Nivada Grenchen: The cool ‘non in-house’ great!

A brief saunter into the internet on the subject of Nivada typically yields three key points – that they made the versatile Chronomaster Aviator Sea Diver chronograph, that the Antarctic range was popular (and had some memorable period adverts) following their use in the International Geophysicial year of 1957/58, and that they were branded Nivada, Nivada Grenchen or Croton depending on locale and decade.

By: James Vincent 

As the company petered out in the quartz crisis of the late 1970s/early 1980s, it appears any concrete archive of original documents, designs and production may have been lost. This historical profile aims to rebuild some of the archive, where possible, from the huge number of disparate sources that exist, and perhaps establish some further reference material useful to collectors.

Nivada hails from Grenchen, an archetypal Swiss watchmaking town where an incredibly long history of watchmaking is matched by the numerous brands that call it home, including EternaCertina, Breitling, Fortis and the movement makers ETA and A Schild SA.

While the exact date is debated, the oft-cited 50th anniversary celebrations of Nivada provide a logical inception date of 1926. At that time the company was owned by Otto Wüllimann, Hermand Schlindler, and Jacob Schneider. Nivada followed the path of similar manufacturers through the 20th century where the formal pieces of the 30s and 40s expanded into automatic and waterproof offerings,  the addition of diverse complications from chronographs to dive watches, additional complications including mechanical alarms and forays into electric pieces along the way. 

After rising to peak production in the 1960s with a number of defining model ranges and innovations, the company felt the full brunt of the quartz crisis and retreated to relative obscurity in the late 1970s.

Nivada never made their own movements, and so never claimed to be an ‘in-house’ manufacture.  Perhaps given their proximity to so many established movement manufacturers in their hometown it makes sense  that the company concentrated on producing signature case and dial designs, as well as a number of notable design and complication innovations. Movements were sourced from across the Swiss supplier spectrum according to their speciality – ETA and A Schild for standard timekeeping, Valjoux and Venus for chronographs, Vulcain and Phenix for alarms and likely a few more yet to be documented.

In the 1930s a pattern for Nivada dress watches was established – Art Deco design cues, wonderfully detailed dials and aspiration-based advertising. Hand wound ‘tuxedo’ dials and 33 – 35mm cases with multifaceted lugs were the mainstay of the lineup for many years.

With impeccable timing Nivada entered into a partnership with Croton for US distribution in 1939. This was a sound business decision at the time, though it has led to several decades of watch collectors examining any differences between Nivada, Nivada Grenchen, Croton and Croton Nivada Grenchen. A Croton Nivada Grenchen Chronomaster Aviator Sea Diver surely was among the most verbiage-heavy watches until the late 1990s, when adding lines of text became mandatory to justify price increases.

Nivada jumped on the automatic rotor innovation to produce the stalwart waterproof Aquamatic (the Aquamatica early on) and featured the ‘matic’ nomenclature prominently in advertising. The Aquamatic is notable as it would become the basis of the signature Antarctics in the late 1950s. The following decade saw a huge expansion from dress watches into a cavalcade of complications and influential releases.

In the 1950s, the Antarctic models became Nivada’s recognisable timekeeper following their use by Admiral Byrd in Operation Deep Freeze, part of the 1957/58 International Geophysical Year.

Autowinding and waterproof, with antimagnetic properties, the Antarctic exemplifies the 1950s  ‘global explorer’ sentiment that permeated the post-war years and saw a rush of human endeavours across the planet. The slim design was paired with fine Art Deco applied numerals and subtly textured dials to create a rugged but stylish watch that would last a lifetime.

Their use in Operation Deep Freeze was a coup for Nivada, who employed the Antarctic name for decades afterwards in a wide range of models (with everything from the ‘Glacier’ and ‘Sun’ to ‘Troparctic’ added, to limited effect).  For me only a handful of the early Antarctic models actually retain the original explorer sentiment – the original 57/58 pictured in the period advert here, with its signature faceted lugs, the ‘Roman numeral’ series that followed it (with II, III etc. after the word Antarctic on the dial), and concluding with the truly fantastic Chronometre.

Aside from the Antarctic, Nivada continued production of budget-friendly watches with similarly ‘adventurous’ period names such as the Buccaneer, Discus and Sea Blade, and broke new ground with the Depthomatic, often cited as the first dive watch with an integrated depth gauge. The Wanderer was an alarm watch using the famous Vulcain Cricket movement in a stylish package, possibly thanks to Nivada’s close relationship with Vulcain’s owners. Through this diverse array of models Nivada became a relatively popular brand.

The 1960s was ‘peak Nivada’, as the success of the Antarctic, Wanderer and early Depthomatic paved the way for design resources to develop the Chronomaster Aviator Sea Diver (or CASD), Nivada’s signature chronograph, and Depthmaster 1000m dive watch. Both used tried & tested movements and cases from neighbours in Grenchen and were well-advertised at the time, leading to a significant global sales boom.

An explosion of models in the Nivada lineup followed, with the ‘master’ term employed in the Datomaster chronograph with signature grey dial and Travelmaster that personified the globe trotting mentality. The Alerta alarm watch followed the Wanderer, and the company added an Electric watch to keep up with the trends of the time.

A bewildering array of chronographs, GMTs and models combining complications were released, somewhat confusing the previously clearly defined ‘master’ range’ by the late 1960s.

At the more pedestrian end of the market, the Compensamatic moniker was added to a number of models in the range to tout movement innovations that were really standard by that time, and the company continued to thrive. 

In the 1970s, it all went wrong. While some watches from the early 1970s proved popular, such as the square ‘Da Vinci’, the familiar story for many brands also played out for Nivada. The influx of quartz watches throttled the relatively staid Swiss manufacturers, and corners were cut in an attempt to stay competitive.

There are few models from the 1970s worth note – a combination of period design cues, from brutal slab-sided lozenges to tiger’s eye dials, fail to inspire; but tastes, as always, change with time and the eye of the beholder. I will include some of the more pertinent models here as space permits, but forgive me if they are lacking in details.

As a rough guide, any Nivada that has a name that either resembles a trim level of an 1980s saloon car or an obscure paper size, such as GLX, F77 and SP, should be inspected carefully. The number of variants continued to multiply and the Antarctic brand was seemingly applied at random. The later the model year, the further from the original Antarctic sentiment they became.

This article was written by James Vincent, a proper Nivada fanatic under the Instagram name: @Spinakerr 

Co-edited by Mitka, with thanks for editorial support to Scott Burton, AKA @rex.tempus

1 Response to Nivada Grenchen: The cool ‘non in-house’ great!

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