Among the museums, manufactures and historic landmarks that dot the villages of the Swiss Jura Mountains, the heart of the country’s watchmaking district, the Longines Museum at Saint-Imier is a standout. Located in a wing of the brand’s manufacture, one of the first to be established in the region, the museum traces the history of Longines from 1832, and in so doing, comprises one of the most comprehensive histories of Swiss watchmaking.
Longines celebrates that heritage this year, on its 180th anniversary, with the Saint Imier Collection of mechanical timepieces, a tribute to the town where it all started. Inspired by models produced during the brand’s history, the collection includes a chronograph and a prestige model featuring four retrograde functions, containing the caliber L707 movement developed and made by ETA exclusively for Longines. It also has day/night and moonphase indications.
The cases are either steel, rose gold or two-tone, with a choice of four case sizes. Dials are black, silvered or mother-of-pearl with diamond indices. All are fitted with mechanical movements.
Like most Swiss watch companies, Longines began life as a comptoir d’etablissage, the French term for what we would call a cottage industry. The owner of an etablissage produced watches by dividing the work according to components and contracting the production into small, specialized units. He would then assemble the final components and sell the finished watches to outside distributors and agents or at fairs. The first watches were carried out of the valley by donkey, then by stagecoach.
In the case of Longines, the founding assembleur/watchmaker was Auguste Agassiz, who assigned to local craftsmen the production of dials, hands and movement components.
Making a watch in 1830 involved fifty-four distinct steps, rising to something like 100 at the end of the century. These were executed by nearly as many types of craftsmen, including jobs as esoteric as scratch-brush scraper and case-spring maker.
Most of the craftsmen were farmers who worked on watches during the long winters. These home workshops were called “counters” – “comptoir d’etablissage” translates literally to “counter manufacturing,” a method of watch production that remained a local practice until the 1970s.
Agassiz’s nephew, Ernest Francillon, succeeded him at Agassiz & Compagnie. When he took over in 1866, Francillon bought two adjacent parcels of land on the River Suze in Saint-Imier and built the region’s first semi-mechanized watch workshop, or manufacture, making the decision to group all the steps in one place, with a staff that worked full-time, rather than only in the winter.
He started with thirty or forty workers, and by the end of the century, employed 853 people. By 1912, 1,200 people worked for Longines. The population of Saint-Imier was 8,000.
The manufacture was built in the typical style of the Jura to allow maximum sunlight in the days before electricity. The buildings were rectangular, rather than square, with floor-to-ceiling windows placed close together to bring light to the workbenches. The narrow width of the building, with windows on each side, prevented the rooms from being dark in the middle.
Francillon also changed the company name. Instead of following the convention of using a family name (Aggasiz was not his name, after all) he took the nickname of the land where the manufacture was built: Es Longinés, which is latin and old French for “the flat middle.”
The plot of land he had chosen was the flattest place in the village wedged between Chasseral Mountain and Mont-Soleil. It was also chosen because of its proximity to the River Suze. There was no electricity at the time, so the river was tapped to run the machines.
Francillon made two more decisions that would establish Longines as a world-class brand. He was the first watchmaker in the district to create a logo, a winged hourglass, and it is now the oldest brand logo on record registered with the World Intellectual Property Organization. Secondly, he instituted the policy of numbering every watch produced by the manufacture.
The brand’s museum features a separate library containing the livres etablissage, a collection of 800 leather-bound ledgers that contain the number and details of every watch made by Longines since 1857. They list the caliber, model, a description and the name of the agent to whom each watch was sold.
“We use these books every day because we get so many requests for information,” says Jennifer Bochud, the museum curator, who is in regular contact with the auction houses that sell watches.
“This adds a tremendous value to the watch,” she says. “It also adds value for Longines, because we also find out more information about the watches—they travel all over the world, as if they have a life.”
The books record these details from number one to number 15-million, stretching from 1857 to 1969. Since then, the data has been computerized. By the brand’s 175th anniversary in 2007, it had produced 34 million watches. (Bochud wears number 37-million.)
Francion died in 1900, and the company passed to a succession of leaders. In 1969, Walter Von Kanel became president, and still holds that position at the age of 71. The museum outlines the progression of technological advances represented by the manufacture’s production over the years and some of the brand’s milestones.
