Date: August 7, 1964
Location: The vertical north face of Pointe Whymper in the Grande Jorasses, a particularly steep mountain in the Mont Blanc range within the Alps.
Geneva-based guide Michel Vaucher and celebrated Italian mountaineer Walter Bonatti are ascending the precarious peak. Temperatures are dropping. Clouds are approaching. Every so often, impossibly large rocks become loose and plummet past the two men. At this point, there are only two options. Either pitch a protective camp or retreat and hope to beat the impending blizzard.
Thanks to the original Bivouac from Favre-Leuba, which was worn by both men on this never-before-attempted trip, the climbers were able to use the integrated altimeter and barometer to make the choice of building camp and waiting out the ferocious weather.
Only two days later, they’re able to continue their journey, scaling the 4,184-meter summit and claiming victory over the elements in part due to the Favre-Leuba on their wrists.
The story of Favre-Leuba is a well-known secret throughout the watch industry. Abraham Favre laid the foundation for the brand in the spring of 1737 in the town of Le Locle in Neuchâtel, providing it with the second oldest historical base in the watch industry after Blancpain (established inside Villeret in 1735). Abraham Favre ran the business until he passed away in 1790 when it was taken over by his son, also named Abraham. With the help of his sons, he ran the company and eventually joined forces with Auguste Leuba in 1815, another watchmaker from Buttes in the Val-de-Travers region. Together, the newly formed Favre-Leuba brand of pocketwatches became known around the world as one of the preeminent Swiss brands.
Over the next century, the company’s presence was felt far and wide. Wristwatch production superseded pocketwatch production for the first time in the early-20th century when the first monopusher chronograph was released by the brand. Heading into World War II, the seventh-generation owner Dr. Henry A. Favre had turned the humble workshop into a full-fledged manufacture with over 300 employees and a particularly strong position in the Indian market as well as branches in Hamburg, London, Rangoon (now Yangon, Myanmar), Karachi, Singapore, and New York City.
After shuttering production during WWII, the brand returned and experienced a revival during the 1950s and 1960s. The Bivouac, the Deep Blue dive watch rated to 200 meters and the Bathy that could indicate dive time, duration of dive and dive depth, coming out in succession of each other made Favre-Leuba a brand to watch for many outdoor enthusiasts looking for an edge. Now in the eighth generation of family ownership, Favre-Leuba began suffering from decreased sales due to the advent of the Quartz Crisis in the 1970s and was subsequently integrated into the Saphir Group, which also owned Jaeger-LeCoultre. At the dawn of the 1980s, Florian and Henry Favre were forced to sell the brand, which then changed hands multiple times as its production – and influence – dwindled.
For several years, the brand lay dormant. Until news broke that the India-based Tata Group had purchased the Favre-Leuba name in November of 2011 and were intent on returning the forgotten company to its original prestigious place in the industry. Finally, in 2016, Favre-Leuba officially made its return with a new collection in hand.
A New Era
During the five years between the initial purchase and the brand’s official arrival outside of Baselworld 2016, there was substantial effort put into fully realizing its 280-year-old history. Although it was owned by a single family for over 200 years, records changed hands as often as the company did post-Quartz Crisis. Thomas Morf, a Swiss watch industry veteran who previously held management positions at Carl F. Bucherer, Hanhart, and Maurice Lacroix, was named CEO in 2015 and has been one of the most important people in the global reestablishment of the brand.
As a longtime fan of Favre-Leuba from the outside, Morf knows that the future success of the brand lies in its past.
“It was quite clear for us, that we need to link back our entire approach to the heydays of the brand,” he says. “If you have such a rich history, study it, extract the most important elements and bring it to the present.”
Morf believes that the best way to educate contemporary enthusiasts on Favre-Leuba’s history is bringing those creations from the 1960s back to life in modern interpretations. In 2016, when he presented its new collection to potential retail partners in a closed office outside of Baselworld, the highlight was the Raider Harpoon, which improved the depth rating of the Deep Blue from 200 meters to 500 meters. That was followed by the Bivouac 9000 in 2017, a direct descendant of the original Bivouac with the capability of measuring altitudes up to 9,000 meters above sea level. It also includes an aneroid barometer that can indicate elevation at a given point by reacting to the changing air pressure around it.
“We do not want to rush into things that will dilute the work but rather build on the pillars of the brand with the watches, distribution as well as communication,” says Morf. “We are hence taking care with the collection. The idea is not to over-proliferate and choke the market like many brands have done but rather roll out the brand with the products that have shaped its history.”
The first few markets where Favre-Leuba has found success (other than Switzerland) are Japan, India, and the UAE. Morf credits this to the business partners he’s established and the way they help execute the brand’s new strategy. Due to its current position in the industry, Favre-Leuba is keeping a careful eye on how it uses its distribution and how people are responding to the historical approach.
In 2018, Favre-Leuba is aiming to produce approximately 2,000 timepieces – an impressive number given that the brand has really only been in the market for around 18 months, but Morf wants, and expects, this number to quickly ramp up.
“We’re a volume brand in the niche and a certain quantity is required to have a successful business,” he says.
Establishing a brand is one of the hardest things to do in today’s industry. Every day there are countless smaller watch companies at all sorts of price points that fail no matter how inventive or novel their approach to horology is. That is one of the reasons that the strategy Favre-Leuba and Morf are pursuing is necessary for the brand’s future survival. It’s not often that a brand as historically relevant as Favre-Leuba can restart its foundation from scratch while still relying on its heritage as a selling point. This gives Favre-Leuba a unique advantage over fellow contemporary brands that have to build up their own heritage.
“Everything we’ve done so far, was ‘need to have’ things, be it from a product perspective as well as from a communication standpoint,” says Morf. “We wanted to come back strong and in the spirit of the founding fathers of Favre-Leuba. We’ve achieved most of our set goals and we will continually push Favre-Leuba.”
Favre-Leuba is still Favre-Leuba. It’s a known horological quantity that has finally returned to its rightful place within the watch industry. So far, with the Raider Harpoon, the Bivouac 9000, and the Bathy 120 MemoDepth, the brand has focused on reliving and improving on its 1960s heyday. It’s brought on board a number of ambassadors to demonstrate its expedition-readiness but also plans to branch out into more classical, time-only watches as well in the coming years.
Morf and the rest of the Favre-Leuba team know that educating the general horological enthusiast about Favre-Leuba’s history will be an uphill climb. The entire industry has shifted massively from the 1980s and faces a different enemy, this time from the pioneers of Silicon Valley rather than Japan.
It’s been almost 40 years but the brand won’t be caught by surprise again.
“Today, whoever looks at a Favre-Leuba will recognize the spirit of the brand from its yesteryears,” says Morf. “They see that the brand has always been, and will continue to be, about conquering frontiers.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of WatchTime magazine. You can purchase the rest of the print issue here.