Switzerland’s little known, second-oldest watch brand and its fascinating history that intersects with Bovet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and others
Favre-Leuba: An Introduction
The history of the watch industry is littered with defunct brands, many of which met their demise during the quartz crisis of the 1970s. Others were gobbled up by large conglomerates during this time. And finally, some companies transformed into just a skeleton of the fine watch manufacturers they had been for years, sometimes centuries prior. That’s what has happened to Favre-Leuba. It’s a Swiss watch manufacturer still in existence to this day, headquartered in Zug, Switzerland (separately referred to as the “Crypto Valley” by some Ethereum nerds, more on that in a minute).
Favre-Leuba traces its roots back to 1737, making it the second-oldest watch brand in Switzerland, after Blancpain (1735). It was founded by Abraham Favre in Le Locle, Switzerland, who was eventually appointed the “master watchmaker” of Le Locle, a position that every city should have.
In 1792, Abraham’s son, Abraham Favre, Jr., with his sons, started a watch company, A. Favre. & Fils. As the story goes, Abraham Jr. was obsessed with improving the technology in his watches (an ethos Favre-Leuba continued to draw on into the 20th Century), and the company quickly expanded its reach across the globe. By 1815, the Favre clan joined forces with Auguste Leuba, a guy from a watchmaking family in its own right, to form Favre-Leuba. In the early 1800s, the Favres and Leubas, led by Fritz Favre, travelled around the world together, taking their pocket watches to national and international exhibitions, including the Universal Exhibition in London (1851), the New York Fair (1853), racking up awards and accolades along the way.
Around this time, growth in the European market began to slow, and Fritz Favre’s children (the sixth generation of Favres in the watch business at this point) worked to spread Favre-Leuba throughout Asia, especially India. 1896 saw the brand move its headquarters from Le Locle to Geneva. The brand continued to see global success and growth throughout the early part of the 20th Century.
After Longines produced what is likely the first wristwatch chronograph, in 1913, Favre-Leuba jumped in, creating its first monopusher chronographs by 1925 (all chronographs were monopushers until Breitling introduced the two-button system in 1934), in addition to its time-only and other timepieces. Favre-Leuba continued to produce chronographs with ebauche movements through the 1960s, typically using Valjoux movements (and sometimes Landeron, more below).
In 1948, Favre-Leuba purchased the name and production facilities of Bovet. Favre-Leuba soon gave up the Bovet brand in 1950 and began using Bovet’s former plants to exclusively produce Favre-Leuba branded watches. Favre-Leuba eventually sold Bovet’s manufacturing in Fleurier in 1966, and Parmigiani Fleurier later purchased the Bovet name in 1989, which led to the real re-birth of the Bovet brand into its current ultra-luxury status. But for two years, from 1948 to 1950, Favre-Leuba produced Favre-Leuba Bovet watches, and mostly chronographs. The two-year period is a commercial anomaly for Bovet, which throughout its history has been known as a limited-production, high-end brand. During the time it owned the brand, Favre-Leuba was cranking out co-branded Favre-Leuba Bovet watches in relatively large numbers.
These chronographs featured ebauche movements from Valjoux (the caliber 77 or 84) or Landeron (the caliber 47, 48, 51, 57, 59, 80, and 81). As you might imagine, even though they were produced en masse, few of these Favre-Leuba Bovet chronographs exist in original condition today, and even fewer with a Valjoux movement — Landerons were a bit cheaper to produce at the time. When Favre-Leuba first purchased Bovet and began using the name, the stylized Bovet logo was replaed with a simple “Bovet” in normal type, but they later transitioned back to using the stylized Bovet. Just before the Favre-Leuba watches no longer used the Bovet brand, watches assembled at the Bovet facility bore the name of both Favre-Leuba and Bovet.
Favre-Leuba Goes In-House
In 1955, Favre-Leuba introduced its manual winding FL 101 caliber, an independent movement made only for Favre-Leuba. At the beginning, Favre-Leuba worked with its movement manufacturer Lavina, which at the time was a subsidiary of Favre-Leuba, to create the fully in-house movement. In the 1960s, Favre-Leuba built its own manufacturing site in Geneva, where it manufactured its in-house FL movements. This also included the FL 102, 103 and 104, all of which used the FL 101 as the base.
The caliber FL 102, introduced in 1957, presented a calendar function and was used in Favre-Leuba’s Datic models. The automatic FL 103 and FL 104 movements followed, which are equipped with our without a date display, respectively.
In 1962, Favre-Leuba introduced the caliber FL 251, an extra-thin, twin-barrel with a central second hand and a power reserve of 50 hours. The movement measured just 2.95mm thick, a real revolution in serially-produced extra-thin movements. It was available in different versions, with or without calendar function, and was later manufactured as an automatic version and used in a wide range of watch models.
