The foundations of H Moser & Cie lie in 1805, when Heinrich Moser was born in Schaffhausen to a family of watchmakers. His father made watches. His grandfather made watches. It’s just one of those things you can’t get away from. Some people call it destiny.
After his induction into the trade via an apprenticeship under his father, Heinrich Moser went west to Le Locle in 1824. Along with the neighbouring La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Locle was already by that time a major centre of Swiss watchmaking. Watchmaking was so much a part of this area that civic authorities reshaped both La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle to facilitate the needs of the watchmaking industry. I’m not even kidding about this. After a massive fire that razed La Chaux-de-Fonds to the ground in 1794, the city was rebuilt in a logistically efficient grid layout, with street widths carefully calculated in order to allow the maximum amount of sunlight into the windows of watchmaking workshops. Le Locle followed suit after their own town-wide conflagration in 1833.
Within two years, Heinrich Moser had gained such watchmaking skill that he outshone his master in Le Locle and started taking apprentices of his own. Hearing of opportunities to further his career in St Petersburg, he travelled there in 1928 and established a living in that great city. He returned to Switzerland in 1848 with his fortune made, his entrepreneurial spirit invigorated by his experience in Russia, and immediately set about revitalising the depressed economy of Schaffhausen — the dam harnessing the power of the Rhine was a particular project of his.
To this day, Heinrich Moser is seen as the man who helped put Schaffhausen back on the map in terms of industrial and commercial activity. Charlottenfels Manor, the family home he built, is now the Moser Museum, preserving chapters of history that are important not only to H Moser & Cie but also the city of Schaffhausen.
Visiting the Moser Museum is a bit of a trip — you feel as if you’ve literally stepped back into Heinrich Moser’s family home. The entrance hall is still liberally studded all around with 19th-century hunting trophies — you see representatives of the ibex family, chamois, red deer, one lone snarling bear. One of the rooms on the upper level has been turned into a recreation of Heinrich Moser’s private watchmaking studio, containing shelves and cabinets lined with archival watches and instruments, a workbench laden with horological apparatus and artefacts of Heinrich Moser’s travels.
A travelling trunk piled high with replicas of Heinrich Moser’s personal and business papers sits next to the glazed fireplace, while a stuffed toy dog is the key to an anecdote drawn from Moser’s extensive family correspondence that provides a beautifully vivid glimpse into his inner life. The curator of the Moser Museum, Mandy Ranneberg, described to me the long journey that Heinrich Moser took to reach St Petersburg, and his acute dismay and subsequent depression upon leaving Frankfurt when a peasant stole his faithful poodle as it was running behind his coach. Moser was unable to stop the coach and the thief got away with the beloved dog. (“That asshole!” I gasped, and Mandy nodded grimly.)
It feels strange to call it a museum, as if it were nothing more than a collection of old objects. The Moser Museum is maintained with as much affection as if the family were still resident on the premises. In a sense, they are. Across the hall from the family room, which adjoins the watchmaking studio, a richly appointed room represents the life of Heinrich Moser’s son, also named Heinrich (but called Henri), and his efforts to expand the family business into the Near East. Personal effects, photographs and journals lie around the room.
The narrative of Moser’s family unfolds (scandalous marriages, Communist sympathisers, domestic estrangement) and you almost forget that you were initially drawn here by your interest in watches. But I have to admit that I wasn’t displeased about being led off the path of watchmaking discovery; I found that behind the watch story was an incredibly moving human story.
There is a reason why the Endeavour was given that name. Out of all the Moser watch collections, the Endeavour is easily the largest. It encompasses all the familiar complications of H Moser & Cie — the perpetual calendar, the perpetual moon phase, the dual time and the signature Moser big date. In terms of design, the Endeavour has always seemed to me like the most established of all the Moser watch collections. That’s partly because it is; the other two collections (not counting special editions such as the Swiss Alp) were introduced in 2013 and 2015. The Endeavour also just looks like a more mature watch, though. Its proportions are more traditional, there is a solidity about its appearance, a gathered strength. This is a watch for someone who’s ready to build something — a family, a business, an industry, whatever. An empire.
Here in the Moser Museum, they’re renovating the wings of the villa, including the gallery where the estate’s art is usually displayed. From the grounds you can look across the city and see the Rhine, where Moser built his hydro-electric dam. The renewed activity that the dam brought to Schaffhausen was a prime factor in its industrial growth in the latter half of the 19th century, attracting an American businessman named Florentine Ariosto Jones who, with the help and advice of Heinrich Moser, subsequently set up his own watch company in the city.
If you’re familiar with the internal product narrative of H Moser & Cie, you’ll probably realise I’m talking about the watch collections out of sequence. The collections are linked to different stages of Heinrich Moser’s life, so I should have started with the Endeavour collection and then gone on to the Venturer. That’s one way of looking at it — a strong, conventional way, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But this is not your conventional manufacture story. Neither is H Moser & Cie your conventional watch company.