MITKA

Alpina Union Horlogère SA

Part I – Foundation for Posterity

From its inception in 1883 the Alpina guild, also known as Alpina Union Horlogère SA (AUHSA), was an innovator and stalwart producer of the highest quality timepieces. Commencing as a Swiss parts-purchasing cooperative and evolving to a comprehensive watch manufacture and retail association, AUHSA included many of the highest quality watch component, ébauche (partially assembled movement) and ètablisseur (assembly and finishing) factories of the era, ranging from iconic manufactures such as Certina, Gruen and Aegler (aka Manufacture de Montres Rolex SA), to forgotten but equally esteemed members such as Marc Favre (Universal Genève collaborator and Omega movement supplier).

Operating under many names over nearly a century, the Alpina guild also spawned a German lineage under the Dugena moniker. Thus, not unlike its rival Eterna, Alpina’s influence on both technological innovation and on the Swiss watchmaking industry (and German, in Alpina’s case) can hardly be overstated.

During the late 19th century, watch brands per-se were largely unknown, with most dials marked to identify the assembler or retailer. Swiss law protecting innovative watch design first took effect in 1880; during this same era, department stores and consumer cooperatives began to flourish, disadvantaging small and mid-sized manufacturers and retailers. Smaller watch producers also struggled to procure specialized components and maintain inventories at competitive cost. The time was ripe for a cooperative watchmakers’ association.

Thus, in 1883 Gottlieb Hauser established the Vereinigung der Schweizer Uhrmacher (Swiss Watchmakers’ Association), focused on identifying a network of reliable, high-quality watch component suppliers and obtaining favorable purchasing terms for the cooperative’s members. But the value of member collaboration on watch assembly and retailing also was quickly recognized. As early as 1883 efforts commenced to develop standardized movements and a distribution network to retail watches jointly developed and produced by association members.

Reorganized as Schweizerische Uhrmacher-Genossenschaft (SUG) in 1886, each member was assessed an entry fee and annual dues to support the cooperative’s components sourcing and marketing services. In subsequent years the manufacturers’ association also was formally organized as Union Horlogère Schweizerische Urmachergenossenschaft, Association Horlogère Suisse, followed by founding of a general partnership in 1904 under the name Union Horlogère Uhrenfabrikation und Handelsgesellschaft, Biel, Glashütte, Genf. The “Alpina” brand was formally registered in 1908, commemorating the guild’s 25th anniversary.

As the benefits of Alpina’s cooperative business structure became apparent, the concept spread across the industry. As elaborated in our Eterna profile, by 1926 Eterna spinoff A.Schild SA had combined with A.Michel AG and Fabrique d’Horlogerie de Fontainmelon (FHF) to form Ebauches SA (ESA). Soon thereafter, in 1930 Omega and Tissot formed Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA (SSIH), adding former Alpina UHSA member Marc Favre in 1953 (acquired outright by Omega in 1955), ultimately combining with Eterna and ESA (by then both members of Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG, or ASUAG, formed in 1931) to form the Swatch Group in 1983.

Similarly, in 1961, Revue joined forces with Buser Frères & Cie. SA of Niederdorf, Phenix Watch Co. SA of Porrentruy, and Vulcain & Studio SA of La Chaux-de-Fonds in establishing the Manufactures d’Horlogerie Suisses Réunies SA (MSR) cooperative in Bienne. Thus, Gottlieb Hauser’s 1893 idea set in motion a wave of cooperative watchmaking ventures that swept across the industry, and across borders; laying the foundation for contemporary watch production and retailing.

Early Alpina Calibres

 

Movement blanks initially were produced by Duret & Colonnaz of Geneva, with completed watch assembly performed by Straub & Cie. of Biel. In addition to its supply chain stability, cost reduction and distribution benefits, this cooperative watchmaking and marketing structure also enhanced product quality, facilitated standardization of components and thus allowed repair of the association’s product offerings at member ateliers or workshops.

