Certina – A Hidden Gem Among Vintage Premium Watches

Among the premium manufactures of watchmaking’s golden age, Certina ranks as one of the most underappreciated and undervalued brands. Derived from the Latin certus (certain or reliable), Certina became synonymous with durability under the harshest conditions. Considered by some the equal of many better-known rivals such as Omega and Rolex, Certina was among the best values of its era – all the more so today on the vintage market.

By:  Scott Burton* Co edited by Mitka

When the Kurth brothers, Adolf and Alfred, set up shop in Grenchen (Granges in French) in 1888, like many early Swiss watch manufactures they initially focused on producing parts for watch movements. But by 1906 they had expanded to manufacture of completed watches, which increasingly bore the “Grana” signature (short for Granacus, Latin for Granges). It wasn’t long before the Kurth brothers started developing their own in-house movements, and by the 1920s Alfred Kurth’s sons Erwin and Hans had joined the company. 

The Kurths quickly earned a reputation for quality and innovation, garnering prestigious accolades at the Milan Fair in 1906, Brussels in 1910 and Bern in 1914. By the 1930s the company’s watches increasingly bore the “Certina” signature, which was used exclusively by 1949.

Certina developed its first self-winding movement in 1947, the KF360 or Certina Cal. 360. Its first rotor-driven self-winding movement was introduced in 1950, based on the A.Schild Cal. 1323. This was soon followed in 1951 by Certina’s in-house Cal. 25-45 automatic movement. The 18,000 bph 25-45 became a workhorse for the company; Certina also supplied this calibre to the Hamilton Watch Company after 1954 (rebranded Hamilton Cal. 661).

By 1955, Kurth Frères SA, Fabrique de montres Certina officially changed its name to Certina Kurth Frères SA

In 1958 Certina launched the DS, with a patented “double security” shock absorbing design. This landmark model utilised a completely new way of securing the movement into the case! The DS was designed to be the ultimate tool watch. It would prove to be a very hardy watch, able to resist shocks and environments that other watches simply could not. 

The first DS models had dauphine hands and a flat case back, employing the robust Cal. 25-36 manual wound or Cal. 25-45 automatic movement. Very early specimens still were marked to specify “patent pending,” rather than the movement shock mounting patent number (No. 346825) engraved on the inside of the case back on later models.

The DS system comprised several layers of shock protection including a flexible movement suspension, reinforced case, and engineered seals on the stem, crown and case back. The movement suspension employed a floated mounting of the entire movement within an elastic ring, in addition to the conventional shock absorber (Incabloc). Movement motion within the shock-dampening suspension was afforded by a gap between the watch case and dial.

Self-winding watches of that era typically could resist falls in the range of only ~2 m, but the DS could survive falls up to 6 m – at three times the industry standard, clearly a significant advancement. The DS design’s shock-absorbing seals also provided enhanced water resistance to depths up to 200 m, also at the technological forefront for the era. Hence, the DS design contributed to Certina’s reputation for shock resistance and durability even under extreme conditions.

Starting with the post- 1960 models, the DS automatic case back began to carry the beautifully machined turtle logo. Manual-wound models had a flatter, less dramatic case back turtle emblem. 

While the design generally is credited to a team of Certina engineers headed by Philipp Kurth, the DS patent actually was registered in 1958 by Huguenin Frères. Thus, while corroboration is sparse, some speculate the DS may have resulted from a collaboration between Certina and the esteemed case manufacturer. Whatever its origins, the design was both innovative and influential; notable later models adopting similar shock absorption designs include the IWC Yacht Club, Tissot PR 516, and Zenith Defy.

Starting in the late 1960s the new calibre 25-65 and 25-651 automatic (and 25-66 and 25-661 manual wound) movements were employed in the DS line. The 27-jewel Cal. 25-65 now ran at 19,800 bph, and was substantially thinner than its predecessor at a height or thickness of just 4.95 mm – an advancement similar to that of Omega’s renowned Cal. 550 family automatic movements versus the earlier Omega 500 movements of the same era.  

On 13 May 1960 a Swiss team lead by Max Eiselin reached the Himalayan summit of Dhaulagiri (~8,167 m) in Nepal, seventh highest peak in the world. The expedition was equipped with self-winding DS watches, equipped with Gay Frères metal bracelets. “Schweizer Himalaya Expedition 1960” is engraved on the case back of each watch employed in the expedition.

The DS2 was introduced in 1968, featuring additional technical innovations. Among other developments the crown was partially recessed, and used a twin-seal system. The movement suspension was strengthened for added robustness. In-house movements employed in the DS2 included Cal. 25-66 (manual winding), 25-661 (manual winding with date), 25-651 (“Certidate”) and 25-652 (“Certiday,” day and date). Starting in 1975 the DS used Certina 25-651M and 25-652M movements.

Through the 1960s and early 1970s the DS and DS2 demonstrated their resilience through a series of real-world durability trials. In 1965, for example, the DS proved reliable under all conditions in the US Navy Sealab II project. In 1969 the DS2 Super PH 500M dive watch received similar accolades, taking top scores in NASA’s Tektite underwater experiment. This feat was repeated in the 1970 Tektite II project; some sources report the PH 500 was again put to the test, while others claim the next generation DS2 PH 1000M was used for Tektite II.

