Eterna – A Name and Lineage Destined for Posterity

If ever there was an appropriately named watch company, Eterna is just that! With the benefit of hindsight, it’s apparent the vast horological lineage descended from this single company bequeathed an eternal legacy to watchmaking. Eterna’s influence on both technological innovation and the Swiss watchmaking industry can hardly be overstated.

By:  Scott Burton* Co edited by Mitka

Founded in Grenchen in 1856, the company initially was named Dr. Girard & Schild, specializing in ébauche (unfinished watch movements). By 1866 Joseph Girard had parted ways with the company and Urs Schild modernized the production process, ultimately expanding to manufacture of fully assembled watches. When his brother Adolph Schild joined the company, its name was changed to Schild Fréres & Company.

After Urs Shild’s death in 1888, his sons Max and Theodore took over the company. The “Eterna” name first appeared shortly thereafter, initially only on dials of a new watch collection introduced in 1890. By 1906, however, the company’s name had changed to Eterna-Werke, Gebrüder Schild & Co.

But even before that milestone, the company’s influence already was being felt across the Swiss watchmaking industry. In 1896, Adolph Schild departed to form ASSA, which by the 1920s became one of the largest movement makers in Switzerland. A testament to their fine quality, A.Schild movements were employed by many prominent Swiss watch manufacturers through the 1970s, including among others Enicar, Favre-Leuba, Fortis, and even the venerable houses of Jaeger-LeCoultre and Zenith.

In 1926, ASSA combined with A.Michel AG and FHF (Fabrique d’Horlogerie de Fontainemelon) to form Ébauches SA (ESA), which in turn became a founding member of ASUAG in 1931. This union set the stage for the Schild family lineage to come full circle; ASSA and Eterna were reunited just a year later when Eterna joined ASUAG. But the story doesn’t end there; Eterna’s legacy was further expanded in 1983, when ASUAG combined with the other dominant Swiss watch collective, SSIH (Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA), to form the Swatch Group.

Eterna in 1932 had set up a subsidiary company, ETA SA to make movements for itself and other companies.

Through this long and winding path, Eterna and its descendants came to dominate the industry, remaining the paramount force of Swiss watchmaking through the present. The details of Eterna’s posterity are complex and intertwined, and thus best reserved for another day; but the timeline at the conclusion of this profile presents several key milestones in its prodigious lineage.

 

The extent of Eterna’s influence also may be put in context by examining several of its many technological innovations. As just one example, as early as 1914 Eterna became the first company to commercially market an alarm-function wristwatch. The alarm calibre dates back to Durrstein’s1899 pocket watch alarm complication patent, but size constraints presented challenges to adopting the complication in wristwatches. Undeterred, by 1908 Eterna had patented a wristwatch alarm complication based off the Durrstein design. Introduced at the 1914 Swiss National Exhibition in Berne, it became the world’s first series-production alarm wristwatch. After further refinement, Eterna followed this innovation with an eight-day alarm model, which various sources report was introduced in 1929.

In the prewar years Eterna produced many fine in-house movements, known for their high quality and accuracy. Like many other early watch companies, Eterna started out making pocket watches, shifting production towards wristwatches in the 1920s

In the 1930s Eterna introduced its in-house calibre 520, seen by many as an equal to IWC cal 83. Both movements where issued to the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), including in the famous “Dirty Dozen” MOD watches, recognized by the WWW stamp on the case, an abbreviation for the “Watch, Wrist, Waterproof” UK military design specification.

The WWW spec required the watch dial be black with Arabic numerals and sub-seconds to enhance visibility. The Dirty Dozen watches also include the so-called “broad arrow” symbol, the traditional marking for British military property.

But it was not only the British military that ordered Eterna cal 520. The German army also ordered a batch for the Luftwaffe, designated with a D in front of the serial number on the case back.

Eterna never focused on developing their own chronograph movements, but did make some nice chronographs with modified movements from Valjoux. One fine example is Eterna calibre 703R, based on Valjoux cal 22.

Once automatic, perpetual or self-winding movements came into vogue many manufactures focused less on innovation in the art of manual winding movements. Not so Eterna; its Calibre 1408 providing a fine example, with a designed similar to the highly esteemed Zenith cal 135. Descended from Eterna’s earlier cal 1407, the 1408’s gear train is quite modern for the era, with the minute wheel driven indirectly by a large dial-side drive wheel. This configuration allows for a larger mainspring barrel and larger balance than was the norm at the time. While still oscillating at 18,000 A/h, Eterna’s 1408U variant employs a Glucydur balance wheel supported by two in-house shock protectors (Eterna-U type), and is configured for sweep seconds in contrast to the Zenith cal 135’s sub-seconds display.

