Historic Tavannes: Rebuilding the Brand

Posted by Bruce Shawkey on Aug 28, 2013 4:30:09 AM

This advertisement by Tavannes was used for years, beginning in the late 1930s, to symbolize its preeminence as the world's fourth-largest watch manufacturer. The artist's rendering shows the five factories located in Tavannes (the company's headquarters); Neuchatel; La Joux; La Chaux de Fonds; and LeLocle. Combined, the factories made 4,000 finished pieces a day.

It might be a watch brand you haven't heard of. Or if you HAVE, you've probably heard it pronounced incorrectly. The name is Tavannes. It's pronounced ta-VAHN, like the lady's name LaVonne.

It used to be one of world’s largest watch manufacturers. During its heyday in the 1920s and ‘30s, five manufacturing plants turned out as many as 4,000 watch movements a day. It employed around 2,000 workers, and had turned the little town of Tavannes, Switzerland, into a booming manufacturing center. The company not only made movements for its own branded watches, but supplied movements to other prestigious watch manufacturers and retailers, including Jaeger LeCoultre, Dunhill, Hermes, and Cartier. The company even made a custom watch for the king of England that eventually became one of the company‘s iconic models.

But through a series of marketing decisions and market realties, the brand virtually disappeared. It would have become extinct altogether, save for the efforts of three men who, in 2008, decided to rebuild the brand from the ground up. They have brought fresh ideas and designs to the “affordable luxury” watch market, but at the same time have a deep and tangible respect for the brand’s rich heritage.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The story of Tavannes begins in 1891 with the founding of the company by a 40-year-old master watchmaker, Henri-Frédéric Sandoz, in the town of Tavannes, today a small city of approximately 3,500. Sandoz was a mechanical genius; his company not only made its own movements—called Calilbers—in-house (one of the few Swiss companies to do so), but also developed proprietary watch-making machinery (lathes, milling machines, etc.) which was sold to other manufacturers.

In addition to being distributed through Dunhill, the Tavannes "La Captive" model caught the attention of luxury jeweler Cartier. This specimen's sterling silver case is overlaid with beautiful white and red enamel. Cartier sold these watches using the signature "Lisica S.A." on the movements, which was a subsidiary of Tavannes. Photo by Sotheby’s.

An Early Adopter

The company early on saw the market potential for wristwatches, producing finished models as early as 1905. By the 1910s, it was producing Calibers specifically manufactured for wristwatches, while most other companies were still using pocket watch movements adopted (some rather crudely) for conversion into wristwatches. One of the first wristwatches we see is a Tavannes wristwatch made for the U.S. Signal Corps.

By the early 1920s, Tavannes entered the U.S. market, and this must surely be considered the company’s golden era. A number of extraordinary Calibers and models were developed.

Watchmaker to a King

Around 1926, Tavannes was presented with a challenge. The man who would eventually be crowned king Edward VIII of England (yes, the one who gave up the throne to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson) commissioned Tavannes to make him a custom watch that could be worn as a belt buckle while playing golf. With a discreet press of a small button, the watch portion of the buckle would flip open at an approximate 90 degree angle to its case. In this position, the time could be read.

The belt-buckle version of Tavannes innovative "La Captive" watch model started out as a custom order for King Edward VIII, and was eventually made available to the public, with distribution through Hermes; Photo by poupishop.com

Eventually, a golfer’s belt buckle version of the watch was offered to the public, and distributed through Hermes. From the custom order, Tavannes got the idea to apply the design to a hermetic watch, called “La Captive,” which the company began offering around 1929. It was first offered as a desk or purse watch, often with decorative enameling, and distributed through Dunhill, a prestigious European jeweler, as well as Cartier.

In 1931, another boom occurred for Tavannes. The watch company of Jaeger- LeCoultre (JL) was trying to come up with a hermetic watch of its own. JL wanted to make a true wristwatch that would rotate a full 180 degrees within its case. Worn either way, the watch would lie flat on the wrist. The one problem is that JL did not make an in-house caliber suitable to fit their patented swivel case. They turned to Tavannes, and for the first two years of production, used the Tavannes Caliber 064 in its watch. Thus, the famous “reverso” was born.

(The early reverso models with the Tavannes Caliber 064 are signed “Lisica S.A.” on their movements. Lisica was merely a holding company established by Tavannes to create a “buffer” between the two companies which otherwise would have confused jewelers and consumers as to who actually made the reverso watch. The “La Captive” watches sold by Cartier also can be seen with the Lisica signature on the movements.)

The Tavannes company's early manufacture of practical wristwatches for men resulted in a contract by the U.S. Signal Corps. Watches of this type saw service during World War I; Photo courtesy oldwristwatches.com

Over the next several decades, various marketing decisions (that seemed prudent at the time) pushed the Tavannes company more and more into the background. The factories themselves eventually closed, and the brand all but became extinct. But in 2008, the brand was re-introduced with a fresh lineup of designs, along with affordable prices.

Building for the Future, Respecting the Past

Undertaking that challenge are three men: Florin Niculescu, president of the company’s Switzerland operations in Tavannes; Bruce Cummings, President of Tavannes U.S.A., based in Valencia, PA.; and Marc Cummings, Vice President.

“We see the brand as exclusive, yet anything but expensive,“ says Bruce Cummings. men’s models start at $500. For $995, you get a watch with a Swiss-made automatic movement with date, and genuine crocodile strap with deployment buckle.

The "335" is another iconic Tavannes model, introduced in the late 1920s, and named for the movement Caliber inside the watch. The elongated movement allowed for a more streamlined case, and room for a longer mainspring which gave the watch a three-day running time, an amazing feat for its day

The “exclusive” part comes from the fact that Tavannes watches are sold strictly through a network of authorized dealers, most of them independent. No big-box or department stores, no direct (or third-party) Internet sales. “We don’t want our customer buying a watch, and then seeing it offered a month later on a home shopping channel at half of what they paid,” says Cummings.

The company’s respect for its heritage shows in its “Vintage Club.“ Visitors to the company website can become members of the club and post pictures and information about their vintage Tavannes watches. Once registered with the website, owners’ identities are kept confidential, but pictures and information about vintage watches are shared with club members. This is highly unusual, as many watch companies devote little or no attention to their heritage. The mentality seems to be that they don’t make any money when their vintage watches are bought and sold on the secondary market. Tavannes views this differently ... that caring about people’s vintage watches (whether they are current Tavannes customers or not) is part of an overall culture of building relationships with existing (and potential) customers.

Tavannes watches are currently sold through 120 retail jewelers in 34 states. There are also several locations in Europe. They produce a full line of men’s and ladies’ watches, including a variety of karat gold watches, and fashion dress watches for women. The men’s lineup includes such specialties as a diver’s model, and a full skeletonized watch. Their full line can be seen at the company website, www.tavanneswatches.com.

About the author: Bruce Shawkey is a dealer and collector of vintage watches. Based in Evansville, Wis., he is also a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in numerous watch and clock publications during the past 25 years.

Some current Tavannes models (click to enlarge):

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Topics: Watches, Editorial, Tavannes, featured, Bruce Cummings, Marc Cummings, Vintage watches

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