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Cuervo Y Sobrinos: A Tortuous Unwinding

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An double branded 900 grade silver Longines for Cuervo Y Sobrinos pocket watch from about 1920 with 40mm case, decorated with a gold plated and tooled flower pattern and powered by a Longines caliber 1593 movement. Note the design mismatch in the main hands (pics from assets.catawiki.nl):

 

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The history of the Cuervo Y Sobrinos watch brand began in 1864 when Ramon Cuervo (Don Ramon) opened a jewellery store in Calle Muralla, at the centre of Havana, Cuba. At this time, Havana was a renowned resort, characterized by its colonial architecture and becoming a symbol of luxury and the finer things in life, resulting in the city being dubbed, “the pearl of the Caribbean.” Prestige hotels and villas saw high society engage in parties and other events, and the casinos catered for a wealthy and cosmopolitan elite, encouraging the arrival to the city of businessmen, intellectuals and political leaders from Europe and elsewhere, hoping to enjoy the so-called “slow tiempo,” heady atmosphere, and loosening of constraints that their home countries or societal positions could not so easily provide.

 

The jewellery shop in Calle Muralla catered to the trends mentioned above, which continued to increase in the late 19th/early 20th century, and the success of the shop led Don Ramon Cuervo to have a family discussion about its future. The upshot of this was that in 1882, Ramon’s nephew, F. Armando Rio Y Cuervo (b. Quinzales, Spain, 1862), together with his brothers, took over the management of the business, naming it “Cuervo Y Sobrinos” (Cuervo & Nephews) and contributing to its further success. Indeed, under the leadership of F. Armando Rio Y Cuervo (Armando) the store became the most prestigious jewellers in Havana and attained a global reputation. In addition to jewellery, the Cuervo Y Sobrinos shop now added watches to its product range.

 

 

 

 

 

A 1950s Cuervo Y Sobrinos hand-wind chronograph wristwatch with a 34mm (excl. crown) chrome plated case and powered by a Landeron chronograph movement (pics from assets.catawiki.nl):

 

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Over the years, the boutique expanded and was relocated to the prestigious Calle San Rafael, where it was frequented by an international clientele, including men of letters, scientists, politicians and artists. The firm’s “libro d’oro” and photographs later discovered in the firm’s old vaults reveal visitors including Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, Enrico Caruso, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Pablo Neruda, and Elenora Duse. It is not clear just how many shops or buildings the Cuervo family eventually occupied in Havana and how far apart these premises were; there was, of course, the shop in Calle san Rafael, but one source indicates that there was at least one other shop, and perhaps a third premises. Finally, I discovered a piece of text that has clarified matters somewhat. It seems that mention of a shop -“La Casa” - in Avenida Quinta, refers to the original San Rafael Street shop rather than another move to a separate premises, and it was at this original store that some antique movements and the company documentation were discovered in 1997; the likely conclusion is that the street address was altered to Avenida Quinta (see postscript at the end of this topic).

 

 

 

 

 

The prestigious Avenida Quinta shop of Cuervo Y Sobrinos in Havana photographed in the 1950s (pic from secure-journal.hautehorologie.org):

 

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With the continuing expansion of the jewellery shop, and the firm’s growing reputation in Europe and the Americas, including the USA, it was decided by Cuervo Y Sobrinos to acquire three offices/branches in Europe. The German branch, in Pforzheim, specialised in the selection of gemstones, while in Paris, on Rue Mezlay,  jewellery was made for the firm. The slightly later (c.1930) Swiss atelier, sited at La Chaux de Fonds, was concerned with the production of watches. In terms of the three European branch offices and the watches in general produced/marketed by the Cuervo family business from the late 19th century onwards, there is almost a blank sheet with only tidbits of information available. Whether complete watches were retailed from the European branches is not known, nor do we know exactly what activities the La Chaux-de-Fonds atelier performed - it seems unlikely that Cuervo Y Sobrinos actually manufactured any watches. What we do know is that a number of watch companies, including Vacheron and Longines, double-branded some products destined for sale by Cuervo Y Sobrinos in Havana, with the name Cuervo Y Sobrinos on the dial as well as their own watch company name, and in the early 1940s, Rolex and Patek Philippe began a collaboration with Cuervo Y Sobrinos that seems to have included some customization of watches in addition to mere double branding. Of course, Cuervo Y Sobrinos also imported many watches from Switzerland that only bear the Cuervo branding, usually with "Habana/Havana" also on the dial, and some of these are also marked with the Spanish phrase, UNICOS IMPORTADORES, meaning "Sole Importers."

