In 2012, when Scott Heileson turned 35, he decided it was time to buy a nice watch.
Like millions of people before and after him, he gravitated to Rolex, deciding he wanted an Explorer 1016 model from 1977, the year he was born. The watch proved elusive, but the search ignited a passion for wristwatches that Mr. Heileson hadn’t realized he had.
“Very quickly, I went down this rabbit hole of military watches,” Mr. Heileson, a patent lawyer based in Northern California, recalled during a recent phone call.
Specifically, he developed an interest in timepieces that had been issued to members of the French Navy, also known as Marine Nationale watches. The hunt led him to eBay, various online watch forums and what he described as “French Craigslist-type things.” Eventually, Mr. Heileson landed on a little-known brand called Z.R.C., for Zuccolo Rochet & Cie, a Swiss watch firm founded in 1904 that, like many of its peers, fell on hard times in the 1970s when the advent of cheap Japanese quartz technology put 60,000 mechanical watchmakers in Switzerland out of work.
Swiss watch history is littered with great brands that did not survive, or barely survived, the 20th century. “Some didn’t read the signs about changing times,” Aurel Bacs, the Geneva-based auctioneer who heads Phillips’s watch department, said on a recent video call. “Some were bought up and crashed. Some struggled with competition from Asia.”
Now, however, spurred by the booming market for vintage timepieces — not to mention skyrocketing prices and scarce availability for marquee brands such as Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe — watch enthusiasts are increasingly setting their sights on what William Rohr, the New York-based founder of the boutique watch brand Massena LAB, called “the dead brands society.”
A short list of members might include Eterna, an early leader in manufacturing automatic movements; Mathey-Tissot, a chronograph specialist founded in 1886 in the Swiss Jura region; Enicar, a 20th-century maker of rugged sport watches famed for its Sherpa series; and Universal Genève, the brand whose Polerouter model gave the celebrated designer Gerald Genta his start.
“There’s a certain nostalgia for these brands because they don’t exist anymore,” Mr. Rohr said. (He, too, is a fan: In 2020, Massena LAB introduced a chronograph called the Uni-Racer, an homage to the Uni-Compax “Big Eye” model made by Universal Genève in the mid-1960s.)
Cameron Barr, founder and chief executive of Craft & Tailored, a vintage watch dealer in Los Angeles, said the “bump in interest” in some long-forgotten makers was a reflection of their timeless designs as well as their accessibility, both in terms of pricing and availability.
As an example, he referred to the Swiss brand Nivada Grenchen: “They possess that classic late ’60s-’70s sport watch design that’s evergreen,” Mr. Barr said. “Most of these watches sit between $3,500 and $6,500, depending on movement. They’re not cheap, but they’re also not $25,000. You can have fun with it, not be so serious.”
Now, partly owing to their popularity on Instagram, some vintage models from obscure brands have the potential to “catch fire and spike in value, like a lesser stock on Nasdaq,” said Eric Wind, a vintage watch dealer based in Palm Beach, Fla.
“With Universal Genève, there were watches that were trading for $3,800, but three years later were trading for $40,000,” he added.
Even Z.R.C., the little-known brand that Mr. Heileson began to collect, has seen its vintage watches rise in value: For example, a Z.R.C. Securicode model from the early 1960s that likely retailed for less than $100 sold for a total of 35,750 euros ($40,575), including fees, at an online auction in November 2020.
A common misconception among would-be buyers of older brands is that the timepieces are difficult to service. “But in fact, many of these watches use the exact same chronograph movements as in the Rolex Daytona, the Valjoux 72, so it’s just as easy to service,” Mr. Wind said.
If brands were using the same movements, why did some makers triumph and others collapse? Nicholas Manousos, executive director of the Horological Society of New York, said it “boils down to fashion and marketing.”
“Every mechanical watch has a barrel, a gear train that you wind up, an escapement, a balance wheel and, on the dial, some hands to tell the time,” Mr. Manousos said. “On top of that, you have to tell some sort of marketing story so that people want to buy it.”
Another reason some brands stumbled, said Nathalie Wheldon, owner of Hovigs Supply House, a Los Angeles-based supplier of watch components, has to do with the way they positioned themselves in the years just before quartz watches began flooding the market.
“Brands that focused on watches for the masses were the ones that got eaten up the most — because that’s what quartz did, it made owning a watch much more democratic,” she said.
