BOOKREVIEW: Martin: Swiss historical commemorative watches

Discussion in 'Horological Books' started by Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Mar 21, 2009.

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  1. Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

    Fortunat Mueller-Maerki National Library Chair
    NAWCC Star Fellow NAWCC Life Member NAWCC Member

    Aug 25, 2000
    Horological Bibliographer -
    Sussex New Jersey USA
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    Bookreview by Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

    Commemorative and Prize Pocket Watches from Switzerland

    Swiss historical watches – Montres historiques suisses – Historische Uhren der Schweiz Orologgi storici della Svizzera, by Jean L. Martin. Vol. 1 (1976, 132 p., titled: Montres de tir Suisse – Swiss shooting watches, out-of –print), Vol. 2 (1980, 450 numbered copies, 92 p., out of print), Vol. 3 (1984, 500 copies, 216 p., out of print), Vol. 4 (1991, 500 copies, out of print), Vol. 5 (1997, 400 copies, 180 p.), Vol. 6 (2004, 450 copies, 128 p., titled: Montres de Tir du Canton de Vaud), Vol. 7 (2006, 200 copies, 40 p.). All published by the author: J. L. Martin, Chemin des Pyramides 13, CH-1007 Lausanne, Switzerland, tel. +41-21-625 9836. Price per volume for those not out of print: CHF 60 to 80 (approx. US$ 50-70) plus postage; some volumes paperback, some hardcover.

    Occasionally, collectors of high grade Swiss pocket watches stumble on a watch that seems to have been cased in a special case made for a commemorative occasion. While uncommon even in Switzerland, they are rarely seen outside that country and information on them is virtually impossible to find. The case often shows a shooting or marksmen related theme, or then some allegorical scene. Many of them have engraved inscriptions in German or French which mean little to the international collector.

    These watches were originally prize-watches awarded for superior marksmanship. To understand their significance one must understand the military defense system of Switzerland. For centuries, all able bodied males in Switzerland were part of the Swiss Militia Army, a defense force organized much like the US National Guard. Service involved some basic training in one’s youth and periodic participation in a few weeks of training camp, initially yearly while being in one’s 20s, and gradually decreasing in frequency to once a decade in one’s 50s, but once-a-soldier you were automatically part of the ready reserves until you were 60 years old. Training time was short and to valuable to be wasted on practicing basic marksmanship. The government therefore decreed by law that all male citizens were required to belong to the local rifle club and annually pass a rigorous exam in marksmanship administered by these clubs; failing the exam in any one year would result in 3 days of extra military service that year.

    No wonder the rifle clubs were focal points of local life, and good marksmanship became a precondition for being a respected citizen. Starting in the mid-1800s (and continuing for most of the 20th century) the annual national shooting competitions - the “Eidgenössisches Schützenfest” or “Tir Fédéral” – were major civic and patriotic events, even the local and regional preliminary tournaments were notable occasions. The winner, the “Schützenkönig” (the ‘King of marksmen’) was a national celebrity. And for a period of well over one hundred years the preferred prize for the winners in the many categories was a fine pocket watch, typically in a commemorative case created for the occasion and often engraved with the name of the winner. Movements came from many makers, including such well known brands as Longines and Omega, and were typically of superior quality.

    Starting in the late 19th century it became clear that soldiers also needed to be physically fit, and and participation in the local gymnastic societies became a popular patriotic pastime as well, leading to regional and national gymnastic competitions, complete with determining a statewide and nationwide “King of gymnasts”. And again, specially commissioned, embossed and engraved watches were the preferred award.

    It is not surprising that only few of these prize watches circulated in the marketplace, as they were family heirlooms passed down to younger generations as proof of the virtues of ones elders. But eventually some Swiss horological collectors discovered this fascinating niche made up of high-grade, sometimes unique, watches, where each one told a story.

    By 1980, one of these collectors, a gentleman from Lausanne named Jean Martin, felt the urge to document whatever ‘Swiss shooting watches’ he had been able to identify and published a small quatrolingual (French/German/Italian/English) guide to this specialized niche with illustrations of 234 prize watches. As time went on, additional volumes followed (now also including prize watches for gymnasts). Eventually, the author included other commemorative watches of historic significance in his research, and reaching a cumulative count of 800 different watches by the end of volume 7. Each watch is illustrated (usually both case and dial), movement makers are indentified, as are often the case makers, designers and/or engravers.

    I am lucky enough to have assembled over the decades a complete set of all seven volumes of the series, Few collectors will want or really need them, but if you happen to stumble on one of these rare Swiss prize watches it is certainly helpful to know that this series of specialized books does exist. The National Watch and Clock Library has single copies of volumes 2, 4 and 5 on their shelves and is in the process of getting at least volumes 6 and 7 (single copies only, therefore no lending, to be consulted on site only in Columbia PA).

    March 15, 2009
    Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ

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