In this feature from our current issue, Gisbert Brunner profiles Hanhart, a Swiss-German company known mostly in Europe — and mostly for its stopwatches — and its plans to bring its wristwatches to the United States.
Ever hear of Hanhart? If not, you have company. Hanhart, a watch brand based in Switzerland, with a manufacturing branch in Germany, has until now marketed its products chiefly in German-speaking countries. It has never made a serious effort to woo U.S. consumers.
There’s another reason you might not know Hanhart: The vast majority of its output is stopwatches, of which it makes 150,000 per year, both mechanical and quartz, not wristwatches. Of those it makes just 2,500 per year, fewer than any but the tiniest boutique brands.
But you should be seeing more of Hanhart soon. Under CEO Thomas Morf, who took the reins in 2010, the brand is expanding internationally. It recently signed up a distributor in the U.S., ABS Distributors in Yorba Linda, Calif. And, if all goes according to plan, there will one day be many more Hanhart wristwatches to sell here and everywhere: Morf says he wants to increase wristwatch production to 25,000 by 2015.
The brand began in 1882, when 26-year-old Johann Hanhart opened a watch shop in his home town of Diessenhofen, Switzerland, near the border with Germany. Twenty years later he moved his business, which by that time included assembling watches as well as selling them, to the town of Schwenningen, over the border in Germany. Schwenningen was the center of Germany’s clock industry. Hanhart’s son Wilhelm took over the business and in the 1920s set it in a new direction: making stopwatches. Wilhelm “Willy” Adolph Hanhart was an athlete – his sport was track and field – and he knew how few affordable stopwatches were on the market. He decided to fill that niche and in 1924, with the help of a watchmaker, designed a stopwatch with a pin-lever escapement, the company’s first stopwatch.
The business grew, and in 1934 Wilhelm Hanhart opened a second factory in nearby Gütenbach, Germany, for making stopwatches and wrist chronographs. (Johann Hanhart had died two years earlier.) By then, the firm was making its own movements, including inexpensive, pin-lever ones and higher-priced jeweled movements with Swiss lever escapements. The company kept its factory in Schwenningen, where it made non-chronograph wristwatches. In 1935, it launched a split-second stopwatch.
In the meantime, the aviation industry was developing rapidly and with it the need for pilots’ watches. As war loomed in Europe, Germany turned to its watch industry (and to Switzerland’s) to supply its military pilots with chronographs. The first one the Hanhart company introduced, in 1938, was a monopusher model containing caliber 40, a column-wheel movement. By then, two-pusher chronographs had already appeared on the market, and Hanhart’s next chronograph models, caliber 41 and the Tachy Tele, were two-pusher watches. Both came out in 1939. Both also had a feature that would become a signature for Hanhart: a return-to-zero button that was painted red so that pilots would be less likely to push it inadvertently during a flight. Some of Hanhart’s pilots’ chronographs also had a red dot on the bezel at 12 o’clock. This way the wearer could use the bezel, which was rotatable, to time an interval longer than the 30 minutes on the chronograph counter.
After the war, the French dismantled the company, which lay in the French zone of occupation, and took most of its machines and design drawings. Willy Hanhart was sent to an internment camp for 10 months. When he got out, he began re-equipping the factory in Gütenbach but then realized, in 1947, that he was about to be arrested again and fled to Switzerland. He returned to Germany two years later. While he was gone, his employees continued to restore the Gütenbach factory, and by 1948 it was once again making chronographs, which included an inexpensive version of the pilots’ chronograph, reference 417 ES. A catalog from 1950 boasts that – with the first quartz wristwatch still nearly two decades in the future – the Hanhart technicians who regulated this watch did so using “astronomically accurate quartz-controlled timing machines.”
By 1952, the company headquarters in Schwenningen were also rebuilt and the company was working at full capacity. It was concentrating on making stopwatches and other timing devices, but continued to make some wristwatches. In 1955, it received an order for pilots’ chronographs from the German armed forces. Hanhart also made chronographs for the French military.