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It's There in the Name: Eterna Watches

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NOTE: This is a reprint, with some picture and text editing, of my topic first posted in October 2016 on the Christopher Ward Forum
Eterna is one of those brand names that has a classic vintage resonance, both in word terms and literally since this company takes us right back to the middle of the nineteenth century for its origins. Unfortunately for me, even a company as important as Eterna has inconsistencies between historical accounts, and I shall do my best to make this article as seamless as possible so that the reader and myself are not irritated or confused by specific passages where I am forced to give different variations of the Eterna story. Anyway, here goes:

On 7 November 1856, after a gap in the Swiss watch industry was spotted, a company for the manufacture of watch movements was established in Grenchen, Solothurn, Switzerland by Dr. Joseph Girard and Urs Schild, a 28 year old school teacher. This firm traded as "Dr. Girard & Schild," making both finished and part-finished ébauches and setting out mutual rights and obligations of employees and employers in writing eight years on from the founding of the company.

Eterna Grand Prix pocket watch from 1918 with 800 silver 47.5mm case and caliber 165 15-jewel gold plated movement (pic from ranfft.de):

The partnership of Girard and Schild continued in business until Dr. Girard left, and Urs Schild was sole owner until his death of aged 58, in 1888. Urs Schild, and later his son Max Schild, were evidently go-ahead manufacturers, with Urs Schild introducing automated machines into the Grenchen factory, powered not only by water but also by a steam engine. Urs Schild was also quick to spot a need for the company to start producing complete watches in addition to movements, and the first Schild pocket watch was made in 1876. By this time, Urs Schild's brother Adolph had joined the company, which was now trading as Schild Freres & Co. (grave accent on first 'e'). Urs Schild also renamed the factory, "Prazisionsuhren-Fabrik Gebruder Schild" (umlaut on first 'a' and last 'u'), reflecting that the two brothers Urs and Adolph were now making precision watches. In 1882 (or 1887) Urs Schild was elected to the National Council of the Swiss Federation, but this position was not to last as in 1888, aged just 58, Urs Schild, co-founder of what was to be the Eterna Watch company, died.

On the death of Urs Schild, ownership of the company passed to Urs Schild's two sons Theodor and Max. The position of Adolph Schild at this time is not clear, and the firm now traded as Schild Freres. By 1890, the company empoyed about 300 workers and had a daily production of 180 timepieces. Interestingly, although the firm was not to become Eterna until after 1900, some watches before that date were already being marked with the "Eterna" logo on the dial, and these were so named as a particular collection of watches. Max Schild apparently continued the industrial modernisation of production that Urs had started following a trip to the United States. Perhaps he was too far ahead of his time because it is said that his ideas met with an unfavourable response, and discouraged, he soon left active involvement in the company to Theodor.

A beautiful silver-cased (48mm) Eterna chronometer pocket watch with inner cover and gold-plated movement, dating to 1926 (pic from eternafanatic.com):

At the start of the twentieth century, Schild Freres was already prepared for the genesis of the wristwatch as a popular accessory, and they started to produce ladies' wristwatches adapted from small pocket watches. Continuing to be ahead of the game, the firm filed a patent in 1904 for a military wristwatch casing with moving safety band lugs and in 1908 an alarm wristwatch was also patented, by which time the firm had become known as the Eterna Watch Company. In fact, the name change in 1905/06, officially confirmed in the latter year, was to, "Eterna-werke, Gebruder Schild & Co.", so still reflecting the brothers as proprietors. Eterna as the company is so designated from 1906, continued to expand and modernise. Worldwide offices were opened and production began to expand considerably due to advances in manufacturing practices and the use of electrical machinery. The alarm wristwatch, the first of its type in serial production, was made from 1914 and was launched at the Swiss national Exhibition in Berne that year.

