Helvetia Shock & Water Protected Watches
In the late 1920s Helvetia introduced a “Sports” style watch that could stand up to stresses and strains caused by vigorous activity that the, somewhat delicate, dress watches of the time could not.
Read more about Helvetia's search for the truly Shock and Waterproof watch...
Early Shock Protection in Helvetia Watches
Wristwatch movements are prone to damage from knocks or being dropped, particularly the delicate ends of the balance staff are vulnerable. During the 1920s wristwatches began to be manufactured with shock protection added to the balance, normally in the form of a flat spring over the balance cap jewel. Possibly the first of these was developed by Joseph Brun and patented by him in 1921 in conjunction with Charles Depollier of Jacques Depollier & Son Inc. of New York. Depollier were a watch case manufacture who specialised in waterproof watch cases which they had developed at the end of WW1.
In the mid 1920s Helvetia/General Watch Co (I’ll refer to them as Helvetia from now on for brevity though some of these innovations were before The General Watch Company adopted the name Helvetia for its shock and water protected watches) started producing watches with a cross shaped spring on the balance of the movement which looks very much like a simplified version of the Depollier/Brun system (see my blog post on Depollier & Helvetia).
In addition, the particular configuration of the bridges on these movements only seems to have been used by Helvetia and a very few Depollier marked watches. The movements fitted with this shock protection tend to be smaller than the 13 ligne movements Helvetia were manufacturing at this time and so are usually Fabrique d'Horlogerie de Fontainemelon (FHF), or sometimes A Schild (AS), movements that have been adapted with the shock protection and unique bridge configuration. These watches are marked "Shock Absorber" on the dial and "Patent Shock Absorber" on the movement.
These watches appear to have been Helvetias first foray into shock protection, though it is not always easy to identify them. As was normal at this time Helvetia or General Watch Co is not usually marked on the dial, movement or case. If there is any name present it will usually be that of the retailer. There are signs you can look for however such as the ‘3 Adjustments, dot, star, dot’ text on the ratchet wheel of the barrel to help identify these early Helvetia shock protected movements.
During this period one of the main importers of Helvetia watches into the UK was the company ‘Robert Pringle and Sons’ of London. They were an importer and wholesaler of Jewellery and other ‘fancy goods’ including watches and periodically published a catalogue of their offerings under the name ‘The Wilderness Catalogue’ named after their initial address of 21 Wilderness Row, Clerkenwell, London. Silver and gold items imported by Robert Pringle & Sons are marked with the import sponsors mark ‘A.G.R’ for Arthur George Rendell, an employee of the company. You will find many Helvetia watches from WW1 through to the 1930s marked with this sponsors mark and illustrations from the ‘The Wilderness Catalogue’ are used throughout this page.
An extremely rare example of a watch using this shock protection is a version of the Depollier waterproof watch mentioned earlier. This is the only known example and was discover by Stan Czubernat of LRF Antique Watches in 2017. All other known versions of this watch were manufactured in the US and were fitted with US movements. Following monetary problems in the early 1920s it seems that US watch companies were refusing to work with Depollier due to unpaid debts and so in 1926 Depollier launched a new iteration of their company ‘The Depollier Watch Corporation’ and turned to Switzerland to manufacture a new version of their watch.
This watch is made of silver and has Swiss hallmarks, it must date from at least 1926 as it is marked "Depollier Watch Corp." which wasn't formed until then. It is fitted with the same shock protection as in the shock protected Helvetia watches discussed above, uses a larger version of the FHF movement, and has a serial number which, assuming it is a Helvetia one, would date the watch to 1927. In 1927 the General Watch Company filed a patent for a watch crown designed to seal the watch against moisture, dirt and dust.
As you can see the Depollier watch certainly appears to be using this crown. Depollier were using something similar to this ten years earlier while making watches in conjunction with Waltham in the US but they had moved on to screw down crowns for their later waterproof cases. Perhaps there were patent issues which prevented term using the screw down crown for this later version of their watch.
This patent, the movement design, shock protection and serial number all point to the conclusion that Helvetia/General Watch Co manufactured this watch for Depollier.
It doesn’t seem that the watch was a success however as though Helvetia continued to use the shock protection in their watches there don’t appear to have been any more Depollier cased waterproof watches.
It looks as if Helvetia decided to specialise in these type of watches and produced watches through the late 1920s using this shock protection in a variety of cases often incorporating additional shock or dust/moisture protection such as ‘swing-ring’ cases, crystal guards and hunter or half hunter cases.
‘The Fenchurch Lever Watch’ is a good example of watches not being sold under Helvetia’s own name. This seems to be a brand from Australia that, as far as I can see, exclusively uses Helvetia made watches but the name never appears on them.
