iving into Longines’ patrimony provides an understanding of how deeply the Swiss brand has impacted the watch industry, both on a technical level, and also through some of the most daring and exquisite designs ever imagined.
While Longines is highly respected by the collectors’ community, in some ways it is still underrated on the auction circuit and in the second-hand market, although appreciation for the brand is on the rise. We take a look at how Longines manages its heritage and legacy, something it has done meticulously for a long time.
September 13th, 10 am, Saint-Imier train station
A footpath under the station leads directly to a narrow pass, guarded by an avenue of perfectly aligned trees, that descends straight down to the historical headquarters of Longines, which have proudly stood there for more than 150 years.
Although the small town of Saint-Imier was here a long time before the factory was ever imagined, it gives the feeling that it was built for and around the manufacture, providing the company with the necessary workforce and offering several venues where employees could enjoy a well-deserved beer after their workday. After navigating through various executive and operating departments spread over the building’s several floors, we reach what is known as the World Heritage Workshop, located directly under the roof’s wooden beams.
- A Longines Flagship timepiece dating from 1957
Here, in a relatively cramped room, ten watchmakers have their heads down and hands at work, cleaning, restoring and repairing vintage Longines. From the relatively common Conquest of the 1960s to an original military-issue Majetek, these watchmakers have the challenging task of understanding how to work on an impressive variety of watches and calibres. To help them, they have one of the most complete archives of well-maintained and meticulously organised historical data, from the design plans of a 1960s calibre to invoices for a South American retailer from the 1930s. The amount of information is truly astonishing, and it’s all beautifully preserved. Dedicated people are also constantly on the lookout for additional data to complete their already encyclopaedic information resources.
The same goes for watch parts, furniture and supplies; the department is filled with drawers and cupboards stuffed full of calibres, cases, dials, hands, balance wheels, crowns, pushers… you name it! Everything is properly stored and labelled. I could have spent hours opening drawers and reading old booklets, but I didn’t want to disturb the peace and the atmosphere of such a special, historical workplace.
As long as the name Longines or Wittnauer appears on the dial or movement, these watchmakers will have the necessary skills to do pretty much anything on a watch. The restoration/repair costs are fairly reasonable, considering the level of expertise, and I can only advise you to send them your watch if it needs some kind of overhaul.
The brand also invests time and effort in helping vintage Longines owners and providing them with information. In fact, the heritage department receives up to 50 requests per day about historical/vintage timepieces. They authenticate and identify models and calibres, and they can actually trace back the exact date of production and, most of the time, the original retailer. The task is taken seriously, and Longines can provide owners with a free authentication certificate, something of a rarity in the industry.
The company is also working towards digitising their archives, and to that end they have signed a partnership with an EPFL start-up, with a view to developing optical recognition technology for characters and symbols, an ambitious project that has initiated an interesting dialogue between programmers, scientists and archivists.
Pioneer spirit in the museum
The rest of the day was dedicated to the company museum, located deep inside the Saint-Imier premises. Opened in 1992 and completely refurbished in 2012, the museum is actually open to the public, but it’s preferable to pre-book, as all visits must be accompanied by a guide.
We had the pleasure to be welcomed by the museum’s historian, a kind woman who is passionate about her domain of expertise, and a fount of information and anecdotes. She is personally responsible for selecting the timepieces that are showcased throughout the museum, and she’s always on the hunt for new and intriguing pieces to add to the exhibition.
- Having made his famous non-stop solo flight over the North Atlantic in 1927, pilot Charles A. Lindbergh designed a navigational instrument which he had Longines bring to life. Used in conjunction with a sextant and a nautical almanac, the Lindbergh Hour Angle watch – based on the model Weems created in 1927 – helped aviators calculate longitude which, when combined with their latitude, gave them their exact geographical location.
Just a glance at the cabinets is enough to figure out how significant the brand has been to the watch industry. Aviation instruments, military watches, sports chronometers, pilots’ chronographs, Olympic timing instruments and many more pieces bear witness to a wealth of historical details and anecdotes.
Longines was among the first watch companies to develop instruments for timing sports events, understanding at an early stage the deep connection between these two worlds, and realising the marketing potential of such a union.
The same goes for aviation; the pioneers of the first half of the 20th century also collaborated with the brand to enhance navigation instruments, making flying a much safer pursuit. Weems, Lindbergh and countless anonymous fighter pilots and explorers wore Longines watches and chronographs, not because they were beautiful objects of pride, but simply because they were the most technically advanced timepieces you could find at that time.
Longines was at the forefront of innovation in the 1930s and 1940s and, to my mind, was behind some of the most groundbreaking inventions of that period, as well as some of its most iconic designs, excelling among its competitors.
Let’s not forget that their less well-known dress watches still capture the essence of classical and elegant design, while keeping a sense of innovation. The palpable art deco influence in the rectangularshaped case watches makes them, for me, irresistible pieces. Decent examples can still be found at a relatively affordable price point.
And then there’s the famous 13ZN and 30CH chronographs, considered by many to be among the finest and most beautiful in-house chronograph calibres ever produced. I simply can’t argue with that. The first patented flyback chronograph, the monopushers, the early Weems iterations, the train clocks, the ultra-rare 24H Swissair watch, the Avigation series – so many timepieces are showcased in the museum that it would take hours to barely scratch the surface of their historical resonance, and understand the back story of these products.
Longines Watch 183 The researches of a passionate collector led to the discovery of the oldest Longines watch found to date. Thanks to its small serial number - 183 - and notes made in the company’s carefully archived registers, the brand’s historians and watchmakers were able to confirm that this pocket watch was manufactured in 1867, the year the Longines factory was built. Housing a mechanical wind-up movement, this “savonette” type silver pocket watch is typical of the pieces created by Longines at that time.
Like the Saint-Imier building itself, Longines’ heritage is imposing and beautiful. It’s a captivating path paved by years of technical innovations and aesthetic successes, built on a foundation of genuinely epic stories of exploration and adventure.
Longines fully acknowledges this incredible heritage, and is making sure that its legacy is well kept and maintained.
For all these reasons, Longines is a brand that deserves its place among what can be described as the founders of the watch industry.