ORIS – A REMARKABLE HISTORY

In the world of horology, certain aspects are considered to be of utmost importance when defining a brand. Some of them are ‘how old the brand is, how innovative they are with their offerings, is it an independent brand, do they make just automatic watches or last but not the least do their products offer value for bucks in terms of specifications and designs’. During this era of consolidated business groups with multiple brands under their umbrella, how often do you find a brand which fits all of the criteria mentioned above? The answer is- very rarely and even rarer is to find one in the entry luxury segment. Let us talk about one of these very rare brands today. A brand which has marked all the checkboxes above for more than a century with wit and grit. Yes, let us today talk about ‘ORIS- Real Watch for Real People’. Let us take a journey through their incredible timeline to understand the brand it is today.

THE BEGINNING

Paul Cattin (top) & Georges Christian (bottom). On the right is a poster from early days

The brand was founded by Paul Cattin and Georges Christian in 1904 in Holstein, Switzerland. The name came from a nearby brook and the initial fame came from going against the tide. When all other new brands were taking a cautious step towards establishing themselves in the market, ORIS was the adventurer and focused on rapid expansion. As a result, by 1911 just 7 years later since they started ORIS became the largest employer in Holstein with 300+ workers. The success and growth continue despite the global interruption due to World War 1.

Oris factory in 1910 (left) & the first pilot pocket watch 1911. The engraving shows Luis Bleriot’s cross channel flight from 1909 (right).

THE FIRST WRISTWATCH AND END OF AN ERA

1st pilot wristwatch,1917

As was the trend of the day, people were more and more into wristwatches and ORIS soon turned over the corner stone in that field when they came up with their first pilot wristwatch in 1917 and in 1925 the company started large scale production of wristwatches. In 1927 the company went through some major changes which would turn the course of it’s history. Georges Christian, the co-founder died and marked the end of an era. It is needless to say that his contribution to the development of ORIS as a brand was nothing short of extra ordinary.

EVERY ENDING IS A NEW BEGINNING

Post the demise of Georges Christian, ORIS had to appoint a new president for the board of directors and in walked a man destined for fame and very special recognition in horology. Mr. Jacques-David LeCoultre – who would later go on to form the now famous brand Jaeger LeCoultre.

Alongside also came another figure as the General Manager of the company- Mr. Oscar Herzog, who would go on to serve ORIS for next 43 years and inscribe his name in the company’s history forever.

RESTRAINTS, RESILIENCE, INNOVATION

Oris Big Crown, 1938

By the beginning of 1930s ORIS was flying to success. However, soon their flight was brought to ground when in 1934 the Swiss government issued what was known as the ‘Swiss Watch Statute’ which prevented companies from incorporating new technology without permission. That meant that ORIS could not progress to use the more precise lever escapement and had to stick to pin lever or Roskopf escapement. Frustrated but unflustered, ORIS hired some of the finest watchmakers in Switzerland and kept on pushing the boundary of pin lever escapement for the next 20 years. The initial result was a product which, in due course of time was considered to be one of the flagship watch from the brand-the Big Crown in 1938. ORIS continued to win awards and hearts despite the new obstacle. They were making advanced  tolls, employed women, built houses for their employees and gave them transportation. They were setting the standard.

 

Women working in ORIS factories in 1930 (left) and advance machineries built by ORIS (right)
The 8 day clock 1949

However, a world war for the second time in 20 years broke in 1939 and ORIS like all other companies were left struggling. Staying true to its character, ORIS again came up with a contingency plan and rejuvenated their clock manufacturing which would prove to be so successful that for many more years to come, ORIS would be recognised as a clock maker first and then a watchmaker. A ground breaking result was the 8 day clock launched in 1949.

The war was over and once again ORIS was flowing to their capacity. They came up with their first automatic movement in 1952, the highly accurate  calibre 601. Despite all these success, ORIS’s development was still tied down by the ‘Swiss statute’. Mr. Oscar Herzog, still the General Manager decided to fight it and appointed a young lawyer named Dr. Rolf Portman. Little did they know that the partnership they started, would go on to be the signboard of the company in future.

FREEDOM AT LAST AND GOLDEN AGE

1st automatic wristwatch, 1952

After a decade of fighting, history is made and the statute is finally reversed in 1966. This ensured DR. Rolf Portman a permanent place in history. Free from the shackle, ORIS started doing what they do best-innovation. Just within two years after the statute was removed, ORIS came up with the calibre 652 in 1968 and won the highest distinction for accuracy from the ‘Observatoire Astronomique et Chronométrique’. 1960s was truly a golden age for ORIS.

It had already launched it’s first dive watch in 1965 which would later come to be known as the ‘Diver Sixty Five’ model. By the end of 1960s, ORIS was one of the 10 largest watch manufacturer in the world with 800+ employees producing 1.2 million watches a year. On top of that they were developing their own tools, running apprentice programs and training 40 engineers every years.

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1st dive watch 1965(left) & Chronoris-the 1st motorsport inspired Oris watch, 1970(right)

THE DARK AGE AND THE SAVIOURS

Just when the horizon was seeming brighter than ever, ORIS alongside the entire Swiss watch industry was hit by what would come to be known as the quartz crisis. Cheap yet far more accurate quartz technology from the east brought the industry to it’s knee. About 1000 company succumbed to the crisis and 60,000 workers, which was 2/3 of the total number lost their job. ORIS was sold to ASUAG which would later become the SWATCH group to ensure survival. On the brighter note, they launched their first ever motor-sport inspired watch, the Chronoris. However, as time progressed, ORIS who took pride in the mechanical watch making ability was about to face a identity crisis. Their employee number dropped to 2 figures by 1980 and ORIS seemed destined for extinction.

Ulrich W Herzog (left) and Rolf Portman (right)

It is said that light comes only after the darkest hours and just when ORIS was passing through the darkest days in their history, two names with previous history of saving the company stepped forward once again to prevent annihilation. Mr. Ulrich Herzog and again Dr. Rolf Portman carried out a management buyout in 1981 and light was beaming once again in the horizon for ORIS.  This two would defy the threat of quartz and staying true to their core, go on to establish ORIS as the proud mechanical only watchmaker as it today and thus continued the remarkable history but that is a tale to be told another day.

AUTHOR: S.M.ABDULLAH ZAMAN
Published by: Mohammad and Sons

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