From the early years of the twentieth century through to the 1920s the General Watch Company produced a range of fixed lug 'Trench' watches under their Helvetia brand name.
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Converted Fob Watches
For the first few years after their founding the General Watch Company carried on making the cylinder and lower quality lever watches, mainly under the Gurzelen and Helvetia names, that they had been set up by the Brandt brothers to produce.
However, by about 1904 they had started to manufacture higher quality Helvetia branded watches including some smaller 12 and 13 ligne fob watches. ('Ligne' is a unit of measurement used in watchmaking.)
The 13 ligne movement seems to have been produced by the General Watch Company themselves but the 12 ligne movement was based on a Fabrique d'Horlogerie Fontainemelon (FHF) ébauche or base movement. The watches on this page were mainly sold by the General Watch Company under their Helvetia brand though often these names do not appear anywhere on the watch and the movements are sometimes based on Fabrique d'Horlogerie Fontainemelon (FHF) or Adolf Schild (AS) bases.
1907 Helvetia Advert - 13 Ligne Centre Left - 12 Ligne Centre Right
Some of these small fob watches were later converted to be worn on the wrist, the most likely time for this to have happened is at the start of the First World War when the demand for wristwatches rapidly rose with the greatly expanded armies of the time.
Pre World War One Wristwatches
The General Watch Company had, however, been manufacturing wristwatches for several years prior to the first world war, often for military use where they were more practical than a pocket watch. The earliest Helvetia watch I have seen that seems to have been purpose made as a wristwatch dates to 1908 and is shown below.
This watch is fitted with the 13 ligne Helvetia movement as used in their fob watches. As can be seen the winder of this watch is at the 9 o’clock position rather than the standard 3 o’clock. This placement of the winder is sometimes seen on the earliest wristwatches, in particular early Omega wristwatches. It should not really be a surprise that the General Watch Company also used this layout as both companies were owned by the same family, the Brandts, until 1911. The positioning of the winder at 9 may have been to allow the watch to be worn on the inside of the wrist as in the Omega advert below.
This is another advert from 1910 for the Australian brand 'The Fenchurch Lever', illustrating their wristlet watch with the winder on the left at 9. This brand seems to have exclusively used Helvetia watches so almost certainly this watch is made by Helvetia/General Watch Co .
The movements used in these early wristwatches were lepine movements which had the winder at 12 o’clock and the sub seconds at 6. As can be seen in the preceding adverts when the winder was moved to the 9 o’clock, or more usual 3 o’clock, position the sub seconds dial was often omitted. If not the subdial would appear to the side of the dial instead of at the bottom as was the norm with pocket watches. In this watch however the General Watch Company have decided to create a dial with the sub seconds in this unusual position. Possibly this was to allow those customers who needed a seconds dial to be able to purchase a wristwatch rather than a pocket watch.
In addition to fob watches being converted into wristwatches by local jewellers, as in the examples at the start of this page, some manufacturers converted fob watches they had in storage into wristwatches themselves or used the movements from these lepine fob watches which is why the sub dial is often omitted as mentioned above.
These factory conversions tend to be of better quality than the locally produced ones and it is possible that this watch is one converted from a fob watch by The General Watch Company. You can often tell if a watch was originally created as wristwatch because, in theory, it should have a stamp inside the case back stating ‘Modèle Déposé 9846’ which translates as Registered Design Number 9846. This was a requirement imposed upon the Swiss watch industry by the company Dimier Frères & Cie who had registered the idea of a watch with lugs to take a strap in 1903. Because of this other manufacturers who wished to make wristwatches had to pay Dimier Frères a fee and have their cases stamped as proof. The watch above does not have this stamp but it does have a stamp with ‘Modèle Déposé’ only. Dimier Frères did not start to enforce the requirement for wristwatches to be stamped with their design registration until October 1907 which is around the time this watch was made and it could be that systems were not completely in place and therefore the slightly unusual stamp was used. Of course the stamp could be for a different registered design of the General Watch Company’s but I haven’t been able to find a record of any registered designs by them around this time and no fob or other similar watch of theirs from this time has this stamp. Because of this I believe the stamp was added specifically to do with the fact that the watch is a wristwatch.
Before the surge in demand with the outbreak of the First World War there was no need to convert pocket watches to service the need for wristwatches and with this watch configured with the winder at 9, a layout which had fallen out of favour by then, I lean towards the watch being manufactured in its current form in 1908, using the Helvetia 13 ligne fob watch movement, rather than being converted later.
By 1909 the General Watch Company wristwatches had adopted the more well-known configuration for the winder and sub dial and a watch that makes for a very nice comparison to a Helvetia advert from 1910 is the watch below dating from that same year.
It is fitted with the Helvetia 13 ligne movement and has the Depose No 9846 text stamped in the case lid and as well as UK hallmarks it is marked with the sponsors mark GS for George Stockwell as are almost all UK marked The General Watch Company watches at this time.
It is fitted with the Helvetia 13 ligne movement and has the Depose No 9846 text stamped in the case lid and as well as UK hallmarks it is marked with the sponsors mark GS for George Stockwell as are almost all UK marked Helvetia watches at this time.
An example of the cheaper, gun metal cased, watches as mentioned in the Fenchurch Lever advert above is next. Interestingly it has what is probably its original strap fitted, stamped with the UK registered design number 405488 as in the text under the Helvetia wristwatch advert shown with it.