Helvetia German Military D.....H Watches
During World War 2 Helvetia supplied watches to the German military. Due to the style of marking on these watches they are known colloquially as DH watches.
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During World War 2 the German Military needed large numbers of timepieces and they turned to a wide range of Swiss watch manufacturers to supply them. While no official specification has been found by observation of thousands of examples it appears the contracts for these timepieces specified that the watches should be water resistant with a screw on case back that had 6 indentations; to allow a standard tool to be used to open the case back whoever the manufacturer, the dials were required to be black with luminous numerals and hands, with a small seconds dial at the six o’clock position and the movements shock protected.
What evidence exists seems to indicate that the watches started to be supplied in 1942 when the demand outstripped the German watch industries ability to produce watches within Germany, especially as they increasingly turned to producing fuses and other war material and, although again there is little official evidence, the supply stopped in 1944 due to the increasing difficulties the Swiss watch industry had in obtaining raw materials.
To signify that the watches were military property and to allow a record to be kept of them they were marked with the letters DH with a serial number between these letters. There are also watches marked D, DU and possibly DIH for different parts of the German establishment or for different requirements. The meaning of the letters DH has been debated but it is widely agreed that they stand for either Deutsche Heer (German Army) or Dienstuhr Heer (Service Timepiece Army). The numbering system itself is also not 100% understood but again it is now widely agreed to run sequentially from number one upwards and was allocated by the German authorities not the watch maker. This means that the sequence runs across all manufacturers and types of watches and a single DH serial number should never be repeated. (That being said there do seem to be examples of the same manufacturer using the same number more than once, I have seen an example of a Helvetia wristwatch and pocket watch with the same DH number. These may stem from a mistake made by the manufacturer or from a mistake in our understanding of the numbering system!).
A Selection of 1930s Helvetia Watches
Given Helvetia’s history of producing water and shock resistant ‘Sports’ watches in the 1930s it is not much of a surprise that Helvetia were one of the first companies approached to provide the required watches. The lowest DH serial number on a Helvetia watch I have recorded is in the 400s and the highest in the 40,000s. Apparently Germany placed many small contracts with a large number of companies in order to receive as many watches in as short a time as possible bearing in mind the limited scope for watch companies of the 1940s to suddenly provide thousands of additional watches to a set specification. It certainly seems that way as the series of Helvetia watches I have recorded seem to be regularly broken by other manufacturers after perhaps only 50 to 100 watches though this does seem to give way to longer runs of concurrent numbers later on.
Apparently almost all DH contracts were awarded during 1942 and by the end of that year the DH serial numbering had reached well into the millions. The fact that the Helvetia DH numbering ends at around 40,000 seems to imply that they stopped receiving contracts fairly early in the process. I believe this was because Helvetia did not have the capacity to deliver more watches than this, there is in fact evidence that they could not deliver all of the watches they did manufacture before the end of the war; watches above about 38,000 appear in ‘new old stock’ condition or are marked with US Army issue numbers as well as German Army DH numbers implying that they had never made it into the hands of the Germans but that some were utilised post war by the allies. It is even possible that orders over and above these existing watches were awarded to Helvetia but they had not even started producing them by 1945 and so no evidence of them exists.
Helvetia produced DH watches are very standardised and they used the same dial, hands, case and movement for the majority of their production with only some minor changes towards the end. The dial was black with luminous numerals, as per the contract specification, and with a white painted minute track in a 'railroad' pattern with a border either side, and sub seconds dial. It also had white painted, tapered, hands with luminous paint applied to the hour and minute hands.
The movement used by Helvetia was their tried and tested calibre 82, 15 jewel, 10.5 Ligne, sub second movement. 90% were completed using the 82A-24 variant. These were fitted with Helvetia’s own patent shock protection.
The body of the case was made of chrome plated brass with a screw on stainless steel back. There was also a separate movement holder/spacer that fitted inside the case and held the dial and movement firmly in place in the centre of the case. These cases were marked with the case number ‘3190’. There is a variation of the case with a larger movement holder/spacer to accommodate larger 820B and 800C centre second movements. These cases are marked ‘3190 2’ to differentiate them. In theory no DH watches should be marked ‘3190 2’ as all DH watches used smaller sub second movements however do see later for the inevitable exceptions!
