An In-Depth Look at the History and Future of Mathey-Tissot

An In-Depth Look at the History and Future of Mathey-Tissot

This brand is about to make a big splash at Baselworld, but until that happens, let’s look through one of the richest history books in Swiss watchmaking.

By Joël A. Grandjean

Workshop-crafted calibres, Elvis Presley, a whole host of iconic designs and some sound aesthetics to boot. The brand is Mathey-Tissot.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more remote location than the Swiss Jura valley of La Sagne et des Ponts. Yet, every watchmaking enthusiast should make a point of going off track to explore such lost corners of the earth as this. Sooner or later, you’ll end up on the road connecting the Val de Travers to Le Locle, namely the little village of Ponts-de-Martel.

Remote watchmaking lands brimming with excellence

And to think, these little pockets, so inaccessible in winter, have spawned watchmaking start-ups responsible for transforming this remote environment into a bustling anthill of economic industrial activity. Edmond Mathey, who married into the Tissot family, was one of the era's pioneers, capable of mastering even the least accessible complications, such as quarter-repeaters, and other chiming timepieces.

In the 1920s, the company's headed notepaper in the 1920s was brimming with references to its capabilities: ‘Watchmaking manufacture specialising in meticulous, complicated mechanical processes, patented systems, quarter- and minute-repeaters, with or without chronograph, simple and repeater mignognette and carriage clocks, chronographs with counters & fly-backs, automaton & calendar watches, etc.' Its reputation is also based on prizes for precision, such as those awarded by the Kew and Geneva Observatories, and prestige prizes, like the "Grand Prix" presented at the Swiss National exhibition in Bern.

Here we are, in the territory of the Martel Watch Company, one of the movement manufactures responsible for assembling such calibres as Zenith's El Primero, and which is home to the watchmakers-rhabilleurs, Dubey & Schaldenbrand. And to think that jobs once abounded in this region, a region that boasted a huge variety of skills and hundreds of orders from some of the most legendary brands.

Mathey-Tissot, calibre supplier to the world's most prestigious brands

Discovered documents reveal that the E. Mathey-Tissot & Cie workshops, operating under Edmond's eponymous company name, already had orders for calibres from Girard-Perregaux & Cie back in the 20s when it was still referred to in its business description as "Formerly J.F. Bautte & Cie". Other orders included those from the Le Locle-based Zenith and H. Moser & Cie watchmaking manufactures, then also in Le Locle, Ulysse Nardin via its successor Paul D. Nardin, Baume & Cie watch manufacturers & importers (the UK subsidiary that became Baume & Mercier), the Geneva-based Vacheron Constantin, the Bienne-based Edouard Heuer & Cie, subsequently to become TAG Heuer, the Longines factory, aka Francillon & Cie SA, Ch. Tissot & Fils SA (Tissot brand), Movado at La Chaux-de-Fonds and Piaget & Co operating out of La Côte-aux-Fées. Orders were also placed by the Paris-based Jaeger (watchmaker to the French Navy) as well as Breguet, the Schaffhausen-based IWC (International Watch Company), and J.D. LeCoultre in the Vallée de Joux.

These are just the best known, but to them were added a whole host of other names, such as the Union Horlogère with Alpina, so important to historians and the most expert collectors. The documents outlining the company’s purpose tell us a great deal about the times in which these companies lived. Interestingly, later on, in the 1980s, the company would even be producing complete watch assemblies for customers, such as Cartier USA or, between the 60s and 80s, Breguet, Sinn and LeCoutre. Mathey-Tissot thus has more than 130 years of fascinating history behind it and the last of the founder’s descendants retired in 1975.

Mathey-Tissot, a great favourite with Elvis Presley

The brand is famous, coveted and desired by celebrities. The story of Elvis Presley and the unexpected use to which he put a very special series sporting his name prominently placed on the bezel, and limited to just a few dozen pieces, gave Mathey-Tissot an undeniable legitimacy in the field of customised watchmaking, and it even manufactured under licence for third parties. The model accompanied by an original certificate signed by Jimmy Velvet, a close friend of Elvis, is highly sought-after to this day. Anyone wearing it could use it as a permanent all-access pass through all security barriers and obstacles at concerts. It even allowed them to wander around back-stage, visit the artists’ dressing rooms, and even some parts of the stage. It clearly showed they were part of Presley’s inner circle of friends and confidants.

The 'coin watch', legitimate designs and bold aesthetics

Any watchmaking fan can glean a brief overview of the history of Mathey-Tissot by simply following its sales on the Internet, either by setting up alerts on eBay or on other sites covering vintage watch sales. What is remarkable at first glance, is the sheer scope of aesthetic variants and designs bearing its name. And they often sport forms and styles that one might have associated with other, better-known watchmaking brands active in the high-end segment.

As any watchmaking history buff will know, notwithstanding marketing departments who prefer to make their own claims and appropriations, trends develop from the moment, whatever the era. Take, for example, the ‘coin’ watch made by several brands, with its ultra-fine mechanical movement fitted inside a coin split in two down the middle. The Mathey-Tissot version is still a hot favourite with collectors, judging by the skyrocketing prices it achieves on the Internet.

Furthermore, if you browse the web for this type of discovery, you soon realise that the brand and its historic models boast an unparalleled reputation. Not only do the rising prices point to a growing interest, but also, in terms of image capital, the increase in value enjoyed by certain models provides a firm basis on which the brand can now build its special 'Edmond' series in tribute to the founder, or the rollout of its Type 21 chronograph in 2018.

Arrival of the Type 21 in the ‘tool watch’ category

Among the most promising watchmaking categories, there is the 'tool watch', aka the ‘instrument watch’, since it was designed with a specific function in mind, which has grown in reliability and desirability. And in this list, the aviator's watch gets the top award. Thus, over at Mathey-Tissot, the chronometric instrument for French aircraft known as Type 20 had no trouble finding followers. And since this model, which remains unregistered, is more about  form and function than a patented design, many other brands used it as their reference. The similarities were legion, as were the brands producing them, some of whom were customers of Mathey-Tissot at the time of their manufacture.

Brands such as Breguet and Zenith have now updated their Type 20s to suit current tastes, taking advantage of the liberties allowed by the generic design and today's identity codes. Mathey-Tissot, however, in sympathetic homage to its original Type 20, undoubtedly a model inspiring so many others, is about to roll out its Type 21 at Baselworld 2018, and it is about to make a big media splash. The model in question is an updated interpretation of an iconic design, one version of which houses a Dubois Dépraz chronograph. This icon bears the indelible stamp that the brand has left on the world of watchmaking, a fact that will be reflected in the premiere that awaits at Baselworld 2018. Watch this space...

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