By Marco Strazzi
esearchers studying 20th century watchmaking have an invaluable resource at their disposal: the archives of specialist periodicals. They make it possible to observe history as it happened, almost like time travelling. Take Europa Star, for instance. Across the decades, the magazine’s various international editions have featured articles on manufacturers, news, technology, trade fairs and sales techniques – not to mention thousands of advertising pages. These ads capture the spirit of the times in a way that mere commentary cannot.
The images, graphics, writing styles and even the choice of typefaces uniquely and unmistakably express how the manufacturer perceived its product, and how it wanted the public to perceive it once available in stores. It’s like witnessing history in real time. Moreover, these ads from the past also illustrate how design and public tastes have evolved, providing reference points for enthusiasts looking to accurately date vintage watches.
In short, there are many compelling reasons to explore the images and slogans that showcased manufacturers’ creativity, beyond the purely industrial and technical realms. To make it easier to follow, we’ll explore this history chronologically, across nine distinct periods.
About the author Marco Strazzi is the author of a two-volume work on 20th century watch advertising. Published by Pressision SA, Watch Ads 1900-1959 and Watch Ads 1960-2000 are bilingual English-Italian and can be purchased online. PDF previews can be consulted online at 10e10.ch.
he turn of the 20th century marked the emergence of the wristwatch as a commercial product. While women embraced the new accessory, men and industry insiders were sceptical.
Why wear a watch on your arm, exposing it to shocks and the vagaries of the weather, when you can rely on a tried and tested, well-protected pocket watch? Consequently, the pocket watch maintained its market dominance, shaping the marketing strategies of manufacturers who continued to prioritise it.
It wasn’t until the 1910s that the focus began to shift, primarily as a result of the outbreak of World War I. The coordination of wartime operations required practical, durable and water-resistant timepieces. To meet these novel demands, manufacturers developed and patented innovative solutions. Newspaper advertisements showcased features such as waterproof cases, fixed or removable metal grids to protect the glass, and luminescent indices and hands for reading the time in the dark. These ads captured the pressing needs and concerns of the era.
The Swiss industry dominated the international market, supplying timepieces to numerous armies worldwide. However, the United States also produced models designed to withstand harsh environments. In 1919, the trade press published the first advertisement linking a wristwatch to a celebrated figure and achievement: aviator Roland Rohlfs and his altitude record.
he rise of the wristwatch was unstoppable, punctuated by events that bolstered its image and cemented its success. The Swiss Fair in Geneva (1920), the Paris Exhibition (1925 – famously known as the birthplace of the Art Deco style), and the Universal Exhibition in Barcelona (1929) celebrated the fusion of technology and jewellery, consolidating the appreciation of the female audience.
Athletes, explorers, aviators, and show business stars wore their timepieces as they engaged in a variety of activities, all of which garnered media attention. Watch brands recognised that associating their products with contemporary heroes offered a significant advantage in capturing the male market, and advertising played a crucial role. Longines associated itself with aviation records, Rolex launched the Oyster by pairing it with swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, and several manufacturers capitalised on the success of sports competitions to promote their chronographs.
At the same time, watch technology broke new ground, and advertising campaigns highlighted these innovations. LeCoultre, Harwood and Glycine introduced the first two-level movement, the first automatic wristwatch and the first with the Geneva Seal, respectively. Most advertisements showcased rectangular and square-shaped cases, which, in the eyes of customers, had the merit of emphasising the distinction with the typically round pocket watch. The latter’s presence in advertisements diminished significantly, as it became clear to everyone that the future belonged to the wristwatch.
he watchmaking industry reacted to the Great Depression of the early 1930s with remarkable inventiveness, revolutionising almost every technical and aesthetic standard. The introduction of steel led to the decline of silver, which, until the previous decade, had been the only alternative to gold in high-quality products.
The first effective shock-proof device (Incabloc) and models with “armoured” cases dispelled the remaining clichés about the fragility of wristwatches. Rolex combined the Perpetual automatic movement with its waterproof Oyster case; Mimo introduced a model with a digital date display; and Breitling launched the two-pusher chronograph.
