he aim of The Watch Library Foundation (TWL) is to preserve and promote watchmaking heritage through new technology, particularly by digitising archives and historic documents connected with watchmaking and the watch industry. Its mission is supported by a number of benefactors, including the major watch manufactures Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille.
The Watch Library Foundation and the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève (MAH) have joined forces to digitise the archives of Louis Cottier (1894-1966) of Carouge in the Swiss canton of Geneva, who is known for his ingenious and innovative work on universal hour watches, and whose collection is of global significance.
Some of the archives are in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève, where they may be consulted by special request. Digitisation will make it possible to share their content with an international community of watchmaking professionals and aficionados, in keeping with the spirit of openness that drives The Watch Library Foundation, and with the 2020 recognition by Unesco of the craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.
Documents and correspondence relating to inventions, models and prototypes, original sketches, even a school report and a reconstructed workshop are just some of the treasures that will eventually be accessible to a far wider audience.
The influence of Louis Cottier remains important to this day, and is recognised by experts and collectors alike. This November, for instance, Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo will be auctioning a Patek Philippe pocket watch ref. 605, dating from 1946, with a universal hours display featuring a mechanism invented by Louis Cottier (also signed by Gübelin).
- Baszanger, pocket watch with universal hours. Louis Cottier (Carouge, 1894-1966), watchmaker. Edouard Wenger, case. Arnold and Steinwachs, engravers. Stern frères, dial makers. Geneva, 1930-1931
- ©Ville de Genève, Collection du Musée d’art et d’histoire, inv. AD 8088. Don de la Société des Amis du Musée, 1992
In Louis Cottier’s footsteps
Louis Cottier was born on 28 September 1894 and died on 16 September 1966 in Carouge (in the canton of Geneva, Switzerland), where he lived his entire life. The workshop of Louis Cottier’s father, Emmanuel Cottier (1858-1930), also a watchmaker, engineer and automaton maker in Carouge, was cluttered with all kinds of objects: old watchmaking tools, machines he had invented, old movements, sketches of clocks, newspaper cuttings, brochures and fine books. Growing up in this environment, Louis Cottier came to share his father’s insatiable curiosity. He trained as a watchmaker in Geneva’s municipal watchmaking school, where the teacher of the preparatory class, Henri Hess (1867-1932), had a decisive influence on the young student.
- Original drawing, signed Louis Cottier, 1932. Corresponds to the Baszanger watch
- ©Ville de Genève, Archives du Musée d’art et d’histoire.
Louis Cottier completed his training just as the 1929 stock market crash shook the world. He worked in several Geneva factories as a general watchmaker before setting up his own business in 1931, after the company he worked for folded. His first workshop was in the back of the book and stationery shop he ran with his wife. In 1947 he moved into a small apartment in Rue Ancienne in Carouge.
A multi-faceted creator
In the big watch factories, progress was measured in improved methods of mass-production. But Louis Cottier worked alone, on commission, modifying movements on behalf of watch manufacturers based in Geneva and elsewhere in Switzerland. They called on Louis Cottier when they needed someone to hand-build prototypes for them.
He registered a number of patents, including one in 1930 for the universal hours mechanism that was to cement his reputation. Back in 1885, his father had presented a prototype of this same mechanism to the Geneva Watchmakers’ Society. Louis developed variations with jumping hours, designed a mystery watch, a repeater mechanism and a watch with an electric motor.
Louis Cottier was a humble man, and he never registered his own trademark. His inventions and creations, with the exception of a few unsigned pieces he produced for himself and for individuals, were all for the benefit of manufacturers including Agassiz, Baszanger, Boninchi, Breguet, Cyma Watch & Co. (studies and prototypes), Golay Fils & Stahl, Gübelin, Ulysse Nardin, Patek Philippe, Piaget, Reuge (automata and music boxes), Stern, Rolex, Tissot, Universal, Vacheron & Constantin and Wittnauer.
- City of Geneva, Archives of the Museum of Art and History. Louis Cottier at his workbench, Carouge, photograph around 1950.