The case and movements tend to be sparsely marked compared to Helvetia's retail watches. The stainless steel backs are not marked for instance and the movements usually don't mention jewel count, adjustments or 'Swiss', most of the time they are only marked 'Helvetia 82A' and very low numbered examples only 'Helvetia'. The markings on the case back tend to be low down towards the rim apart from in later examples when they move towards the centre.
I have documented over 100 Helvetia DH marked watches and I believe I have identified five different variants or types. These mainly vary in the style of marking applied and some minor variations in the cases themselves and probably relate to different case manufacturers. The illustrations below usually but do not always belong to the same watch for each example, I have tried to use images which best show the features discussed.
Type 1 watches use the standard dial, hands, 3190 case and 82A-24 movement as described above. The movement holder/spacer is made of solid base metal and the case back bears the usual 3190 case number. The DH number is neatly, evenly, stamped with small, square, serifed letters and numbers on the back in the same font as the case number. The D and H are often spaced widely either side of the number. The inner case back is stamped CB within an arched square or ‘loaf’ shape. This is the mark of the Central Watch Case Company.
Type 1 DH watches seen range from about D400H to about D7500H though it is believed not all numbers between these extremes were allocated to a single manufacturer and so it is therefore impossible to tell exactly how many of these watches were produced. The same applies to the other types of Helvetia DH watches.
At the end of the Type 1 range, either side of the 7000 mark, I have observed a couple of interesting watches. One has 'Swiss' added to the dial and is marked to the case back and movement 'Finlay Straus Inc'. On another, illustrated below, the dial has had 'Waterproof, Shockproof, Antimagnetic' added and 'Swiss', 'Semca' and the letters 'SOE' (if you squint!) have been crudely engraved to the movement. The marks on these watches appear to be US import marks, the three letters are a code signifying The Semca Watch Corporation. Import marks on Helvetia DH watches are discussed in much more detail in the section on Type 3 watches.
Around the D8000H mark the numbering on the case changed. I believe this is due to a different case manufacturer being used and the case does look slightly different, especially around the lugs. The D and H stamping are in a thinner, simpler, sans-serif font and are often crooked or unevenly stamped. The numbering is again in the same font as the 3190 case number.
In addition to the DH number these watches bear an individual serial number inside the case back. These numbers seem to be specific to this range of cases and do not relate to the standard Helvetia serial numbering or the DH numbering though they do increase roughly in line with the DH numbers with a bit of variance up or down. This serial number is repeated on the inside of the lugs with the first one or two digits on one lug and the last three on another. This is to enable the case back and body to be matched. These serial numbers can be very crudely stamped with double strikes, uneven numbers and even missed or incorrect digits. I have observed 3190 cases with the same serial numbering inside the case and on the lugs but with no DH number so it seems these cases were also used for Helvetia’s civilian watches.
The design of the dial, hands and the general case design remain the same as the Type 1 with the exception that the solid movement holder was replaced with one with a plate for the dial and a rim around the movement to hold it in place but left a gap between the movement and case. This was probably introduced to save on materials.
Interestingly I have noted two watches with serial numbers in the D200000H range, much higher than any other Helvetia DH watches, but the style of the DH numbering and the individual serial numbers inside the case point to them being Type 2 watches. I think that there was a mistake with the numbering machine for these watches and that an extra ‘0’ was mistakenly added.
The third type of numbering starts at about D24000H and is neater and thicker than the Type 2 with serifs on the H. Type 3 cases have a much thicker pipe for the stem to fit through, this may have been an attempt to improve the waterproof qualities of the watches allowing for more waterproof packing around the stem. There seem to be two sub-types of these watches. The first range have 1007 stamped inside the case back and between the lugs and the second range 1756. There is some mingling of DH numbers during the change from one to the other however and in addition the earliest case I have seen with 1007 stamped inside is on a late Type 2 case and is as well as an individual case serial number as described above. This leads me to believe that the numbers 1007 or 1756 were added by Helvetia after delivery from the case manufacturer and were used to differentiate these cases for some reason, possibly a contract number or similar and does not relate directly to the case maker.