Until about 1830, locally made timepieces were heavy pocket watches with a crown-wheel verge escapement. Soon the new Lepine design allowed watchmakers to make slimmer and cheaper watches that kept better time. By the late 1860s, they had turned to the Roskopf design as rugged and reliable as it was cheap.
By the early 1870s, Longines was building chronometer movements, while its first time-measurement devices date from 1878.
In 1920, the factory launched a movement with an eight-day power reserve, used in a series of pieces that included small clocks.
In 1923, French scientist Jean Lecarme led an expedition on Mont Blanc, he took ten Longines chronometers with him.
Longines was a member of the Aeronautical Association. In 1927, it recorded the famous flight of Charles Lindbergh from New York to Paris. Afterwards, he wrote a letter to Longines, outlining the functions he’d like to have on his watch, so Longines made one for him. The company still produces a version of this watch.
A frequent entrant in World Expositions, Longines won ten Grand Prix medals at the 1929 Barcelona exhibition.
In 1945, Longines introduced its first self-winding movement, caliber 22A. It was a circular movement measuring 21.5mm, with subsidiary seconds.
In 1954 the company made its first transportable quartz clock. It was used for sports timekeeping, and was accompanied by a photo finish mechanism. Longines has long been active in equestrian sports, archery and skiing.
In the 1950s, Longines began to name collections. In 1954 it launched the Conquest collection, and in 1957, the Flagship.
The brand started producing quartz watches in 1969. At that time, the brand was making twenty percent quartz and eighty percent mechanical movements. Eight years later, the proportion was just the opposite.
The quartz layoffs
Since quartz movements require less work, Longines, like all Swiss brands, had to lay off many workers during this period. Between 1975 and 1985, watch industry employment in the Saint-Imier area went from 3,000 jobs to 900 jobs.
Today, the equation of Longines production has reversed again, with seventy percent devoted to mechanical movements. During the 1970s, LCD was introduced into the collection as the result of a collaboration between Texas Instruments and ETA, which was by then making Longines’ movements.
Longines was in the forefront of many of the most important trends in watchmaking during this period. In 1978, it was producing watches with a very slim quartz caliber, and in the 1980s, introduced two-tone watches into its collections. In 1987 Longines produced its first reproduction of the Lindbergh watch.
In 1983 the Swatch Group acquired Longines. The Group’s ETA division had been making the brand’s movements for several years because the last manufacture movement (L990) made by Longines was in 1977. After that, the brand used movements made by ETA, which today occupies a section of the Longines manufacture that is dedicated to making movements exclusive to the brand. Thus, the Saint-Imier headquarters has returned to the role of the manufacture.
By the end of the 1990s, Longines introduced the advertising slogan “Elegance is an Attitude,” and entered partnerships with the brand’s first ambassadors. In 2001, the company produced its 30-millionth watch. By 2007, the brand introduced the MasterCollection, made up entirely of mechanical watches, including the MasterCollection Retrograde, with an exclusive movement fitted with retrograde functions. The Longines Sport Collection was also introduced in 2007.
Today Longines focuses on a mix of sporty models and dress pieces. The 2012 releases focus on the brand’s four pillars: Elegance, Watchmaking Tradition, Sport and Heritage.
Elegance: The elegant aspect of its lines is exemplified in the Longines PrimaLuna, the Longines DolceVita and the La Grande Classique de Longines collections.
Watchmaking Tradition: The Longines Master Collection is an example of the brand’s technical and aesthetic expertise, while the brand’s Evidenza was inspired by the Art Deco movement. And a prime focus this year is the Saint-Imier Collection, this series of exceptional pieces is intended as a tribute to the town central to Longines’ founding and development.
Sport: Longines’ involvement in sport dates back to 1878 with its first chronograph movement, the 20H. The Longines Sport Collection is a tribute to its history in the world of sport while Conquest and HydroConquest lines represent further explorations into aquatic sports.
Heritage: Among the exceptional pieces: the Lindbergh Hour Angle Watch, a re-issue of the timepiece developed for the American pilot Charles Lindbergh in 1931. The Longines Weems Second-Setting Watch, a tribute to the navigation system devised by Captain Philip van Horn Weems, and the Longines Twenty-Four Hours, a re-issue of a watch designed in the 1950s specially for Swissair pilots, are also among the stars among the Heritage models.