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.
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.
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.