In the first of an occasional series where David and I will look at decade by decade events in Heuer and TAG-Heuer’s history, I take a look at significant events that happened to the company between its foundation in 1860 and the end of the 1920s.
So much for decade by decade you might think, but I will still break this first article down by decade, it’s just that we don’t have as many documented watches to show you from this period. That’s not to say nothing happened, it was certainly a busy time as you will soon see.
It all started in 1860, with Edouard Heuer (above) setting up a workshop in Saint-Imier (the original workshop shown below) in the Bernese Jura. This is a predominantly a French-speaking area of Switzerland, close to the French border and a little north-east from their current home of La Chaux-de-Fonds.
It’s a small town even now, with a population under 5000, but is no stranger to watch companies, having also been where Breitling was founded before moving to Grenchen and has been home to Longines and its forerunners continuously since 1832.
Of course, none of those companies operated on the same scale as we see now. They were artisanal workshops producing small numbers of mostly silver-cased pocket watches.
Even small workshops have ambitions though and Edouard Heuer, after several difficult years of business, took the opportunity offered by 3 years of tax exemptions to move to the much larger Biel/Bienne in 1867. Called Biel at that time but now officially bilingual, German is still the prevalent language (over 50%), which shouldn’t have posed much of a problem to Edouard with his French forename and German surname. Biel/Bienne is another watchmaking centre of considerable repute, being the home of Omega and now also Swatch.
At this time, it was normal for pocketwatches to be wound by key, once the caseback had been removed or hinged open. This required keeping a key on the same chain as the watch and was something Heuer considered as somewhat inconvenient and could be improved on. The workshop (shown above) therefore set about designing a watch that could be wound from the crown, without removing the caseback and not requiring a key at all.
Development had been slowed by the upheaval from the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 but at the start of the 1870s, a number of patents were granted for this crown-winding mechanism and with this selling point and some more security thanks to Biel’s tax breaks, Edouard’s ambitions started to look more internationally too. Heuer took his watches to the Expo in Vienna in 1873 and gained some international exposure. Boosted by this, Edouard continued his efforts to sell into foreign markets and this culminated in the establishment of a subsidiary in London in 1876 (the office shown below is from the 1920s).
Despite increasing reach for sales though, Heuer, in common with many small watchmakers at the time, was still searching for an identity of its own. Pocket watches of the day typically didn’t carry the name on the dial and differentiating amongst them was not as simple as it is now, relying more on a subjective view of the quality of finishing of case and movement or on innovations like the crown-winding mechanism.
To push these small ateliers forward, it was commonplace for them to form partnerships, both amongst themselves and with suppliers and Heuer too would take this route several times in the early years.
The first of these was with Fritz Lambelet in 1878, resulting in the company being renamed to Heuer, Lambelet & Cie. Lambelet was a trader in precious stones, including those used as jewels to prevent wear between moving parts in movements, so this was something of a natural partnership and the company did very good trade in these jewels for a number of years.
On his travels abroad, Heuer had seen that there was also a lot of sales potential in sports timing and this set the seed for what would become the foundation of the company for the century to come.
In 1882, stopwatches appeared in the Heuer portfolio for the first time and soon became the backbone of the company, although trading in precious stones still continued.
The relationship with Fritz Lambelet became strained after a failed proposal to Heuer’s sister and the company in that form was dissolved in 1885, again becoming Ed. Heuer & Cie.
As an interesting historical footnote, the Heuer Lambelet mark would appear again in the 1990s- see below. Having been allowed to lapse by Heuer, it, along with a number of other old watch trademarks were acquired by a Texan marketing company and used to add legitimacy and a sense of history to various brands of watches, largely sourced from the Far East. The Heuer Lambelet and L.B. Audemars brands were eventually dropped as probably too close in name to existing brands, but the practice continued with other lapsed trademarks.
We sometimes see questions asked about these watches and how they fit in with Heuer’s history. Sad to say, the only relationship is that brand name that Heuer itself last used in 1885.
The company became more of a family firm with Edouard’s eldest son Jules-Edouard joining the management team in 1887, setting up a tradition that was to continue for generations to come. 1887 also saw a patent granted for an oscillating pinion used in the company’s stopwatches and this device is still used in many chronographs today.
