In-Depth: The History of the Glycine Airman

The reputation of some brands are built upon a single timepiece. Gallet had the Flight Officer, Doxa had the Sub300T, and Glycine? Glycine had the Airman.

 The Glycine Manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Photo courtesy of Glycine.

The Glycine Manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Photo courtesy of Glycine.

Founded in 1914 by Eugene Meylan, Glycine was initially famous for making small movements for ladies watches but branched out into producing self-winding and chronometer rated watches in the 1930s. In 1943, Charles Hertig Sr. bought Glycine and it would be under his tenure that Glycine would create their defining watch, the Airman.

The Airman was born out of professional need.

In 1953, Samuel W. Glur, a sales director for Montres Altus S.A., was on-board a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Calcutta (now Kolkata). This was a different time and Samuel was able to make his way into the cockpit to strike up a conversation with the Captain about his wristwatch needs. The idea of designing a watch specifically for aviation use was still in its infancy in 1953, even though aviation was now 40 odd years old.  The Cartier that Santos DuMont wore on his first flight was practically identical to other dress watches of the era and the watches that pilot's had worn during World War II might have been larger and more legible, but they were hardly specialized tools. The Breitling Navitimer, released in 1952, was a technical marvel which allowed pilots to make quick calculations thanks to its rotating slide rule bezel, but only one timezone could be read at one time. In an age of propeller driven planes, that was fine but the jet age was soaring into view. Planes were flying faster and further than ever before and pilots needed a tool to help them.

What the Captain said he wanted was an automatic, waterproof watch with calendar function and a 24 hour dial with centralized hour, minute and second hands with a rotating 24 hour bezel. After touching down in India, Samuel Glur wrote to his friend Charles Hertig about the potential market for a dedicated pilots watch. These specifications would be turned into a real watch just a few months later, the Glycine Airman.

What I love about this story is how quaint it is. No focus groups, no marketing strategy, just one man speaking to another about his professional needs, but in 1953 was a simpler time and all it took was a conversation between two professionals to spark the creative fire.

The first Airman, known today as the AM/PM, was released in 1953

 The first Glycine Airman. Photo courtesy of Andre Stikkers and Betsy Dougherty.

The first Glycine Airman. Photo courtesy of Andre Stikkers and Betsy Dougherty.

Looking at the design evolution of the Airman, it is clear to see that the very first release of the watch was a test as a lot of elements would change a few months later. The AM/PM written on the dial to allow easier reading of the time of day would go, as would Noon written at the bottom of the dial. The dauphine hands would be changed in favor of pencil/syringe hands and the hour markers would become uniform in size rather than emphasize the even hours. The rotating bezel would stay mostly the same, as would its locking mechanism.

 The patent diagram for the 24 hour dial and the bezel locking mechanism.

The patent diagram for the 24 hour dial and the bezel locking mechanism.

The idea of a rotating bezel to act as reference device for checking the time was beginning to catch on in the early 1950s. Also releasing in 1953, the Rolex Turn-o-graph was the first regular production Rolex to use a rotating bezel to mark time, and it would serve as inspiration for the Submariner and the GMT-Master. What makes the Airman bezel unique was its locking mechanism. The bezel was not ratcheted so unique time zones that were in-between hourly intervals could be measured, so Glycine added a thumbscrew at 4 o'clock to lock the bezel in place once set.

 A Glycine Airman with a Felsa 692 movement. The Felsa logo can be seen at 11 o'clock. Photo courtesy of Those Watch Guys.

A Glycine Airman with a Felsa 692 movement. The Felsa logo can be seen at 11 o'clock. Photo courtesy of Those Watch Guys.

Inside the first Aiman was the Felsa Caliber 690 or 692 which had 23 jewels and beat at 21,600bph. The number of jewels would soon cause issues when importing the watch into America. During the 1950s, an America First mentality amongst lawmakers resulted in tariffs being placed upon foreign goods being imported into the United States. If a watch had above a certain number of jewels, an tariff would be added. The hope was that by making these goods more expensive, it would encourage American businesses and government agencies to buy American. But the quality of Swiss watches was too great to pass up, even if it meant creative side-stepping of the law in both countries. The Airman Special, released later in 1953, was an altered version of the Airman which only had 17 jewels, allowing it to pass under the tariff bracket. These watches were marked with a cursive Special underneath the Airman name, so if you see this text then you know that it was made for the American market.

 The Glycine Airman  Special  with only 17 jewels. Photo courtesy of WatchuSeek user Iguana Sell.

