40. time-keeper

The historic links between watchmakers and arms manufacturers


January 2019

The historic links between watchmakers and arms manufacturers

Detonators, ammunition and vehicle dashboards: the two sectors complemented one another for no fewer than eight centuries, during which watchmakers gradually transmuted into crucial economic players in times of war. Virtually all the major watchmaking companies collaborated with the military industry.


he shared history of armourers and watchmakers began with the invention of the regulator. Known as a “strobe escapement”, it developed from the roller nut, a mechanical part that was loaded when needed to release the energy stored in a crossbow. While there was still no such thing as a watchmaker strictly speaking, the period between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries gradually saw the emergence of an occupation that combined all the skills of a foundryman, blacksmith, locksmith and goldsmith. All had in common the fact of working metal. The manufacturing of arms, locks and then clocks by the same specialists gave rise to similarities. The vocabulary reveals some of these: shaft, bearing, barrel, calibre, bridge, plate, spring, hairspring, cannon pinion, screw.

The watchmaker’s strong point – versatility

In the sixteenth century, an artist could be both a clock-builder and a cannon founder, like Kaspar Brunner, the famous builder of the clock in the Bern clock tower. Soon, the different trades specialised and the division of labour set in – without, however, severing the links between armourers and watchmakers. In around 1510, Giovanni Giorgio Capobianco supplied Cardinal Matteo Schiner with an alarm clock capable of lighting a candle. Manufactured into the mid-eighteenth century, this kind of clock, which used a flintlock mechanism, is emblematic of the union between firearms and timekeeping. Besides the alarm mechanism, it also had a hammer, a powder pan and a candle. After chiming at the required time, it released the hammer, which ignited the powder, which lit the candle. In the seventeenth century, Marin Bourgeois, who is regarded as one of the inventors of the flintlock, was a supplier of arms to the French kings Henri IV and Louis XIII, and at the same time a builder of mechanical astronomical spheres. In around 1640, Pierre Bergier, an armourer and watchmaker to the king based in Grenoble, created luxury watches and weapons.

From the early nineteenth century on, the canon-méridienne à déclenchement autonome, or “self-triggering midday cannon”, was the height of fashion in both town and country. Invented in 1785 by Rousseau, a Parisian engineer of mathematical and horological instruments, this piece of apparatus allowed watches, pendulum clocks and public clocks to be set to true midday. It consisted of a miniature bronze cannon and a lens mounted on a support that could be adjusted according to the variations in the height of the sun during the year. When the sun passed through the local meridian, the sun’s rays, focused by the lens, ignited the powder.

In October 1804, the English attempted to fend off an invasion of their territory by the ships of the French fleet, moored in the port of Boulogne, by launching a kind of torpedo loaded with powder; the explosion of the torpedoes was controlled by detonators comprising watch movements.

“A way of being neutral”

After the professional armies of the Ancien Régime, obligatory military service was introduced at the time of the French Revolution. To meet the resulting increase in the demand for arms, a decree in 1792 provided for the creation of new national armouries. In the meantime, the nation requisitioned watchmakers, jewellers and locksmiths. Not long after, as a consequence of the Napoleonic Wars, the armaments industry developed throughout Europe.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, production in all sectors of the economy became mechanised. Enter railways, ocean liners, cars and planes, all with their instruments of control. Industrialists, such as Junghans or Kienzle in Germany, Smith and Sons in England and Borletti in Italy conquered these new markets. All were from the watchmaking world. In 1915 following the outbreak of the First World War, the manufacturers in the Joux Valley were looking for ways to offset the collapse in orders for luxury watches. Some of them, having the requisite tools, began to produce weapon components. As for Jacques David LeCoultre, he turned his hand simultaneously to the production of ammunition, tachometers based on Edmond Jaeger’s patents, and tubes for hypodermic injections.

In collaboration with Edmond Jaeger, the Swiss aviator Edmond Audemars was the first to install a tachometer, born of this pooling of efforts between LeCoultre and Jaeger, in his own plane. Reduction gearboxes for engines, hoses, speedometers, tachometers and other flight instruments for planes, car dashboards complete with speedometers and an eight-day watch were all diversifications, the potential uses of which multiplied as a result of the wars.

LeCoultre et Cie and Jaeger both invested in these new markets in their turn. During the course of the two world wars, the entire watchmaking sector ultimately engaged in the production of ammunition, control instruments and military watches. The factories then stepped in to try to meet demand. To cite some examples, Zenith supplied the Signal Corps, the US army corps in charge of managing communications between the combined armed forces, as did Omega and Longines. Together with Ulysse Nardin and Vacheron Constantin, the company from Le Locle satisfied orders for chronographs, chronometers and observation watches from the US army Corps of Engineers.

Zenith also supplied the British and French air forces, the hydrographic services of the Royal Navy, the German, and then the Polish, armies. It was on the strength of this that Fritz Huguenin, then president of the Swiss Chamber of Watchmaking, wrote on 2 November 1915 that the “Swiss industry supplies the Allies and the central empires without discrimination, which for Switzerland is a way of being neutral.”

The modern military watch, born of industrial production

A market structure developed during the 1930s. Large industrial groups created subsidiaries specialised in components for arms and para-horological control devices, as well as watches for the military and the general public. Precision watches were perceived as instruments capable of offsetting failures of on-board devices. Certain watchmakers, such as Officine Panerai, specialised from their inception in military markets, bound by extremely strict specifications.

At that time, four categories of watch dominated demand:

• The marine chronometer, crucial for calculating the position and direction of ships. The US Navy preferred chronometers to radio signals, which could be intercepted and falsified.

• The observation watch, known as a Beobachtungsuhr. With a standard diameter of 55 millimetres, as they comprised a pocket watch calibre, these were worn by flight navigators.

• The pilot’s chronograph (Fliegerchronograph). Thanks to its flyback function, this enabled pilots to mark turnpoints, i.e. changes of direction should the unexpected – a storm, combat zone or some other obstacle – arise.

• Watches for soldiers when supplied by the army.

To meet demand from the US army, Hamilton ended production for the general public. Demand from Germany was covered from 1936 onwards by German and Swiss manufacturers. But given the huge demand from the warring parties, all the watchmaker brands of the time, whether high or low-end, specialist or otherwise, historic or obscure, no longer extant or still producing, supplied – sometimes simultaneously – opposing armies. Who said history never repeats itself! This reciprocity between watchmakers and arms manufacturers came to an end when metalworking gave way to electronics. It lasted eight centuries, during which time the artisans gradually transmuted into industrialists, crucial economic players in times of war. But the watchmaking world alone profits from the constant re-issue of military watches, which today are both timeless and emblematic