Eterna was an early innovator in the field of self-winding movements, starting with the company’s first auto-winding design in 1938 and culminating in its leading-edge “Eterna-Matic” central rotor design in 1948. Others had improved upon Harwood’s original “flip-flop” or bumper-style oscillating mass self-winding design, including Rolex’s famous 360-degree “perpetual” central rotor auto-winding movement. But Eterna’s ball bearing innovation solved the flaw of prior designs, significantly reducing friction-induced component wear. The Eterna-Matic design was so superior it rendered the Rolex perpetual and other competitors’ contemporary designs virtual dinosaurs overnight. Still the industry standard to this day, the iconic five-ball bearing design became so synonymous with the brand that it was adopted as Eterna’s enduring logo, donning many of its watch dials and crowns.

Throughout the 1950s, Eterna was highly competitive with the top Swiss brands such as Omega, Rolex and Zenith. Indeed, while each of these brands deservedly were esteemed for their high-quality chronometer movements, Eterna was among the largest producers of chronometers of the era. Eterna’s cal 1424U provides a good reference point, combining a chronometer quality regulator with the Eterna-Matic auto-winding design, all in a finely finished movement that was significantly slimmer than many automatics of its day.

The KonTiki represents another enduring and collectible Eterna design. This waterproof model was released to commemorate archaeologist and ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl’s treacherous crossing of the Pacific Ocean in 1947 on a simple balsa wood raft. Heyerdahl and five other adventurers initiated their expedition from the west coast of Peru, their small raft named KonTiki after the Incan sun god. The journey was intended to demonstrate pre-Columbian indigenous peoples inhabiting South America could have reached Polynesia by crossing the Pacific on the Humboldt Current with assistance from the prevailing trade winds.

The six explorers completed their mission successfully, reaching Polynesia after a journey of 101 days and nights. Critical to their success was the ability to keep time reliably in harsh weather conditions, to accurately track tides and chart their course. According to the company’s promotional literature, it was Eterna’s water resistant case design that was worn by the KonTiki adventurers.

A brilliant piece of marketing; but many sources question its accuracy given the claim apparently has yet to be independently verified and a Longines COSD “tuna can” British military-issue watch is on display at Oslo’s KonTiki museum. Regardless, in 1958 Eterna released the model under the KonTiki name to commemorate its claimed role in the success of this historic journey. The Super KonTiki released in the early 1970s was perhaps the most famous variant, due to its selection as a Navy dive watch by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

 

Eterna’s calibre 1456 movement family represents another highly influential and enduring design, forming the basis for the ubiquitous ETA cal 2892. Because of its Eterna lineage, ETA was among ESA’s most important automatic movement design groups. Indeed, ETA’s chief designer, Heinrich Stamm, was responsible for many of its most significant movements, including the Eterna-Matic. Thus, it was Stamm who was assigned the task of developing a new ultra-slim auto-winding design in the early 1960s.

At just 3.6 mm, Cal. 1456 was employed in the new ultra-thin Eterna-Matic 3000 line. This was accomplished through several advancements, including a steeply beveled base plate, stepped rotor weight, compact component architecture, and large robust seven-ball rotor bearing rather than the traditional five-ball design. 

But it was not just its slim profile that sets the design apart. Among other features, the 1456 incorporated direct seconds drive, representing a significant modernization relative to its predecessors. Cal 1456 also featured Stamm’s highly regarded “Eterna” gear tooth profile, and un-sprung ratchet wheels for hand-winding. Widely appreciated for its inherent stability, the design also facilitates ease of maintenance, as the entire self-winding assembly can be removed with just three screws. 

This movement’s success made it the template for the future ETA 2892 family, still one of the most highly-regarded automatic watch movements today. Indeed, Bell & Ross, Breitling, Bulgari, Cartier, Eberhard, Girard Perregaux, IWC, Kobold, Longines, Omega, Panerai, Porsche Design, Rado, Sinn, TAG Heuer, Tissot, Zenith – and others – all share in common their use of ETA cal 2892.

