When Seiko introduced the first quartz timepiece in 1969, the Swiss watch industry had no idea what was in store. Quartz watches were more accurate than mechanical watches and a lot cheaper and faster to produce. While some Swiss brands were working on their own versions of quartz watches – including Longines, Omega, and Rolex – these weren’t all that successful.
Essentially, watches went from being luxury products made by skilled craftsmen to mass-produced timekeepers made in big factories. Many famous brands faced significant challenges in the aftermath of the quartz crisis, and quite a few were sold or ceased production altogether. Big names like Breitling, Zenith, Heuer, Longines, Blancpain, and Omega were in serious trouble but managed to survive by various means.
Other famous brands were not as fortunate and went bankrupt as a result. Some of these now-defunct brands have become very popular with collectors as representatives of the great pre-quartz craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking. A few of the more famous names to disappear have been resurrected over the last 20 years, but too often, this has resulted in brands that do not offer the same exquisite products as their historical namesakes. Let’s take a look at some watches from brands that didn’t make it through the quartz crisis alive but still enjoy sparkling reputations to this day.
Universal Genève “Nina Rindt” Compax
The first brand I want to talk about is Universal Genève. Originally founded in 1894, this brand is famous for their iconic chronographs. Their most well-known chronograph is probably the Universal Genève “Nina Rindt” Compax. The watch gets its nickname from the wife of famous German race car driver Jochen Rindt, who coincidentally also has a timepiece named after him, namely the Heuer Autavia 2446 “Jochen Rindt.”
The iconic Universal Genève “Nina Rindt” Compax racing chronograph features a 36-mm stainless steel case with an iconic black and white panda dial. Inside the case, you’ll find the famous manual Valjoux 72 chronograph movement. This movement has been used by numerous big brands like Breitling, Heuer, and Rolex, making it beloved by collectors of classic chronographs. Finding a Universal Genève “Nina Rindt” Compax is possible, but expect to see prices of $25,000 and up. The average price in mid-2021 was around $24,000 on Chrono24.
Enicar Sherpa Graph 300
Enicar is another legendary watch manufacturer that did not survive the quartz crisis. Ariste Racine and his wife, Emma Blatt, founded the brand in 1913. Their most iconic series was likely the Sherpa. Inspired by the desire to climb the world’s highest peaks, Enicar outfitted a Swiss expedition to Mount Everest in 1956. The summit gained the brand quite a bit of attention from a wider audience, prompting Enicar to create the Sherpa collection.
One of the most popular models from the collection is the Sherpa Graph from the early 1960s. The case measures 40 mm, which was pretty large at the time, and its power comes from the Valjoux 72 movement. This chronograph found its way onto the wrist of famous British race car driver Jim Clark. While Clark also has links to the Breitling Navitimer, he will forever be connected to the Enicar Graph 300. These watches often sell for more than $10,000, though current prices on Chrono24 are around $5,000 to $6,000.
Wittnauer is yet another famous name from the past that is really popular with collectors today. Founded in New York in 1885 by Swiss immigrant Albert Wittnauer, the company quickly made a name for itself as the perfect brand for explorers, navigators, and astronomers. When Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in 1932, her plane was equipped with Wittnauer instruments. Neil Armstrong also wore a Wittnauer during his Gemini 8 mission in 1966. Moreover, the brand was in the running to become the official NASA watch for the Moon landing.
For quite some time, industry followers thought the Wittnauer 242T was the Longines/Wittnauer entry for the Moon race (Longines purchased Wittnauer in 1950), but it was actually the Wittnauer 235T. This was only recently uncovered as NASA only revealed the winner at the time: the Omega Speedmaster. Even though the 39-mm Wittnauer 242T wasn’t in the running, it is still a remarkable 1960s chronograph. The watch stands out with its unique dial design characterized by a large circle that crosses the subdials, as well as large luminous hands and dot indices.
Inside the stainless steel case, you’ll find – once again – the Valjoux 72 movement. This is the main reason why the watch has become so popular with collectors. The brand equipped several iconic watches with this movement, but the 242T is the most famous. Expect to see prices ranging from $7,000 to $10,000, depending on the watch’s condition.
Minerva Ref. 1335 Chronograph
The final watch on our list comes from quite a well-known brand that you can still see around today. In 1858, brothers Charles and Hyppolite Robert founded the company “H. & C. Robert.” They started registering brand names soon thereafter, and the Minerva brand was born in 1887. The Minerva name quickly became known for creating some of the best chronographs in the world. Minerva managed to survive the quartz crisis thanks to its excellent reputation with watch enthusiasts. Of course, that doesn’t mean production was left unscathed. Nowadays, Minerva is part of the Montblanc brand and no longer a stand-alone company. Montblanc uses the watchmaker’s 160 years of history to create some of the best chronographs in the world today.
The Minerva 1335 chronograph is a watch that perfectly demonstrates what Minerva was all about in the 1940s. This model is famous among collectors for its legendary column-wheel caliber 13-20. The in-house movement received praise both for its architecture and high-quality construction. The 34-mm watch was also water-resistant, which was quite a feat for a chronograph back in those days. Furthermore, the design is flawless, making this vintage chronograph incredibly appealing and collectible. The Minerva 1335 chronograph is highly sought-after by collectors and costs around $5,000 today.
Finding the Perfect Vintage Watch
There you have it: four legendary brands and four incredible vintage watches. It’s no coincidence that the four watches on this list are all chronographs. This category is particularly popular among collectors due to their ingenious historical movements. Plus, a chronograph is a very practical complication, and many feature some of the most amazing designs in the industry. Of course, this list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to extraordinary vintage timepieces. I suggest you check out what all is out there from brands that no longer exist. Who knows, you might be able to find something truly special with a great story. Happy hunting!