 

 

 

 

 

A  triple calendar Cuervo Y Sobrinos wristwatch from about the early 1950s with a 34mm (excl. crown) steel case and powered by a Handwind 17J  FHF 175-3 movement. Note the seconds register at 6 o'clock and the calendar disc which can be set by rotating it via the second crown (pics from assets.catawiki.nl):

 

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Cuervo Y Sobrinos continued in operation until the late 1950s, and the demise of the firm ultimately became inevitable with the final stages of the Cuban revolution and the end of Batista’s second period of rule in Cuba at the end of the 1950s. Apparently, the shut-down of the Cuervo family business in Havana was very hasty and ill-prepared, with the family having to flee the shop with no more than they could carry; the jewellery shop, with its steel vaults, was subsequently left locked for the next forty years. One member of the family did experiment with a jewellery business in Mexico but the venture failed, and I should also add that, problematically in connection with the sudden end of Cuervo Y Sobrinos in about 1959, there are a number of surviving Cuervo Y Sobrinos branded watches that date to the 1960s. I am not going to pass judgement here on the morality of either Castro and the Cuban revolution or the Batista regime and the earlier governance of Cuba from the the late colonial period. Nevertheless, I do feel that it is interesting and valid for readers of this topic to take a look at Cuban history and society over the period and relate it to the Cuervo Havana jewellery boutique, and the Cuba that was, at that time, a “playground for the rich and famous.”

 

 

 

 

 

A rare oversize "Nickel Chrome" Cuervo Y Sobrinos wristwatch from about 1935-40 with 47mm case, subsidiary seconds at the 9 o'clock position, hinged back, and 15 J hand-wind movement (pics from i.ebayimg.com):

 

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The story of Cuervo Y Sobrinos essentially came to an end with the victory of the Cuban revolutionaries, and it might have been sensible to leave this topic there. However, I cannot resist the temptation to discuss the rebirth of the Cuervo Y Sobrinos brand some forty years after the original company folded. There is no direct connection between the original concern and the modern Cuervo Y Sobrinos watch brand, but at least there was direct inspiration involved on the part of Italian entrepreneur Marzio Villa, founder of the new Cuervo Y Sobrinos company a few years post-2000. Please note that I have deliberately avoided illustrating models from the revived Cuervo Y Sobrinos brand - these watches can easily be located online, as can various reviews

 

Extraordinarily, given how recently the new Cuervo T Sobrinos brand came into existence, the story of how Marzia Villa went to Cuba and visited the Havana location(s) of the former Cuervo Y Sobrinos company, and the events leading up to the foundation of the new Cuervo Y Sobrinos company, are confused and confusing, with exact dates and events unclear. The modern firm officially relaunched the Cuervo Y Sobrinos brand in 2002 and in the following year showed a full collection at Baselworld, but as far as events leading up to this commencement are concerned, I am the victim of poor translations and lack of detail in the available sources. The most complete account I have come across is the description by Stefano Landi of the forming of the new firm provided in a culture special from Corriere della Sierra dated 13 June 2013 and entitled, “The hour of the Cuban sweet life.” Here below I quote some of this article in the form of a Google translation from Italian:



CUERVO Y SOBRINOS

The hour of the Cuban sweet life

Ten years ago an Italian revitalized a forgotten brand Villa: «A watch that still makes us dream. And now I open to Havana »

...

[Marzia] Villa, 66 years old, for a game of destiny is today the president of Cuervo y Sobrinos. An Italian living in Spain, with the company's headquarters in Capolago, Switzerland and a museum-shop in the heart of Havana. A long story

Ten years ago, in Milan, Villa finds an announcement in a short article in an Italian magazine. For 30 years in the world of luxury watches, he has always dreamed of launching a new brand. In the newspaper there was an offer to sell four Cuervo y Sobrinos gold watches and the possibility of taking over the brand by purchasing them. In a historical moment in which the vintage returns to dictate the law in all fashion, an operation in step with the times. "After very long negotiations, in a year and a half I managed to create an international network to revive that imaginary that had always fascinated me with my parents' stories."

Marzio Villa, president of Cuervo y Sobrinos Villa leaves for Cuba: in its suitcase all the books on Havana in the thirties. He wants to see up close what was left of the old store and build on that foundation. The three boutiques had become a warehouse where people threw things from the street.

"But there I started to dream: I had everything cleaned up, the marble columns, three safes, some walls with boiserie." In the basement of the store, Villa also finds the «libro de oro» with photographs by Hemingway, Caruso, Clark Gable, Winston Churchill and Einstein: loyal customers of the boutique.