Helvetia carried on using FHF movements fitted with the Depollier/Brun shock protection through to about 1935 long after they introduced their own movement with Helvetia shock protection in 1929, most notably in the first of their ‘Pilots’ watches. In fact, in 1949 Helvetia published the advert reproduced in part below celebrating this movement as the movement that made Helvetia famous and that ‘was already used in 1929 for the manufacturing of the first waterproof Helvetia watches’.
The only problem with this is that I don’t think this was the movement used ‘in 1929 for the manufacturing of the first waterproof Helvetia watches’, which we come on to next, every one of them I have seen has been fitted with Helvetia’s new Calibre 81 movement introduced at the time of the launch of these watches in 1929, though as we have seen it did do sterling work in Helvetia’s shock protected watches for a decade from the mid 1920s.
The movement in the picture is also not fitted with ‘the well-renowned Helvetia shock absorber’ but the earlier cross shaped shock protection. Perhaps Helvetia’s marketing department were having a bad day on the day they picked the illustration for this advertisement.
The First Helvetia 'Wateproof' & Shock Protected Watches
In 1929 Helvetia applied for a patent (No 143073) for their own shock protection system for the balance of their watch movements.
This comprised of a 3 pronged spring held in place over the end of the balance by a boss that had a notch cut in it to allow easy fitting and removal of the spring. The other end of the balance was held in place by a spring in the form of an elongated flexible blade that had one end screwed to the base plate of the movement. Because the balance was held between these two springs it was cushioned to a certain degree from shocks.
This system resulted in the distinctive star shaped Helvetia shock protection seen in almost all of their watches through to the 1950s when it was replaced by the Incabloc system. In their patent application Helvetia acknowledge that similar shock protection systems already existed and they seem to be focusing on the easy fitting of the spring via the notch as the unique feature of their system in order to gain the patent. I believe this may have been marketing inspired to allow them to continue using ‘patent shock absorber’ on their movements as they had when they used the earlier Depollier/Brun system. Helvetia were one of very few companies to fit virtually all their movements with shock protection in the 1930s and they marketed themselves as a specialist sports watch manufacturer.
To house their new shock protection Helvetia introduced a new 10.5 Ligne movement they had been developing; the Calibre 81. The first watches to utilise this movement were a new line of ‘Waterproof’ and ‘Shockproof’ sports watches.
General Watch Co
THE HELVETIA WATERPROOF
perfectly impenetrable to water
and the dust that imposes itself on sportsmen and all manual workers.
Available in 8 3/4 and 10 1/2 Ligne.
PATENT SHOCK ABSORBER +173073
(Should be 143073)
I think these Helvetia watches actually have a good case to be the first 'Sports' watches, shock and water protected with luminous dials and hands.
The Rolex Oyster waterproof watch was a bit earlier but wasn't shock protected and the Wittnauer All-Proof was advertised as shock proof but I can't see any proper shock protection as the Helvetia watches had.
Helvetia’s waterproof watches turned out to be popular and were sought after by re-sellers the world over. G & M Lane sold them branded as Aero and Aeroplane in the UK, Huber in Germany as Nautica and Abercrombie & Fitch in the US as their Shipmate. (Watches branded with these names may be used in the pictures accompanying this page but they are all completely manufactured by Helvetia with just the name being changed).
The first Helvetia waterproof case was a three-piece case, made of silver, with gaskets where the front and rear of the case are joined to the mid case body to seal the watch against water and dirt/dust. The stem also had washers fitted. I have seen examples of these gaskets and washers in what appears to be leather and rubber but it is difficult to know now what was originally fitted.
There seems to have been quite a bit of variety in these early watches. No two I have seen have been exactly the same, with different dials, luminous and non-luminous, and case markings. The one above (the earliest I have recorded) bears Swiss hallmarks wheres the one below manufactured a few months later seems to have been sold in the UK as it bears UK silver marks for 1929. Watches for the UK market didn't usually have the manufacturers name on them until later in the 1930s.
By late in 1930 this case was superseded by a slightly different design with more curved lugs replacing the flat lugs of the previous case, this watch was also available as a cheaper chrome plated version.
Helvetia’s next advance was to design and patent (No 155825) in 1931, a special watertight method of mounting an unbreakable plastic crystal to the front of the watch case.
This consisted of cutting a groove in the case (5) and also a groove in the face of the acrylic (8) which when inserted into the case caused the outside edge of the acrylic to fit into the groove in the case until it came to the lip of the groove in the crystal where it would be stopped creating a tight seal.
After the granting of this patent Helvetia marked the outer or inner case back with "BREVET+155825".
General Watch Co
Our WATERPROOF watches
8 3/4" & 10 1/2" patent+155825 complete the sporting equipment.
products meet today's tastes.
Jump hours 4 1/4, 6 3/4, 9 3/4"
Baguettes 6 3/4" with seconds
Calendar watches have a very visible date.
