Revue – The Long Winding Road from GT to MSR

Like a long lost civilization, the Revue watch brand has been mostly forgotten by many. But after considering the manufacture’s history and high quality products it’s apparent they were on par with the best. 

Supporting cast: Buser, Phénix, Vulcain & Marvin

By:  Scott Burton* Co edited by Mitka

Early History

In 1853 Société d’ Horlogerie à Waldenbourg was founded as a communal Swiss watch manufacture by residents of Waldenburg, near Basel. It was hoped the company would provide much needed employment to local residents given the Waldenburg valley was increasingly isolated from commerce after establishment of the Basel-Olten-Geneva train line.

The company struggled in its early years. But in 1859 Gédéon Thommen and Louis Tschopp acquired and restructured the company; Thommen also established the Waldenburgerbahn, a commuter train line connecting the valley’s villages. As a result, between 1870-1890 the company expanded production from 4,000 cylinder watches to 13,000 cylinder and lever watches.

 

In 1905 Alphonse Thommen registered the manufacture as Gédéon Thommens Uhrenfabrik AG, following Tschopp’s departure. Depending on the source referenced, the “Revue” name was registered either in that same year or several years later, possibly 1910. Revue had been used earlier as a brand name for the company’s wristwatches, previously marketed under the “GT” moniker for Gédéon Thommen. Hereafter we refer to the company as Revue for simplicity. Although it is unclear precisely when the “Vertex” brand was introduced to market Revue’s products in the UK, by 1929 the Vertex name had been officially registered.

Under whichever name you might choose, Revue was an early pioneer of interchangeable parts. With increasingly mechanized and automated factories, the company was well-positioned to pursue other related markets. In 1916 for example, the company developed its first aircraft chronograph for the Swiss Air Force, laying the foundation for its later success as an aircraft instrument supplier. From 1936–1943, the company continued to supply cockpit instrumentation to the Swiss Air Force, including altimeters, airspeed indicators, clocks and landing gear.

Given this experience, it’s not surprising that Revue supplied both the British and German militaries during World War II. From 1939-1944, the company was commissioned by the 3rd Reich to produce resistant watches under the “Revue Sport” brand for the German Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine.

 

The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) also contracted Revue to produce Vertex-branded wristwatches meeting the MOD’s “Watch, Wristlet, Waterproof” military design specification. The WWW spec required a black watch dial with Arabic numerals and sub-seconds to enhance visibility. These so-called “Dirty Dozen” watches were supplied by twelve manufacturers, including Vertex, Certina (under its earlier “Grana” name), Eterna and IWC among others. Dirty Dozen watches can be recognized by the WWW stamp on their case backs, and the “broad arrow” symbol on their dials – the traditional marking for British military property.

Both the German watches and the British Vertex watches featured the robust workhorse Calibre GT 59. The Calibre 59 lived on into the mid 1950s in civilian models, until phased out by newer movements.

By the 1950s, Revue’s Waldenburg, Gelterkinden and Langenbruck factories were producing over 200,000 watches per year. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the company developed many new watch movement designs, including among others Revue’s robust Calibre GT77SC, based on the earlier sub-seconds GT77.

Among the company’s most renowned movements from this era is Revue’s Cal. GT81 (later re-dubbed MSR Cal. X3). In addition to its superb execution and fine finishing, Cal. 81’s design is reminiscent of the renowned Zenith Cal. 135. Like the Zenith, Revue’s 18,000 bps hand-wound Cal. 81 employs an oversize balance wheel and chonometre-grade cam disc micro-regulator for enhanced accuracy and stability. In these respects, the GT81 design also is reminiscent of Eterna Cal. 1408, although the latter employs sweep rather than sub-seconds.

Revue’s main focus was high-quality manual wind watches, but the company also developed a nice in-house hammer automatic Calibre, GT80, and later launched the fabulous Calibre 87 with excenter winding with lever gear cam disc regulator – similar in principle to the IWC Pellaton winding mechanism.

