The History of The Helvetia Watch Company

Helvetia's history ranges from its beginnings alongside Omega at Louis Brandt & Frere to the Swiss 'Quartz Crisis'  of the 1970s & 80s.

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In 1880 the Swiss watch company Louis Brandt & Frere registered the trade mark ‘Helvetia’ as one of the brand names for their watches. In 1895 they set up a sister company for the manufacture of cylinder watches called ‘Societe D’Horlogerie La Generale’ or ‘The General Watch Company’ (GW Co).

By 1903 the success of one of Louis Brandt’s other brands prompted them to change the name of their company to ‘The Omega Watch Company’ however it looks as if Omega were still using Helvetia on some of their watches in 1905 as in that year they trademarked the name in a rhombus.

Detail of pocket watch with 'Helvetia' on dial and 'La Generale Successor de Louis Brandt & Frere' on inner case

By the year 1909 however The GW Co had trademarked the name Helvetia with 3 stars and seemed to be using this mark on its pocket watches and on 18th April 1925 the name Helvetia was registered to the GW Co with a note that the brand was acquired from the Omega Watch Company.

 

According to "A Journey Through Time", the history of the Omega Watch Company, Omega gave up its stake in the GW Co in 1911 and they became independent. From then on the GW Co began to produce higher quality lever movement watches under a variety of brand names including Patria, Paradox and Orta as well as Helvetia. 

From the late 1920s it seems as if the GW Co adopted ‘Montres Helvetia’ or ‘The Helvetia Watch Company’ as its main trading name and began to manufacture movements and watches marked Helvetia at its movement factory ‘Helvetia SA' in Reconvilier and its watch factory ‘Montres Helvetia SA’ in Bienne.

First World War Trench Watch with General Watch Co Movement

Helvetia were at the forefront of watchmaking technology and filed patents for a shock protection system for movement balances in 1929, a waterproof crystal fitting in 1931 and an anti-shock movement mounting in 1933 as well as developing centre sweep seconds movements, calendar watches and ‘Stop Second’ chronographs in the mid to late 1930s.

 

The 1930s were a time of crisis for the Swiss watch manufacturing industry with a host of small companies in competition with each other and price rises and crashes common. To try to stabilise the market the Swiss government and banks encouraged, and supported with loans, the formation of ‘Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG’ (AUSAG) a group of watch movement and component manufactures that would work together in concert to keep prices and production stable and prevent over production and price fluctuation. Another major group of of watchmaking companies was also formed at this time; 'Société Suisse pour l'Industrie Horlogère' (SSIH) was created by Omega and Tissot with an agreement not to compete in the same market segment. For the time being however Helvetia managed to stay independent.

1930s Helvetia advertisements highlighting their suitability as waterproof sports watches

Helvetia capitalised on their technological innovations by producing a range of waterproof and shockproof sports and pilots watches during the 1930s.

 

There seem to be more of these types of Helvetia branded watches from this era surviving than any other models and their adverts of the time do seem to promote Helvetia as a supplier of ‘Sports’ watches but it may be that these types are more robust or more collectable and so have survived as opposed to more of them being manufactured.

During WWII Helvetia manufactured wristwatches for the German armed forces, these watches are marked with a D and H or DI and H on the case back. They also provided pocket watches for the allies.

1930s Helvetia Sports Watch

After the war watch the production of watches in Switzerland rose steadily and in this period Helvetia produced some of their nicest watches. Larger than average for the time and often with centre sweep seconds. They also produced a lot of military style watches at this time to cater for the large market made up of ex-servicemen returning home from the war.

Late 1940s Helvetia Watch Advertisement

Late 1940s Helvetia Watch

Throughout the 1950s and 60s production carried on rising rapidly and Helvetia continued to develop their in-house movements for their watches, though they abandoned their own patent shock protection system in the early 1950s for the ubiquitous Incabloc system. They also updated their logo in about 1965 to a more 'modern' looking one.

1950s Helvetia Watch Advertisements

In 1968 Helvetia became one of the founding members of the Swiss watch group Societe des Garde-Temps SA (SGT) along with 8 other watch companies including, Avia, Sandoz and Silvana. With this move Helvetia severed its link with the General Watch Company and it appears the General Watch Company joined AUSAG soon afterwards and was used as a holding company for the movement manufacturers AUSAG absorbed.

 

Part of the reason for forming groups of companies such as SGT and AUSAG was to rationalise and streamline production and save costs and it looks as if one casualty of this process was Helvetia’s in-house movement manufacturing as about this time Helvetia started using ETA movements and the last in-house movements seem to have disappeared by 1970.

1960s Helvetia Watch

'The taste of the exceptional'

SGT Helvetia advert

SGT was the third largest group of watch making companies in Switzerland, after AUSAG and SSIH, and continued making watches through the 1970s including the first LCD display digital watch in 1972. Helvetia started adding model names to its watches at this time such as ‘Waterstar’ and ‘Beatmaster’ but by the end of the 1970s the whole Swiss watch industry was suffering, under pressure from the rise of cheaper Japanese competition and sales dropped heavily. In 1981 SGT could no longer withstand the Japanese onslaught and the rights to its individual brands were sold off and it dissolved.

This seems to be the end for Helvetia though between 1985-1988 a company called ‘Montres Helvetia SA’ did re-register a lot of the company’s trademarks, perhaps this was an attempted relaunch however I have not seen any watches that appear to be from this time period.

More recently a company based in Vienna, Austria has registered the name and has an on-line shop, how up to date it is though I’m not sure. They even have one or two models that reflect the style of Helvetia’s heyday!

Trench watch picture above with thanks to 'The Vintage Wrist Watch Company'

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