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Watches - Feature Article

A History of Longines: First The Swiss Valleys, Then Later The World

There are several watch brands in the world which have risen from humble beginnings to make history. The early 19th century was the genesis of many such brands - it was an age of great technological change, when new ideas, designs, and leaps in watchmaking were matched by artistic movements which still put beauty and elegance front and centre. One such brand was Longines; a company which began among the rolling hillscapes of Switzerland’s Jura region, and grew to become a transatlantic favourite, and one of a handful of watchmakers whose influence throughout the 20th century and beyond is difficult to overstate. 

Today, the Longines watch company belongs to the timepiece behemoth that is Swatch, and continues to bring out watches which walk the fine line between pushing the envelope in design and accuracy, while harking back to a simpler, more graceful past. Closely associated with the world of sports, Longines is perhaps best known today as the sponsor of several high-profile equestrian events. This connection, however, is only one aspect of a company which has grown and developed across the past two centuries in fascinating ways, and which continues to impress with their every release.

Snapped up by collectors, adored by modern gentlemen with a taste for the classics, and appreciated as a pioneer in their field, Longines is a watch manufacturer which sits head and shoulders above their peers. In this article, we’ll go back to the very beginnings of this remarkable company, and take a look at how a legend was born.

The Longines factory in 1950. Image courtesy of Longines
The Longines factory in 1950. Image courtesy of Longines.

Understanding The Swiss Timepiece Industry

In order to gain a deeper understanding of how the Longines brand was born, it’s important to pause for a moment to consider the landscape of the Swiss watch industry in the early 19th century. Despite the fact that Swiss timepieces were very much in demand during this time - indeed, they were the epitome of fashion within certain circles - the industry itself was yet to become as powerful, efficient, and large-scale as it would do over the following hundred years. 

In the 1830s, Swiss watches were very much the product of small-scale, family-based cottage operations. The industry was typically based around families in the Jura region perfecting the art of manufacturing individual (and often minuscule) watch components, and producing them to a level of artisanship on which the reputation of the region was built. These component parts were collected by comptoirs - trading offices which were essentially the equivalent of today’s brands - who would send off the parts to watchmakers (who’d also work out of family homes), who’d put them all together. The assembled watches would then be returned to the Comptoir, who would check their quality and distribute them to those who’d put in an order. It was a complicated system, but one which was based on meticulous attention to detail, painstaking levels of excellence, and a typically Swiss approach to perfection.

The Genesis of Longines

The company that was later to become Longines was founded in 1832 in Jura by Auguste Agassiz, a banker who felt he was destined for greater things, and who had a particular passion for the watchmaking traditions of his homeland. Along with two like-minded partners, Florian Morel and Henri Raiguel, Agassiz set up shop in the Jura village of Saint-Imier and started his own Comptoir business which, initially, simply copied the model already established by so many others. However, it was clear that to Agassiz that the industry was primed for something of a shake-up; he felt that there were too many inefficiencies and inconsistencies in the traditional setup and that more control could be exercised if he oversaw the whole timepiece manufacturing process.

It was this thought that led Agassiz’s company (then known by the name of Raiguel Jeune & Cie) to establish their own assembly line on-site, thus radically moving away from the Comptoir model and kickstarting a whole new way of making Swiss watches. It was the start of an adventure which would not only bring Agassiz fame and fortune but which would also greatly influence the timepiece industry as a whole.

Auguste Agassiz and Ernest Francillon
Auguste Agassiz and Ernest Francillon courtesy of Longines

A New Age for Longines

It’s possible that Raiguel Jeune & Cie would have remained a central European brand, with customers in and around Switzerland, were it not for Agassiz’s enormous levels of ambition and talent for establishing contacts in emerging markets. His background in finance had led him to make several important connections in the USA, where a growing upper class and nouveau riche were increasingly interested in artisan products from the Old World. Very quickly, his early hand-made watches were picked up by the American market and became highly popular on the other side of the Atlantic.

Just as the company was beginning to really take off as a global brand, Agassiz’s two partners took their retirement and dropped out of the Comptoir. Rather than being any sort of setback, Agassiz took the reins of the brand with both hands, determined to take it to ever greater heights. However, by 1850, Agassiz was struck down with ill health and was forced to bring in a new partner with whom he could share his vision. His nephew, Ernest Francillon, stepped up to the mark, and quickly became the head of the company while Agassiz’s health continued to fade. By the time of Agassiz’s death in 1877, Ernest had brought a youthful and modern vigour to what was still called Raiguel Jeune & Cie, and had plans for development which even managed to outshine his uncle’s far-reaching vision.