Revue watches carried many model names on their dials, such as Cyrus, Exclusive, Executive, and Royal among others. But the company’s longest lasting, most consistent model was the Revue Sport. The Sport model was launched in the 1930’s as a “waterproof” sports watch. Most were cased in stainless steel, but some can be found in plated cases and solid gold. Sport models have screw down backs and water resistant crowns, and featured several different movements. There were also ladies’ Revue Sport models, just as solid as the mens’ watches. The Revue Sport Nautique featured Super Compressor cases, one of the coolest being the mermaid case back. 

The MSR Years

Despite its growing reputation, Revue faced stiff competition from the increasingly dominant Swiss watch manufacturing consortia – most prominently Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG (Société Générale de l’Horlogerie Suisse in French) (ASUAG) and Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA (SSIH). Thus, in 1961, Revue and three other Swiss watch manufactures joined forces in establishing Manufactures d’Horlogerie Suisses Réunies SA (MSR) in Bienne.

MSR’s other founding members were Buser Frères & Cie SA of Niederdorf, Phénix Watch CoSA of Porrentruy, and Vulcain & Studio SA of La Chaux-de-Fonds. Revue’s Roland Straumann took the helm of the new group, tasked with “rationalizing” production. It was hoped that specialization would reduce costs, given all four companies historically had conducted in-house manufacture of ébauches (incomplete watch movements, typically consisting of plates, bridges, wheels, and barrels – to be later finished and fitted with jewels, escapement, mainspring, crown, hands, and dial) as well as independent in-house finishing and assembly.

At its peak, the group produced over 600,000 watches per year, making it one of the largest Swiss watchmaking federations of the era. After their union, Revue focused on component production, Buser on assembly and Vulcain on product marketing, although each continued to operate as independent companies. While Buser, Phénix and Vulcain each merit their own historical profiles, this must await a later day. That said, no profile of Revue would be complete without brief description of MSR’s other founding members.

Buser

Buser Frères & Cie SA began operation in 1892, like Revue a true “manufacture d’horlogerie,” designing and producing watch components and ébauches. Indeed, the company boasted over twenty in-house movement calibres – hand wound and automatic, early cylinder designs and lever movements, ranging from hunter movements to chronometer-grade calibres. Buser movements were well regarded, and as such were employed by other premium brands of the day such as Gruen among others. Buser hallmarked movements also can be found in several of the company’s sub-brands, Frenca and Nidor being among the best known but also including Buwat, Esta, Neo, and Tiptop among others.

The Buser brand fell into increasing disuse following MSR’s formation, but the company’s in-house Cal. 180 continued to see use for many years as GT82 (MSR X1), still employed in contemporary Revue Thommen-branded watches. Buser movements typically can be identified by their triangle hallmark inset with a capital “B.”

Phénix

Phénix Watch CoSA was founded in 1873 by Jules Dubail, Jean-Baptiste Monnin and Joseph Frossard, originally named Dubail Monnin Frossard & Cie. By 1899 the name was changed to Société d’horlogerie de Porrentruy (Porrentruy Watchmaking Company). The company produced watches under the Phénix name, as well as numerous sub-brands including Argus, Eros, Extra, La Semeuse, Libelle, Poule, Star and Stella.

Phénix is of significant historical interest to vintage collectors, given the company reportedly was the first Swiss manufacture to have a registered watch movement calibre. Like Revue, Phénix was an early pioneer in the mechanized production of lever escapement watches, innovating the first machine to set jewels with quilles (pins). Phénix also developed the esteemed tour Dubail (Dubail lathe), allowing highly precise machining of delicate components. Their calibre 350 was used in several Revue models under the MSR name

Vulcain

In 1858 Maurice Ditisheim began production of fine pocket watches under his own name; his workshop quickly expanded and was renamed Manufacture Ditisheim. First employed in 1894, the “Vulcain” brand name was registered in 1900.

Vulcain is perhaps best known for its “Cricket Calibre,” the Cricket V10, introduced by the company in 1947. The Cricket was the world’s first fully functional alarm wristwatch, quickly establishing the brand’s reputation as the “Presidents’ Watch” after being worn prominently by several U.S. Presidents including Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon. Thus, in addition to its esteem as a legitimate manufacture in its own right, Vulcain brought to MSR significant name recognition and marketing cachet.