1007 Marked Type 3 DH Watches
1007 stamped watches are very interesting and themselves split into two further categories; those crudely engraved on the movement and inside the case ‘Reliable Stores Corp’ or ‘Finlay Straus Inc’, and those professionally marked on the dial, case and movement to the ‘Helbros Watch Company’. Almost all of the 1007 marked cases fit into one of these two categories, there are one or two exceptions detailed below. I will first describe these different types and add then my theory as to what I believe was happening with these watches.
Reliable Stores Corp/Finlay Straus DH 1007 Marked Watches
These watches are almost all standard Helvetia DH watches, with the same style dial, hands and case as Type 2 watches however they have been, crudely, engraved on the movement with – ‘15 Jewels, Unadjusted, Reliable Stores Corp (or Finlay Straus Inc), Swiss’ and, in the case of the Reliable Stores Corp on the inner case back. The Reliable Stores Corporation seems to have supplied watches to Jewellery retailers in the United States and Finlay Straus Inc were a chain of jewellery stores in New York. The reason these watches were marked in this way was because US tax regulations stipulated that the importer, jewel count, country of manufacture and if the watch was adjusted or not had to be marked on all watches imported to the US at this time. This was so the quality of the watch could be appraised and the correct amount of tax charged to the importer.
There are a few 1007 watches with DH numbers at the high end of the range where they mix with the 7056 marked watches that are different to the standard DH design. The first is marked ‘Waterproof’ on the dial and the Helvetia logo has been replaced with ‘Reliable’. The movement of this watch has also had the Helvetia logo very crudely erased. Another, numbered within a few hundred of this first watch, has had ‘Swiss’ added to the dial under Helvetia, unfortunately, I have not seen the movement of this watch but I think there is an extremely good chance it too will be marked ‘Reliable Stores’ or another jewellery retailer.
There are also two watches with the same style civilian type dial. The movements of these watches are marked General Watch Company (Helvetia's parent company) which is rare on 82-24 movements. The fact that there were at least two watches with the same civilian dial and movement markings shows that this must have been deliberate rather than the result of later movement and dial swaps during servicing. There are also almost identical watches with the same dial, case and movements without DH markings. These civilian dialled watches could have been marked as they are for the same reasons, import tax, as the other 1007 watches and they may actually form a separate third type of 1007 DH watch but there is not enough evidence to say for sure at the moment.
As well as the DH 1007 marked watches I have seen non-DH marked Helvetia watches engraved by Reliable Stores and Finlay Straus in the same way, including two fitted with a calibre 820 movement which only seems to have been used for Reliable or Helbros marked watches and only for a very short time during the war. As these watches have standard Helvetia serial numbers we can date them to 1943.
One explanation offered as to how these watches came to be marked as above is that these jewellery retailers purchased a lot of captured German military watches at the end of the war that were sold off by the occupying powers for resale in the US. This could be the case but it seems that, baring the two civilian dialled examples noted above, all the Helvetia (as opposed to Helbros) DH watches marked 1007 are engraved in this way and though, as would be expected for import marks, it is not that unusual to find other watches with these type of markings I have not come across them on DH watches from a supplier other than Helvetia. This being the case it is odd that no other DH suppliers’ watches appear to have ended up sold to the US as surplus like this and a coincidence that Helvetia also supplied civilian watches to Reliable Stores during the war.
Another that has been suggested is that these markings where added as these watches were repaired by Reliable Stores over their lifetime but this theory doesn’t hold water as why do this extra work if it is not required, I would imagine customers being quite annoyed if their watches were defaced in this way when they went for repair, and as it is so widespread amongst Helvetia 1007 watches it must have been done before they were sold, they couldn’t all have come to Reliable Stores or Finlay Straus for repair.