The pioneering Eterna alarm wristwatch, together with two other important alarm wristwatches, most notably the Vulcain example. The Eterna has been described as a "modified pocket watch" then losing its pioneering status somewhat, but this model is surely a proper wristwatch, and the version in this picture dates to about 1915-1925 (pic from adventures in watch fettling.files.wordpress.com)

In 1929, Eterna further developed their alarm wristwatch for the 1930s by producing a model with an eight-day power capacity. And in 1930, Eterna launched the smallest production wristwatch with a baguette movement - the caliber 610 being just 7.25mm X 22.5mm. Other makers had made smaller watches but only by hand. Then, in 1932, two momentous changes occurred in the history of Eterna, the second of which was to have future repercussions for the Swiss watch industry. I now have to state specifically that there are important contradictions within the available information that need to be mentioned with regard to the changes at Eterna in 1932, so please bear with me.

The first change at Eterna in 1932 was that Theodor Schild, who had led the company since 1899 (presumaby when Max was no longer active in the firm) died, and was succeeded by Max Schild's son, Rudolf Schild-Comtesse. This is one version - the other states that Theodor Schild merely retired from the business in that year, passing the firm on to his nephew Rudolf and remaining on the Board of Directors until 1950. The second change in 1932 was the division of the company into two distinct legal entities, ETA SA and Eterna, with ETA being responsible for the manufacture of movements and Eterna for watch production. Once again, we have a somewhat different account to take into consideration, whereby ETA had apparently already been established by Eterna, as a subsidiary company. Whatever the case, we can say that the formation of ETA as a leading manufacturer of ébauches and movem ents was to be very important both for Eterna and the Swiss watch industry as a whole. ETA became a major player in the development and production of watch movements, and is now a vital part of the Swatch group, supplying many companies with movements for their watches.

Eterna hand-wind full day/date calendar watch from about 1950 - this model, and related models, has been reissued in sympathetically modified form by Eterna from the 1980s onwards (pic from eternal-fanatic.com):


Wikipedia gives 1938 as the date for Eterna's first automatic watch but the real breakthrough in automatic movement design at the company did not occur until ten years later, when the Eterna-matic was launched. Automatic wristwatch movements that functioned reasonably well had been in production from the early 1920s and there were subsequent improvements in the original Harwood system of a pivoted swinging weight used to wind the mainspring. In spite of these improvements, the problem of wear and tear on components caused by friction over a period of time was still present, and Eterna developed an improved automatic movement that incorporated a ball-bearing mounted rotor. To quote from the current Eterna website, "Eterna's epochal 1948 development proved a major step forward for self-winding technology, with a ball-bearing greatly easing the oscillating weight or winding rotor's rotation around the pivot axis. Reducing wear and tear on vital parts, Eterna's development extended the watch's working time, hence its useful life"...

In actual fact, the term "ball-bearing" in the above quote is a bit confusing because although the movement did indeed use a "ball-bearing," this was made up of five tiny (0.65mm) individual and strategically placed ball bearings, and so important was this innovation to Eterna that the company used the logo of five balls in a circle on its watches from the same year as the new Eterna-matic was launched. From this point on, all Eterna automatics were of the Eterna-matic type and the "five balls" symbol became a brand logo for the Grenchen manufacturer. Actually, I also have experienced a bit of spelling confusion as to what should be ball-bearing and what should be ball bearing without the hyphen - I hope I have got it right.

Superb 18 carat gold Eterna chronograph from about 1950 or a little earlier with a 37 mm (excl. crown) case and powered by a hand-wind caliber 703E movement (pic from retrovintagewatch.com):