The Glycine Airman Special with only 17 jewels. Photo courtesy of WatchuSeek user Iguana Sell.

After a few variations, the design and functionality of the Airman solidified.

The pencil/syringe hour hand was changed to a large arrow and a tail was added to the hour hand to allow the reading of the time on the other side of the dial. Glycine also added a feature that even Captain Brown hadn't thought of, a unique hacking seconds mechanism.

 The defacto look for the Glycine Airman for the next 40 years. Photo courtesy of Those Watch Guys. 

The defacto look for the Glycine Airman for the next 40 years. Photo courtesy of Those Watch Guys. 

Hacking seconds or stop seconds is a common feature in military/tool watches as it allows precision setting to a unified time. By pulling the crown out, the seconds hand of the watch will stop and will only start moving again when the crown is pushed back in. What Glycine did different to every single hacking mechanism of 1953 and even today. Rather than stop immediately when the crown is pulled out, the seconds hand would keep rotating until it reached the top of the dial. There a small wire would be sticking out from a minuscule hole between the 2 and 4 of 24 which could catch the hand and stop it from moving. When the hour and minute hands have been set and the crown screwed back in, the wire would drop back into the hole and the seconds hand would continue moving.

 The small wire that holds the seconds hand back is visible on the hand side of the picture. Photo courtesy of The Watch Bloke.

The small wire that holds the seconds hand back is visible on the hand side of the picture. Photo courtesy of The Watch Bloke.

This system allowed for incredibly precise time-setting, but it did have drawbacks, namely having to wait up to 59 seconds for the seconds hand to catch and stop moving. If you're looking at buying a vintage Airman, it is worth double checking that this system is still working as many did not survive when getting serviced.

The Airman, in its current design, would remain part of the Glycine collection until 1978, but in 1967, Glycine released a new Airman, the SST.

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SST stood for SuperSonic Transport and was released during an age where the world believed that supersonic passenger jets were the future. During the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy instructed the Federal Aviation Authority to prepare a report on "national aviation goals for the periods between now and 1970". Whilst Kennedy did not live to see it, one of those goals was to compete with supersonic aviation projects of other countries, namely the British and French Concorde and the Ruissian Tupolev TU-144.

 A concept design for the Boeing 2707 SST. Maybe this proposed orange detailing inspired the Glycine color scheme? 

A concept design for the Boeing 2707 SST. Maybe this proposed orange detailing inspired the Glycine color scheme? 

Boeing won the lucrative contract to develop the first American supersonic commercial jet and began tests in the mid 1960s. Boeing planned for their plane, named the 2707 SST, to fly at Mach 2.7 (0.7 faster than Concorde) for a distance of up to 4200 miles with a capacity for 250 to 300 passengers. The 2707 was intended to have a 'swing wing' system which would allow the wings to change position from straight out during take-off and landing to a delta wing position as the speed increased.

 The incredibly rare Glycine Airman SST Chronograph. Photo courtesy of Andre Stikkers.

The incredibly rare Glycine Airman SST Chronograph. Photo courtesy of Andre Stikkers.

The Airman SST, like the planned Boeing 2707, was a major departure from previous designs. The torneau-shaped case was a mixture of brushed and polished finishing and the use of color on the dial was unprecedented in the Airman range. The crown controlling the rotating bezel was moved to 2 o'clock on the dial and the bezel was placed underneath the crystal and lacked a lacking mechanism. Infact the orange color of the bezel is what gave the SST its nickname among collectors, the pumpkin. Glycine also used color on the main dial to indicate the time of day, light grey for the right hand side (AM) and black for the left hand side (PM).

The movement of the watch was replaced several times during its 11 year production, starting with the A. Schild 1903 (1967-1971) then the A. Schild 2063 (1971-1974) and finally the A. Schild 2163 (1974-1978). On the case back was an engraving of what appears to be the Boeing 2707, though some believe it to be either Concorde or the Soviet Tupolev as the designs were similar. Given Glycine's close relationship with American aviation, both civilian and military, I find it hard to believe it is anything other than the Boeing.

In 1968, Glycine released the first Airman chronograph, the SST Chronograph. It remains one of the rarest Airmans ever made with only 100 leaving the factory. It used the venerable Valjoux 72 movement and had a power reserve of 46 hours. But like the Boeing 2707, the SST chrono was not destined to soar. As the cost of the project inflated, Boeing eventually were forced to cancel testing with the two prototype SSTs never taking off. As for the SST chronograph, Glycine launched it at just the wrong time as one year later, several self-winding chronographs were launched making the manual wind SST obsolete.