“In the watches we produce today I didn't want to change either the philosophy or the aesthetics: in those years there were more pocket models, the wrist ones had other colors, a rectangular base and less sophisticated mechanics: the soul of these watches remained the nostalgic return to the times when people had taste, lived for the beauty of things ".

For ten years Cuervo y Sobrinos has reopened its doors in 178 square meters in front of the majestic door of the old Parliament. You breathe the air of the past. "On the roots of the old Havana, I have given credibility to a brand that is still dreaming and everyone remembers with pleasure". And the old grandchildren?

"Naturally I looked for them: the only great-grandson I tracked down in Madrid, I invited him to lunch and he explained to me that only a few stories of his grandmother remained of that story." In addition to the passion for vintage cars, Villa plays piano, guitar, bass and accordion. This is why he composed a song for the 130th anniversary of the company. Today in the shop come tourists looking for Havana who is not there, but also Cubans who have saved a life to have on their wrist their grandparents' watch. As if it were a way to get back the well-being of their island. "I kept the style and reproduced the old mechanics for some limited editions: today in Cuba everyone is trying to plagiarize the past, I can proudly say that Cuervo y Sobrinos is not an imitation".

Every time he walks at sunset in Havana, Villa closes his eyes and cradles himself in memories with the air of one who has (re) found a treasure and has projected it over time.

 

               


A stainless steel Cuervo Y Sobrinos chronograph dating to about the mid-1960s and powered by a Landeron based caliber. This watch is one of a number of "problematic" Cuervo Y Sobrinos watches that post-date the normally stated closure of the original company in about 1959. This contradiction is just one of the many difficulties I encountered in trying to form a coherent and reasonably detailed history of the Cuervo Y Sobrinos watch brand (pic from i.imgur.com):

 

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The Havana shop museum is now an international tourist spot for those visiting Cuba, neatly placed near the cruise terminal. As for the modern Cuervos Y Sobrinos watches produced by the company, these are geared towards the luxury market for Swiss watches, with a nod towards the Havana origins of the brand name in the names given to the various collections, such as Historiador, Torpedo and Robusta. The company is headquartered at Le Noirmont in the Swiss Jura, not far from La Chaux-de-Fonds, but it is unclear how much practical horology or watch manufacturing/assembly is performed here or elsewhere under the direct control of the company. In 2005, the firm presented the first eponymous chronograph movement “exclusively developed for Cuervo Y Sobrinos;” the caliber CYS 2450. And this was followed in 2007 by the launch of a tourbillon movement - the CYS 2854.

 

Cuervos Y Sobrinos is engaged in various sponsored events and sporting activities, most notably classic car racing. The firm also sponsors and awards its own annual “Latino International” award dedicated to those Latin celebrities who have “reached well-deserved fame across the globe.”

 

 Postscript - New Historical Information: I have finally obtained some clarification as to the events leading up to the formation of the revived Cuervo Y Sobrinos watch brand. According to The Watch Press (a site dedicated to luxury watches), in a piece about Cuervo Y Sobrinos, we have the following paragraphs:

 

"Bearing in mind that now the business built from 1882 was now in the third family generation, and also considering how many family businesses survive the handing down from generation to generation, the Cuervo Y Sobrinos brand suffered heavily from the unceremonious routing from their homeland, unable to maintain the continuity from their home in exile in Europe, and in the following short years, the once celebrated marque fell into decline and eventual quiet disappearance.

As the years passed, the Cuervo Y Sobrinos name and the wonderful timepieces once so loved by so many of the worlds most sought-after clientele became a footnote in watchmaking history. For four decades the brand simply ceased to be.

And perhaps it might still be a forgotten treasure had it not been for the intervention of Italian businessman and historian Luca Musumeci in 1997, Luca Musumeci recognised the potential of restoring life into the Cuervo Y Sobrinos marque when he purchased the now derelict brand and whatever assets still belonged to it. On visiting La Casa, the original shop on Avenida Quinta, Havana, he found a veritable treasure trove, including old watch designs and drawings, movements and cases which had been stored away in three enormous trunks. Perhaps more than he had expected to find, and it was not until 2001 that he and his partner Mario Villa, an experienced distributor of luxury timepieces, recommenced the production of Cuervo Y Sobrinos timepieces in the new production facility in La Chaux de Fonds and began to develop and stimulate new sales grounds in Europe and further afield."

 

 

 

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