In a sign that history really does come full circle, some entrepreneurs are now trying to reinvent brands that faltered in the 1970s — as mechanical watchmakers for the masses.
Guillaume Laidet is chief among them. The Paris-based entrepreneur is working with three brands on ambitious comeback efforts. In 2018, he teamed with the Hong Kong-based Montrichard Group to acquire the rights to the Nivada Grenchen logo and name from a Mexican company, Grupo Industrial Omega SA de CV.
Two years later, he and his partners at the French-owned Korius Group bought the Swiss movement maker Excelsior Park from the retailer Tourneau. And in November, he began consulting with the Promobe group in Luxembourg to oversee the rebirth of Vulcain, whose Cricket alarm watch earned the nickname “The President’s Watch” because many American presidents have owned one.
Mr. Laidet said he wanted to produce affordable modern collections for each label, centered on unabashed re-creations of their best sellers. “It’s easier to take a brand that already has a cool history than to create your own brand,” he said on a recent phone call. (Indeed, Mr. Laidet’s title at Nivada Grenchen is “co-refounder” and chief brand officer.)
“A lot of brands just need a refresh and to be aligned with the market,” he added.
By that Mr. Laidet meant the watches must be priced just right, a delicate balance of costs, profit and demand: He said that was in the $750 to $2,500 range for Nivada Grenchen, around $2,275 for Excelsior Park, and as much as $6,800 for Vulcain
To meet those price points, he is relying on off-the-shelf manual-wind chronograph movements from Sellita, a supplier based in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. “I would love to bring back the EP40 chronograph caliber from Excelsior Park, but I would need a pot of cash and it wouldn’t work as well as the Sellita,” he said.
Mr. Laidet’s approach is hardly novel. In the 1980s, on the eve of the mechanical watchmaking renaissance, marketers such as Jean-Claude Biver — the former Omega salesman who acquired the rights to the brand name Blancpain for about $16,000 in 1981 and sold the brand to the Swatch Group in 1992 for $43 million — proved that there was money to be made in reviving dead brands.
The rebirth of Panerai in the late 1990s and its subsequent acquisition by Compagnie Financière Richemont in 1997 confirmed the wisdom of such a strategy. Once an obscure maker of timepieces for elite divers in the Italian navy, the Florence, Italy-based brand was resurrected in 1995, when Sylvester Stallone, in Rome to shoot a film, discovered its Luminor model. He commissioned a limited edition with his signature, generating publicity that vaulted the brand into the horological spotlight.
“They made a few watches in the ’60s, some in the ’70s and then they more or less said goodbye until somebody said, ‘Hey, that’s a great name,’” Mr. Bacs said. “At the time they revived it, I don’t think they thought it would be such a big thing one day.”
Yet for every success story like Blancpain or Panerai, there are scores of brands languishing in horological purgatory. Some once-celebrated makers, including the Swiss brand Cortébert, went bankrupt during the quartz crisis and lost the rights to their names, which now are used to peddle cheap quartz styles.
Others were acquired by Chinese companies (in Eterna’s case, by Citychamp Watch & Jewellery Group of Hong Kong, which, in 2013, also acquired Corum, another Swiss maker) and continue to make watches, but have failed to recapture their past glory.
Some of the greatest American watchmakers of the past 150 years have had similar experiences. Companies such as Elgin, Gruen and Waltham have been acquired, restarted and traded, but now are not much more than brand names awaiting a savvy marketer or cash-rich opportunist to resuscitate them.
Of all the great 20th century brands that lost their way, however, there is one (you may have a good guess by now) whose fate continues to torment vintage watch lovers.
“Universal Genève is the one that breaks my heart,” Ms. Wheldon wrote in an email following her phone interview. “Its historical ties to Hermès, Patek Philippe (through Henri Stern) and Gerald Genta are all reasons to love this brand.”
Mr. Laidet said he tried last summer, and failed, to acquire the rights to Universal Genève, which was purchased in 1989 by Stelux, a Hong Kong-based investment group. It tried to revive the brand about two decades ago, and has done very little with it since.
But Mr. Laidet still hopes that, one day, he might be able to introduce a modern version of the Genta-designed Polerouter featuring elements, such as the micro-rotor, that have made it a darling of collectors.
“Universal Genève would be the dream,” he said. “The unicorn.”