article ended in the 1920s. Throughout much of that decade, business had boomed for many companies, fuelled by technological advances in transport, communications and power and it became known as the “Roaring Twenties”. Markets were buoyant and traders ebullient – in the US, the Dow Jones index increased six-fold between 1921 and 1929. However, these increases could not be sustained and by mid-1929, markets were already beginning to look shaky, culminating in the stock market crash of “Black Tuesday” October 29th.

The 1930s

The period following this market crash is called the “Great Depression” and was the most severe economic depression of the 20th century. Although arguably starting in the United States, the impacts were worldwide, with rising unemployment, hyperinflation, drops in production, all significantly impacting international trade. After hitting a low point in 1932, recovery began in some countries in 1933 though business levels remained markedly below the 20s peaks for most throughout the 30s and into the 40s in some cases.

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Even if Heuer hadn’t made inroads into the US market, they would still have felt the impacts on their business. Steel production was at around 1/3 capacity, with prices rising accordingly. The British Pound was under considerable pressure, leading to them leaving the gold standard, impacting Switzerland as a pound creditor. The pound was later devalued, causing worldwide impact from limiting imports into the UK and Empire and also impacting sterling reserves in countries worldwide. Other countries soon left the gold standard too, though Switzerland, as a member of the “gold bloc” along with France and the Netherlands was one of the last to leave in 1936.

Domestic demand in Switzerland continued to be fairly strong in the early 30s but without a devalued currency, exports to the majority of her trading partners were significantly affected.

Nonetheless, production continued and was sold where possible. During the 1920s, Heuer had become increasingly aware of the importance and power of “the brand” and had begun to reflect this by adding the Heuer shield logo to letterheads and the like. This also carried through to the watches. Whilst the early wristwatches typically had “sterile” (i.e. without any indication of manufacturer or brand), Heuer and many other manufacturers were now routinely adding their mark to the dial and often also the movement of their watches, helping to build recognition of their brands.

The watches were also beginning to take further steps away from their beginnings as converted pocket watches and to be designed from the ground up as wristwatches. Taking advantage of the advances in aviation, a range of watches were made to appeal to pilots, colloquially often being called “Flieger” or pilot’s chronographs today.

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These watches still show many links to those that had been converted from pocket chronographs. Though it is no longer embedded within the winding crown, there is still only one pusher to start, stop and reset the chronograph function. The lugs are welded to the case and use a solid bar rather than spring bars.

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This means the strap needs to be sewn onto the watch, rather removed from the convenience we would later have of swapping straps by simply removing the spring bars.

Later watches would have the extra convenience of an additional pusher for resetting the chronograph function, just as we know it today.

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More recent Heuer fans may note a lot of similarities between these watches and the “Targa Florio” re-edition watch released by TAG Heuer in 2001.

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The case, with its coin-milled edges, is notably similar, as is the design of the dial and pushers, though the original watches had no link with the Targa Florio road race used to market their successor. If interested, you can read more on this watch in David’s article here.

The re-edition also helped spawn a number of oversized fake watches purported to be Heuers from the early 1930s and taking a number of design cues from the then newly released Targa Florio. Some of these used genuine Heuer pocket chronograph movements and re-cased them, but others were more deliberately faked. Both tended to be produced in Eastern Europe. Jeff Stein, owner of www.onthedash.com, wrote an excellent article on these watches, which you can read here.

Of course, pilots were not Heuer’s only customers in this period and there were a number of chronographs for more general use. One such was a small, cushion-cased model that would also end up as the inspiration for a future re-edition, in this instance the Monza.

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The modern Monza takes this watch as its inspiration, rather than its 1970s namesake but uses the name as a link to motorsports that Heuer had yet to fully develop at the time of the original.

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Although the wrist chronograph side of the business was increasing in scope and capacity, the majority of Heuer’s business continued to be in stopwatches and timers. 1933 saw the introduction of a new dashboard timer whose use was made clear from its name, Autavia, a contraction of “automobile” and “aviation”.

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The Autavia is a 12 hour timer (hours read from the bottom register, minutes from the top one and seconds from the main dial). These early examples can be recognised by having the pusher to the left of the crown and using the Valjoux 59 movement.

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The Autavia was joined later in 1933 by the Hervue, a clock with a 192 hour power reserve, meaning it could run for 8 days without winding.
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The example shown above was used, along with an Autavia, for timings in the airport at Geneva.