MSR Developments

In addition to the numerous in-house calibres of its founders, many of which endured through the MSR years, MSR continued the innovative design spirit. In 1967, for example, MSR introduced their jointly-developed “Exactomatic” movement, MSR Cal. T56. A modern automatic movement similar to the industry-standard Eternamatic, MSR’s T66 employed steel ball bearings under the rotor and thick plates for enhanced durability. The Exactomatic entered production the following year, employed successfully in Revue and Vulcain watches commencing in 1969.

In 1976, Marvin Watch Company joined MSR. Founded 1850 by Marc and Emmanuel Didisheim in Saint-Imier, the company moved to La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1894. The U.S. market later became the company’s focus, adopting the “Marvin” name following development of a new factory in 1912.

 

Later Evolution of Revue Thommen

Like so many other Swiss manufactures MSR struggled during the quartz crisis, producing barely 25,000 watches per year in 1980. By then the Buser, Marvin and Phénix brands had largely fallen into disuse, with Revue and Vulcain the group’s leading monikers. Following a re-emphasis on growing Asian markets MSR’s fortunes seemed to be rebounding, and in 1987 Thommens Uhrenfabrik AG introduced the renamed Revue Thommen brand to capitalize on the new market opportunity.

This newfound success was short-lived, however. MSR struggled again during the 1990s, this time due to the Asian financial crisis. In 1999 MSR closed Vulcain’s historic La Chaux-de-Fonds operations and divested the brand to Production et marketing Horologer (PHM) in 2001, which re-launched the Cricket. In 2009 the Vulcain brand was acquired by Suisse Excellence Holding.

 

Although Revue’s fortunes were mixed in this period, the company still produced some very attractive models with nice MSR X1 movements. 

MSR itself was dissolved in 2000, and in that same year Thommens Uhrenfabrik AG decided to focus on its thriving aircraft instrument business, granting a license to the Swiss company Grovana Ltd. to manufacture and market Revue Thommen brand wristwatches. In 2012 GT Thommen Watch AG was established as a joint venture by Andreas Thommen, Roland Buser and Christopher Bitterli, who acquired the Revue Thommen brand and intellectual property, assigning the global production and distribution license to Swiss Initiative Limited in 2015.

There’s no doubt that if Revue were able to rise from the ashes like a Phenix, collectability of their classic watches would be greatly enhanced. Revue and Revue sub-branded watches are of the highest quality and generally not well known to the general consumer. Thus, while often challenging to find at all let alone in good condition, vintage Revue wristwatches can provide great value and satisfaction to vintage collectors. Similarly, MSR-era and pre-MSR specimens of Revue’s MSR partners – Buser, Marvin, Phénix and Vulcain – also are of historical interest, high quality and good value to serious collectors.

Selected References

Revue

https://masterhorologer.com/2018/08/23/revue-thommen-watches-brand-details-history-collections/

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revue_Thommen

https://www.watch-wiki.net/index.php?title=Revue_Thommen

https://watch-wiki.org/index.php?title=Revue_Thommen/en

https://www.chronext.com/revue-thommen

https://www.grovana-rt.ch/en/History.htm

https://forums.timezone.com/index.php?t=tree&goto=7530418&rid=0

https://amp.scmp.com/lifestyle/watches/article/1840217/swiss-watch-brand-revue-thommen-relaunches-hong-kong-under-ex

MSR

https://www.watch-wiki.net/index.php?title=MSR

Buser

http://www.watchisthis.com/buser-freres-cie-s-a-a-brief-introduction/

https://www.watch-wiki.net/index.php?title=Buser#:~:text=Buser%20Freres%20was%20founded%20in,%2Dde%2DFonds%20by%201966.

Phenix

https://www.watch-wiki.net/index.php?title=Phenix

https://www.cliniquehorlogere.ch/en/archive/the-phenix-watchmaking-factory.html

Vulcain

https://www.watch-wiki.net/index.php?title=Vulcain

https://www.bobswatches.com/rolex-blog/resources/history-vulcain-cricket-presidents-watch.html

https://blog.crownandcaliber.com/vulcain-cricket/

https://masterhorologer.com/2018/08/04/vulcain-swiss-watches-brand-details-history-watch-collections/

© Copyright 2021, P. Scott Burton and Mitka Engebretsen; all rights reserved.

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=> Worth mentioning, Revue is one of Mitka’s favourite brands~!!

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