Ernest wanted to streamline the business even further, and planned to make fundamental changes to the watches’ design which would help them stand out in a fairly saturated market. His first big move came about in 1866, when he purchased a large plot of land south of Saint-Imier to build a purpose-built factory upon. The land itself was known locally as les Longines - which translates as ‘the long meadows’. With this, the new brand name was born, along with a highly efficient, streamlined, and modern outlook that would take the company to heights hitherto unimagined. 

The movement within this pre-owned Longines Vintage military gents 431 watch, available online at Xupes.
The movement within this pre-owned Longines Vintage military gents 431 watch, available online at Xupes.

His next big move was perhaps the one which would make Longines an icon of timepiece design. In the mid 19th century, watches were typically made with cylinder escapements, which were wound with a key. Ernest decided that one of the best ways to make Longines watches stand out from the competition would be to design their timepieces to be wound directly from the crown of the watch, as seen in their highly celebrated 1867 release.

1867 was also the year that another key player was introduced to the Longines family. Ernest Francillon had made the shrewd decision that, if Longines was to become a truly modern business, it had to embrace mechanisation and industrialisation at its fullest. This decision led to the employment of Jacques David - another visionary of his age - who was given the role of operations manager, and given free rein to oversee the introduction of the latest factory equipment and mechanical systems. By 1880, the brand had taken inspiration from certain American manufacturers, and had moved all of its production in-house. By this point, Longines was ready to establish a signature style and production method which was ready to take on the world.

Mastering the Sporting Arena

The early 20th century was a time of further innovation for Longines. Now well established on the international scene, their chronograph expertise saw them move into the aviation watch field - in which they experienced success after success - and they also began developing their celebrated range of sports timers. 

It was perhaps in the field of sports timers that Longines really showed their ability to excel and innovate. The Calibre 19.73 timepiece, released in 1890, was their first serious foray into the industry, and this seminal watch became the model for even greater innovations in sports timer technology. By 1922, Longines was producing split second chronographs which eventually could measure elapsed time to the hundredth of a second, thanks to a signature powerful hairspring designed by their in house team. In 1932, this was taken further thanks to the development of a 24 ligne chronograph movement, specifically designed for sporting events… and these models were being produced and used well into the 1970s, when they were comfortably competing with quartz watches made by other brands.

All the way through the mid 20th century, Longines was one of the key brands producing sports timers, and it became a brand deeply associated with high profile sporting events such as the French Open and United States Triple Crown. Even today, the brand remains synonymous with such events, and their timepieces continue to be beloved by sportspeople looking for quality watches with a sporting heritage. 

New Horizons for Longines

Being a brand which put the development of specialised and forward-thinking movements first and foremost in their identity, it was only a matter of time before they garnered the attention of some of the largest timepiece companies in the world. In 1971, Longines was purchased by ASUAG, who were keen to associate themselves with this quality Swiss manufacturer of exceptional watches. ASUAG went on to become SMH, and later, became the Swatch group, who consider to this day Longines to be one of their flagship brands.

Longines today is as innovative and influential as it has ever been, and continues to release extremely high-quality timepieces which walk the line between vintage class and forward-facing innovation and excellence. Right now, the company is being celebrated for their many current releases, which include the Conquest Classic collection, and the beautiful Avigation Oversize Crown models. The former of these make brilliant use of the L688 movement, and clearly call back to the golden age of classically designed watches. The latter take their inspiration from Longines’ range of pilot and military watches from the 1940s, and use the influential L788 movement which is regarded as something of a high water mark for the company. On top of this, there is the ongoing success of the Master Collection, which neatly epitomises that balance of intricacy, beauty, and practicality that Longines does perhaps better than any other timepiece manufacturer.

Wrist shot of a pre-owned Longines Master Collection moonphase gents 26734783 watch
This is a pre-owned Longines Master Collection moonphase gents 26734783 watch, available online at Xupes.

With their sights set firmly on the newly emerged markets of the Middle East and China, as well as on their faithful audiences in the US and Europe, Longines is set to continue to grow and develop as a brand newly bolstered by their pride of place in the Swatch group. They may have had fairly humble beginnings in the hillsides of Jura, but Longines is the perfect example of how great ideas, a fearless sense of enterprise and innovation, and a particularly Swiss attitude towards excellence can all lead to seriously impressive results. Long may they continue!

Discover our Longines accredited service centre here at Xupes, where our specially trained experts will be able to assist you with your servicing needs. You can also find our collection of pre-owned Longines watches online at Xupes.