MITKA

The “Stealth” German-Swiss Premium Watch Brand

If some historical brands fly “below the radar” for many collectors, Deutsche Uhrmacher Genossenschaft Alpina G.m.b.H (Dugena) may perhaps be the epitome of the “stealth” vintage premium brand – completely off the radar for many collectors. Boasting an impressive Swiss and German pedigree, including affiliations with both Alpina and Heuer, Dugena produced some of the highest quality watches of its era both for the consumer market and military service, employing innovative designs combined with some of the finest Swiss and German movements.

Swiss OriginsAlpina Union Horlogère SA

 

From its inception in 1883Alpina 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 Swiss watch component, ébauche (partially assembled movement) and ètablisseur (assembly and finishing) factories of the era.

 

But in addition to its impressive Swiss pedigree, Alpina also spawned a German lineage under the Dugena moniker. Indeed, within less than a decade of its founding Alpina had developed strong distribution in the German market. Thus, by 1892 Becker & Cie. of Frankfurt acquired Alpina’s German franchise, relocating to Berlin in 1899. For more on Dugena’s Swiss roots, check out our Alpina profile.

German Foundations – Präcisions-Uhrenfabrik Alpina Glashütte

Given the strong reputation of premier German watch producers such as A. Lange & Söhne, Alpina was not content merely to distribute Swiss watches in the German market. With its sights aimed squarely at penetrating the ultra-premium luxury market, in 1909 Alpina founded Präcisions-Uhrenfabrik Alpina Glashütte in the established heart of premium German watchmaking.

By 1912 the Alpina guild offered 27 calibres supplied by its members, the highest quality of which bore the name “Alpina,” including the 19-ligne Alpina Chronometre savonnette (hunter) featuring a swan’s neck fine adjustment device. It was this chronometre-grade Alpina calibre which Präcisions-Uhrenfabrik Alpina Glashütte selected to take on the Saxon watchmaking establishment. The Alpina chronometre calibre assembled in Saxony’s Müglitz Valley was modified to employ a Glashütte lever escapement, in place of the original’s Swiss lever escapement. The movement was gold plated, precisely adjusted by A. Dubois in Switzerland, and bore the signature “Präcisions-Uhrenfabrik Alpina Glashütte i.S.” A 21-ligne naval service model followed in 1913.

That same year, A. Lange & Söhne filed suit in Lauenstein district court, alleging inappropriate use of the Glashütte provenance by Präcisions-Uhrenfabrik Alpina. Based on testimony by a former A. Lange & Söhne employee and the findings of an independent assessment commissioned from the German School of Watchmaking’s director, Prof. Ludvig Strasser, in 1915 the German court dismissed Lange’s claims. But the favorable ruling was of little support for Präcisions-Uhrenfabrik Alpina; by this time WWI was raging, severely undermining the premium luxury watch market. Präcisions-Uhrenfabrik Alpina Glashütte was disbanded in July 1922, having sold only a few hundred of its premium Glashütte Alpina Chronometres.

Evolution Through Two World Wars

 

Despite the poor timing of Alpina’s foray into the Glashütte premium watch market, the Alpina guild’s German distribution affiliate started strong. But it also suffered a severe setback after the Allied Entente powers blacklisted 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.

 

But progress was slow, further inhibited by the Allied powers’ renewed prohibition of Alpina sales to Germany following the outbreak of WWII. Ironically, Dugena’s fortunes were boosted by contracts to supply the German military. During this period Dugena received Alpina movements, dials, hands and cases, and assembled them in Germany for supply to the German Wehrmacht. Alpina watches supplied to the Lufftwaffe featured black dials with radium indices, and cases marked with a “D” before the serial number. Watches supplied to the Kriegsmarine featured white dials with radium filled numbers. Many of these German military watches featured Alpina’s most iconic hand-wound movement, calibre 592, or the similar 595 produced by Marc Favre before its purchase by Omega in 1955 – the model above was cased in Germany, hence likely assembled and distributed by Dugena despite the Marc Favre dial signature.

Post-War Transition

Following WWII, Dugena resumed import and distribution of Alpina watches to the German consumer market. But the company also marketed a premium line of Dugena-branded watches equipped with top-quality movements from a variety of premier Swiss producers including A.Schild, Büren, ETA, Felsa, FHF, Helvetia and Unitas among others.

During the 1950s-1960s the Precision model was positioned at the top of Dugena’s lineup, sporting premium cases and top quality hand-wound Swiss movements. These two representative specimens are fitted with Helvetia Cal. 830 and 831 (Dugena 996 and 997). During this era Dugena also offered a premium self-winding model, the Super. The example illustrated here employed Büren’s calibre 1001 (Dugena 1010) “planetary rotor” movement – making it even slimmer than Alpina’s premium President automatic.

While Universal Genève’s micro-rotor deservedly receives much attention from collectors today, the first micro-rotor automatic movement actually was patented by Uhrenfabrik Büren AG in the mid-1950s, delaying UG’s micro-rotor patent to 1958 pending the outcome of Büren’s legal challenge to the UG design. When Büren’s planetary rotor self-winding movement was released in 1957, it was among the flattest automatics of its time. Variants of the Büren movement competed with the UG micro-rotor for thinnest automatic in the world for many years.

