Roamer watch co.

The forgotten independent innovator… Roamer delivered great in-house movements, clever case solutions and beautiful dials – the full package! And better yet, iconic vintage pieces are still reasonably priced as they have so far avoided collector hype. 

By: Scott Burton,* co-edited by Mitka

Roamer History

Fritz Meyers first tried his hand at watchmaking in Lengnau, Switzerland, starting a small workshop in 1882. But his timing was poor; his shop was one of many casualties of a widespread economic downturn in the Swiss watch industry. The ensuing years were not unproductive, however, with Meyers gaining experience as controller at the Kottman ébauche factory. Fortuitously, Meyers’ tenure with Kottman commenced shortly after the company’s successful reorganization and transition to in-house manufacture of most ébauche components. 

MST Foundations 

Meyers departed in 1888 to establish another workshop, this time in Solothurn (or in French Soleure). His new factory focused on producing inexpensive cylinder escapements for ètablisseur, factories that assembled and finished watches using components supplied by small cottage workshops. But by 1895 Meyers’ new workshop had grown to an ètablisseur in its own right, with a staff of roughly 60 workers assembling completed watches. In 1897 the company introduced its first movement, christened Calibre 38 in honor of Meyers’ age at its release. 

Over the next few years the company registered several additional calibre designs, one of which took a bronze medal at the 1905 World Fair in Liege. That same year Meyers teamed with Johan Studeli to form Meyers and Studeli (MST). In 1906, the company constructed a new factory in Solothurn, albeit still focused on mass-production of profitable low-priced cylinder movements. By 1909 MST had entered the UK market under the name Medana Watch Co.

The Roamer name was registered in 1908, some say by L. Tieche-Gammeter (LTG), a high-quality Solothurn lever escapement manufacture MST acquired in 1916 or 1917. Other sources point to documentation suggesting it was MST that registered the Roamer brand in 1908, but didn’t commence use of the name until after constructing a new factory focused on lever escapement manufacture.

In 1918, MST became Meyer & Studeli SA, graduating to status as a Société Anonyme, public corporation or limited liability company. That same year, MST commenced production of its own in-house lever escapement movements. Over time, Roamer was positioned as MST’s premium in-house lever escapement brand, with Medana offering lower-cost but stylish cylinder and pin lever movements.

               

By 1923 MST achieved the capability to manufacture and assemble watch cases as well as movements, and had established six factories to complement its assembly and finishing operations. The company was producing all significant components in-house by 1932, finally attaining the status of a true “manufacture d’horlogerie,” designing and producing watch components and ébauches.

Growing Technical Innovation & Prestige

From that point on, MST became a design innovator, by 1945 patenting a robust stainless steel water and dustproof case and crown system, which became its hallmark. By the early 1950s, the company’s reputation had ascended significantly. Indeed, some may be surprised to learn Roamer was a member of the small, exclusive club of prestige Swiss manufactures selected by Havana-based luxury jeweler Cuervo y Sobrinos to produce co-branded luxury wristwatches – others including the likes of Longines, Rolex and Vacheron Constantin. Like the famous Biel-based jewler Türler, many collectors seek out CyS co-branded pieces given their rarity, retro chic design and celebrity cachet.

This elegant 18k gold plated vintage piece is a fine example, its dial signed both “Roamer” and “Cuervo y Sobrinos Habana,” stainless steel caseback CyS-hallmarked, and finely finished 17 jewel hand-wound MST Cal. 424 signed “Roamer Wach Co.”

Roamer’s “waterproof” modular case design is a simple but ingenious approach to secure a high degree of water resistance. The patented Roamer watch case is constructed from two units. The lower or rear unit is a robust, solid stainless steel “monocoque” case (a single-shell load supporting structural design) that houses the movement, crystal and crown. The second upper or front unit serves as the outer case shell. The lower monocoque case is push-fitted into the outer shell, securing the crystal and effectively providing a double-seal for the movement.

Roamer also ventured away from traditional movements, manufacturing an in-house alarm movement – calibre MST 417 and MST 427. Both exceptionally complicated, expensive to make and short lived. 