While discussing the late 1940s at Eterna, something needs to be said about one particular watch model that became a classic. This is the KonTiki, so named after the extraordinary trip by Norwegian, Thor Heyerdahl, and five other Scandinavians in 1947 on a balsa-wood raft from Callao in Peru. The trip lasted 101 days and nights and covered about 8,000 kilometres, ending a bit prematurely on a coral reef at the Raroia Atoll in the Tuamoto archipeligo. This trip, made to prove a theory about colonisation of Polynesia from South America, resulted in no loss of life for the crew, all of whom were wearing Eterna watches. The company was a pioneer in the provision of watertight watch cases and after the Kon-Tiki expedition, all the watches worn by the crew were in good running order having been unaffected by the moisture, temperature variations, salt and corrosion engendered by the journey. The KonTiki watch was therefore created as a waterproof new model for the public to purchase, and became a classic model for Eterna, being popular through the 1950s. The reintroduced KonTiki is also an important watch collection for the revived Eterna Watch Company. For those readers particularly interested in the Eterna Kontiki, there is a considerable amount of information online including the following article:  wahawatches.com/the-eterna-kontiki-a-true-tool-watch/

late 1950s advertisement for the original Kontiki watch (pic from wahawatches.com), and the watch itself (pic from veblenist.com at images.squarespace-cdn.com):

1970s KonTiki 20 wristwatch (pic from wahawatches.com):

Also from the beginning of the 1950s, Eterna produced smaller variants on the Eterna-matic movement, and managed to get a march on other firms by launching the smallest automatic movement for ladies' watches dubbed the "Golden Heart" because of its 23 carat gold inertia mass - high carat gold being chosen for its considerable mass which gave the tiny rotor sufficient momentum. The Eterna watches designated, "Golden Heart" became popular, partly because of the movement's design and technology but also because it appealed to celebrities including Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot. further refinements of the Eterna-matic movement enabled Eterna to produce the Eterna-matic Dato 3000 in 1962, which established the record for the slimmest gents automatic watch with date display, in which the ebauche was only 3.6mm thick.

The ultra-slim Eterna model Eterna-matic 3000 wristwatch, c.1962-65 (pics from eterna-fanatic.com):


In 1971, just before the "quartz crisis" descended upon the Swiss watch industry, Rudolf Schild-Comtesse, who had been in charge of Eterna (and ETA) since 1932, retired. This was a blow to Eterna, as well as the watch industry in Switzerland as a whole. He had often been referred to as the "uhrenpatron" and not only worked on the board of the category association but created watchmaking schools and had his own cultural foundation. Eterna continued to function, however, and in the years following Rudolf's retirement, the company joined the multinational General Watch Company (GWC) along with other watchmaking concerns including Certina, Longines, Mido, Oris, Rado and Rotary. This didn't last for very long, however, because Eterna once again regained its autonomy when Swiss Industrialist, Franz Wassner, integrated the brand within his own group.

An early quartz model from Eterna dating to about 1973/74 as the first move away from tuning fork electronic watches. Eterna 7-jewel quartz caliber 1556 movement, also shown here below (pics from eterna-fanatic.com):



Even with the advent of the quartz crisis, Eterna moved to innovate and embrace the revolution forced on mechanical watchmaking. The first Eterna quartz watch was launched in 1973 or 1974, and in 1980 the firm launched what was to be the slimmest watch so far produced worldwide - the Linea Museum Quartz Watch, only about a millimetre thick. Also in 1980, Eterna received the "Grand Prix Triomphe de l'Excellence Europeenne" (grave accent on second 'e' of Europeenne), and it was in the first years of the 1980s that Eterna had perhaps reached its zenith as an important and influential Swiss watch company in its own right, after which we have various changes of ownership in a short period of time. From 1982 until the mid 1990s, Eterna went through several changes of ownership, and in 1995, Eterna became part of Prof. Ferdinand Alexander Porsche's F. A. P. Beteiligungs GmbH ("Porsche Design") group, and we find Eterna involved in the manufacture of all Porsche Design branded timepieces from 1999.

Elegant Eterna big face (36mm) hand-wind wristwatch apparently dating to 1945 and with a caliber 1136 movement (pics from eterna-fanatic.com):

The watches produced by Porsche Design are now seemingly highly regarded in spite of the fact that their brand origins were no longer within the watchmaking world, and this must be in part due to the quality of the products engendered by the Eterna connection. Indeed, the Porsche Design Indicator Chronograph launched at Baselworld 2004 was powered by a Caliber 6036 movement comprising 800 components and was the first chronograph to feature mechanical digital hour and minute displays. Eterna branding returned when the company resumed watch production in the 2000s, launching the ultra-thin automatic 3030, produced for the 150th anniversary of the company in 2006.