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Some world markets had begun the long road to recovery in 1933 and Heuer itself was feeling healthy enough to attend the Basel Watch Fair for the first time in 1934.

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Stopwatches and timers make up the majority of their display of course, but it is interesting to see wrist chronographs apparently taking centre stage.

As was the Heuer brand itself, as they divested themselves of the Jules Jurgensen brand in 1936 having had nearly two decades of use out of it but now more confident in their own name. Nonetheless, even as late as 1938 there were still watches and timers being without the Heuer name on the dial, as evidenced by this catalogue:

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Another advance the following year was the launch of a waterproof wrist chronograph for the first time. Previously, the wristwatches had all used bar pushers where it was hard to create a seal between the pusher and the case, and thus there was always a risk of water ingress. With the switch to round pushers, a simple rubber seal could be fitted in the case and allowing the watch to be used in and around water. It’s worth noting that this innovation gradually rippled through the range rather than being adopted in every model immediately. Nonetheless, it’s a helpful dating indicator – if your vintage Heuer has its original case and round pushers, then it dates from 1939 at the earliest.

Of course, most of Europe was more concerned with increasing international tensions leading to the outbreak of the Second World War than it was with waterproof chronographs and it’s with that in mind that we move into the next decade.

The 1940s

As soon as news of war breaking out arrived in 1939, Switzerland mobilised for the threat of invasion, assembling a force of some half a million soldiers and armed militia at or near its borders. Prior to war, Germany had stated that it would respect Swiss neutrality but during the war would go on to draw up plans for invasion, particularly during 1942 as Switzerland’s position became increasingly frustrating to Germany’s leadership.

In the event, the invasion never came but there were a number of violations of Swiss airspace and incidents of accidental bombing by Allied aircraft. Switzerland took in a large number of refugees during the war too, although official policy meant that some were refused admission, with an official towards the end of the war memorably stating “Our little lifeboat is full”.

To an extent, Swiss trade was blockaded by both sides but as Switzerland was not self-sufficient for food, fuel or materials it was reliant on having to import these. With control over crucial tunnels through the Alps between Germany and Italy, it was able to continue trade with both Allied and Axis forces but with surrounding controls all coming under the control of the Axis, it was inevitable that trade would increase with Germany whilst exports to the UK and France diminished significantly. US trade, on the other hand, was not as affected. There continues to be controversy over some of the assets coming into Switzerland during the war, but this is not the place for that discussion.

Trade was also able to continue with other neutral countries. The following catalogue is for Sweden at the start of 1945, showing that Heuer were able to make sales there even during the war:

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The range of watches available was primarily an evolution of those that Heuer had offered in the 1930s. Some of the watches had military applications, such as the “Flieger” watches we looked at earlier and those that had Telemetre scales on their dials.

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Some of these watches appear to have been officially issued, with squadron markings on the reverse:

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The watches that begin appearing in the 1940s include some that are very much sought after classics today. Elements of models like the 2444 and 2447 can be seen in later watches like the Carrera, which even shares a model reference with the earlier watch. Occasionally, these watches are referred to as “pre-Carreras” but to my mind they are too early for that epithet. Nonetheless, some similarities are clear.

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The 2447 is an attractive watch, with its gilt printing on black dial and this example, probably dating from just after the end of the war, still has the non-waterproof bar pushers and shallow Heuer shield.

Aware of the power of brand, Heuer also saw the benefit of linking eminent personalities with their watches, foreshadowing the later “ambassadors” programme. One such noted individual at the end of the war was General Eisenhower, of course later to become US president, who purchased and wore one such 2447 in 1945.

Later 2447s would adopt the waterproof pushers and the fuller Heuer shield familiar to many collectors from the 1960s watches.

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Indeed, it wasn’t only future presidents who would wear Heuers, with Harry Truman wearing a gold example from 1947. I haven’t seen it recorded which model Truman wore, but it is likely to have been a “triple calendar” 2558 given that the number of models offered in gold was reducing by this time.

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Triple calendars are a complicated watch showing the date, day and month as well as sometimes including a full chronograph, as on this model. They would become mainstays of Heuer production for the next couple of decades, offering a dress watch whilst maintaining the functionality of the more overtly sporty models.