In 1968, Favre-Leuba added an automatic winding to its thin double-barrel calibers, making it one of the first brands to use this combination in series production. The new movements were available with or without calendar function.
Drawing on its history of innovation, in 1962, Favre-Leuba introduced the Bivouac, the first ever mechanical watch with aneroid barometer to measured altitude without using a liquid, and an air pressure measurement. Explorer Paul-Emile Victor was one of the first to wear this piece during his Antarctica expedition. Additionally, a couple intrepid explorers used the watch while summiting the Grandes Jorasses in the Alps (take that Rolex Explorer).
In 1960, Favre-Leuba introduced the Water Deep, the brand’s first dive watch. It had large, luminous indices, a rotating bezel that sat under glass and rotated using only a rotator at 2 o’clock. It was a true tool watch for its time. The brand improved upon this watch in 1964, with the release of the Deep Blue, which had water resistance up to 200m.
Inspired by its successful dive watch collection as well as the success of the Bivouac, Favre-Leuba worked to combine the two technologies (water resistance and aneroid barometer) to create a dive watch that could tell the wearer its depth underwater. The result was the Bathy, first released in 1968, the first mechanical watch that indicated dive time as well as dive depth.
Favre-Leuba and the Quartz Crisis
By the 1960s, the eighth generation of the Favre family owned the company and sat on its board of directors. But, the challenges brought on by the quartz crisis after the first quartz movement was introduced in 1969 greatly increased the pressures on the 200-year-old brand.
In 1965, Favre-Leuba joined forces with Jaeger-LeCoultre under the SAPHIR Group. The SAPHIR Group had been the holding company of Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin from 1937 until 1965, when Vacheron bought back its portion of the business to become an independent company. But, the quartz crisis spelled trouble for the Favre-JLC mashup, and SAHPIR changed hands multiple times over the coming decades, from VDO Automotives to Benedom and finally to LVMH.
The story gets a bit happier for Jaeger-LeCoultre from there, as its expertise as a movement manufacturer made it valuable to other watch brands, eventually becoming a part of Richemont (which, by the way, owns Vacheron Constantin, bringing the long-lost friends back under the same holding company roof).
Meanwhile, Favre-Leuba kind of just fell by the wayside, until it was purchased by Titan, part of the multi-national Indian conglomerate Tata Group. In 2016, Favre- Leuba re-launched with its Raider and Chief collections, the two collections that still make up its modern catalog. The brand would make its triumphant return to Baselworld in 2017, drawing on its most successful design cues from the 1960s and 70s. The company still prides itself on its technological prowess, just as the first Favres did back in the 1700s. The Baselworld 2017 releases included a new Biovouac (under the Raider collection) that is the only watch with the ability to measure altitude up to 9000m mechanically. The goal was to create a watch that for Mt. Everest, which measures 8848m. If that’s not kind of cool and totally unnecessary, then I don’t know what is.
You can buy some of the modern Favre-Leuba watches on Farfetch: the chronographs generally use Valjoux movements, while the time-only pieces use ETA movements. They’re typically pretty large pieces, measuring 42mm and above, with cushion-style cases.
Oh, and if taking a look at its modern collection doesn’t just scream over engineered (I don’t use that term negatively), there’s this: Favre-Leuba’s modern watches apparently also uses blockchain technology to authenticate and protect the watches and their owners. Honestly, recording and tracking expensive timepieces (or any expensive piece of personal or real property) is one of the use cases of blockchain technology that makes the most sense. Imagine if there were a public ledger of all watch sales such that you could trace the provenance of a watch you’re buying, all the way back to the original retailer and manufacturer. Of course, this is what some brands already do with their meticulous recording of transactions in archives, but a blockchain might be an improvement on that centralized process.
The Modern A. Favre & Fils
By the way, the modern Favre-Leuba isn’t the only brand that traces its roots back to the original Abraham Favre of 1700s Le Locle, Switzerland. In January 2019, a modern A. Favre & Fils was launched by Laurent Favre, a tenth generation Favre. This A. Favre & Fils is creating the '“first Swiss handcrafted mechanical timepiece with a built-in crypto-currency cold wallet and state-of-the-art security solution.”
Before this, Laurent Favre had released three collections under the A. Favre & Fils name, but this crypto thing seems like a whole new beast alltogether — remember I said we’d get back to the “Crypto Valley”? Thanks to Laurent (and Favre-Leuba’s use of blockchain, which is at least crypto-adjacent), here we are.
Next Up: Part 2, Important References
While it’s interesting to talk about modern Favre-Leuba, it really has little in common with the Favre-Leuba of the 20th Century, which made fine, quality timepieces that competed with many of the watch brands we still know today (hell, Jaeger-LeCoultre partnered with Faevre-Leuba after ending its partnership with Vacheron, if that shows you the echelon Favre-Leuba was in at one time).
In a future post, I’ll talk about some of the most important references and models in Favre-Leuba’s long history (more in-depth than above). So stay tuned!