Museum expansion, a book and new watch collections… Longines is marking its 175th year in watchmaking by YEO SUAN FUTT
This is a very special year for Longines – its 175th in the business, and the watchmaker is making the most of it with a slew of activities and launches spread throughout the whole year. There has been some talk of an entirely new collection of watches, but brand president Walter Von Känel was resolutely tight-lipped about this; the new cllection would not even break cover come Basel, but we would have to wait till later in the year, possibly October, for the new range to be unveiled which, we’ve been promised, will be quite groundbreaking.
For the present, we’ll have to content ourselves with the opening of two new wings in the Longines museum; the launch of a commemorative book on the socio-economic history of the village of St-Imier, where the Longines factory and museum is located; as welll as the launch of a new “Weems” watch.
House of Treasures While 175 years may seem a mere drop in the bucket of recorded history, in modern watchmaking terms, it accords Longines considerable cachet as one of the watchmakers who were early on the scene, which have survived to this day. Indeed, its winged hourglass trademark is the oldest in use in the business. To date, Longines has amassed an impressive list of watchmaking milestones, and sold more than 35 million watches – enough for every person living in Canada, with a few million extra to spare.
What better way then to mark these achievements than by opening two new wings to its museum, which forms part of the watchmaker’s factory complex at St-Imier. Offering valuable insight into the growth of the Longines brand as well as tracking the evolution of horology communication, one of the new wings has some 50 panels which showcase advertising posters that Longines has used since its earliest days, some dating back to the 19th century. From the first engravings depicting the Longines factory, various medals awarded, posters featuring the luminaries of the day as product ambassadors, to truly elaborate works executed by major artists, the exhibition tells the Longines story in not many words, and that of art, besides.
Watch enthusiasts though, might want to make a beeline for the second new wing, which showcases all the watches Longines has made in the last 50 years, between 1957 and 2007. Landmark models include the Flagship (1957) and watches using the L990, the flattest automatic movement for close to a decade, and the last automatic caliber manufactured by Longines. Recent major successes showcased include the DolceVita (1997) and Evidenza (2003).
At the very least, we have to thank Longines for the winding crown – someone else might very conceivably come up with the idea eventually, seeing it’s such an intuitive idea. But Longines was first to it, a design innovation which earned Longines a bronze medal in 1867 at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Museums do very well to have nice walls and good lighting; but ultimately, there needs be enough history to justify the space.
If Longines’s history is in any doubt, the watchmaker has also put on display no less than 800 établissage books – hefty hardbound volumes carrying detailed handwritten records of every one of the 15 million watches that have left the factory, before Longines computerized its recordkeeping in the 1960s.
The Big Book St-Imier, where Longines is based, is actually the birthplace of more than a handful of today’s more familiar names in watchmaking, among them Breitling, Heuer, Chopard, Blancpain. Of these, Longines alone remains in St-Imier. Further cementing its relationship with this village, Longines has also commissioned a book by sociologist Laurence Marti, A Region in Time, which details the socio-economic history of St-Imier from 1700 to 2007.
Measuring 1×1 foot, at 384 pages, Region essentially tells the story of Swiss watchmaking. The setting is St-Imier, but the growth of watchmaking as a cottage industry, through distributed manufacturing to today’s more integrated system of product development, marketing and manufacture as chronicled here will find parallels in the now-famous centers of watchmaking in the other Swiss valleys.
And it is a compelling story, told through archived photographs, reproduced documents that, beyond a “Longines story”, lends the watch collector a historical perspective and hence a deeper appreciation for his hobby. Certainly a worthy addition to a collector’s bookshelf, but perhaps one must hurry, as only three thousand copies of Region have been printed.
The Watch Brand president Von Känel was advised by his staff that an event, even with museum opening and book launch, would be a non-event without a watch to mark the occasion. They were right. On this ocassion, while keeping Longines’s other watch releases for the rest of the year tightly under wraps, the watchmaker did release a the Weems Second-Setting watch, named after Captain Philip van Horn Weems, who in the 1920s, at the dawn of the age of aviation, devised the Weems System of Navigation for pilots to safely and easily plot their course from within the tight confines of a plane cockpit. Among other things, the primary element of the Weems System required a watch that could be synchronized very accurately with observatory time – a problem solved by having a movable dial that could be set to the moving seconds hand. In 1929, in collaboration with Longines, Captain Weems registered the patent for such a watch with a rotating dial. This idea was subsequently picked up by Weems’s pupil Charles A. Lindbergh, when the latter designed his Hour Angle watch for Longines.
