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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 and beyond.

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On the 14th April 1892 the Swiss watch company Louis Brandt & Frere registered the name ‘Helvetia’ as one of the brand names for their watches. Two years later in 1894 they also registered the name ‘Omega’ and applied it to a new range of high quality lever movement pocket watches they had developed using cutting edge manufacturing technology.

So successful were the new Omega watches that the Brandt brothers decided to form a new company alongside Louis Brandt & Frere and move the production of some of their other watches to it to in order to make extra room in their Bienne factory to allow increased production of Omega watches.

On the 5th August 1895 the new company ‘Société d’Horlogerie La Générale’ was formed in La Chaux de-Fonds as a joint venture the directors being Louis Paul Brandt, Edouard Boillat of the ébauche company Ed. Boillat & Cie and initially Louis Courvoisier though he resigned in 1897. 1897 was also the year that the company was additionally registered under its English name, ‘General Watch Co’, and moved its registered office to Bienne.

Following the founding of La Générale production of most of Louis Brandt & Frere’s lower quality cylinder watches were moved there including the brands Helvetia, Paradox, Jura, Gurzelen and Cosmopolite.

La Générale watches were often marked on the dial and case ‘La Générale, Successeur de Louis Brandt & Frere’ and it looks as if the Brandts were using the pull of their famous name to move the customers of their non-Omega watches over to La Générale allowing them to concentrate on Omega. Indeed, in 1903 they renamed their company from Louis Brandt & Frere to ‘La Société Anonyme Louis Brandt & Frere (Omega Watch Co)’. Also in 1903 first Louis Paul and then César Brandt died and, though Adrien Brandt replaced them as a director of La Générale for several years, in 1911 the Omega Watch Co finally withdrew from La Générale and those brand names in use by them that were still registered under Omega were officially transferred.

1911 Helvetia and Others to La Generale

Following the withdrawl of Omega, Edouard Boillat transferred the rest of the company Ed. Boillat & Cie to the control of La Générale including his factory at Reconvilier to allow him to concentrate on his metal foundry business. 

In the years since 1895 La Générale had begun to make better quality lever movement watches, sold mainly under the Helvetia name, and in 1906 they built a new factory in Bienne with offices and workrooms for 104 workers. Here they developed a 13 ligne movement that was used in smaller fob watches and then in their first wristwatches around 1907. They also registered brand names in their own right such as General in 1902, Adonis in 1905 and Orta in 1911.

The start of the first world war in 1914 signalled some major changes to the Swiss watch industry. The need to be able to tell the time quickly and easily in the trenches without fumbling for a pocket watch meant that wristwatch use and production rose rapidly and the poor conditions that a watch was liable to meet also meant that water and moisture resistance became more important. La Générale appears to have started to specialise in watches with this type of protection around this time. They had actually developed a screw case, swing ring, pocket watch with water resistant properties by 1903 and during the war a large percentage of their wristwatches were of the hunter or half hunter types that included a hinged lid to protect the face of the watch from damage. They also provided adapted pocket watches for use in German aircraft cockpits and sold watches under the brand names Kitchener and Les Poilus (a nickname for French troops) in allied countries.

La Générale finished the first world war in a strong position. They valued their company at 1,000,000 Swiss Francs in 1920 more than double the pre-war value. During the 1920s they continued their specialism into so called protected watches; a report on the 1920 Swiss Watch fair mentions “Among other original creations we notice the miner's watch, of an exceptionally robust construction and completely impermeable.” By about 1924 they had also started to produce watches with shock protection, which was very unusual at the time and initially appears to have been a version of the Depollier/Brun shock protection system patented in 1921. 

This was the time La Générale also began to use the English version of their company name, General Watch Co, prominently in their advertising and push the brand name Helvetia to the fore. Though they did occasionally manufacture watches under some of their other brand names such as General or Post almost all the watches they produced from the late 1920s bear the name Helvetia.

These developments came together in 1929 with the production of the Helvetia waterproof and shock protected watch. This watch combined the General Watch Co’s own newly patented shock protection system in a brand new 10.5 ligne movement, the calibre 81, and a water protected silver case with gaskets in the stem and case back. To accompany the new watch a new Helvetia logo was added to the dial though it wasn’t officially registered until 1931, before this a flowing script had been used for Helvetia watches up to about 1908 and plain block capitals from then.

Helvetia continued to develop their water and shock protected watches throughout the 1930s; for instance they patented a waterproof crystal fitting in 1931 and an anti-shock movement mounting in 1933 with a centre sweep seconds version being introduced in 1935. During this period they are regularly mentioned in the UK Horological press as specialising in this area. The following example is from the April 1934 edition of Watch and Clock Maker:

"The 'Helvetia' makers differentiate between their 'shockproof' and 'unbreakable' models, where, perhaps, others confuse the two terms and consequently confuse the trade and their wearers ...The firm hold important patents on each type. The Helvetia waterproof is a very sound job and has stood up against tests that have sent many another watch to a watery grave."