As the luxury watch brand celebrates its 283rd anniversary this month, we look at how it marries Swiss engineering with the country’s passion for mountaineering
Favre-Leuba’s 283 year history has been characterized by bold, pioneering thinking; numerous innovations, technological excellence, and consistently seizing new market opportunities. What started with Abraham Favre’s small workshop in the Swiss municipality of Le Locle in 1737 developed rapidly into a company whose watches were known worldwide for their high functionality, precision, and reliability under every climatic condition.
Favre-Leuba was the first Swiss watch to be launched in India in mid-19th century after the founder’s son Fritz Favre made two trips to the sub-continent, in 1865 and 1867. In fact all the way upto the 1970s it was among the biggest watch brands in India. And it was only fitting that the Tata group bought the brand in late 2011.
The brand’s popular wristwatches, which first superseded pocket watches in the first quarter of the 20th century, included the first monopusher chronographs in 1925 and the manual-wind Datora with calendar, of 1946. Their workshops also assembled precision watches such as chronometers which were awarded with multiple prizes by the observatory of the canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. After a forced halt by the turmoil of war in Europe, Favre-Leuba experienced a golden era in the 1950s and 60s.
In 1955, it introduced the manufacture caliber FL101, with a large balance wheel for precise regulation as well as a power reserve of 50 hours, which was first used in the Sea Chief, Sea King, and Sea Raider watch models. Two years later came the caliber FL102 with calendar used in the Datic models as well as the automatic movements FL103 and FL104, which were equipped without or with a calendar indication.
The patented FL251 caliber of 1962 revolutionized series production of extra flat movements with centered second hand: the design with two barrels made it possible to use components with conventional dimensions and place the center second hand on the same level as the barrels. With this construction, the designers were able to reduce the height of the caliber significantly. The solid movement had a power reserve of 50 hours and outstanding stability. It was available in different versions, with or without calendar function, and used in a wide range of watch models such as the Sea King Twin Power. While the centre second had may seem like a norm now, it was not so back in the days.
Favre-Leuba also stayed true to the declared goal of the company founders during this time as was expressed clearly in the brand promotion: the then ad slogan read, `The Swiss Watch for All Climates’. While the watch designs and some functionalities were different in some markets and hence the range and popularity differed in the offering, all the watches were to be resilient, functional instruments for their wearers all around the world and to be highly useful in all situations. The development of the legendary Bivouac in 1962 was then only a logical next step.
As the world’s first mechanical wristwatch with an aneroid barometer for altimetry and air pressure measurement, this watch was an an ideal instrument for all pioneers. No larger than a conventional chronograph, it distinguished itself with its high precision, simple operation, and outstanding readability. The Bivouac was a popular and loved watch choice in Europe, UK and The Americas, countries which were very popular for outdoor adventures and needed tough instruments built for purpose.
In 1964, the Bivouac proved its utility when it guided mountaineer Walter Bonatti up the north face of Pointe Whymper in the Grandes Jorasses in Switzerland, an almost vertical continuous climb that became famous around the world. In 1975, Japanese climber Junko Tabei, wore a Bivouac during her Mt Everest ascend. She was the first woman to conquer the top of the world.
50 years after the launch of the pioneering watch, in 2017 Favre-Leuba relaunched the legendary timepiece in a new version called Raider Bivouac 9000. The modern watch can measure altitude all the way up to 9,000 meters, being the only wrist timekeeper to do so, mechanically. Nicolas Hojac, one of the fastest modern speed-climbers, and Ueli Bühler, legendary Swiss mountaineer and mountain guide, tested the limits of both the new and the original watch in their climb in the Swiss Alps the same year.
Bühler took to the mountains the original Bivouac, while Hojac wore his new-era Raider Bivouac 9000. “As everywhere else, changes have taken place in mountaineering,” says Buhler. “The equipment is better and lighter, and training has become more focused. So, the abilities of professional as well as leisure mountaineering athletes has improved. However, the motivation to go to the mountains still comes from within. That is how it has always been.”
Later, the Raider Bivouac 9000 became the first mechanical timepiece to measure altitude on Mount Everest and K2 in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Being an homage to its 1962 predecessor, this watch is an incredible improvement of watch engineering and technology.
The most significant refinement is the increase in the altitude it is capable of measuring, from 3,000 to 9,000 meters. This required the use of innovative materials for the barometer and precise calculations for the height and diameter of the capsule, as well as a new conversion mechanism for the altimeter. Unlike the 1962 Bivouac, the new version is also watertight. Being an aneroid barometer based altitude measuring watch, it means, not just the mountaineers but also explorers, adventurers, and every day users find the watch ingenuinty interesting. The ability of the Swiss watch to indicate the changing air pressure is a toll useful for sailors to learn of the approaching weather changes
To support adventurers and athletes in this passion (but also to make it safer) was Favre-Leuba’s goal all along. Being at the forefront of innovation even in something as traditional as watchmaking is what ‘Swiss Made’ is about. It is a commitment to quality, a passion to endeavor, and philosophy to pioneer.