Shock absorber patent+143.073
Introduction of the Tonneau Shaped Case
Finally, in 1933, Helvetia came up with the ultimate in protection for their movements against being dropped and knocked, they spring mounted the whole movement in the case!
The patent (No 167231) for the spring mounted movement was granted in 1934 and demonstrates an ingenious way of mounting the movement. The case screw to hold the movement in place were introduced from the dial side, opposite to the usual method, they were mounted within a spring and the other end had a flat nut that could be pushed in to compress the spring slightly. This nut was then slid into a slot in the case which kept slight pressure on the spring and allowed a small amount of up and down movement to cushion the movement from shocks. The nut was slid into position via a small notch cut in the case and then the whole movement was rotated slightly to allow the nut to slide into the groove and lock the movement in place.
There were two of these screws, one either side of the movement, were the case screws would normally be. This type of movement can be easily spotted by the distinctive flat nut heads instead of screws holding the movement in place and the patent number engraved onto the movement.
To incorporate these innovations Helvetia introduced a new two piece tonneau shaped case in chrome plated brass and in the newly introduced to watchmaking material - stainless steel. The stainless steel case was designed with sharper edges, I presume this is because it was better able to withstand wear though later it does appear that they did also make this version in chrome plate.
To illustrate some of the different retailers that were selling Helvetia waterproof watches with their own branding the following examples of the two new tonneau cases are by G & M Lane of London (Aeroplane branded) and Huber of Germany.
The advert below from the 1934 edition of Pringle and Sons ‘Wilderness Catalogue’ displays nicely the selling points of Helvetia’s waterproof, shockproof watches. (Note the early 'auto-correct' error!). The watch in the illustration has the same case type as the G & M Lane Aeroplane version above.
A version with the movement adapted to allow centre seconds was introduced by 1935.
There was one last chrome plated tonneau version of Helvetia's pre-war sports watch case that was introduced in about 1936, changing the shape of the lugs and adding a narrow bezel around the crystal.
There were also smaller ladies’ versions of these watches produced.
Round Cased and Ladies Versions
The majority of Helvetia’s sports watches were manufactured using the tonneau shaped case but the innovations were also incorporated into a round cased design for those that wanted them.
Non-Waterproof Shock Protected Watches
As well as this range of waterproof watches Helvetia also continued to supply shock protected watches in slightly different non-waterproof cases during the 1930s also using their Calibre 81 movements as in the waterproof designs.
Helvetia Watches Sold Under Other Brand Names
As has been demonstrated already Helvetia sold their Water and Shock Protected Watches to a variety of retailers and they often added their own branding. Illustrated below is a selection.
G & M Lane Aero and Aeroplane Watches
G & M Lane were based in Ludgate Hill, London and specialised in selling watches for pilots branded as Aero or Aeroplane. They seem to have had an early relationship with Helvetia and sold a variety of their watches from the late 1920s to the early 1940s including Helvetia's larger pilots style watches (see my Pilots Watch page for more details).
Though these were, to all intents and purposes, Helvetia watches with G & M Lane branded dials added, G & M Lane seems to have claimed all the innovations as their own and really went to town with the advertising of them.
They were certainly experts at marketing hype and made some quite outlandish claims; 'being dropped every day for 169 days from an aeroplane' and 'surviving a crash in the Schnieder Trophy Race and being under water for a considerable time, “’Still ticking merrily’ says well known pilot”', for instance.
Huber Nautica and Secura Watches
Huber were a well known and long lived watch retailer in Germany before World War 2. They seem to have started selling Helvetia waterproof and shockproof watches relatively late in the 1930s and through into the 1940s. It looks as if they wanted a better quality product and all their versions of Helvetia watches have high quality finishes on their movements and are of stainless steel or gold.
Huber branded the non-waterproof shockproof models 'Secura' and the waterproof ones as 'Nautica. They also sold Helvetia pocket watches.
After the war Huber re-opened following the destruction of their shops and are still trading in Munich today.
Abercrombie & Fitch Shipmate Watches
Before becoming the clothing retailer as we know today Abercrombie and Fitch were a Sporting Goods store and one of the things they sold were watches. The Abercrombie and Fitch Shipmate watch was sold by them for many years but the first versions of the watch were made by Helvetia.
Helvetia Waterproof Watches 1929 - 1940
Helvetia were still making their clip on back, shockproof, waterproof watches as late as 1942, several years after they had introduced several screw back designs including that used in their 'DH' watch for the German Army, but their days were numbered and before the end of the war some of Helvetia’s most interesting watches seem to have disappeared.
Early Helvetia Aero branded watch circa 1931 above with thanks to Chris Balm
Helvetia centre seconds Aero branded watch circa 1935 above with thanks to Alex at www.blackbough.co.uk
Aero adverts above from Aviation Ancestry - www.aviationancestry.co.uk