Helbros DH 1007 Marked Watches
The Helbros marked Helvetia DH watches are more unusual. They are in standard 3190/1007 cases the same as the Reliable Stores watches however these watches are additionally professionally marked to the case and movement ‘Helbros Watch Co, Swiss, 17 Jewels, Unadjusted’ and the movements bear the 3 letter US import code for Helbros ‘HXW’. This was an additional code added to imported watch movements to identify the importer. These markings appear to have been added for the same tax reasons as the, more crude, Reliable Stores engraving. So it looks as if these watches are marked for import to the US as well. In addition to adding these markings all Helvetia marks have been removed including on the dial where the standard Helvetia logo has been replaced with ‘Helbros’.
There are not many of these DH marked Helbros watches to be found, I have recorded nine in total and an additional three 3190/1007 cased Helbros watches with no DH marking. Of these nine watches only two meet the DH standard of having a black dial with sub seconds. The rest are all white dialled sub second or black dialled centre second watches. The centre second watches are fitted with the rare Helvetia calibre 820 movement. DH marked watches do not usually carry standard Helvetia serial numbers so It is difficult to date them but of the two Reliable Stores watches I have seen with 820 movements I have the serial number of one dating it to 1943 and I have recorded calibre 820B movements in other non DH watches that date to 1943/44. The 820 was used for a very short period so I believe the Helbros watches fitted with this movement are around this date. Helvetia also supplied Helbros with some ‘Flieger’ type pilots watches during the war, the serial numbers of these watches are in a group with the Helvetia Reliable Stores civilian watches referred to above, all within 4000 about a month’s production, and so also date them to 1943.
There are several theories about these watches. The first is that they are what they appear to be; Helbros Watch Company watches ordered by and delivered to the German army and therefore marked with a DH number - albeit with case, movement etc. supplied by Helvetia, Helbros were a reseller and did not produce their own cases or movements.
I am not sure of this explanation as Helbros was a US company, though with offices in Switzerland as well, and these watches were almost certainly supplied after the US joined the war against Germany as Germany did not place orders with Swiss manufacturers for DH watches until 1942. The founders of Helbros, the Helbein brothers, were born in Russia to a Jewish family before immigrating to the US at a young age. The president of Helbros during the war, William Helbein, was a very vocal supporter of the war against Germany and headed several pushes to sell war bonds including the 'Time for Victory' campaign which look like it ran from February to October 1943. He was also investigated by the FBI as Helbros had been used to funnel $10,000 from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa to finance a Russian spy ring in Switzerland. I think it extremely unlikely that Helbros would be supplying watches to Nazi Germany. In addition, the watches are marked for import to the US which would be odd if they were to be supplied to Germany and if they are part of a contract with Helbros to supply watches to the German Army why have Helbros ignored what seem to be the requirements of that contract for most of these watches with regards to dials, movements etc.
Another theory is that they are watches put together at some time after their initial manufacture from Helvetia 3190 DH marked cases and Helbros marked movements and dials, perhaps because the original Helvetia dial was worn or the movement broken (Franken watches).
Again I am not sure about this as the cases are all very consistent with each other. All appear to be correctly Helbros marked in exactly the same way as each other and as retail watches were marked unlike the sparse markings on Helvetia DH cases. They are also all marked 1007 and have the same style of Type 3 DH numbers as opposed to any of the other types of DH numbered case used by Helvetia. With them being so consistent I think it is unlikely these watches are put together using Helvetia DH cases and Helbros movements and dials. I have actually seen two ‘Franken’ watches with Helbros dials and movements and Helvetia 3190 DH cases and they did not contain any of the marks the Helbros cases usually do and it was clear that these cases had been exchanged.
A third theory is that the cases, dials and movements are all correctly marked as Helbros Watch Company watches supplied by Helvetia but that the DH numbers were added at a later date, perhaps to make a civilian Helbros watch more saleable.
