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The history of Eterna: pioneering innovation in watchmaking

In 2016 Eterna celebrates its 160th anniversary, a milestone for a company that has a very important place in the history of watchmaking. Just to mention two facts, consider that it was Eterna that introduced the ball bearings solution that is still used today on automatic movements and that ETA, the largest manufacturer of Swiss watch movements (today part of the Swatch Group), was founded by Eterna.

But there’s much more to discover. We invite you to follow us as we travel through times from the 18th century to the present days.

The story of the brand started in 1856 when Dr. Joseph Girard and Urs Schild, a 28-year-old school teacher, realized that, with the emerging of the Swiss watch industry, there was a big opportunity for a company producing movements. They established the watch movement (ébauche in French) factory "Dr. Girard & Schild" in Grenchen (canton of Solothurn) and soon started producing both semi-finished movements (in French ébauches brutes) and fully finished watch movements (ébauches blanc-roulant).

Dr. Joseph Girard and Urs Schild (on the right)

The factory in the early years


Remained the sole owner when Dr. Girard left the factory in 1866, Urs Schild innovated the production process by introducing in the area the first automatic manufacturing machines which could be powered not only by water from the surrounding streams, but also by a modern steam engine.

The Eterna factory in 1885


When the production of ebauches started to become less profitable due to supply increase and prices going down, Schild also started producing fully assembled watches. The first pocket watch, entirely manufactured in Grenchen, was presented in 1876 with great success. To reflect this change and in consideration of the fact that his brother Adolph had in the meanwhile joined the company, Urs modified the factory name to become "Präzisionsuhren-Fabrik Gebrüder Schild" (Precision Watches Factory Brothers Schild). The company was known as "Schild Fréres & Co.".

When he was just 58 years old and one year after being elected to the National Council of the Swiss Confederation, founder Urs Schild died in 1888 and his two sons, Max and Theodore, took over the company.

In 1890, when the company was employing about 300 workers with a daily production of 180 timepieces, the "Eterna" logo started to appear on the dials of some watches as the name of a collection.


Few years later, in 1906, Eterna was adopted also for the new corporate name: "Eterna-Werke, Gebrüder Schild & Co.".

The company kept expanding worldwide opening several branch offices while greatly increasing productivity thanks to advanced manufacturing methodologies and innovative electric machinery.

Demonstrating great vitality and spirit of innovation, in 1904 Eterna filed a patent for a special wrist watch casing with moving safety band lugs that was intended for military forces.


Four years later, a wrist watch featuring an alarm function was patented. Launched at the Swiss National Exhibition in Berne in 1914, it was the world’s first series-production wristwatch with alarm.




The Eterna headquarter in 1926


The alarm wristwatch was further developed and, in 1929, a new model with a practical 8-day power capacity was launched.

Eterna kept achieving records and, one year later, presented the smallest production wristwatch with a Baguette movement: its Calibre 610 was just 7.25 mm x 22.5 mm. Although other watchmakers had smaller models, they were hand-made and much more expensive.



In 1932 Theodor Schild, who had lead the company since 1899, died and the son of his brother Max, Rudolf Schild-Comtesse, succeeded him.

That same year the company was separated into two legal entities: ETA SA for the production of movements, and Eterna dedicated to the production of watches. Over the years, ETA would become one of the largest ebauche movement manufacturer in the world. Today, ETA is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Swatch Group.

1948 was the year of a fundamental invention not only for Eterna but for the entire watchmaking industry: the Eterna-matic movement.

Although the history of automatic watches started in 1770s with the designs of Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Perrelet and French inventor Hubert Sarton (further improved by Abraham-Louis Breguet few years later), they demonstrated not to be sufficiently reliable and they did not take off until the 20th century with the initial production of wrist watches. In fact, the motions of the hands could finally provide enough energy to power a mechanical watch movement.

In 1920 John Harwood, a watch repairer from Bolton, England, had the idea to use a pivoting weight, which swung as the wearer moved, to wind the mainspring of a wristwatch. The weight did not rotate a full 360° as spring bumpers limited the swing to about 270° (for this reason, this early type of self-winding mechanism is often referred to as a 'bumper'). He obtained a patent for his invention in Switzerland where he started production of automatic wrist watches which had the capacity for 12 hour work after they were fully charged.

Other watchmakers worked on improving the design of Harwood. Among them, Rolex developed a new system based on a rotor which could rotate 360° and capture much more energy with every turn (up to 35 hours of work when fully charged).

But the accuracy and the reliability over time of these movements were still affected by the wear and tear due to the friction between components. Eterna found a solution that proved to be ideal by introducing a ball-bearing mounted rotor.

The Calibre 1198 that was equipping the first Eterna-matic model in 1948 


Five miniature ball bearings (with a diameter of only 0.65 mm each) provided the necessary support and balance to the rotor significantly reducing bearing friction and making the watch operate smoothly and reliably even under extreme conditions (for example when the watch was dropped on the ground).

From now on, all the automatic watches produced by Eterna were marketed under the Eterna-matic name while the five tiny balls - which brought worldwide fame and success to the brand - were chosen as the new logo of the Grenchen manufacturer.

Eterna-Matic in 18 kt gold - 1948


This Eterna technology took watchmaking to new levels soon becoming the new standard for all automatic wrist watches in the world. It still remains in use today.

1950s Eterna-matic advertisement


Thanks to this key innovation, the business of Eterna will see exceptional growth in the following two decades. Click here to continue reading the history of Eterna.

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Page 1: 1856 - 1948  |  Page 2: 1948 - Present Day   


Name

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Time and Watches | The watch blog: The history of Eterna: pioneering innovation in watchmaking
The history of Eterna: pioneering innovation in watchmaking
The history of the Eterna watch brand. Eterna has a very important place in the history of watchmaking. Just to mention two facts, consider that it was Eterna that introduced the ball bearings solution that is still used today on automatic movements and that ETA, the largest manufacturer of Swiss watch movements (today part of the Swatch Group), was founded by Eterna. The story of the brand started in 1856 when Dr. Joseph Girard and Urs Schild established the watch movement (ébauche in French) factory "Dr. Girard & Schild“ in Grenchen, Few years later, in 1906, Eterna was adopted also for the new corporate name: “Eterna-Werke, Gebrüder Schild & Co.”. 1948 was the year of a fundamental invention not only for Eterna but for the entire watchmaking industry: the Eterna-matic movement. From now on, all the automatic watches produced by Eterna were marketed under the Eterna-matic name while the five tiny balls became the new logo of the Grenchen manufacturer.
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