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Blancpain Watch Company

Blancpain Watch Company

Blancpain

A Symbol of the Art of Fine Watchmaking

 

This story begins in the heart of the Swiss Jura mountains, in the valley of St. Imier. The valley lies between the Chasseral Mountains and those that form the border to France. We are in the year 1650. Imérion Beynon, known as "Blancpan", the ancestor of the Blancpain watch dynasty is born in the village of Villeret.  Villeret already is no longer a simple farm village. The Suze River which winds along the valley before it throws itself into the gorges of the Taubenloch (pigeon hole), produces enough energy to power flour mills, sawmills and mechanical workshops.

 

In the 17th century, when the name “Blancpain” makes its first appearance in the person of d’Imer Blancpain, most of the trades present in the valley of Saint-Imier are represented in the village. Villeret has blacksmith farriers, nail makers and locksmiths. Imer Blancpain becomes a  shopkeeper and lawyer.


In 1692, the lock- and gunsmith Daniel Jean Richard, son of a blacksmith, establishes himself in the city of Locle as a master watchmaker. Other excellent watchmakers are already present in La Neuveville (ancient name for Neuchâtel), on the borders of Lake Biel, where political conditions are particularly favorable for this trade.Their reputation rapidly reaches Villeret and as of the beginning of the 18th century, families send their most apt sons to learn this craft in La Neuveville.

 

A census in the year 1725 provides insight into the trades represented among the 350 inhabitants of Villeret. There are 4 millers, 1 blacksmith, 4 nail makers, 6 shoemakers, 2 tailors, 15 lacemakers, 12 handymen, 2 stonemasons, 2 weavers, 2 glassblowers, 2 doctors, 2 notaries and 2 watchmakers. The rest of the population lives off agriculture and livestock farming.

 

Under the impetus of the two watchmakers, the farmers start to install workshops in their farmhouses and produce or finish watch parts during the long winter months, when the valley is cut off from the rest of the world.  This complementary activity rapidly takes hold when the farmers realize that it is far more lucrative than another activity they engage in: iron smelting in their domestic forges.

 

Villeret and the valley in its entirety enter a period of prosperity thanks to the crafts industry, agriculture, horse breeding and the increasing revenues from watchmaking.  A Prussian officer traveling through the diocese of Basel in 1740 recalls in his memoirs the wealth of the population of the region of Saint Imier: “…on religious or civil holidays one encounters gentlemen and ladies who are dressed like nobles and princesses even though they are farmers, just like God created them. One can not recognize their background from their clothing, smell, behavior or politeness. One has to wait until they take off their white gloves to present or accept a snuff of tobacco to finally perceive their big freshly scrubbed hands,...”

 

The Blancpain family chronicles inform us that Jehan-Jacques Blancpain, baptized on March 11, 1693, great-great grandson of Imer Blancpain, is the first Blancpain to become a watchmaker. He establishes himself officially in 1735 but probably was already working in this profession previously. It is even possible that he was one of the two watchmakers mentioned in the 1725 census. In 1760, the son of the other watchmaker, Adam Bourquin, opens the first watch shop in Villeret called “Chez le Secrétaire” (At the Secretary's Place).

 

By 1735, Blancpain installs his workshops on the first floor of his large farmhouse built in 1636 on the banks of the Suze. The house still stands to this day. It is likely that Blancpain started producing pocket watch components and raw movements before producing complete watches. Only the simple watch cases made from brass or silver are manufactured in Villeret.  The more precious watch cases are produced in Geneva or around Neuchâtel.

 

The venture owes its rapid rise to success, at least in part, to its generous policy regarding apprenticeships. Jehan-Jacques and his successors see it as their duty to pass on their craft and know-how to the next generation. Hence, throughout all of the 18th century the Blancpain farm houses numerous apprentices.

 

As the years pass, Jehan-Jacques Blancpain begins to worry about his succession. While his son Isaac occasionally works with his father, he wants to continue teaching school and and also has become the Mayor of Villeret. But the company’s steady growing success calls for someone fully committed to the business. Fortunately, Isaac’s son David-Louis, born on December 21, 1765, fits the bill. He joins the company late in the century, distributing Blancpain watches to customers in neighboring countries. As soon as the workshops turn out six dozen watches, David-Louis sets off to sell them in the cities and towns of France and Germany. To do so he calls upon the services of relatives scattered throughout Europe. His sister in law is a hairstylist at the court of Queen Marie-Antoinette; Jakob Frizard is a famous builder of music automatons, and works with the emminently famous Pierre and Henri-Louis Jacquet-Droz, both originally from Villeret and related to the Blancpains.


