Archives & heritage

The quest for an everlasting story


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March 2019

The quest for an everlasting story

Never has the watchmaking heritage of watch brands been so well-documented. The fashion for vintage has had a hand in this, forcing watchmakers to constantly refer back to their archives. But beyond this trend, conservation of their heritage is a mission that the brands tackle in rather disparate ways – a question of philosophy and density of heritage, but also one of priorities and means.


t’s a simple task at first glance, but as with so many things, before you even start probing the question of archives and heritage, you need first of all to actually define them. On this point, etymology is again very helpful – and surprising!

The illustrious Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, a historical dictionary of the French language by Alain Rey (2,383 pages of high-flying erudition) reminds us that patrimoine, the French word for patrimony or heritage, is all that is inherited from the father (pater). Incidentally, in the Middle Ages it was possible to juxtapose patrimony and – matrimony.

Even more surprising is that, contrary to what one might suppose, the word “archives” comes not at all from the Greek archeos, meaning ancient, but from arkheion, meaning “residence of the highest magistrates of the city”. In a nutshell, archives are not ancient documents, as we might first of all imagine, but the important documents of the city. On these grounds, let the debate begin!

Today, the watchmakers’ sole mission, with regard to their own “patrimony” is to fuel their own history. And they all have their own way of going about it. Globally, the brands have understood the importance of this exercise, but their approaches differ on three points: the means they devote to it, the current status of their efforts to conserve their heritage, and the use they make of it.

The quest for an everlasting story
An “El Primero” animation at “The starry world of Zenith”, an exhibition launched by the brand in partnership with Neuchâtel Tourist Office to promote its rich heritage.

Internal structures speak volumes

Today, most watchmakers have a dedicated department, called something like Patrimoine, Image or Brand Heritage. The first thing to note is that the service provided by this department is anything but innocent. It very clearly reveals the use for which the brand’s heritage is intended.

In most cases, it is directly attached to the marketing department. The structural intention is unequivocal here: the brand’s heritage is basically at the service of the “storytelling” that is made to measure for each new product. At a time when vintage is all the rage, it is obviously a huge advantage to be able to ground a contemporary re-edition in its original environment, with lashings of period publicity – extracts from archives, catalogues and advertisements.

A handful of cases are different. One of the most original ones is that of Zenith – its Heritage department is attached to its customer service. “Our mission is to listen to the collectors who contact us in order to see where their heart lies, all the better to build the future,” explains Laurence Bodenmann, Heritage Manager for the Le Locle-based brand. “We receive about 15 questions a day on the website, and we talk directly with customers and collectors. We then work with the Products and Movements department, with one eye on past products while we’re at it, so they can write the next chapter in the Zenith story.”

TAG Heuer: connectivity and vintage

Another atypical case, again within the LVMH Group, is the titanic work undertaken by TAG Heuer to reconstruct its heritage. The Heritage division was created by Jean-Claude Biver in 2017 to construct a story around the brand’s recent relaunches – starting with the Carrera and Autavia.

The quest for an everlasting story
At TAG Heuer, Jean-Claude Biver intuitively grasped the attraction of new customers both to connectivity and to vintage… While launching the Connected watch, he also promoted the renaissance of vintage models such as the Autavia, as well as a travelling exhibition, the Museum in Motion.

“Before, our heritage was managed by customer service without any real knowledge of the price of historical components. For example, we noticed a continuous haemorrhage of period dials,” explains Catherine Eberlé-Devaux, who has led the department for the past two years. “Today, we have referenced and indexed more than 10,000 documents and prices that have enabled us to reconstruct our history, as well as to know the value of our stock of historical components. The most important thing is to prevent our co-workers deciding for themselves, internally, what is important and what isn’t. For example, last month the law department handed me a cardboard box of things they didn’t need any more. In it, I found our original order contracts for the very first Calibre 11!”

Breitling: unearthing the past

Another special case is that of Breitling, the brand headed up today by Georges Kern. Two posts were created in 2017 to literally recreate its heritage. One of them is occupied part-time by none other than the manufacture’s social media manager. So theirs is a triple objective – to collect, share and collate.

