When you start collecting vintage Swiss watches you’ll soon get confused. You see not all Swiss watches are equally good from a particular era, some were built like a Fiat Punto to fit a certain price point, whilst others were hand-crafted examples of the watchmakers art.
Almost everyone knows brands like Omega, Rolex, Patek Phillipe, Breitling, Longines, IWC or Cartier and most watch collectors are aware that Lemania, Minerva, Gruen, Lange & Sohne, Movado, Vacheron Constantin, Zenith, Heuer, Doxa and many more produced some outstanding, landmark watches in the past.
But what about more bread and butter Swiss brands? Here it gets slightly complicated and the reason for that is the well established Swiss ebauche system. What’s an ebauche? It’s a bit like a car engine and gearbox supplied as a complete unit, essentially an ebauche movement was supplied from a manufacturer to various Swiss – or other – brand names, who then added dials, hands, winders & stems, and cased the watch.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIMEPIECES
After the Great Depression hit the world economy in 1929-30, many movement and watch parts makers began to join the ASUAG association. This was a kind of cartel, where the price of movements and watches, plus the tricky business of international market share and distributor networks would all be agreed in private, so that more Swiss manufacturers could survive the bitter headwinds of the hungry 1930s. It worked, and continued to help lots of small Swiss companies stay in the watchmaking game after WW2, until the Japanese quartz revolution in the 1970s changed everything.
In just ten years hundreds of watch brands went bust in Switzerland, and over 60,000 people lost their jobs, as Seiko, Casio and others turned the watch market digital. ASUAG and SSIH hastily re-grouped as Swatch in 1983. Richemont was formed in the late 1980s and brands like Rolex and Patek chose to target the wealthy top end of the market and leave the everyday stuff to the overseas competition.
So when you’re collecting older mechanical and automatic Swiss watches from 1950-1985, you will find a vast array of brand names. A few made movements in-house, but many used ebauche movements from the ASUAG or SSIH groups because firstly it was cheaper, and secondly, they didn’t want to rock the boat politically. The most common movements you see tend to be ETA (originally Eterna), AS (A Schild) or Ebauches SA brands like Peseux, Unitas, FHF etc.
ASAUG formed a company called General Watch Co in the early 70s and so you’ll find that brands like Record, Rotary, Oris, Certina, Technos and more all share the same 17/21/25 jewel movements inside them.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD BUY?
For my money anything powered by an ETA or AS movement has the advantage of being fairly common, as millions of watches were made using very similar movements. If you have a serious problem with your 1960s/70s watch then the best way to fix it will be to obtain another working example and cannibalise it for spares. When you sstart collecting the more quirky or slow-selling models, then you can face a real struggle when you want another balance assembly say, or a crystal shaped like TV screen.
If you want to use the watch every day then something like a Vertex Revue, a Rotary 17/21 jewel model or perhaps an Accurist with the ETA 25 jewel movement inside is a good bet. With regular servicing these can all last 50-60 years, which is amazing given the relatively low cost they were brand new compared to say an Omega or Rolex.
Even more obscure brands, like say Hudson, Majex, Damas, Medana, Sandoz and many more all tended to use the same popular movements as better known rivals for their mainstream, run-of-the-mill production.
Buy the watch because you love the look of it, and the dial, hands and case all tell a story of care, maintenance or restoration, not neglect. Peeling dial paint, faded hands and cases lacking plating all betray the casual indifference of a previous owner, so without even looking inside at the movement, you pretty much know that problems lie ahead.
Good luck and keep winding gently 😉