The DS3 Super PH 1000M was introduced in 1976, nearly identical to its predecessor but with the new Cal. 919-1 movement adding quickset date. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) adopted this model as a dive watch, identified by the RAN National Stock Number (“NSN”) engraved on the case back

Certina also produced a successful and famously robust line of chronographs, with the Chronolympic being its best known model, introduced in the late 1960s. High-grade manual movements shared by Rolex and other top brands were employed initially, including the Valjoux 232, 234 and 726, as well as the rare central chrono minutes hand Valjoux 728 serving as the engine for Certina’s Chronolympic Regatta. An automatic version was launched in 1975, using Valjoux Cal. 7750.

In 1970 a Japanese expedition team was equipped with DS2 Chronolympic watches for their Mount Everest trek. After reaching 7,986 m, Yuichiro Miura conducted a daring ski run down Everest’s steep, treacherous slopes, reaching speeds up to 160 km/h (nearly 100 mph), slowed only by the use of a parachute brake. Although the ski run ended in a dramatic wipeout on an ice patch, Miura and his Certina Chronolympic both survived unscathed. This historic downhill run was documented in the film The Man Who Skied Down Everest, receiving an Academy Award for best documentary film. The spectacular endurance trial also reinforced the DS line’s growing reputation for durability under the harshest conditions.

The first so-called “high-rate” models of Certina’s 288 series were introduced between 1970 and 1971. Early versions employed Cal. 25-671 (day indicator) or 25-672 (day and date). From 1972, Cal. 25-681 and 25-682 were employed, with a modified ball bearing and additional retaining screw relative to prior models. The dial’s “288” marking specifies an increased oscillation rate of 28,800 bph.

The higher frequency was intended to improve accuracy, but greater forces exerted on higher-rate movements can cause premature wear. In an attempt to counteract this effect, Certina mounted the barrel staff between two jewels located in the plate and barrel bridge. The clockwork bridge was designed with recesses for the automatic mechanism gears, keeping the work as flat as possible.

Perhaps the 288’s most significant innovation was its use of a micro-ball bearing in the second-wheel and cannon pinions, with a diameter of only 2.2 mm. Each of the bearing’s seven balls had a remarkably small diameter of only 0.3 mm. This bearing was manufactured by the Otto Walther bearing factory in Tavannes, exclusively for Certina. The 288 line also employed Certina’s innovative “Clineric 21” anchor escapement, with an unusual 21-notch escape wheel. Typical of Certina, this movement was highly robust and technically advanced. But the quartz crisis had already begun at the time of the 288’s release, hence it had a relatively short market run and well-preserved specimens can be difficult to find.

Certina also have a wide and exiting array of manual wind in-house movements. Calibre K.F.320 was used in the highly sought after Grana WWW issue. The K.F320 was continued into the 1950’s in several versions, one of the nicest being the Sportsman issue. Calibre 25-36 was used in the first DS manual wind. Certina kept developing their manual winds well into the 1970’s; even after the quartz crisis had struck hard, Certina released impressive designs like the cal 854-1. Many of these watches are still “under the radar” for collectors, and can be picked up at bargain prices.   

Like many other independent manufactures, Certina was not spared by the quartz movement, joining the Swiss watchmaking collective Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG, or in French Société Générale de l’Horlogerie Suisse (ASUAG) in 1971. Following ASUAG’s 1983 merger with SSIH (Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA, formed by the 1930 combination of Omega, Tissot and Lemania), Certina became part of SMH, renamed The Swatch Group in 1999. As a result, chronograph models similar to Certina’s Chronolympic line were available from several other prominent Swiss brands consolidated into ASUAG along with Certina, including Longines, Mido, Rado and Technos; they vary primarily in their differing dial designs.

Certina remains a member of the Swatch Group to this day. Although positioned as a mid-priced sports watch brand, regrettably Certina appears to have received less product and market development focus relative to other Swatch family brands, Longines being one noteable example.

Fans may find hope, however, in Certina’s recent sponsorship of the Citroën World Rally Championship (WRC) team commencing in 2015. This development came shortly after the retirement of Sébastien Loeb – winner of the WRC drivers’ championship nine times running for Citroën – thus, one might expect Certina’s association with one of the top performing teams on the grueling WRC rally racing circuit may provide a boost to the brand’s reputation for endurance. 

The brand continues its renewed emphasis on building connections with extreme endurance sport, including GT4 auto racing, MXGP motocross, and underwater sport diving. Swatch Group’s investment in the brand also holds out some basis for optimism of renewed focus on product innovation.

Beyond the connection with endurance, however, the choice to sponsor Citroën’s rally team also has an interesting historical parallel that may be less obvious. Like the Certina DS line of watches, the well-known Citroën DS (pronounced “déesse,” meaning goddess in French) model also was introduced in the 1950s and remains highly acclaimed to this day for its technical and design innovation.

Built on a foundation of steadfast devotion to achieving the pinnacle of performance through innovative engineering, design and first-rate manufacturing execution, the Kurth brothers came to be synonymous with durability and value, whether under the Grana or Certina monikers. Perhaps ironically, given its relative obscurity today compared to other brands more heavily focused on marketing and promotion, Certina represents among the best values on the vintage market for dedicated collectors of true premium quality mechanical wristwatches.

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

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Acknowledgements:  While any errors or omissions rightfully can be attributed solely to the author, we are indebted to our good friend and montres brut co-founder, Alexandre Goy (@enversteel), for his generous time spent on peer review and for his many valuable insights on Certina — one in particular a remarkable coincidence, but all equally valued. And, as always, many thanks to Mitka… santé~!

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