Designers opted for austere and functional elegance, creating models that would become icons: the Reverso (LeCoultre) and the Calatrava (Patek Philippe). Initially, these innovations didn’t achieve the desired success: times were challenging and sales stagnated.
As often occurs during a crisis, investment in advertising declined. Lacking the necessary ads to secure their funding, magazines became noticeably thinner. The number of pages started to increase around 1934, signalling the beginning of the recovery. Along with the latest creations – Driva’s inexpensive wristwatch repeater, Bovet’s simplified rattrapante, Marvin’s motorist’s watch, among others – came increasingly sophisticated advertisements, extending the competition between manufacturers to communication and image.
he first half of the decade was impacted by the war. The demand for precision instruments from all countries in conflict provided a significant boost to the Swiss watchmaking industry, which, despite supply challenges, accounted for one-third of national exports and 86% of the global market. Manufacturing focused on products suitable for military use, and advertising reflected this, while emphasising that robustness and reliability were equally important in civilian life.
A growing awareness of the importance of effective communication emerged within the industry. In 1942, the newly-founded Revista Relojera in Argentina dedicated entire pages to the technical presentation of Swiss watches.
From 1945 onwards, creativity and cutting-edge technology regained prominence in both industry and marketing. The first ultra-thin wristwatch (Audemars Piguet) and the first with an effective alarm (Vulcain) were introduced. Automatic watches became more appealing thanks to the digital date display (Rolex), the complete calendar (Movado), the power reserve indicator (Jaeger-LeCoultre, Zodiac), and winding by ball bearings (Eterna).
For women with above-average purchasing power, jewellery watches featuring small precious metal cases and stone-set bracelets were available. This new golden age extended to the advertising sphere, as companies invested a portion of their substantial profits in campaigns enriched by illustrations, some of which were masterpieces of graphic art.
he “tool watch” graced the wrists of explorers, mountaineers, pilots and divers as they shattered records of all kinds.
Feats such as expeditions to Mount Everest and descents into the depths in the bathyscaphe Trieste captivated the public’s attention and imagination. Manufacturers recognised the commercial potential of these events and advertised tool watches tailored to those who aspired to emulate the heroes of the moment or, more modestly, just wanted a watch that suited an active lifestyle.
The burgeoning popularity of scuba diving spurred the production of timepieces resistant to water pressure (Rolex, Blancpain). Pilots and air travellers could rely on models boasting dual time zones, world time, and calculation functions (Breitling, Movado, Tissot). There were watches for fishermen (Heuer), hikers (Sandoz) and professionals working near magnetic fields (IWC).
The majority of these innovations hailed from Switzerland, and relied on automatic movements that boasted superior reliability and more compact dimensions than before. Notable examples included competitions for the world’s thinnest and smallest calibre. Meanwhile, the American (Hamilton) and French (Lip) industries unveiled electric wristwatches, fusing technological progress with distinctive aesthetics. This diverse production landscape necessitated a shift in advertising, which had to engage with increasingly discerning and varied audience segments.
he watch of the space age”: that was how Bulova introduced the Accutron, which used a tuning fork instead of a balance wheel as its regulating organ, kicking off the electronics revolution.
While its role in NASA missions was limited to being an on-board timer, the more traditional Omega Speedmaster – a mechanical chronograph – handled the harsh conditions of outer space. The Speedmaster became a bestseller, partly thanks to ads that highlighted its connection to the astronauts’ adventures.
Switzerland and the United States, locked in an increasingly fierce technological and industrial arms race, were slow to see the new threat on the horizon. By mid-decade, Japanese products had landed in Europe, and soon became major players in terms of innovation. Seiko was among the first companies to unveil an automatic chronograph, shortly after Zenith, Breitling, Heuer and Hamilton, and was the first to market a timepiece that would change the face of the watch industry: the quartz wristwatch.