The quest for an everlasting story
Under the leadership of Georges Kern, Breitling has introduced a new Premier collection, based on the brand’s legacy from the 1940s.

It’s a colossal task since, as Breitling’s marketing director Tim Sayler explains, “heritage was not a priority of the brand’s in the past. We only had about 200 badly documented items. Over the past year we’ve bought a good thirty, including at auction and from collectors. We also search for items and documents in Granges and La Chaux-de-Fonds, in our basements, and so on. There’s still a lot to do.”

Van Cleef & Arpels: 1.4 km of archives

The volume of conserved items is only a figure, certainly, but one that nevertheless bears witness to the extent of a brand’s patrimonial intentions. Some figures speak volumes. “The Cartier collection was created in 1983 and today comprises more than 2,000 items,” says Pierre Rainero, the brand’s style, image and heritage director. His department is probably one of the most impressive at the moment, with some forty employees.

Still at Richemont, the Van Cleef & Arpels collection runs into astronomical figures if we add watches and jewellery together: 1,400 linear metres of archives, 100,000 drawings, 250,000 gouache paintings, 100,000 slides and 50,000 photos. Its Heritage division was created nearly 20 years ago and is still headed by the same person. The archives are complete back to 1906.

Lastly, let us not forget the Japanese precision of Seiko: “Our museum houses a total of 13,794 watches, 497 of which are displayed, and 1,836 clocks, 235 of which are displayed”, explains the brand with extreme exactitude. “Nine people work full time at the museum and are our equivalent of a heritage department.”

Breguet: a direct descendent in the Heritage department

A complete archive with not an item missing is the holy grail of all watch historians. But they are playing on an uneven field. At Breguet, the presence of Emmanuel Breguet on the steering committee is a considerable asset for the brand: “I published the first proper biography of my ancestor just over twenty years ago. There has never been any gap in the indexation of items, movements or dials for any of our watches. It’s an extremely homogeneous corpus, which is extraordinarily rare in the watchmaking sector.”

Emmanuel Breguet
Emmanuel Breguet

“Our entire heritage without exception since 1780 has been digitised, and any authentication request goes through me.”

Emmanuel Breguet goes on: “Our entire heritage without exception since 1780 has been digitised, and any authentication request goes through me. I can respond in a matter of minutes by just taking a quick look, but if need be I always have my tablet with me, which allows me to browse 250 years of archives, all perfectly indexed, in a few seconds.”

While he clearly has a strong personal interest in keeping this history alive, the Swatch Group has its own reasons. It applies industrial processes not only to its watchmaking, but also to its heritage. Everything produced by the Swatch Group is indexed, digitised, categorised and archived, whether it comes from purely watchmaking brands or from movement manufacturers like ETA.

Sébastien Chaulmontet
Sébastien Chaulmontet

“The principal counterfeiters in the history of the brands are the brands themselves. Through their books, they do not always pursue the historical truth, but the glory they stand to gain.”

This approach is especially evident at Longines. The brand has conserved no fewer than 10,000 watches and every single one of its production registers. “It’s probably the most complete and best organised watchmaking heritage collection in the world,” explains Sébastien Chaulmontet, the acclaimed co-author of Chronographs for Collectors, on which subject he is an expert.

“Don’t forget that when the brands went through difficult periods, the first thing to go out of the window was the archives, in general. At a time when watchmakers are vaunting micro-differences in dials, hands or indices, it’s a good idea to have a complete historical view of what has already been done. It’s worth remembering that the principal counterfeiters in the history of the brands are the brands themselves. Through their books, they do not always pursue the historical truth, but the glory they stand to gain. That’s flagrant, in the past and even today, in the inventions and patents that are filed, the ownership of which are questionable.”

Museums – a must?

Many watch brands still keep their archives private. Which museological approach to take is still up in the air. Often, the watchmakers hesitate between two options: a permanent museum or a travelling exhibition.

