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Helvetia Shock & Water Protected Watches

From the mid 1920s Helvetia started to introduce shock and water protected watches that could stand up to the 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 and Helvetia's First 'Waterproof' Watches

Wristwatch movements are prone to damage from knocks or being dropped, the delicate ends of the balance staff are particularly 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 World War One.

In the mid 1920s Helvetia/General Watch Co (I’ll refer to them as Helvetia from now on for brevity) started producing watches with a cross shaped spring on the balance of the movement which looks very much like a simplified version of the system patented by Depollier.

 

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 were Helvetia's 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’, as well as from other catalogues and advertisements, are used throughout this page.

By 1927 it would appear that Helvetia decided to extend their partnership with Depollier by manufacturing a new version of the Depollier waterproof cased watch from the end of World War One. 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 their watches.

Some earlier Depollier cases had used a crown that was held in place by a sort of bow that applied pressure to the crown sealing it, to some extent, against moisture dirt and dust. In 1927 Helvetia patented a version of this crown for use with the new version of Depollier's case.

From 1918 versions of the Depollier waterproof case had used a screw down crown and I am not sure why Depollier reverted to the earlier method of securing the crown for the new watches but it may have been to do with patent issues around the screw down crowns.

Waterproof Crown Patent

Very few of the 1927 Depollier/Helvetia waterproof watches appear to have survived to today. I have only ever seen three.

They are all fitted with the adapted FHF movements and shock protection of Helvetia's earlier shock protected watches, the difference is now they have Depollier cases designed to be screwed shut using a 'key' that fitted into slots on the front and rear of the case and was then turned to a make sure the cases were closed with a tight seal. They are also fitted with the patent crown and bow.

Almost all of the earlier Depollier watches made in the US were nickel, the 1927 ones are silver.

The slightly earlier of the three watches is marked 'Waterproof' and 'Shock Proof' on the dial with 'Patent Shock Absorber' and with '3 Adjustments, dot, star, dot' on the barrel wheel the same as the other Helvetia shock protected watches.

It has an Edinburgh silver hallmark with the date letter for 1927 which is also the date of the serial number on the inner case back.

Though the other two watches have Swiss silver hallmarks with no date letter they both have serial numbers around 1500 later than the first watch which would also date them to 1927. The dials are marked 'Depollier' and the cases and movements are marked 'Depollier Watch Corp.' which wasn't formed until 1926. They have the same movement and patented crown fitting as the previous watch. The crown in the watch illustrated below may be the original and illustrates better how the bow would apply downward pressure on the crown to create a seal.

 

This example, one of the Depollier marked watches, was discovered by Stan Czubernat of LRF Antique Watches in 2017.

All versions of this watch earlier than these were manufactured in the US and were fitted with US movements. Below is an advert for the version of the Depollier waterproof watch produced before the Helvetia one. It dates from 1919 and was made by Waltham Watch Co, note the similarities in the case but the different (screw down) crown.

Though it appears the last version of the Depollier waterproof was not a huge success as none appear to have been made after 1927 it looks as if Helvetia decided to specialise in this type of watch. They 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.