A keen interest in watchmaking history
Louis Cottier’s fascination with history led him to study the history of watchmaking, and to learn how to restore historical timepieces. Hans Wilsdorf (1881-1960), who founded Rolex in 1908, entrusted Cottier with the preservation of his personal collection, on the recommendation of Alfred Chapuis (1880-1958), a pioneering horological historian from Neuchâtel, who restored several pieces and documented their history. Thanks to his understanding of traditional tools and techniques, which he had acquired through his historical researches, Louis Cottier was able to manufacture a number of unique timepieces, from creating the preliminary sketches, through inventing their mechanisms and executing them by hand.
A collector himself, Louis Cottier wrote a number of scholarly articles that were published in the main Swiss professional journals: Journal Suisse d’Horlogerie, Suisse Horlogère and Revue Internationale de l’Horlogerie. In 1955, Alfred Chapuis invited him to help organise an exhibition at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève under the aegis of the Association Montres & Bijoux. The exhibition was devoted to musical automata and mechanisms, and formed the basis of a book Alfred Chapuis later wrote on the history of mechanical music.
As a member of the exhibition committee for Montres & Bijoux, Louis Cottier developed a wide network of acquaintances, with whom he corresponded.
Aside from his interest in historical watch and clockmaking, Cottier was also a keen local historian, and he bequeathed a considerable library of documents to the Carouge authorities. Finally, he was a talented amateur watercolourist and, in 1936, he founded La Palette Carougeoise, a society for local artists, of which he remained president until his death. One of his works was awarded the Prix de la Ville de Carouge in 1959.
- Original drawing, signed Louis Cottier, 1930: “Universal watch without hands (with centre seconds)”. “The names of the cities are fixed, the numbers turn.”
- ©Ville de Genève, Archives du Musée d’art et d’histoire
Conservation at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
In 1963 Louis Cottier made a donation to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève of a collection of “Automata by Emmanuel Cottier representing characters (articulated figures in zinc) from the Escalade [the failed attempt by the Duke of Savoy to conquer Geneva in 1602], executed between 1925 and 1930. Donated by Mr Louis Cottier of Carouge, 1963.” The collection has been conserved and restored and was filmed in action in the workshops of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in 2018- 2019. Another of Emmanuel Cottier’s shadow theatres, now housed in the Musée de Monaco, was restored in 2019-2020.
In 1969 the Association Montres & Bijoux de Genève, at the urging of Gilbert Albert, a jeweller, financed the transfer of the Cottier workshop to the new Musée de l’Horlogerie et de l’Emaillerie, which opened its doors in October 1972 in the Villa Bryn Bella in Malagnou, Geneva. In 2004 the Musée de l’Horlogerie et de l’Emaillerie (which in 2010 became part of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève) registered a donation of documents and archives by the Cottier family.
- The Cabinet Cottier installed in the Museum of Watchmaking and Enamelware, in Malagnou, from 1972 to 2002. Photograph
- ©Ville de Genève, Archives du Musée d’art et d’histoire.
The digitisation of these priceless archives will be undertaken as part of the mission of The Watch Library Foundation and the creation of its digital platform, a portal for promoting the understanding and appreciation of watch culture.
Because the Louis Cottier archives, like many private collections, are spread out in a number of different sites, the Foundation is taking this opportunity to launch an appeal to any person or body who holds archives connected with the watchmaker, that would benefit from conservation and publication, as part of the first phase of digitisation or at a later stage.
The Watch Library platform will go live in the first quarter of 2023. A number of archives have already been uploaded to a prototype site, an exercise that has been invaluable in improving the platform’s usability, from both a technical and a historical point of view.
The platform will include other watchmaking documents in addition to the Louis Cottier archives. The Watch Library Foundation has been granted charitable status by the Swiss federal government, and enjoys the support of several benefactors. It hopes to be the catalyst for a generalised movement to safeguard and publish watchmaking archives. The Foundation is proactively reaching out to known repositories of archives (public institutions, museums, libraries, archives). Once its work has gained wider recognition, the Foundation will also seek the support of any individual or body in possession of archives or documents related to watchmaking, in order to prevent their loss, and to make them available to the widest possible audience.