Swiss watchmaking is something of a cottage industry, with multiple specialist suppliers providing components to the manufacturer of the watch. The movement is a prime example of this, with Heuer having at this point been buying in movements for decades, primarily from renowned movement maker Valjoux. And here there is a link to today’s TAG Heuer range, with Valjoux also having designed the 7750 movement, which TAG Heuer use as the Calibre 16 in the Carrera, Link and Aquaracer.

Similarly to marking the dial, there is the opportunity to acknowledge the brand by marking, or “signing” the movement and Heuers from the 40s routinely have bridges marked Heuer.

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This movement is from one of the 1940s triple calendars, albeit from a steel version rather than the gold model shown above.

Not all movements were marked though. Heuer was offering something of an economy “up/down” (as the registers are stacked vertically, rather than the more familiar horizontal or tri-compax arrangements) chronograph with nickel case and unsigned Venus 170 movement.

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At this point, the wristwatch offerings were focused on chronographs, but 1949 would see the introduction of the first Solunar, a watch with an additional register to display tide movements.

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This was introduced at the instigation of Abercrombie & Fitch, the US sporting goods retailer, who would develop a strong relationship with Heuer in this post-war period. Their managing director informed Charles-Edouard Heuer of the demand for a tide watch from fishermen, but the necessary calculations for displaying tides were performed with the help of Charles-Edouard’s son’s physics teacher! The name of said son? Jack Heuer, who is going to be a very important person in the history of Heuer as we go forward.

***

Sources

[1] Courtesy Wikipedia, via Creative Commons
[2][3][4][5][9][10][11][12][14][15][16][18][19][20][21][22] Courtesy www.onthedash.com
[6][7][8] Courtesy Calibre 11
[13][25]Courtesy TAG-Heuer archives
[17][24] Courtesy of Stewart Morley and heuerville.wordpress.com
[23] Courtesy of Jarl Rehn-Erichsen and http://www.classicheuers.blogspot.com/

  • Hans

    Here’s a translation of the ad text:

    On your marks… ready… SELL!

    Despite problems of delivery we’ve been able to assure [delivery of] a batch of Heuer chronographs, thanks to a previous contract.
    The Heuer chronograph is known for it’s exceptional accuracy – and it both shows and records time. It’s a sale hit of the highest rank – now, be ready. On your marks, ready and sell!

    The pictures on the side:
    Upper) This is where you need a Heuer chronograph – it’s both fun and exciting to have the race “in your own hand” and get lightning fast readings of the exact finishing time.

    Middle) In interurban calls the Heuer chronograph is practical. The three minute periods can be “flicked”, you won’t forget time…

    Bottom) In laboratory experiments and such, the Heuer chronograph has shown to be of invaluable use to scientists and engineers.

  • Cowboy Bebop

    Another great article, David and Mark… keep 'em coming. Can't wait to see on of the 60s and 70s you know those years were insane years for Heuer.

    ~George C.

  • Hans

    Wonderful – and what I would say the start of the golden era of Heuers.

    I recently got a hold of an old ad from the late 1940's in Swedish, featuring a watch I own.

    I scanned the ad a while back:

    <img src="http://www.calibre11.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/2nw1gsi.jpg&quot; alt="" />

    My own watch, while not entirely original (the chrono hand has been switched to one from a El Primero on one point):

    <img src="http://www.calibre11.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/bisadw.jpg&quot; alt="" />

  • Jose L. Rivera

    Love your site I'm planning to buy my first tag an I'm so excited

  • shauno

    Another great article MM!

  • Amazing watches they knock the spots of most of the modern stuff and have so much style and grace about them. I'm on the look out for a nice vintage WW2 pilots watch

  • Great article. Posted links to it at facebook and at the forum. thanks for all of the work on this.

  • DC

    Hans- thanks for posting those great photos…thought I recognised that second hand!

    Hi Jose- what are you going to get?

    Koimaster, thanks for the links

    dc

  • Congratulations for this great overview ! This is such a reference for all enthusiasts and collectors…
    Well, I’m trying modestly to share my passion in a French blog (www.chronographes.net) and I’m working on an article about Solunar and Mareograph watches. Would you mind if used one or two pictures (such as the Solunar on this page) as illustration (with credit of course) ?
    Kind regards.
    Fred.

    • Hi Fred, thanks for the kind words and feel free to use any information that will help your post!

      David