 

By 1912 the Alpina guild offered 27 calibres supplied by its members, all circular with diameters between 11-13 lignes (25-29 mm). The highest quality of these offerings bore the name “Alpina,” including the 19-ligne Alpina 19/20 Lépine calibre with sub-seconds at the 6-o’clock position. The 19-ligne Alpina Chronometre was of savonnette (hunter) construction with sub-seconds at 9-o’clock, often serving as the base calibre for the association’s watches assembled in Glashütte. Expressing their premier quality, each Alpina calibre’s regulator was equipped with a swan’s neck fine adjustment device. Most Alpina guild calibres of this era were signed Union-Horlogère, or simply UH.

 

The Gruen Guild & Aegler SA

 

Alpina’s success also attracted attention from across the Atlantic Ocean. German watchmaker Dietrich Gruen commenced watch assembly in Columbus, Ohio in 1874, initially employing movements imported from Switzerland and Glashütte. By the early 1900s Gruen had teamed with esteemed Swiss movement supplier Aegler (dba Manufacture des Montres Rolex & Gruen Guild A.), exclusive supplier to Rolex and Gruen.

Gruen combined with Alpina on May 13, 1929, contributing approximately twenty calibres before departing due to differences in pricing and marketing strategies – and conflicts with Rolex over use of Aegler movements in markets shared by Rolex and Alpina. Among the calibres contributed by Gruen/Aegler were Alpina 819, 823, 827SS, 833, 835, and 835SS (i.e., Rolex 600, 500, 700, 250, 200 and 210, respectively). Perhaps the most famous of Gruen’s contributions was Alpina Cal. 300 (Rolex Cal. TS), which powered the Gruen Duo-Dial, Alpina-Gruen Tecno, and Rolex Prince.

Alpina UHSA – An Expanding Membership Roster

 

By 1935 Gruen (and hence Aegler) withdrew from the Alpina guild, which reorganized again as Alpina Union Horlogère SA (AUHSA). Notwithstanding Gruen’s departure, Alpina’s reputation continued to grow, attracting an expanding membership. In addition to Straub & Cie., which assembled complete watches exclusively for AUHSA, Alpina’s ranks included esteemed manufactures such as Marc Favre of Geneva (employing ébauche developed with Universal Genève and also supplying some of Omega’s most iconic movements), Kurth Frères of Grenchen (of Certina, Grana and Vertex fame), Schwob Frères & Cie. of La Chaux-de-Fonds (Cyma-Tavannes), and Robert Frères of Villeret (Minerva). AUHSA members also included ébauche producer Duret & Colonnaz of Geneva, the Ali Jeanrenaud fobs & bows factory, and the Numa Nicolet et Fils dial factory. Movements and ébauche also were supplied by Helvetia, Moeris and Unitas, not to mention AS, ETA, FEF, Felsa, FHF, Peseaux, Valjoux and Venus.

Alpina’s contemporary marketing makes much of having originated the “sports watch.” This claim is a bit suspect given the work of other early innovators during the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, the association’s 1938 “Alpina 4” offering was among the earliest consumer models to combine multiple lines of defense from the elements and hard-duty tool watch applications, including (1) shock protection, and an (2) antimagnetic, (3) water-tight, (4) corrosion resistant stainless steel case. This was accomplished in part by use of Alpina’s proprietary dust and water-resistant crown, patented in 1933 and first employed on Alpina’s steel-cased “Block Watch,” introduced the same year. Dispensing with the inconvenience of a screw-down crown, Alpina’s patented design featured a very close fitting between the crown and winding stem, borrowing from earlier designs such as those of Borgel and Tavannes – not surprisingly given Alpina often employed Borgel cases, and Cyma-Tavanne was an AUHSA member.

Although best known for its robust hand-winders, Alpina also developed a well-regarded in-house self-winding movement, Cal. 584 (Based on the 590). This beautifully executed bumper automatic calibre most notably was employed in the elegant Alpina President, which debuted in 1957.

