There are just a select few individuals who have witnessed and weathered the ups and downs of the watch industry over the past half a century, and few come more experienced than Longines’ enigmatic president, Walter von Känel. As he celebrates his 50th year with the company, he has seen the watchmaker survive challenges, from the quartz crisis to the global recession of the 2000s, and transition to become part of the Société Suisse de Microélectronique et d’Horlogerie (SMH) − now known as the Swatch Group. Since taking the helm in 1988, he has presided over a growth that has seen Longines take the third largest market share of the Swiss watch brands, behind only Rolex and Swatch Group stablemate, Omega.
‘We are part of a good group; we know what we want to do, where we want to go and our mission. With all our partners and colleagues, we have brought this company step-by-step into a great position,’ explains von Känel. ‘If you are on the podium with a bronze medal it means that the team did a good job.’
For business-minded von Känel, this mission means keeping a keen eye on the market with the aim of being number one in their price segment, offering an affordable take on high-quality timekeeping, with watches from £1,000 to £6,000. ‘In the early 1970s we had to take a decision. This decision was a total change in the spirit of the company,’ says von Känel. ‘At that time you had the technicians who were the bosses. The motto was: we produce what we want and you sell it. To change this attitude and this philosophy you produce what the market wants. So it was a total change of philosophy and it took us some time, but it was a massively good thing.’
If there was ever an occasion where Longines was ahead of the market it was with its Heritage timepieces, foreseeing the now ubiquitous trend for delving into the archives for inspiration. The collection started organically. In 1987, Longines participated in a celebration marking 60 years since American aviator Charles Lindbergh completed his first solo transatlantic flight, for which Longines contributed to the timekeeping. On his return, Lindbergh approached the company to develop a watch designed to meet the needs of aviators, with a special version of this timepiece produced to commemorate the anniversary.
Since then, more of Longines’ most popular models have been brought back, from the 1954 Conquest to the 1957 Flagship. Von Känel says, ‘It started out with the anniversary of Lindbergh, but now we have experts, they have a gang that talk together about historical pieces’. He adds, ‘One thing is sure: if I’m not convinced, I will not do it’.
Longines’ latest explorations into its meticulously well-kept archives − the watchmaker has kept documentation of all the serial numbers of watches produced since its beginnings in 1832 − have resulted in two elegant 1930s revivals, each with their own distinct identity.
The Longines Heritage Military 1938 pays tribute to a model from the interwar period, with plenty of nods to details from the original. These include the bevelled bezel and ribbed ‘sea urchin’-shaped crown, allowing for easy adjustment, alongside the railway track decoration that surrounds the matte-black dial, a typical feature of the time. Limited to 1,938 pieces, the statement 43mm steel watch is powered by a hand-wound movement.
The second is a testament to the timeless nature of Longines designs. The Heritage Classic is an elegant yet sporty piece that, while faithful to the vintage model that inspired it, would not look out of place in a line-up of new releases. Equipped with an automatic calibre developed for the Heritage line, it stands out with the clean and contemporary lines of its silver dial, featuring a small seconds counter at six o’clock.
Longines regularly leans on the knowledge and passion of its network of collectors, so it seems a fitting tribute that to launch the Longines Heritage Classic the watchmaker has chosen to highlight three such enthusiasts – Chris Beccan, Esra Gürmen and Matt Hanson. In a perfect summation of the appeal of such vintage revival timepieces, says collector Hanson, ‘The fact that each of these historically relevant pieces will now go and form new stories with people around the world is exciting to me; that’s really what this hobby is all about.’