Blazing a New Path

 

Despite the continuing collaboration with Alpina, Dugena became increasingly independent over time, assembling a growing number of watch lines employing movements sourced from reputable German producers including DUROWE, Förster, Otero and PUW, among others. This early Dugena 444, for example, resembles Dugena’s Precision line stylistically (as well as the Precision’s sibling Alpina DeLuxe and Standard models). But in place of the Precision’s Swiss movement, the 444 employed Pforzheimer UhrenrohWerke (PUW) calibre 360. Launched in 1963, PUW’s 360/1360 calibres (hand/self-wound, respectively) employed a modern 3-leg ring balance with moveable balance stud, typically fitted with KIF Ultraflex or Incabloc shock protection. The 360/1360’s simple, economic construction exemplifies the level of advancement attained by the German watchmaking industry, albeit lacking the cachet of a “Swiss Made” label.

The Jongster and Dugenamatic lines are representative of Dugena’s shift towards stylish, sport-inspired designs through the 1960s and 1970s. As its name implies, the Jongster filled the need for a youthful watch equally at home in the office or dressed down for casual affairs. The Dugenamatic also straddled the dress and sport-watch categories; this model features a stainless steel case that might be mistaken for a Rolex Oyster or Zenith Defy, and indeed is a 100m screw-back design.

These sporty models were powered by the no-nonsense Förster calibres 212 and 222 (Dugena 2302 and 2304), respectively. Introduced in 1969, Förster 212/22 were among the thinnest, most advanced German movements on the market. The 212/22 was technically advanced for its era, beating at 21600 A/h with instant date change at midnight, quickset date function, and detachment of the 222’s self-winding mechanism during manual winding to reduce wear.

Another model representative of Dugena’s stylish 1960s-1970s lineup was the Watertrip diver. The vintage model illustrated here employs a robust yet slim, contemporary cushion-style 100m diver case, powered by PUW’s self-winding calibre 1561 (Dugena 2512), introduced in 1971. Employing a sophisticated bi-directional self-winding mechanism, PUW 1561 provides another example of the advanced state of German watchmaking during the early 1970s.

The Heuer-Monnin Connection

During the 1960s and 1970s Dugena also produced a premium line of stylish, high-quality chronographs and dive watches on a par with iconic producers such as Heuer and Yema. In fact, some of these premium models actually were suppled to Dugena by Heuer. There appears to be a consensus among collectors that Heuer produced watches for other companies, often based on Heuer designs. Heuer reportedly produced watches for Zodiac, for example, and for Sears Roebuck & Co. branded “Sears” and “Tradition.”

This Dugena two-register Valjoux 7734 chronograph takes obvious design cues from Heuer’s late 1960s and 1970s Carrera chronograph line (cf., Heuer Refs. 73453, 1153, 110.253 & 110.573). While some watches Heuer supplied to other producers were quite similar to Heuer’s own designs, others were essentially identical aside from the name on the dial. Dugena’s Siffert chronograph, for example, is identical to Heuer’s Autavia Ref. 73663, named for Jo Siffert, a Swiss racing driver sponsored by Heuer.

Dugena’s premium Monza diver also bears a resemblance to Heuer’s first purpose-designed dive watch, the iconic Ref. 844 or “Monnin,” so-called because Heuer sourced its earliest Ref. 844 divers from French producer Monnin SARL. These early French-made variants were powered by France Ebauches Cal. 4611A; later Swiss-made 844 models employed ETA 2872. Early and late models all employed the robust MRP SA-patented 200m dive case (breveté 503.305), which housed many premium dive watches of the era including Yema’s Superman. For more background on the Heuer 844 and MPR SA diver case check out our Packaging Matters series profiling iconic purpose-designed dive watches.

The Monza illustrated above resembles the later Swiss-produced Heuer 844 in several respects, including its 200m MRP SA 503.305 dive case and its use of ETA 2873 (21600 A/h version of ETA 2872). On the other end of the spectrum, Dugena produced a second-tier watch line under the Prätina name. Interestingly, this Prätina skindiver bears a strong cosmetic appearance to the earlier first-generation Heuer 844 and, like the Heuer, is powered by a nicely finished France Ebauches movement (in this case the hand-wound FE 140) – albeit with a chromed skindiver case rather than the Monnin’s (and Monza’s) 200m MRP SA 503.305 stainless steel case.

While I’ve found no specific reference to Heuer supplying Dugena dive watches, it seems plausible this may have been the case at least for the premium Monza line given its similarities with the 844 Monnin, particularly in light of the two German companies’ established chronograph supply relationship during this era. Dugena’s unusual choice of a France Ebauches calibre in the Heuer-inspired Prätina skindiver also suggests a possible Heuer movement sourcing relationship, given Dugena typically employed Swiss or German movements.

Quartz Crisis and Aftermath

Despite some very stylish models on a par with other premium German and Swiss brands of the era, Dugena suffered significant financial distress in the 1970s. After an initial buy-out by a supermarket company, Dugena was converted to a public joint-stock company in 1984, before being acquired by the German Christ-Holding. In the late 1980s, Hong Kong-based Egana Goldpfeil Holding AG acquired Dugena, operating it as an independent brand until 2009, when Dugena was acquired by NOVA TEMPORA Uhren und Schmuck GmbH. Today, in addition to a quartz range, mechanical watches also are produced under the Dugena Premium Mechanik line, with assembly performed in Meisenheim, Germany. In 2020 the Dugena brand was acquired by Laco Uhrenmanufaktur and Flume Technik, joining a family of German watchmaking brands.

While Dugena’s contemporary lineup lacks the technical and stylistic innovation of its storied heritage, vintage Dugena watches provide the collector a wealth of value given their fine quality, elegant styling, and attainable prices in the vintage market relative to other premium vintage brands of equivalent quality.

© Copyright 2022 P. Scott Burton & Mitka Engebretsen, all rights reserved.

 

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