Among its most iconic calibres was the hand-wound Cal. 592, and its sweep-seconds version, Cal. 598. The 592/8 was employed in various sport watch models, including the Alpina 70 (debuted in 1953), Alpina Standard (1958) and Tropicproof (1968). Widely considered among the most robust, reliable, accurate movements of the era, Alpina 592 was selected as an instructional calibre by the Biel cantonal polytechnic watchmaking school. Alpina historical literature suggests Cal. 592/8 was developed by Straub, but also reflects the calibre was produced by Mark Favre, which supplied numerous movements and complete watches for Alpina, not least of which being Cal. 595 (aka UG 262), which bears similarities to the 592/8. Both the 592/8 and 595 were widely employed in military watches of the era, including those distributed to the German military during WWII by AUHSA’s German affiliate, Deutsche Uhrmacher Genossenschaft Alpina G.m.b.H., commonly known as Dugena. Alpina’s watches supplied to the lufftwaffe featured black dials with radium indices, and the cases were marked with a D before the serial number. Watches supplied to the Krigsmarine featured white dials with radium filled numbers. 

Alpina commissioned François Borgel to supply cases during the late 1940s and 1950s, for their robust water resistant dress watches. Today, a Patek Philippe replacement Borgel crown alone can cost as much as an entire Borgel-cased Alpina watch. Ironically, the Patek and Alpina Borgel cases and crowns are identical – with the exception of the Patek vs. Alpina signatures.  

Deutsche Uhrmacher Genossenschaft Alpina G.m.b.H (DUGenA)

Becker & Cie. Of Frankfurt acquired Alpina’s German market franchise in 1892, relocating to Berlin in 1899. The German affiliate started strong, but suffered a severe setback after the Allied or Entente powers black-listed Alpina for supporting the Triple Alliance powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) during WWI. In an attempt to regain a market foothold, in 1917 the German affiliate was reorganized as an independent association, Deutsche Uhrmacher Genossenschaft Alpina G.m.b.H (“Dugena”), which licensed the Alpina brand.

Following the outbreak of WWII, Dugena received Alpina movements, dials hands and cases, and assembled them in Germany for the German military.

Following WWII, Dugena resumed import of Alpina-branded watches. But Dugena became increasingly independent over time, also assembling watches employing movements sourced from reputable German producers including DUROWE, Förster, and PUW. During the 1960s and 1970s, Dugena also produced some stylish, high-quality chronographs and dive watches on a par with iconic producers such as Heuer and Yema… but that’s a story for another day! 

Through the early 1970s the Straub family remained majority shareholders of AUHSA; but by 1972 the quartz crisis caught up with Alpina. Through the mid-1980s the brand changed hands several times, ultimately acquired in 1982 by Dutch entrepreneur Peter Stas, founder of contemporary watch producer Frédérique Constant. The 1970s also were not kind to Dugena, which suffered significant financial hardship, initially enduring takeover by a supermarket chain, sale to Christ-Holding of Germany in 1988, Egana-Holding of Hong Kong in 1993, and ultimately Nova Tempora Uhren and Schmuck GmbH of Meisenheim, Germany.

Alpina experienced a genuine revival in 2002 with a heavy focus on robust sports watches. Unlike too many other revivals, however, Alpina has developed their own in-house manufacture movements starting with their automatic calibre AL 950. They now have a Tourbillion movement, flyback chronograph and a world timer all being made in-house. Alpina also is producing a heritage model, with design elements borrowed from their past. 

Vintage Alpinas are still somewhat under the radar for collectors, and extremely attractive models still can be found at a relative bargain price (at the time of writing this article).  Next we will dig a little deeper into the interesting history of Dugena…. stay tuned! 

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(c) Copyright 2022 P. Scott Burton and Mitka Engebretsen, all rights reserved.

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