The same logic applies here as above; all the DH numbers are on the same type of Helbros marked Helvetia supplied case. All marked 1007 and with the same Type 3 style DH marking. Also the DH serial numbers are in the same range, none in the range that would have the earlier style DH marking and all earlier than the DH range applied to the later 1756 marked cases. I think it would be highly unlikely for a faker to get all of these points consistent especially when there are, potentially, millions of DH numbers to choose to add and at least four other types of Helvetia DH markings and 3190 cases.
Helvetia DH 1007 Marked Watches - My Theory
These then are the facts as I see them regarding Helvetia 1007 DH watches:
These DH watches, Helbros and Reliable Stores/Finlay Straus, form a distinct group. They are all marked 1007. Their DH serial numbers occur between the first two styles of DH marked Helvetia watches and the 1756 marked cases.
The DH serial numbers in this range are mixed between the types, Helbros and Reliable/Finlay Straus.
All, or certainly the vast majority of, 1007 marked 3190 case watches, whether DH numbered or not, were supplied to civilian, US based, retailers and are marked in order to comply with US import tax regulations.
The earliest any DH watches, Helvetia or otherwise, were apparently manufactured is 1942.
Helbros a US company, founded by a Russian born American of Jewish ancestry who was a vocal supporter of the war against Germany, was extremely unlikely to be supplying Germany with watches, especially after Dec 1941 when Germany declared war on the US!
Helvetia also supplied non-DH watches to Helbros and Reliable Stores during the war the serial numbers of which are clustered together indicating production over about a one month period in 1943.
Some Helbros and Reliable Stores watches are fitted with calibre 820 movements which appear to have only been manufactured for a short period during 1943.
The Helbros branded watches are consistent with each other in their style of marking on movements and cases, and they look to have been professionally added during the manufacturing process, as are the style of DH numbers on these watches.
So taking all of the above into consideration what do I think is happening with these watches.
I think we can completely rule out Helbros supplying these watches to the German army and I think the consistency of the Helbros watches also rules out ‘Franken’ watches put together from Helvetia cases and Helbros dials and movements (apart from the obvious examples without Helbros case markings as mentioned). The possibility that correctly marked and supplied Helbros military style watches have had a DH number added to them is more likely but again the grouping of the DH numbers and their consistency in style with the other 1007 marked Helvetia DH watches means that a faker would need to be very clever to get all this right.
All the evidence seems to be pointing in one direction to me. It seems clear that the 1007 marking denotes a batch of watches to be supplied to civilian retailers, if not wholly then mostly in the US. The question then of course is why are almost all of them marked with German army DH numbers? I think it’s possible these cases were manufactured and marked for delivery to the German army but were diverted by Helvetia. Why did this happen? Perhaps a problem with payment, or over-production, or they got a more pressing or more lucrative offer and needed extra cases quickly, or perhaps by the time these watches were ready there were political or logistical issues with supplying watches to Germany.
They may have been surplus stock sold after the war but I think it is most likely that this happened earlier as it seems there were many, possibly thousands, more Helvetia DH watches manufactured after this batch and the non-DH civilian watches supplied to Reliable Stores and Helbros by Helvetia have 1943 serial numbers. The use of the calibre 820 movement also would seem to date these watches to 1943. The demand for Swiss watches in the US actually increased sharply during the war, apparently as many as 5 million were imported during 1942, as the US watch making industry was completely turned over to war work and the only way a civilian could get a new watch was to buy an imported one. The US unions were very concerned about the de-skilling of the watchmaking workforce and made representations to congress. Getting the watches to the US wasn’t that easy however and the president of Helbros himself, William Helbein, actually made a statement in 1944 that there were 100 aircraft waiting to speed goods from Switzerland and that this stepped up supply was welcome after three difficult years for the jewellery industry. Maybe due to these uncertain supply lines there was a short notice requirement to provide watches to fill a shipment. The numbering on the back of the watch would mean little to those who received them in the US, they are just a serial number as far as they are concerned. I think there is a good possibility that these watches were part of the same shipment as the group of non-DH marked Reliable Stores and Helbros marked Helvetia pilot’s watches from 1943 referenced above.