Meanwhile, cutting-edge materials like tungsten carbide (Rado) and glass fibre (Tissot) made their debut, as did increasingly robust waterproof diving models (Doxa, Rolex). One even had an alarm (Vulcain). Watch design gradually moved away from the minimalism of the early 1960s, embracing more elaborate styles that played with the increasing size of watch cases. This shift was reflected in advertisements, where imagery often took centre stage over text.
n April 1970 the quartz wristwatch arrived in Switzerland. No fewer than 21 models were unveiled simultaneously, all powered by the Beta 21 movement from the Centre Electronique Horloger.
Initially, the revolution appeared to be purely technological, as the prices of these watches were comparable to luxury products. However, within a few short years, the cost of electronic modules plummeted, triggering a race to the bottom in which Japan and Hong Kong were the clear front-runners.
The Swiss watch industry veered from the triumphs of 1974 – its most successful year – to the collapse of 1979, when exports dropped by 25% compared to the previous year. The impact of this commercial earthquake on specialised publications was less pronounced than that of the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Between 1974 and 1979, Europa Star saw a mere 15% reduction in the number of pages, a sign that the advertising market remained relatively robust. After all, watchmakers continued to launch a steady stream of new products, which needed to be presented to a public inevitably bewildered by the frenetic pace of change.
The electronic timepiece soon transitioned from analogue to LED, then LCD displays, before returning to traditional hands. In Switzerland, the traditional mechanical watch industry also underwent a transformation. Outperformed by quartz in terms of precision, the inexpensive “Roskopf” product was gradually discontinued, despite having once accounted for up to 50% of exports. The Swiss industry intensified its focus on high-end offerings, a trend that would prove irreversible in the years and decades to come.
watch: the name alone evokes not just a manufacturing and aesthetic revolution, but also a commercial and lifestyle phenomenon, the rebirth of the Swiss watch industry after years of struggle, and new, creative, non-conformist communication methods.
The enormous yellow watch stretched across a Frankfurt skyscraper’s façade, the vibrant and playful advertising, and the association with youth-centred events like the World Breakdance Championship were among the initiatives that had the most significant impact on the public.
The origins of Swatch lie in the technical solutions that enabled Switzerland to win the contest with Japan to create the world’s thinnest timepiece. The success extended beyond a single product and revitalised the entire Swiss industry, which once again became a major player across all sectors. While the plastic watch shattered conventions, manufacturers with a rich heritage – including IWC, Ulysse Nardin, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet – introduced both traditional and innovative complications that rekindled interest in mechanical timepieces.
Quartz movements were not confined to just Swatches and multifunction digital watches. Some made it into high-end products (Frédéric Piguet, Girard-Perregaux), while others were combined with automatic winding to eliminate the need for a battery (Seiko, Le Phare). In most cases, advertising took a traditional approach. Because images alone were insufficient, text was necessary to emphasise the benefits of technological advances. Finally, advertisements also showcased the introduction of novel materials such as titanium, high-tech ceramic, tantalum and meteorite.
omputer-aided design (CAD) democratised mechanical complications, making them accessible to numerous manufacturers and favouring those who chose to develop in-house movements.
The desire to become independent of suppliers and the resulting consolidation in the latter part of the 20th century changed the face of the sector, expanding the portfolios of large groups like Swatch, Richemont and LVMH.
Brands including IWC, Audemars Piguet and Panerai introduced “XL” models, initiating a style revolution. Their success extended the trend to all segments of the market. In answer to the unrivalled prestige of mechanical movements, quartz technology offered increasingly sophisticated alternatives, including radio-controlled precision (Junghans), electronic chronographs with automatic winding (Seiko), touchscreens (Tissot), wrist cameras (Casio) and automatic watches with digital displays (Ventura).
In the early 1990s, Swatch novelties sold like hot cakes and became the subject of speculation – not unlike the situation we’re seeing in 2023. Advertising held up a mirror to an industry bursting with health. Watch brands had significant resources to fund advertising campaigns and spared no expense, filling specialised and general-interest magazines with creative and diverse messages. Some brands leveraged prestigious endorsements while others exploited the appeal of tradition. Some focused on technical innovation, others the lure of limited editions, striking slogans or surprising imagery.