Eterna did not give up on its previous development of ball-bearing technology, and in 2009, half a century after the introduction of the Eterna-matic, a new ball-bearing Eterna ebauche was created, this time a hand-wind movenment called the "Spherodrive" which used 7 ball bearings for the two spring barrels and for the date changing assembly as well as for the power reserve display. Once again, this innovation reduced the need for lubrication and improved durability and reliability of the movement. Another project involving movement design was started in 2007, and named "project 39." The fruits of this project didn't emerge until 2013, and comprised a uniquely engineered base movement sized the same as the ETA 7753 that can be combined with eight modules to provide 88 different versions, one of which - the automatic column wheel chronograph - is numbered 3916A.

Classic stainless steel watch by Eterna for Porsche Design powered by an ETA 2824-2 movement (pic from zeitauktion.com/cloudfront.net):

With the ending of the connection with Porsche Design in 2011, what might have spelt the end of Eterna turned out to be more fortuitous than expected, even though the new owners of the firm were Chinese. Eterna finally passed into the hands of International Volant Ltd., a subsidiary of China Haidun, on 30 June 2012. China Haidun was re-named Citychamp Watch & Jewellery Group Ltd., and under the parenting of the group, Eterna has been maintained as a watch company able to continue its own development lines and products. Indeed, as part of the 2012 move of ownership from Porsche Design to China Haidun, Eterna was able to once again launch its own ebauches operation with the creation of Eterna Movement SA. This new centre for movement design and production has taken on the final stages of the Spherodrive and Caliber 39 series of movements, and promises to keep Eterna at the leading edge of mechanical watchmaking.

Eterna Madison Spherodrive 8-day wristwatch - front and back, showing the spherodrive ebauche (pic from watchtime.com):

The eight-day Eterna Spherodrive Caliber 3510 with 22 jewels and 7 ball bearings, also with glucodur balance and 28,800 vph. This is the latest culmination of work started in 2007 (pic from .y-watchsite.com):

As I now reach the conclusion to this quite lengthy topic, my feelings are that the Eterna watch company truly deserves it's name, which fosters a sense of immortality and fine quality. The firm is a genuine survivor, and one that has genuine longevity seemingly built into its DNA. There can be no doubt that Eterna watches of all periods must be, and will always remain, collectible, and watches in fine condition that represent milestones in Eterna's long history of innovation will surely become increasingly desirable. I have great respect for Eterna, and it would seem that this brand and company has perhaps been underrated in the pantheon of great names in watchmaking. There are clearly Eterna fans out there, and I would say that for someone looking for a high quality vintage or modern mechanical timepiece would do well to look at offerings from Eterna - even the watches made by the current iteration of this great name in watchmaking are not as expensive as you might think.

Modern Eterna Airforce Cambridge automatic chronograph with 38mm steel case, anti-reflective sapphire crystal, 30 metreWR, genuine crocodile strap, and powered by an ETA 2894-2 movement (pic from blog.breitlingsource.com):


Porsche Design chronograph with Valjoux 7750 movement featuring an Eterna-matic ball-bearing rotor system (pic from watchestobuy.com):

14 carat gold Eterna quartz men's watch from about 1985 showing front and rear. Sapphire crystal and ETA quartz movement (pics from zeitauktion.com/cloudfront.net):


Eterna Golden Heart ladies' wristwatch in 18 carat gold with the miniature Golden Heart Eterna movement, and a picture of the Golden Heart movement with its 23-carat gold rotor/weight (pics from i.ebayimg.com):

As a little pictorial postscript, it mustn't be forgotten that Eterna was one of the companies involved in producing the WWW British-specified military watch, and this example dates to about 1945 and has a steel 36mm case (pic from austinkaye.co.uk):
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