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Yet it Turns: Iconic 1930s Watches which survived the Great Depression

The 30s might have been a period of great economic turmoil but few realise that in the upheaval, the watch industry was at a pivotal turning point. These are some of the most iconic 1930s watches which tell the tales of the era.
by Jonathan Ho on June 22, 2016
The Collector's View

People remember it as the Roaring Twenties, an era of great celebratory engagement following the Great War: The arts flourished, ushering in Art Deco, memories of destruction encouraged jazz and dancing and socially, women achieved suffrage – earning the right to vote. Then it ended, 68 days shy of January 1930, Wall Street would crash on October 24, and the turmoil that ensued as dubbed the Great Depression.

In the darkness, there was light – some of the most iconic 1930s watches came from the era: first tourbillon wristwatch marked a milestone of importance: wristwatches and pocket watches had finally achieved market share parity. A year later, a watchmaker named Emile Borer would make the first “perpetual” automatic wristwatch with a unidirectional rotor for Rolex. In the words of Galileo, “Eppur si muove”; and yet it turns, the global economy might have grounded to a halt but progress (at least for the watch industry) continued. The first watch with world time for 29 cities by Cottier; two years after, we departed from the monopusher chronograph thanks to Breitling’s two button patent; Patek Philippe created the Calatrava and thanks to Nivarox compensating balance-springs and Incabloc shock absorbers, we had timepieces more robust than the combined efforts of the industry for the last 641 years.

Iconic 1930s Watches from the Era of the Great Depression

These ungodly technological strides were made possible by the Swiss federal government through strict control of all watchmaking activities – prices, recruitment, mergers and even production techniques. Chablonnage, the practice of taking Swiss watch components and then assembling them in non-primary watchmaking nations like the US and Canada, became illegal and reinforced Swiss dominance. In the intervening 10 years it took for the shares of wristwatches to outpace pocket timepieces, the influences of both industrial technology and momentous social change, became readily apparent in the timepieces inspired by the era. More importantly, these modern day re-issues of iconic 1930s watches are an exemplar of the immortality of pedigree and provenance.

iconic 1930s watches - rolex cellini prince 1b

Wilsdorf pursued his dream of replacing the pocket watch with a wristwatch by pushing his movement supplier Aegler for greater and greater precision for smaller and smaller calibres. So much so that in 1910, he submitted a wristwatch to the predecessor of COSC for Chronometer Certification. It caused waves in the industry as only pocket watches and marine chronometers had been tested thus far. He finally received certification in 1914.

Rolex Cellini Prince

Though it’s not the Rolex that most are familiar with, the Cellini Prince occupies a treasured place in horological history amongst iconic 1930s watches. Birthed in 1928, the Prince was an avant-garde trailblazer, a rectangular timepiece in a realm of round watches. It’s distinctiveness extended beyond aesthetics and into the Hermann Aegler movement produced for Hans Wilsdorf: a patented “shaped watch movement with seconds dial with winding barrel and balance wheel on opposite ends of the movement” – foundationally, the two vital mechanisms set apart meant that a Aegler could equip the calibre with a larger balance wheel thus attain more accuracy and likewise, a larger barrel on the other end, meant longer power reserves. In short, it became the first elegant dress watch with the wherewithal to become chronometer certified.

iconic 1930s watches - rolex cellini prince 2b

Rolex Cellini Prince in 18 ct yellow gold curved rectangular case and classical decoration with champagne “clou de Paris” guilloche dial. Available on remborded, brown alligator leather strap, with an 18 ct yellow gold butterfly clasp.

Though discontinued by the turn of the 50s, the Prince was the world’s first serially produced timepiece to achieve chronometer certification, as an industry icon, it was Rolex at the intersection of stylish sophistication and technical perfection. Today, the Cellini Rolex Prince is a homage to that emblematic art deco timepiece, marrying technology with the purity of fine watchmaking, powered by a manually-wound in-house Rolex calibre 7040-1 with Paraflex shock absorbers and a power reserve of 72 hours, much as Wilsdorf himself had intended.

The Vacheron Constantin Single Button Chronograph. Elegant beyond, stylish. And remarkably well finished.

The Vacheron Constantin Single Button Chronograph. Elegant beyond, stylish. And remarkably well finished.

Vacheron Constantin Harmony Chronograph

It’s to be noted, that while Vacheron Constantin, having been crowned champion of the chronometer competition of the Geneva Observatory for their reputed chronograph in 1895, their contemporary chronographs were never manufactured in-house, that is till the occasion of their 260th birthday.