In daily use, the Weems watch not only boasts winsome classical elegance that is the calling card of Longines, the rotating central dial for extremely precise time setting with a radio time signal to the second is, to say the least, very useful. Self-winding; with blued steel Breguet hands and 46 hours of power reserve.
A short word… with Walter von Känel
A Longines employee since 1969, and its brand president since 1988, Walter von Känel was on hand at the museum opening to answer a few questions:
What does 175 years of watchmaking mean to Longines? It’s a great incentive for us to continue for the next 175 years, to respect the past, in order to build the future. We have a great history, great achievements, and it’s an obligation and challenge to continue in this spirit, so that in the next 175 years, my successors will say, “Well, I guess he was good!” [laughs]
What are your expectations and hopes for Asia? Asia you know, is fantastic! Through our library of order books, our accounting books, we found out that Asia was, from the very beginning, a key territory for us. We found documents stating that in December 1867, we sold the first Longines watch to China in Guangzhou, what was called at that time Canton. Through a brilliant young Swiss historian who spent two years in Tokyo working in close collaboration with the Japanese watch industry, we found that from as early as 1872, we were already shipping watches to Japan.
I went personally to Beijing in 1972, and got my first order in China in 1974. Today, China is by far my biggest market, Asia is over 40 percent of our business! For Asia, I think we’ve got the right product, the right price segment, the right design… we have a very high quality image, a good price/quality ratio and I don’t want to change this global approach. We want to stay where we are, but we want to be bigger where we are.
Any promising new markets you’re eyeing? I’m not afraid of anything in Asia, but we are very careful in Indonesia. We have very good signals in Vietnam, a market we’re developing through Singapore. Singapore is a very tough market; very competitive, very mature market, but it is a very valuable springboard to India. We opened our India office four years ago, paying very heavy duties, but the returns are coming – bcause the Indians realize that we are honest, we are clean, we are organized. I’m very confident in Asia; I feel at home in Asia, Russia, Europe… it’s more difficult for us in the United States.
How did the book on the socio-economic history of St-Imier come about? I have some responsibility for this region; I wanted to show that apart from places like Geneva, Vallée de Joux, Neuchâtel, Schaffhausen, a lot of watchmaking activity also came from this region. Here in St-Imier, you can still see the sign on the old Blancpain building, which has since moved to Vallée de Joux. Breitling moved from here to La Chaux-de-Fonds; Heuer moved to Bienne, then they came back and had a big workshop here in St-Imier, before moving on to La Chaux-de-Fonds, followed by Neuchâtel. So many brands disappeared from St-Imier. And it’s not only the brands but the subcontractors. I want to prove, to give the local people here, and the people like you who are interested in the watch business, that this region has a great contribution to watchmaking. And we want to show that in the 300 years of ups and downs, a lot of brands disappeared or moved out, but one – Longines!
Why didn’t Longines move out, like the rest? Why should we? We started here, by the river, and we had no electricity till 1893! And we have commitments ot the local community here. We’re lucky that my predecessor fought to have Longines remain in St-Imier. It was good that Hayek (then Swatch Group CEO) when he started his mergers, understood in his masterplan that you cannot change the culture and spirit of a brand. A brand belongs somewhere. So it was very good that François Thiébaud was able to convince Hayek to bring Tissot back to Le Locle, because Tissot belongs in Le Locle, not Bienne. In fact, it was the one condition he set when he accepted the appointment to be boss of Tissot, that Tissot goes back to its original place! Besides, basing ourselves in St-Imier, we have the advantage of skilled manpower from France! Every day, we have around 150 cars driving in from the French part to work here. This also is a huge asset for this region.
Tell us a little about the Weems watch that you launched today I’ll be honest with you – these ladies here [pointing to his staff] they taught me one thing: there is no Longines event without a watch. Then I said, OK, make it the Weems, which was originally made in 1927. This is not the anniversary piece to commemorate our 175 years, that will instead come in three pieces, which you will see during our roadshow, probably in October.
The Weems watch is numbered, but not limited? When you’ve spent 38 years in the company, you’ll learn a few things. The Weems watch will last a couple of years, like the original Lindbergh watch. If it’s limited, you kill yourself. If it’s numbered, you don’t close the door. We’re lauching 1,000 pieces, so my estimate is, 500 to 1,000 pieces a year. It’s one of our legendary pieces. H
This simple automatic version features a smaller case size
The case is multi-part and incredibly complex. But this multi-part construction also gives us the liberty to do combinations of materials that we think will be well received. IWC CEO, Georges Kern
Workshop in 1900
the Flagship (1957)
Walter von Känel