Sebastian Vivas, Audemars Piguet's Museum and Heritage director
Sebastian Vivas, Audemars Piguet’s Museum and Heritage director

“Since 2012, we have bought back nearly 500 items that will be exhibited in permanent or temporary collections.”

Audemars Piguet is set to open its new museum in 2020. “95% of the exhibits will be in-house items and a few will be representative of the Joux Valley,” explains Sebastian Vivas, the watchmaker’s Museum and Heritage director. “Since 2012, we have bought back nearly 500 items that will be exhibited in permanent or temporary collections.”

The quest for an everlasting story
Audemars Piguet is set to open its new museum in 2020. Exhibition rooms will alternate with watchmaking workshops, relaxation spaces, sound and cinema laboratories and contemporary art in this ’Maison des Fondateurs’.

Zenith, on the other hand, has adopted a more populist approach with its recent initiative entitled “The starry world of Zenith”. Every Friday morning, a group of ten people follows a dedicated itinerary. This original concept has been realised in partnership with Neuchâtel Tourist Office. “I wasn’t interested in creating a museum for the sake of it,” explains the company’s CEO, Julien Tornare. "Far too many brands are prisoners of their own history. You have to explain the link between your heritage and your current collections.” Other projects are in progress: Eberhard & Co, which has a little-known heritage, has only just recently returned to its historical building in La Chaux-de-Fonds. “It would make sense to create a museum here, in the company’s birthplace,” notes CEO Mario Peserico. The project is currently being studied.

Digital technology underused as yet

The idea of sharing heritage and watchmaking archives is gaining ground – and on this point, digital technology opens up opportunities that for the moment are largely underexploited. “We believe first and foremost in physical contact with the public. It’s a pity that the Reverso Virtual Museum Project is no longer online, but there are priorities to respect just as much as budgets,” explains Stéphane Belmont, heritage director at Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Ateliers Louis Moinet caught the ball on the rebound: lacking the kind of budget wielded by the Richemont Group, this independent brand nestling among the hills of Saint-Blaise near Neuchâtel opened its digital museum this year, enabling it to display by virtual means a significant number of the creations of Louis Moinet, the inventor of the chronograph in 1816, whose story remains largely undiscovered.

This digital initiative is similar to that of IWC, a manufacture whose museum has its very own Facebook page. On the occasion of its 150th anniversary in 2018, the brand launched a series of commemorative timepieces, including the Pallweber, a reinterpretation of a pocket watch from the end of the 19th century.

The quest for an everlasting story
A room of the IWC Museum in Schaffhausen

“We keep our archives in a dedicated room,” explains David Seyffer, curator of the IWC Museum. “This represents 50 linear metres, which is currently being digitised. We are organized as a service department, both internally and externally. For example, we welcome students who conduct historical research, answer between 30 and 50 questions from collectors each week, issue certificates of authenticity or provide material for marketing use.”

Ultimately, travelling exhibitions remain the preserve of the big watchmakers with substantial resources. Cartier is one such watchmaker and heads the field in this respect. Since 1989, the company has held 34 exhibitions in the world’s greatest museums. Those by Van Cleef & Arpels are far less numerous (fewer than ten), but can attract up to 180,000 visitors – a respectable score, but way, way behind the 420,000 visitors to the Cartier Anniversary exhibition in New York in 1997, Cartier’s most successful exhibition to this day.

TAG Heuer has also developed a travelling format entitled Heuer Globetrotter, which has been shown in nine cities worldwide. Today, it is continuing with Museum in Motion, a new, one-year peripatetic museum set to visit 70 cities. Measured on its own scale, the IWC Museum has no cause to blush with its 8,000 visitors a year to Schaffhausen, compared with the 3,000 who visit Saint-Imier and the Longines Museum.

As for Bulgari, it has taken over no less a venue than the Kremlin in Moscow for a major retrospective that was held until January 2019. It is the shining symbol of this heritage that is once again occupying centre stage and, more than ever, legitimising the brands’ contemporary creations.

The quest for an everlasting story