The family firm widened further with the appointment of Charles-Auguste Heuer (below) in 1891. The family appointments were timely as Edouard died the following year at the young age of 52, leaving a legacy of just over half a million Swiss Francs.
Jules-Edouard took over as the head of the company, whilst Charles-August focused on pursuing innovation just as his father had before him. One such was the introduction of a waterproof pocket chronograph case in 1895.
The London subsidiary had not produced the expected results and had been closed by this time, but the trade in rubies for movements was still going strong. However, experiments in producing synthetic stones for this purpose had been going on for decades and were soon to produce some troubling news for the Heuer concern.
In 1903 Auguste Verneuil, one of the prime movers in producing synthetic rubies, announced that he would be able to produce them on a commercial scale following breakthroughs in the production process. This meant a loss of income from the stone trading side of the business and that the watchmaking arm of Heuer would have to stand alone.
This didn’t stop the innovation from continuing though, with Heuer granted a patent for pulsometer scale on a watch/timer dial in 1908.
With the lack of success for the London subsidiary, Edouard had been dissuaded somewhat from pursuing the American market although he had recognised its potential at an early stage. This had been spurred on when what would become the Waltham company announced it would be capable of producing 250,000 watches per annum at an exposition in the 1870s. At that sort of scale, the market was of interest and Heuer were looking seriously in that direction at the turn of the century.
Deciding it was too difficult a market to break by themselves, a distributor was appointed for the US and this partnership with Henry Freund & Bros was to prove a fruitful one. Henry Freund already had a distribution network for watches and jewellery and Heuer was able to benefit from this. Freund already owned a trademark for watches, the Rose Watch Company, and the decision was taken to merge this with the Heuer operation, forming the Ed. Heuer & Cie, Rose Watch Co. in 1912.
Until this point, Heuer had been producing pocket watches/chronographs and stopwatches but in this period pre-WWI watches worn on the wrist were beginning to gain traction. Also in 1912, Heuer produced their first wristwatches, a line of ladies watches (above) with unmarked dials.
1911 saw the first Heuer dashboard timer, showing the elapsed time for the entire journey, or “Time of Trip” the name used in the patent application and by which the timer would become known.
1914 would see the first wristwatches for men, again with dials without any “Heuer” identification. These used pocketwatch movements so were arguably less bespoke than the ladies’ watches of 2 years earlier but reflected demand for wristwatches that would only increase during the First World War and after.
Obviously impacted by the war, its location in neutral Switzerland meant that Heuer could nonetheless continue its business and development. In 1916, this was to yield the Mikrograph and Mikrosplit, the first stopwatches capable of timing to 1/100 second. This would remain the absolute standard for timing until electronic timers capable of measuring thousandths of a second were introduced.
This movement is from a Semikrograph (as featured in the introduction), with an accuracy of 1/50 second or half that of the Mikrograph, which is the inspiration for its name.
In 1919, Heuer acquired the Jules Jurgensen trademark in addition to their existing marks (below a Jurgensen watch from around 1940, shortly after Heuer had divested themselves of the brand).
1920 was the first time in 12 years that an Olympic Games had been held, following the cancellations of the 1912 Stockholm and 1916 Berlin events. Heuer had some prominence as a sports timing company by this point and was pleased to be selected as the official timer of the Antwerp games. This was subsequently extended to the 1924 games in Paris and 1928 in Amsterdam.
This decade saw the deaths of first Jules-Edouard and later Charles-Auguste, but consistency was assured by the appointments of Charles’ sons Charles-Edouard (below) and Hubert to the company. Both sons spent time in the US to familiarise themselves with operations and marketing there, Hubert becoming US Commercial Director in 1923.
Paul Valette was a further acquisition in 1922, marketing watches under that name and using renowned le Coultre movements. The “Rose Watch Co” element was dropped from the company name in the same year. Distribution continued through Henry Freund’s operation, though he himself was to die in 1926.
After weathering some difficult years, Heuer was now on sounder footing and gaining recognition in the sporting world for its stopwatches. Future prospects looked rosy. And then the stockmarket crash of November 1929 happened…
Next article, we will look at the repercussions of Black Thursday, the Second World War and economic recovery. Stay tuned for the 1930s to the 1950s.