The impact of the French Revolution on Saint-Imier is immediate: from 1798 until the end of the first Empire in 1815, the valley becomes part of the French Department of Mont-Terrible.  However the economic crisis is relatively mild compared to that suffered by Geneva.

 

In Geneva the production of high quality watches regresses dramatically due to the interruption of the delivery of raw movements and parts. Additionally, the clientele for these high-end watches has been dramatically decimated. But it is not only the French Revolution that is responsible for Geneva's misfortunes; it is also the fact that Geneva is not interested in producing any of the lesser quality watches responsible for the success of watchmaking in the Jura and Neuchâtel. Hence, many watchmakers in Geneva are without work. Critics also underline the difference in lifestyle between the farmers and those from the city: “…the mountain dwellers don’t drink coffee after their meal; they are not into money operations, they don’t visit the theater the way the young disciples of Rousseau do… They work 12 hours a day, keep company with their wife and children and prosper.”

 

Despite the difficult times, Blancpain continues to manufacture and sell watches throughout Europe. In 1815, due to the excellent state of the business, a fundamental change is made: Frédéric-Louis Blancpain, a former officer of the Emperor’s army and one of the five sons of David-Louis Blancpain, transforms the purely artisan watch production into the first small scale industrial production of watches in a factory that bears the Blancpain name. By then Blancpain is making its own raw movements and is thus an integrated “manufacture”. Over the years, more and better machine tools enable Blancpain to develop its production and steadily improve product quality.

 

The year 1815 is considered the founding year of the Blancpain Watch Company. Over the years the name of the Company changes several times:


  • 1830  Emile Blancpain
  • 1857 E. Blancpain et fils
  • 1889 E. Blancpain fils
  • 1928 Blancpain, Fabrique d’horlogerie à Villeret.

 

The trademarks registered by Blancpain with the Office fédéral de la propriété intellectuelle (Swiss Patent Office) are numerous and diverse. However, the name Blancpain itself only is to be found on a small proportion of the watches the Company actually produces.

 

On February 24, 1888, Blancpain registers its brand with the courts in Leipzig.

 

Often the watches produced by Blancpain only carry the name of the retailer or one of the many other trademarks registered by the firm, hereafter some examples:

 

 

Date of registration

 

Brand

Specialization

August 16, 1889

Leonine

 

April 8, 1890

Lion’s Watch

 

February 10, 1893

Lion’s (Standard)

Pocket Watches

October 1, 1894

La Précieuse

Pocket Watches (Watch cases, cuvette (bassin), movements, dials, boxes)

January 24, 1896

Lux

Pocket Watches

January 14, 1897

EBFW

 

June 14, 1899

Masel

Pocket Watches

March 24, 1900

Truena

Pocket Watches

June 30, 1902

L’Etoile d’Or

Pocket Watches

June 30, 1902

L’Etoile Rouge

Pocket Watches

August 11, 1903

Cabane’s Watch

Pocket Watches

March 17, 1916

Lux

Watches

Mai 16, 1922

Blancpain

Watches of all sorts and sizes

October 14, 1926

Bonvil

Watches of all sorts

Idem

Blanvil

Idem

Brunvil

Idem

Dixvil

September 2, 1926

Jar Proof

Watches of all sorts and sizes

 

In 1830, Frédéric Blancpain, born 1811, takes over his father's company at the young age of 19. He has the ingenious idea to replace the winding key with a crown, opening the door to further industrialization within the watchmaking industry... An industrialization justified from an economic point of view, but which receives strong  criticism from Jules-Emile Blancpain, the son of Frédéric, who wwrites at the end of his life: “Until 1832 everybody worked from home… The business owners sent work to the watchmakers through messengers or brokers… All have disappeared now, leading to the end of work from home, which was favorable to family life and morale. Huge factories were built, employing hundreds of men and women, who now have to travel more or less far to get to their work place.”

 

Following Frédéric-Emile’s death in 1857, his sons Jules-Emile, Nestor and Paul-Alcide become partners in a company now called “E. Blancpain & Fils”. Trained as a watchmaker in Switzerland as well as abroad, Jules-Emile takes over management of the Company.