I know it seems ironic, and perhaps even beyond belief, that watches originally made for the Wehrmacht should end up being supplied to an allied country in the middle of the war but I think this scenario fits the facts better than any other. It does explain how Helvetia DH watches marked 1007 ended up with US import marks, no other manufacture’s DH watches are marked this way as far as I am aware. It also explains why the Helbros watches have so many white dials and centre seconds movements, that’s what they ordered from Helvetia, and the reason there are DH watches with civilian dials marked General Watch Co. The altered dials of some of the Reliable Stores watches I think also tends to support that they were not surplus and the Type 1 'Semca' and 'Finlay Straus' marked watches with altered dial perhaps hints this had already happened at least once before. As an aside a lot of ‘new old stock’ Helvetia dials from the 1930s/40s appeared on the market a few years ago and Helbros dials were mixed among these demonstrating, I think, that Helvetia were assembling watches in Switzerland for Helbros during this period.
We will probably never know the full story but I welcome any feedback in the comments below!
1756 Marked Type 3 DH Watches
After the complications of the 1007 marked watches the 1756 ones are more straight forward. The cases, dials and movements are standard Helvetia ones as before but sometimes it seems that a very slightly thicker set of hands are used with the luminous paint extending into the points of the hands instead of ending at a right angle as previously. There are also some newer dials with a slightly larger seconds sub-dial. The old hands and dials and these newer ones seem to have both been used. The DH number is in the same Type 3 style and the 1756 is stamped between the lugs and on the inner case back as on the 1007 watches.
The 1756 marked watches appear to carry immediately on from the 1007 marked ones at about D32300H and continue to about D35000H. I do not know what the 1756 marking signifies but if it is similar to the 1007 marking perhaps it too denotes a batch of watches or a specific contract.
Unfortunately, we are now back to some confusion with the next range of DH numbers. From about D35000H to D38500H the style of numbering changes. They appear to be marked in the same way that Helvetia DH pocket watches are marked; lightly engraved, rather than stamped, in a distinctive font with an elongated ‘D’.
Not many of this type of watch exist, I have only seen about 15, but those that do are consistent with each other. They have the correct later dials, with the addition of 'Swiss Made' to either side of the 6 marker, and the later, slightly thicker, hands. The cases are marked '3190 2' to the centre of the case back instead of just '3190' which means they are fitted with the larger movement holder/spacer for the 820B or 800C movements, however they have the 82A or 82C movements inside. You can see that the movement holder is too large for the movement when the case back is removed. The movements are also 82A-28 or 82C-28 instead of the usual 82A-24 but this is just a slight variation of the same movement and most other Helvetia watches were using these variants by this time, the 82A-24 being obsolete. They also use spring bars and do not have fixed lugs.
Inside the case back they have ‘General Watch Co Switzerland’ and standard Helvetia serial numbers as well as the DH number on the back. No previous DH watches also had Helvetia serial numbers and this allows us to date these watches to about 1944.
On the face of it these watches are wrong. I initially thought they were Helvetia civilian watches with DH numbers added later, perhaps to deceive, the ‘3199 2’ cases and the case markings support this. However, they are all wrong in exactly the same way, they all have the same case, dial and hands and are marked in the same way. The DH numbers are the same style and within the same range following on from the Type 3 numbers.
I think that Helvetia were short on materials and used a set of cases that had already been marked for civilian use and then added the DH numbers and fitted DH style dials and movements. This could also explain why the DH numbers are engraved rather than stamped as if the cases had already been delivered to Helvetia from the case maker perhaps it was easier to engrave the numbers rather than to stamp them on the back as usual. To me this explains why the watches are all exactly the same, if 'non-standard', and is more likely than a faker being able to get hold of a set of watches this consistent and then adding fake DH numbers that would happen to fit in with the Helvetia serial numbers and later hand style, not be within ranges with other Helvetia DH marking styles and also match the Helvetia DH pocket watch style of numbering.
Some of these watches are also marked with United States military markings and so possibly not all of them were ever delivered to the Germans and instead Helvetia sold them to the allied forces who urgently needed wristwatches towards the end of the war.