Lost to time: The Wittnauer Company
The beginnings of the A. Wittnauer Company seem almost like a fairy tale, the quintessential immigrant's dream come true in a time of war and poverty. A young man from from a far off land with a dream that he would eventually have his name of the dashboards of pilots and pioneers & on the wrists of actors and astronauts. This dream would continue even after his death as his sister, the first female CEO of a watch manufacturer, took the reins of the company in the midst of the worst economic depression America had ever seen. Yet despite the triumphs of the Wittnauer family and brand, they have faded into obscurity amid a complicated history.
The year was 1872 and at just sixteen years old, Albert Wittnauer journeyed from Switzerland to New York to work for his brother-in-law, Eugene Roberts, who ran a watch importing business focused mostly on high end pieces such as Vacheron & Constantin and Jaeger LeCoultre. Albert dreamt of creating his own watch brand that would suit the American market: an affordable Swiss watch that was still of high quality despite a lower price. Eight years later in 1880 the first Wittnauer watches were being made. In the same year F. Eugene Roberts & Co became the exclusive sales agent for Longines in America, a partnership that would last nearly 125 years. Ten years after the first Wittnauer watch was produced, Eugene bestowed the title of "A. Wittnauer Company" upon Albert's new venture.
The company went from strength to strength as Albert's brothers, Louis and Emile, joined him from Switzerland to help run the family business now residing on Maiden Lane, the heart of New York's jewellery and watchmaking industry in its day. Albert was as skilled a hirer as he was a watchmaker, employing Ferdinand Haschka (who later became the head watchmaker for Tiffany & Co) and Charles Johns (who went on to create a perpetual calendar chronometer that would feature at the 1939 World's fair). Unfortunately, one by one the three brothers passed away and in 1916 (four years before she would be allowed to vote) their sister Martha, a homemaker with no watch or business knowledge, became CEO of A. Wittnauer. Despite her lack of formal business training, Martha would lead the company for twenty years, surviving a World War and the Great Depression. Under her leadership, the original goal of producing high quality, low price watches remained at the forefront of the company's objectives.
In 1926, Wittnauer manufactured the "All-Proof", which was heralded as the world's first shock and waterproof antimagnetic wristwatch. Fitting of the era the advertisements were not shy in extolling the virtues of the All-Proof claiming it had been "dropped 3400 feet from an aeroplane - exposed to rain for 30 hours and still running perfectly" and later there were claims that All-Proofs had been thrown from the Empire State Building, taken to steaming Amazon jungles and brought to the highest elevation of the Himalayas, Alps and Andes. You can just hear the radio announcer reading that aloud, can't you? Not all of the All-Proof's claims were complete hyperbole, as it was worn by Jimmie Mattern, a American pilot who had twice attempted to circumnavigate the world, who praised his Wittnauer for surviving his crash landing. This very same watch was also worn by Neil Armstrong during the Gemini 8 mission as he wanted to honour Mattern's pioneering spirit.
During Martha's tenure as CEO, the company was chosen to be the official timer for the first national radio station in America, the National Broadcasting Company, and to be part of the instruments for several aeronautical adventures including Amelia Earhart's voyage across the Atlantic. Martha was the first woman to be elected into the Horological Society of America and managed to keep control of the company well into her seventies. In 1936 A. Wittnauer was sold to Hella Deltah, a pearl manufacturer. Capitalising on the long partnership and history with Longines, the company was renamed Longines-Wittnauer. This is the point where some misconceptions formed, with some believing that Longines purchased Wittnauer, whose watches were poor quality Longines movements or that Wittnauer watches were using cases from Longines etc. From what I've researched there seems to be no truth to these rumours, as the company wasn't purchased again till 1969 by the Westinghouse Electric Company. This unfortunate belief that Wittnauer was the "lesser" sibling to Longines was the first step in the diminishment of their history of quality pieces. Perhaps this relationship was clearer back then and it's only as time has marched on and records/intents forgotten that our perspective has changed.
Over the next fifty years or so, the Longines-Wittnauer Company made some really fantastic looking watches. Whilst it may not be to everyone's taste I think the Futurama 1000 is a beautiful watch that evokes the "future-thinking" design inspiration of the late sixties. How can you not love the weirdness of a curved rectangular case mixed with a retrograde display and magnification bubble for the date? The dial looks like a combination between an old camera light meter and a radio frequency selector. Whilst I'm not a big wearer of gold coloured watches, I think there is a certain something about the beautifully hideous watch. Made in 1970, the Wittnauer 2000 is a fascinating piece: a perpetual calendar from a brand not known at all for complicated watches. This inexperience with such a complication is noticeable however when you realise that the calendar only went up to the year 2000, giving it a useful life of just thirty years. You just have to admire the charm in something so self-defeating. Well I do at least. The look of this piece is really unique, with the day wheel at 12 o'clock above an odd grid layout of dates with the same layout mirrored at 6 o'clock for the months and years. Whilst it is mostly a decorative piece, there are a few 2000s going on Ebay for a wide range of prices.
In some of their sports chronographs Longines-Wittnauer used the iconic Valjoux 72 movement, the same movement that was used in Rolex Pre-Daytonas and LeCoultre and Heuer chronographs. How anyone can say that this watch is of "less quality" than a Longines is beyond me, as Longines themselves made a chronograph featuring the exact same movement which they dubbed the Cal. 30CH. Also let's not forget that a Wittnauer chronograph was chosen to be tested by NASA to be used in the Gemini & Apollo missions and whilst the Wittnauer didn't pass the tests neither did Breitling, Rolex and Hamilton. In fact, a Longines-Wittnauer chronograph was in the final three beside Rolex and Omega.
During the 1980s and early 90s Longines-Wittnauer entered a period of decline that sent the company into a tail spin. In 1994 Longines were bought by SMH (the precursor to the Swatch Group) which the New York Times referred to as a "cartel of watch companies". As SMH took over the distribution of Longines in US, the 125 year association with Wittnauer was put to rest. Renamed Wittnauer International Inc., the company refocused solely on the Wittnauer brand. Two years later Composite Resources LLC outbid Movado and Bulova to purchase Wittnauer for $28 million. The first watch company to have a woman as CEO was now the first to be owned by two black entrepreneurs, with Robert Coleman as CEO and Charles Watkins as President. Unfortunately their time in charge was short and not overly positive. In the first year the company made a loss of $5 million, Composite Resources was the focus of a lawsuit by another investment company alleging breach of fiduciary during the purchase of Wittnauer, and just four years later with almost $24 million in trade debt Bulova purchased Wittnauer for $11.6 million. Wittnauer still lives on to this day, however like Universal Geneve it seems to exist in limbo, not quite allowed to fade away fondly but not alive enough to make something of itself again.
You can still purchase Wittnauer watches from Macy's and other retailers however they are now mostly fashion watches, barely resembling what came before. It's an unfortunate result of the quartz crisis that middle tier brands like Wittnauer were pushed out to the sidelines, not cheap enough to ride the quartz wave successfully but not expensive enough to rise above into a prestige luxury brand. My hope is that Wittnauer can leave a legacy of quality over brand recognition, as timepieces should be judged by their craftsmanship, rather than their famous name. Simply because you haven't heard of them doesn't mean they're not worth your time.