 

In those days, traditional piecework still is practiced in the farmhouses of the area, although batch production has already led to some division of labor. But bitter competition and pressure on prices foreshadow radical change. Progress and the development of demand call for adaptation. In Switzerland as everywhere, there is no denying that the machine age has arrived, with its demands for ever greater precision and output. So in 1863 Blancpain sets about building a two-story factory on the banks of the River Suze to harness its hydraulic energy to drive a generator providing electric power to workshops and machine tools. The same year Frédéric-Emile the younger, son of Jules-Emile Blancpain is born.

 

Both are very talented and innovative watchmakers. Prior to World War I they manufacture complicated watches, notably an extra flat 19 line movement pocket watch and a 3 ¾ line “baguette” movement which opens the way to wrist watches.

 

Before the First World War, Frédéric-Emile Blancpain (the second to bear that name) turns the company towards the future – that of the wristwatch.

 

On April 9, 1928, Jules-Emile Blancpain dies at the age of 96. The Swiss Watchmaking Journal (Journal Suisse d’Horlogerie) publishes the following eulogy:


'Possessed by watchmaking, the “wheel of encounters”, since 1850 he pursued the manufacture of cylinder and anchor escapement watches in his place of birth. In 1857, he succeeded his father and transferred his own remarkable reputation to this company. He was a precursor and innovator in watchmaking..'

 

During the 1920’s and 30s, Blancpain enters the annals of wristwatch history.  In 1926, a prototype of the famous "Harwood", the first industrially produced automatic wrist watch, leaves the factory in Villeret. The movement for this watch was to be produced in small quantities for the French market. Soon thereafter, Blancpain innovates again with the "Rolls", a wristwatch with a "roller winding” mechanism whereby the movement itself - sliding up and down inside the case - winds the mainspring, a revolutionary idea at that time (patent deposited by Léon Hatot S.A., Paris).

 

An agreement between Blancpain and Léon Hatot, signed on September 30, 1930, gives Blancpain exclusivity for the production of watches with the “ATO” system. Hatot S.A. reserved the right to manufacture 300 “Qualité de Genève” (Patek Philippe quality) movements yearly.

 

Blancpain commits to manufacture good quality anchor movements. Later on the two companies agree to work together to further improve this movement for the “Rolls”.

 

All movements are clearly marked “Licence Hatot” or “ATO” on top or underneath the watch case. Also, all brochures, ads, catalogs and other printed articles mention at least once that the watch was produced under license.

 

Hatot receives at least 10 francs per manufactured movement, respectively 15 francs per 9 x 20 mm baguette movement To control manufacturing quantities, all movements are numbered. The partners target sales of approximately 15’000 pieces of the “Rolls” in Germany and another 40’000 in the USA. However, the watches are steeply priced: a wholesaler must pay 1600 francs for a gold watch and the lady’s model with the baguette movement costs 1750 francs. Consequently, despite the innovative nature of this new watch, it is not a commercial success.


Today the “Harwood” and the “Rolls” are very sought after as collectors pieces.

 

The unexpected death of Frédéric-Emile in 1932 ends two centuries of Blancpain family management, a saga extending over seven generations.

 

Since Frédéric-Emile’s only child, his daughter Berthe-Nellie has no desire to carry on, in June 1933 the firm passes to her father’s closest assistant, Betty Fiechter, and her associate, André Léal. Together they take over the reins of the Company, managing it during close to 40 years under the name "Rayville S.A., succ. de Blancpain" or "Rayville" which is an anagramme of "Villeret". In 1959 the company is renamed "Manufacture d’horlogerie Rayville S.A., Montres Blancpain" and only manufactures wristwatches, for some of which the movements are purchased outside.

 

In 1953, the “Fifty Fathoms” watch, a diver’s watch watertight up to a depth of 200 meters creates a sensation. Because of its exceptional qualities, Jacques-Yves Cousteau wears this watch during the filming of “Le Monde du Silence” (The Silent World), a documentary on sub-marine life that receives many awards. The “Fifty Fathoms” also becomes standard issue for French Navy Divers and is used by the US Navy as well. In 1953, a “Fifty Fathoms” is lost at a depth of 53 meters and only recovered 24 hours later… the watch still works perfectly.

 

In 1956, the “Lady Bird” is launched. This watch has a round 5 line movement (11.85mm) and is at the time the smallest watch in the world. The very small dimensions of this movement open a new perspective in the creation of jewelry-watches. The balance-wheel of the movement contains 22 gold screws. The movement itself is available in 3 executions: ”Normal”, Crown at 3 o’clock, and crown behind the movement.