In 1978, the Airman went quartz

After 25 years of production, the Airman was caught in the wake of the quartz revolution and it unfortunately sank. To be honest, I'm surprised that it took till the late 1970s for Glycine to submit to quartz as the company had been struggling for some time. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to say now that by focusing on crafting high quality mechanical movements and pivoting towards becoming a luxury accessory rather than a tool, many companies would have survived or have grown in the long term. But hindsight is 20/20 and in 1978, it looked like quartz was the future so its hard to fault Glycine, or any brand for that matter, for doing what they thought was the best move.

The design of the Airman quartz is very similar to that of the mechanical Airman with small changes to the numbers on the bezel, dial and the removal of the tail on the hour hand. The size of the watch stayed the same at 34mm but the bezel locking mechanism and the special hacking seconds feature was removed. This gradual neutering of what made the Airman a unique watch, and the not so gradual exclusion of mechanical tools in favor of computers in professional services undoubtedly contributed to the downfall of Glycine. When your business is essentially built upon one product and that product can be replaced by a cheaper, more reliable alternative, it is only a matter of time before irrelevancy.

 The Glycine Airman 7. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

The Glycine Airman 7. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Glycine, under new leadership from the 1980s, continued the push towards quartz with a wider variety of designs including a world timer in 1990 and the Airman 2000 GMT in 1998, two firsts for the Airman collection. Over the next several years, a wider variety of designs were released including the Airman 7 in 2002. The Airman 7 was an exceptionally large watch (53mm) as it had three seperate dials to display 4 time zones: local time, world time, time at 1st destination and time at 2nd destination. Surprisingly enough, all three of these movements were mechanical, with the larger ETA 2893-2 being flanked by two smaller ETA 2671-2s.

As a dash clock, this would have been an interesting, albeit outdated, addition to a cockpit. As a watch, I find it absolutely hideous. Whilst elements of the original Airman design are present (most notably the hour markers and hands in the largest sub-dial), it bears little to no resemblance to the pioneering watches that came before it. Maybe my personal distaste for the watch is showing, but to me the Airman 7 looks like a desperate attempt to make the Glycine name more relevant in an age of BIG watches.

Whilst Glycine continued to develop the Airman 7 series over the coming years, they did try and make the regular Airman series more approachable changing the dial to a standard 12 hour display. The Airman 8, 9, MLV, SST 06, 17, 18, Chorno 08, Base 22, SST Chronographs from 2011 and 2012 and the Airfighter from 2014 all eschewed one of the defining features of the Airman, the 24 hour dial whilst still having the full 24 hours displayed on the dial. Glycine did make several 'Purist' editions of their heritage watches that included a 24 hour display, including the Airman Special, Vintage V, Double 24, Special II, Double 24 09, F 104 Regulateur, Vintage 1953, No.1 'Play it again Sam' and the No.1 circa 2014.

Last year marked big news for Glycine as they were bought by Invicta, the brand watch geeks love to hate.

Invicta is a unifying brand. Whilst some may love Rolex more than Omega, or Patek less than Vacheron, you can be safe in the knowledge that everyone equally loathes Invicta. Constantly available for massive discounts and selling themselves on television shopping channels does not make a good reputation and many Glycine fans feared that is what the brand was destined for when news of the sale broke. For an undisclosed sum, Invicta bought Glycine from DKSH, a 'market expansion group' who had aimed to expand Glycine into Asia. Glycine CEO Stephan Lack said that Invicta had no intention of mixing the two brands and they would mostly be responsible for increasing the presence of Glycine in North/South America along with designing marketing and retail points of sale.

One year after Glycine being bought, it's still unclear what their future is as the Airman line has become cluttered with very...Invicta looking modern takes the design. I know I wasn't asking for a skeleton dial Airman with blue highlights and I don't think I was alone.

What drew many collectors and watch fans to Glycine was its dedicated to one watch. They have made other watches during their 103 year existence but the Airman is the watch that defines their brand. The 24 hour dial and locking bezel meant that this watch would never find mass appeal, but rather a dedicated following of enthusiasts. The Airman may not hold the same place in the annals of popular aviation watch history like the GMT-Master or the Navitimer, but it is worth remembering.

If you are interested in purchasing an Airman, I heartily recommend this pdf from Andre Strikkers which lists every single Airman since 1953 till 2014.