Eterna – Innovate or Die

12
1918

History!

In 1856, Dr. Joseph Girard and 28-year-old school teacher Urs Schild decided to make complete watch movements in Grenchen, Switzerland. The fledgling enterprise joined the landlocked nation’s growing success as a low-cost alternative to England’s domination of the watch and clock business. Thirty-two years later Urs went on to his heavenly reward. His son Max took the reins . . .

During a business trip to America, Max saw the light. What skilled Swiss hands accomplished over weeks, America machines and craftsmen could create in days, in bulk, using interchangeable parts. Max imported American machinery to revolutionize Swiss watchmaking. The idea went over like a lead balloon. Max quit.

Max’s brother Theodore Schild assumed control. Theordore wasn’t a firebrand like Max, but shared his brother’s love of technological innovation. The company manufactured the first watch built entirely in-house (using many machine-made parts). Eterna’s “hi-tech” culture was established.

As Schilds Fréres (Brothers) & Co. entered the 20th century, the watchmakers found success miniaturizing pocket watch movements to create some of the first wristwatches for women. In 1905, the re-christened Eterna went from strength to strength. In 1908, Eterna patented the first alarm wristwatch.

Vintage watch ad

The 1948 Eterna-matic self-winding watch was a gigantic leap forward – one of the first affordable self-winding watches. Its five ball bearings movement delivered increased accuracy and reduced wear and tear. It was a tremendous commercial success, inspiring its owners to adopt the five-ball logo the brand uses to this day.

Introduced in 1956, the gold-rotor Eterna-matic Golden Heart for Ladies was a smash hit, thanks in part to actress Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot donning the timepiece.

Eterna KonTiki ad

In 1947, Eterna scored another a hit with the Kontiki dive watch. In ’62, they won accolades for the world’s thinnest mechanical watch. The mid-70’s quartz crisis knocked the stuffing out of Josef Girard and Urs Schild’s brainchild – even though they embraced the technology.

In 1980 they recaptured ground with the world’s thinnest [quartz] watch (.98mm). A horological last hurrah? By 1982 the party was over. Although spin-off ETA movements ended up doing land office business for SWATCH, Eterna was on a distinctly downward trajectory.

Porsche design watch ad

Eterna passed through several hands, including a stint making watches for Porsche Design. In 2012, Chinese retailer Citychamp Watch & Jewellery took the reins. (They also bought Corum.)

The Eterna brand is now helping Citychamp profit from vertical integration. We don’t know exactly how that’s going; Coronageddon is surely taking its toll. In terms of technology, Eterna’s last innovation was 2009’s Spherodrive, still available new-in-box. Even sadder: Eterna is no longer on the Western world’s radar.

Eterna Kontiki Four-hands Automatic 42mm

Today’s Eterna sells a limited range watches: the Kontiki (15 models from $2k to $3k, three powered by an ETA movement), Eternity (three models from $1k to $2k, one with an ETA movement) and Heritage (two Selita-powered automatics at $2.2k). But this video is the best thing they’ve produced in decades.

Dozens of European dealers – concentrated in Switzerland – still carry Eterna watches. The U.S. has seven dealers. The U.K., none.

Citychamp says it has stores in Beijing, Chongqing, Fujian, Guangdong, Henan, Jilin, Liaoning, Shenyang, Sichuan, and “other major cities in Mainland China.”

Sale!

So Eterna is still alive, just not so much in The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Or The Land of Hope and Glory. Or South America. Or Africa. They have some presence in the Middle East and two Canadian dealers .  . .

The eternal question: what can Eterna do to survive in today’s market? Once-cutting edge Eterna is now a pretty dull affair – at least in terms of technical innovation. The watchmaking world has moved on. And how.

Eterna chrono sale

Super-accurate quartz, GPS calibration, tough-as-nails cases, week-long power reserve, 1000m water resistance, mega-complicated mechanical movements, 3D printed and carbon-fiber cases, tritium gas tube luminescence, super-thinness, the Apple Watch’s endless innovations – Eterna is nowhere to be seen.

Pair of Eternas

What’s left? Style? Heritage?

If your style is meh, your heritage is technical innovation and you ain’t got game, is it game over? Is there room for a good enough watch trading on past glory with products priced between one and two grand that don’t do anything significantly better – or at least as distinctively – as the competition?

At the end of the day, the market decides. Just as it did when Eterna was a force to be reckoned with.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Just the other day my dad was showing me my great-grandfather’s Eterna pocket watch (circa 1900 or so?), and asking if I knew about it. I have only vaguely heard about the brand, so this is a nice little rundown.

    Too bad they’ve fallen so far off the map.

  2. Carl Ruiz recommended the Kontiki as an affordable diver with real heritage. For a while, bracelet equipped models were slightly over $1000, a hard price to pass up. No comment on the unverifiable “IDF issues 100% authentic” models floating around.

    • The KonTiki is a cool looking watch. I ended up with one as part of a trade several years ago. The only thing I didn’t like was that the case was totally polished…it didn’t have the sport watch feel, it just looked dressy. I loved that dial, though.

  3. The recent caliber 39 from Eternal is great. It seems that the production is already discontinued, so a good collector item.

  4. For most of its history, Eterna was the public “front end” to a massive manufacturing operation that became the Swatch Group. It was making huge bank selling ETA movements (on smaller plates) to the rest of the Swiss industry, which kept imploding into the 80s. It was only Nicholas Hayek’s venture capitalism that dissociated Eterna from ETA. And then, ironically, Hayek cut Eterna off from the very movements it designed.

    As a watch manufacturer, Eterna has been spotty to be sure. It may have passed its apogee in the early 1970s with the KonTiki Super of IDF fame, and the ASAUG days were kind of like British Leyland. But let’s be clear – if Eterna is not innovating, the rest of the Swiss industry isn’t. The Omega co-axial is still built on an ETA 2892 framework. Most of Soprod’s and Sellita’s output are knockoff ETA products, and aside from the Unitas pocket watch the Valjoux 7750, pretty much everything ETA makes is based on Eterna-era designs.

    Where this article starts to read like a hit piece is where the product descriptions fixate on Sellita and ETA and blows by Caliber 39, which is the modular movement Eterna designed on its own. Lack of product variety incorporating it is an issue, but being able to build a manual, automatic, chronograph, and even mechanical digital chronograph off the same platform is something ETA has not even achieved.

    https://eterna-movement.com/en/calibres/

    • Can you tell me more about it’s development and character? I’ll put it in the article. Unless you’d like to write it as a separate piece?

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