The work of seven years dedicated development and housed in the new Harmony Chronograph, the manufacture Calibre 3300 is the birthday present the world’s oldest continual operated manufacture deserves. A modern interpretation of their 1928 monopusher chronograph, the eloquent tribute retains the classic pink gold cushion-shaped case while endowing it with a mechanically advanced 65 hour power reserve chronograph in classical architecture bearing the prestigious Poincoin de Geneve.

A caseback shot of the Vacheron Constantin Harmony Chronograph.

A caseback shot of the Vacheron Constantin Harmony Chronograph.

Like its legendary predecessor the new Harmony Calibre 3300 is a monopusher chronograph with pulsometer scale eschewing the usual 30 minute counter for a technically updated dragging 45 minute subdial and as befitting i’s manual winding stature, the Geneva manufacture introduces an arguably noticeable discrete power reserve display at 6 o’clock. Highly sculptural from inside out, the column wheel and horizontal clutch manufacture chronograph comes with its balance cock engraved with the scrolling floral motif associated with Messer Vacheron himself and the finest of Fleurisanne traditions.

IWC Portugieser Hand-wound Eight Days Edition 75th Anniversary unique piece for Revolution Ref IW510208.

IWC Portugieser Hand-wound Eight Days Edition 75th Anniversary unique piece for Revolution Ref IW510208.

Portugieser Hand-Wound Eight Days Edition “75th Anniversary”

The significance of the Portugieser, like other iconic 1930s legends of the industry, lies not just in the design or its movement but also in the tenacity of its manufacture. Birthed in a tumultuous period for the maison, poor economic conditions of the 1930s forced CEO Ernst Homberger and his directors to not just seek new markets but also extend their collection for wider appeal – one of them, a pocket-watch-style wristwatch which would bear the name.

Over a half a century ahead of the contemporary trend for oversized timepieces, the Portugieser shaped the watch collecting zeitgeist of the early 20th century. In context, men of the era shunned wristwatches due to its unfortunate positioning as “yet another feminine accessory”, for a time, it seemed as if the pocket watch would reign supreme, that was until IWC developed a watch that bucked all trends. It was shaped like the classical pocket watches of the pre-war era, but it bore twin lugs for straps and its case measured a stately 41mm – it was the Portugieser Ref. 325 and it was instrumental in turning sentiment in favour of wrist-worn timepieces.

iconic 1930s watches - Portugeiser-handwound 8-Days-Edition 1bToday, the Ref. 325 is ably represented by the Portugieser Hand-Wound Eight Days Edition Ref. 5102. Keeping its classical proportions, the 43mm timepiece maintains the stylistic ingredients of its historic predecessor while adding a thoughtfully unobtrusive date aperture sequestered within the small seconds subdial and a convenient mechanical upgrade with the manufacture 59215 calibre with eight days power reserve. A respectful reference from a defining era for the Schaffhausen, the Portugieser Hand-Wound eight days was relaunched for SIHH 2015 exclusively limited to 175 red gold editions, while the steel case, ardoise dial variant is limited to 750 pieces.

 

Jaeger LeCoultre Grande Reverso 1931 Seconde Centrale

There’s no greater icon of 1930s timekeeping than the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso. Eschewing the protective grills familiar to WW1 and vintage diving aficionados, the Reverso was designed by French designer René-Alfred Chauvot at the behest of Jacques-David LeCoultre himself. It’s raison d’etre? A wristwatch which could survive the rigours of Polo.

iconic 1930s watches - Grande Reverso 1931 Seconde Centrale 1bAs an industrial solution to a fundamental watch design problem, it’s elegance was only possible with an innovator born in arguably the greatest cultural civilisation in the world. French sophistication would imbue LeCoultre’s timepiece with a patently intelligent case mechanism which allowed the fragile dial to be turned over, presenting its hardier steel case back to the errant strikes from wayward polo players. As an art deco icon and arguably the most widely recognised of iconic 1930s watches, the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso’s reign as the definitive timepiece of the four decades which followed its debut in 1931 is hard to rival. The Grand Maison re-issued the Grande Reverso 1931 Seconde Centrale at SIHH 2015 inspired by a 1935 model with manual winding calibre 411.

The tiered dial with central white minute-rails and the gilded poudre numerals and hands are quiet signs of ostentation on the otherwise subtle timepiece but the weighty density of precious white gold case reveals its true nature: an elegant homage to a legendary timepiece. The heart within beats with a self-winding Calibre Jaeger-LeCoultre 966A with 38 hours power reserve.

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