Refined Design Innovation

In the 1960’s Roamer revamped its product range into the Mustang, Anfibio and Stringray lines.

The Mustang filled the need for a stylish gent’s dress watch. The best known of the line was the Mustang Indianapolis, named for the company’s sponsorship of the famous Indianapolis Raceway Park. This sought-after model employed the MST Cal. 478 (basically, a refinished ETA Cal. 2638R).

The Anfibio line retained the company’s patented modular waterproof case and most often employed robust hand-wound movements, filling the growing demand for a robust yet stylish sport watch line. This rugged model is perhaps best known for its use by the Rhodesia Front forces during the 1964-1979 Rhodesian Bush War. The RF model employed a manual-wound MST 520 with hacking function and indirect-driven minutes to allow a large balance wheel for greater stability and accuracy – similar in concept to other esteemed modern designs such as the Zenith Cal. 135.

                   

These tough yet stylish RF military models can be identified by their black dials, and distinctive caseback markings: “RA” for Rhodesia, or in some cases “ZA” or “Z” for Zud Afrika, given the watches were supplied to the RF indirectly through South Africa to avoid the Rhodesian trade embargo. Similar civilian versions were available with quick-set date function and navy dials.

The Rotopower by contrast was re-dubbed the Stingray, also housed in Roamer’s patented modular case. Many Stingrays employed MST’s updated 44 jewel Cal. 470/71 self-winding movement, originally introduced in 1962 as MST Cal. 436/37. At the peak of its technical and design innovation, it was the Stingray and its diver and chronograph variants that many consider among Roamer’s most iconic and collectible models. Other notable models from this era include the Vanguard and Searock, similar in appearance to the Anfibio and Stingray but with more traditional screw-back cases.

Starting in 1967 Roamer introduced the Stingray-S 200m Diver, followed by the Stingray Chrono in 1969 powered by Valjoux Cal. 72. The 1970/71 Stingray-S received a significant redesign, noted by its iconic oversized, asymmetric crown guard and distinctive dial with prominent indices and tritium lume. By 1970 Roamer had introduced its oversized Stingray Chrono Diver, retaining the stylish case and dial design but now employing Valjoux 23. For 1971/72 the Chono Diver employed the Valjoux 7733/4 (later generation Venus 188) – without and with date, respectively – as did the Roamer Pasadena Chrono 120M Diver with similar case and dial.

Another tough as nails Roamer line was the Rockshell Diver, introduced in 1971 and initially powered by MST Cal. 482 (ETA 2630 base). This beast was followed by the even more robust Rockshell MKIII Diver. With a compressor-style case design waterproof to 200m, angled dial and anti-reflective mineral crystal, it’s a no-nonsense bomb-proof tool watch if ever there was one!

Looming Quartz Crisis & Contemporary Production

With the writing on the wall, in 1969 Roamer joined a joint venture in Biel teaming with Buren, Certina, Rolex, and the Zurich Federal Institute of Technology to undertake electronic watch technology R&D. As a result, in 1972 Roamer introduced its Micro Quartz line at Basel, after only 6 months technical development.

But in 1975 the Swiss watch industry experienced another significant downturn, forcing Roamer into receivership. After filing for protection from its creditors, the company was compelled to cease component and movement manufacture to focus on assembly and sales to boost revenues. It was the beginning of the end for Roamer as an independent, innovative manufacture.

By 1983 the company joined Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG, or Société Générale de l’Horlogerie Suisse in French (ASUAG). But just two years later it was purchased from ASUAG and re-sold to the Chung Nam Company (CNC) of Hong Kong. In 2009, CNC re-associated Roamer with ASUAG, by then rebranded the Swiss Swatch Group, AKA Swatch Group.

Thus, while the Roamer name lives on today, the company’s current incarnation is no longer the independent, innovative manufacture of its golden years. Rather, it’s the iconic vintage MST and Roamer models that provide the most interest, satisfaction and value for collectors.

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