Sibling Rivalries: The Complicated History Of Sister Brands

Sibling Rivalries: The Complicated History Of Sister Brands

Today, we untangle the roots of five watch company family trees.

By Rhonda Riche

We’ve been thinking a lot about family recently. Not just our own relations, but the connections that certain watch brands have. In the last decade, we’ve seen Grand Seiko, G-SHOCK, and Accutron successfully spin off from Seiko, Casio, and Bulova, respectively. But watch making has a long history of conscious coupling and uncoupling.

Like all families, the connections between watch brands can be confusing. But like a horological Henry Louis Gates Jr., we decided to delve into some of the more intriguing family trees.

Seiko & Alba

Most aficionados are aware of the sisterly relationship between Seiko and Grand Seiko. And like Honda and Acura, both share a parent company, but one is much more finely finished and has more prestigious offering.

But Seiko also has a family of sub-brands, including Alba, Pulsar, and Lorus. Of these nieces and nephews, Alba is the most interesting.

The line first appeared in 1979 with a focus on Seiko movements but primarily aimed at Asian markets. Alba was designed to appeal to younger customers, and the brand brought in legendary designers like Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Giugiaro was a celebrated Italian automotive designer best known for super cars such as the Lamborghini Calà, the Maserati Spyder, and the DMC DeLorean. He also had a hand in other aspects of industrial design, creating the casing for everything from guns to cameras.

For Seiko, Giugiaro and his firm Italdesign Giugiaro were best known for the Macchina Sportiva and the “Speed Master.” To illustrate just how far out Giugiaro’s aesthetic was, two of these four Speed Masters, were worn by Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley and Lance Henriksen’s character Bishop in the 1986 movie Aliens.

Here’s where Alba comes in. Not only did the brand leverage Seiko movements, but it also borrowed from its wardrobe, producing a poor man’s versions of the “Bishop” (the Alba Y101-6040 Flap Duck) and “Ripley” (the Alba K2000 V657-6090). If you are a collector trying to get your hands on one of these iconic designs, you can often stumble across an Alba version on eBay.

Bulova & Caravelle

Up until the middle of the 20th century, most watches were an investment. After World War II, however, the middle classes could now afford to have more than one timepiece, and so the market was soon flooded with inexpensive watches, due in large part to the fact that these watches housed jewel-less movements.

Bulova, one of the most recognizable watch brands in the world, decided that it too needed to produce more budget-friendly versions of its watches to compete with companies like Timex.

That is how Caravelle came into existence. Founded in 1962, Caravelle’s goal was to produce everyday jeweled timepieces priced from $10.95 to $29.95 to compete with jewel-less watches in the same price range. The strategy worked, and by 1968, the Caravelle was the largest selling jeweled watch in America.

The brand is still in business, with the New York collection being its most famous line, and Citizen is the new parent company of both Bulova and Caravelle. But for enthusiasts, Caravelle’s Golden Age was in the 1960s and 1970s. Caravelle liked to dress up in its big sister’s clothes back then, and you can find versions of the Devil Diver on the secondary market for half the price of the Bulova versions.

Sicura & Breitling

With its storied history, it’s hard to imagine that Breitling was ever in peril of going out of business. But Breitling hit financial hard times in the late 1970s and eventually closed its factory in 1979.

At the same time, Sicura – a name that today’s average watch buyer would be hard-pressed to recognize – was thriving, producing and selling about 1 million units a year. Part of the reason for the company’s success was its diversity, manufacturing everything from basic pin-pallet watches for the everyday person to top-shelf chronographs housing Valjoux/Venus movements.

Most importantly for this story, Sicura’s boss Ernest Schneider was an enthusiast as well as a businessman. He admired Breitling models like the Navitimer, and he wanted to keep that name alive. Schneider realized that the Breitling name carried more weight and eventually phased out the Sicura brand to focus on Breitling and Breitling alone.

It was a marriage made in heaven, but it’s also a cautionary tale. Despite what many online resellers of vintage Sicura’s will tell you, they are not Breitlings. Still, some of the best Sicura models (like chronographs featuring the Valjoux 773) have value on the secondary market.

Zenith & Movado

One example of a stepsibling relationship is the one between Zenith and Movado. The result of a merger marriage, the brands lived under the same roof between 1969 and 1984. As part of this arrangement, Movado was allowed to use the El Primero calibre 3019 as well as some of the calibre 25X2 series, and Zenith was allowed to use the Movado 405 and 408 calibres as well as Nathan Horwitt's minimalist design for the Museum Watch.

This arrangement resulted in many Movados with Zenith movements and even some vintage watches signed by both brands. Zenith was no stranger to such collaboration, having partnered with ebauche maker Martel for a long time before acquiring them around 1960. Some even say that relationship led to Zenith having the technology to develop the El Primero

Whatever the case, the Zenith and Movado benefitted from sharing production and brand recognition. For example, Zenith initially had trouble selling their timepieces in North America due to trademark disputes with Zenith Radio Corporation. So, they sold timepieces under the Movado brand name in the US, again with both names sometimes appearing on the dial.

Eventually, behind-the-scenes machinations broke up the relationship. The North American Watch Corporation (NAWC), which had been founded in 1965 to distribute brands like Piaget in the United States, acquired Movado in 1983 and changed its name to the Movado Group. Meanwhile, Zenith remained part of the Dixi group until being acquired by LVMH in 1999.

Longines & Wittnauer

Wittnauer is a brand you often see advertised as a poor man’s Longines. The truth is that while there is a connection, it’s more like a brother-from-another-mother situation.

Import laws in the 20th century were very different than today. In a nutshell, Swiss movements were cased and adjusted in the US as a workaround to avoid paying import duties. While Longines and Wittnauer maintained separate factories in Switzerland, a single company imported the movements from both brands (as well as from Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron & Constantin) into the USA. This company was called the Longines-Wittnauer Watch Co.

In 1969, the Longines-Wittnauer Watch Company was sold to Westinghouse Electric Corporation (old-timers might recall the Longines Symphonette Radio Hour, and Longines still makes a model called the Symphonette). In 1995, Swatch took over Longines distribution, thus officially ending the connection with Wittnauer.

Longines, of course, remains an important horological player (think HydroConquest and the Master collections) while Wittnauer’s reputation has faded. Still, Wittnauer’s innovative vintage chronographs like the reference 246T “Scuba Roulette” and the space-agey Futurama Sector 100 Double Retrograde Automatic are highly collectible.

(Photography by Watchonista, other sources mentioned)

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