 

In addition to their own calibers, Blancpain and Rayville produce movements for other manufacturers. Notably, as of 1955, they produce 5000 5 line movements R52 and R520 for Longines. The Longines 118 and 119 include certain modifications compared to the “Lady Bird” (21’600 instead of 18’000 beats per hour and a rhodium plated surface instead of gilt). In addition, Rayville is authorized to assemble and sell the R52 and R50 calibers under the name Blancpain. In 1959, Rayville uses approximately 60 different calibers, most of them purchased from Ebauches S.A.

 

The 11 ½ line “Cyclotron” caliber (R300, 301 and 302) with automatic winding mechanism and 53 jewels is based on an AS (A. Schild) caliber. Seven other calibers are produced by Blancpain themselves.

 

Rayville-Blancpain, to a considerable extent, remains to a craft operation, turning out only a few thousand watches per year using traditional methods. But as it lacks marketing resources, its future is uncertain. In 1970, when the development of the quartz movement produces a profound structural crisis in the Swiss watchmaking industry, the SSIH group, (today owner of brands including Omega and Swatch) takes over Rayville. SSIH (Swiss Watch Industry Corporation Ltd.) is a watch industry holding company set up in 1930. The take-over is not intended to pursue the rich watchmaking tradition of Rayville, but rather to acquire their know-how and expertise. Since many specialists are predicting the death of the mechanical watch due to the arrival of quartz, the traditional watchmaker's art and know-how are rapidly falling into decline.

 

In 1971, a new management team at SSIH decides on a radical change in business model and industrial strategy, one that has no place for mechanical niche products. Since Blancpain lacks the brand awareness required to survive as a marketer of “me too” quartz products, it soon disappears from the market. In hindsight, this proves a blessing in disguise. Like Sleeping Beauty, Blancpain sinks into a deep sleep.

 

At a moment when the Swiss watch industry is betting everything on quartz and beginning to destroy its production equipment and, in part, the culture of the mechanical watch, Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet, who agree that traditional mechanical watches still possesses a surprising and indeed highly promising lease on life, combine forces on January 9, 1983, to revive the Blancpain Company  under the name Blancpain S.A., Fabrique d’horlogerie, two and a half centuries after its founding.

 

Neither man is new to watchmaking. Jean-Claude Biver for several years Director of Sales for Audemars Piguet before then beecoming Director at Omega, where indeed he "discovers" Blancpain. Jacques Piguet, son of the noted high quality raw movement manufacturer Frédéric Piguet and a descendant of the famous Louis-Elisée Piguet, has been immersed in the world of watchmaking since infancy.


Nevertheless, when they buy the Blancpain trademark, they don’t fully know what awaits them; this is a big name in watchmaking history, but now almost totally forgotten. Even though a small part of the archives still exist, they hardly provide sufficient guidance to decide what course of action to undertake next.

 

Since the former Blancpain workshops in Villeret have been taken over by Omega, the two men decide to relocate Blancpain to "wherever" the traditions of craftmanship still are vigorously upheld. They finally decide on the Vallée de Joux, in the Jura mountain range of western Switzerland, a center for fine watchmaking since the mid-1700s, and still today the birthplace of 90% of all high-end complicated mechanical movements.



Here, in the village of Le Brassus, stands a fine old Piguet family house, "haunted" by the very soul of watchmaking...  Just the place for Blancpain’s new home. It will now turn out watches made in the most genuinely traditional manner, similar in spirit to those that Jehan-Jacques Blancpain and his descendants fashioned more than two centuries ago only 100 kilometres away.

 

Vital watchmaking information and secrets are saved just in the nick of time, treasures from the past that have not yet been destroyed are safeguarded and existing examples elsewhere are reacquired (ed. I recall with great pleasure Jean-Claude Biver's personal visit to my home to purchase a rare Platinum Blancpain Harwood wristwatch at the time). At Frédéric Piguet’s quarters in the Vallée de Joux, a large number of old movements are found for which the plans have long disappeared. After studying them individually, plans are recreated for each caliber.

By turning to the past to relive the beginnings of watchmaking as it existed among the isolated farms of the Jura, Blancpain permits the culture of mechanical watchmaking to endure, as well as the traditional watchmaker’s art of the region and of an entire country.

 

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Date:  2nd Apr 09

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