While there may be other movements that can match ETA 2892 on accuracy or reliability, few if any exceed it. By way of comparison, Rolex cal 3035 and 3135 are famously robust and accurate; but not nearly as slim as the ETA 2892, and more costly. The Jaeger LeCoultre 889/2 is another exquisite automatic design, beautifully executed and certainly capable of equivalent accuracy when properly adjusted; but its delicacy can present challenges to keeping it in adjustment, hence reliability is not its strength. And while superbly finished and ultra-slim, many believe even Patek Phillipe’s offerings don’t match the ETA 2892 for accuracy or reliability.

Adding to its popularity, ETA 2892 also is extremely flexible, with many available variants and modules. And if all that were not enough, ETA 2892 kept Omega alive in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It was also the basis for Omega’s renowned cal 2500 coaxial escapement movement families. 

In 1982 ETA launched the versatile calibre 2824-2 based on Eterna calibre 1427. The 2824-2 was used by countless brands! Today it remains a workhorse for Swatch group brands.

   

After its tenure with Swatch Group, Eterna continued to produce fine movements. Starting in 1982 Eterna changed hands several times, becoming part of Prof. Ferdinand Alexander Porsche’s FAP Beteiligungs GmbH by 1995, where it produced the group’s Porsche Design branded timepieces. The Porsche Design “Indicator,” for example, was the first chronograph to feature mechanical digital hour and minute counters; its innovative movement was based on Eterna calibre 6036, considered among the world’s most complicated series-manufactured movements. 

In 2012 Porsche Design sold Eterna to International Volant Ltd, a subsidiary of China Haidian, currently known as Citychamp Watch & Jewellery Group Ltd, where the Eterna brand currently resides.

Eterna’s impact on the Swiss watch industry has been tremendous to say the least, from the perspectives of both technical innovation and structuring the industry over a century and a half. But perhaps more important to collectors, vintage Eterna watches are of very high quality, classic design, and are highly under-valued compared to many other premium brands.

Eterna’s Influential Ancestral Lineage

1856: Dr. Girard & Schild founded in Grenchen, renamed Schild Fréres & Co. when Adolph Schild joined the company following Joseph Girard’s departure and later renamed Eterna.

1896: Adolph Shild departs to form A.Schild SA (ASSA), becoming one of the largest movement manufacturers in Switzerland.

1926: ASSA combines with A.Michel AG and Fabrique d’Horlogerie de Fontainmelon (FHF) to form Ebauches SA; soon afterward in 1928 ESA acquired highly regarded chronograph movement specialist Venus, becoming a dominant force in the Swiss watchmaking industry.

1930: Omega and Tissot form Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA (SSIH), acquiring esteemed chronograph movement specialist Lemania Watch Co. in 1932, becoming another dominant player in the Swiss watch industry.

1931: ESA becomes a founding member of Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG, Société Générale de l’Horlogerie Suisse in French (ASUAG), combining with numerous independent Swiss watch and component companies.

1932: Eterna joins ASUAG (and thus is reunited with ASSA), splitting off its movement production to the newly formed ETA, with Eterna focusing on manufacture of completed watches.

1944: ESA (now with ASUAG) acquires Valjoux, further establishing its chronograph movement capabilities; by 1966 Venus ceased independent production, with Valjoux taking over manufacture of many famous Venus designs.

1981-82: SSIH sells Lemania to SSIH investors including Piaget, renamed Nouvelle Lemania; soon after Heuer is acquired by Piaget-Nouvelle Lemania until its sale to TAG in 1985.

1983: Swatch Group is formed by the merger of ASUAG and SSIH.

1991: Nouvelle Lemania is acquired by Investcorp and wrapped into Breguet Group (which Investcorp previously acquired in 1987).

1999: Swatch Group acquires Breguet Group, bringing Lemania together with Eterna and its various spinoffs (including ASSA, ESA and ETA), and of course fellow chronograph movement specialists Venus and Valjoux (which by this time had been united under ESA).

1995: FAP Beteiligungs GmbH purchases Eterna, which produces the group’s Porsche Design watches.

2012: Eterna is purchased by International Volant Ltd, a subsidiary of China Haidian, currently known as Citychamp Watch & Jewellery Group Ltd.

© Copyright 2020, P. Scott Burton and Mitka Engebretsen; all rights reserved.

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Acknowledgements: Given Eterna’s complex history, references consulted in compiling this profile are too numerous to do justice. While any errors or omissions result solely from the author, we would be remiss not to recognize and thank Eterna aficionado Peter Poulsen, for generous time spent on peer review, and valuable suggestions for improvement. And of course, once again, deep gratitude to Mitka Engebretsen for inspiration, and willingness to provide a platform to shine a light on a few underappreciated chapters of watchmaking’s intriguing history… montres brut~!

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