Forged in the foothills of the Jura Mountains, it would have been easy for Fortis founder Walter Vogt to develop an inferiority complex as he looked up at the historic watch houses dotting the landscape. Instead, as Rob Corder discovers, Vogt aimed even higher, and created a brand that has orbited 375km above the earth in the International Space Station.
In the first episode of every new season of The Apprentice, two teams of budding entrepreneurs have to devise names for their fictional companies. Men normally go for something associated with war, women often plump for something more creative and artistic.
Nods to Greek or Roman history or Latin origins are common. All have a faint whiff of 1990s motivational seminars about them. Invicta, Ignite, Synergy and Empire are just a handful.
In 1912, the 29-year-old Walter Vogt was going through a similar thought process in his home town of Grenchen; an unassuming Swiss municipality at the foot of the Jura Mountains. Looking down on him were watchmakers that already boasted well over a century’s horological history.
In establishing the name of his own watchmaking company, it would have been understandable if Vogt had been intimidated into temerity by his venerable neighbours. Instead, he demonstrated the steeliness of his character and named the company Fortis, Latin for strong.
Fortis celebrates its 100th anniversary this year; a novice in comparison to many Swiss watchmakers, but it has packed more adventure and innovation into its relatively short history than some can claim in stories that stretch back twice as far.
Which company, for example, can claim to have invented the world’s first automatic wristwatch, or to have created the first watch to be tested outside a spacecraft in open space?
Walter Vogt may have had the business vision for an international watch company, but it was a British inventor who brought technical innovation to Fortis.
John Harwood, a watchmaker with a small workshop in the Isle of Man in the early 20th century, had been working on a thorny problem associated with wristwatches of the time – the issue of moisture and dust entering watch mechanisms through the opening for the winding stem.
Harwood worked on the theory that if this winding system could be contained inside a sealed case, it would make watches far more reliable and resistant to moisture and dirt. He successfully mastered the technological challenge with the creation of an internal self-winding mechanism, and presented it to Vogt in 1922.
Fortis introduced its first watch using the new mechanism in 1926, with the launch of the Harwood timepiece at the Basel watch fair.
The stories of Fortis and Harwood diverge at this point, as John Harwood returned to the UK to launch his own watch brand. Fortis, however, embarked on a period of expansion, building on the reputation for technical innovation that it secured with the launch of the Harwood.
In 1937, Fortis’s 25th anniversary, the company launched its first chronograph and six years later in 1943, it created the first waterproof automatic wristwatches under the Fortissimo name.
Having mastered waterproofing on earth, Fortis turned its attention to the fluctuating air pressure experienced by military pilots, and from there came a chance to investigate the vacuums and zero gravity of outer space.
In the 1960s the Fortis Spacematic Automatic, constructed for extreme conditions, was chosen by seven astronauts of the US space programme as their wristwatch of choice.
By the mid-1990s, Fortis had been officially appointed as the watch supplier to Russia’s Star City Training Centre. The Official Cosmonauts Chronograph then became part of their cosmonauts’ official equipment. Looking ahead Fortis watches are expected to be used if Russia launches a manned flight to Mars; a 500 day mission that is already deep into its planning phase.
But during this centenary year of Fortis the brand is drawing on this rich heritage with the release of an updated Harwood timepiece, honouring the British inventor’s original achievement, and the creation of a limited-edition F-43 Flieger Chronograph Alarm GMT Chronometer. Only 100 of the timepieces will be made of what is Fortis’ most complicated watch to date, retailing for just under £14,000.
Director of Fortis UK distributor Jaw Fine Products, Nick Wiseman says that the 2012 line up is the best in the company’s 100 year history.
“The brand has matured, and the watches we are selling now are the strongest I have ever seen from Fortis. [As a brand] it is really being taken seriously now,” he tells WatchPro.
Along with an improving portfolio, Fortis retailers in the UK are also benefiting from much improved brand awareness. Wiseman describes the early days of introducing Fortis to customers. “We brought Fortis to the UK at a very challenging time, in 2008,” he says. “Following the global financial crisis, everybody confused the Fortis name with a failed bank. Four years on, we have really built the brand. It hasn’t been easy, but we now work with around 20 independent retailers that really love the brand and are doing excellent business.”
Wiseman has just returned to the UK from BaselWorld when he speaks with WatchPro. “It was a very positive show for Fortis,” he reveals. “We did good business and retailers seemed buoyant and we are very close to announcing some new accounts.”
The target for Fortis in the UK is to attract about 50 to 80 accounts — a number that will give the brand broad distribution without over-saturating the channel and forcing retailers to compete with each other.
“We don’t want Fortis to be over-distributed because we want to support those that support the brand as well as possible,” Wiseman explains. “This will usually mean exclusivity in a town for any retailer taking the brand.”
He also promises that work to build brand awareness will accelerate as the network of retailers expands. “As our business grows, our marketing budgets also grow, so we can invest in building even more brand awareness on the back of our success,” he explains.
From world firsts in watchmaking innovation to out-of-this-world firsts in space, it has been an eventful first 100 years for the Swiss watch brand, and not too shabby an achievement for independent watchmaker.
The brand has had a baptism of fire in its introduction to the UK, but with some major deals on the horizon it seems that Fortis might have finally turned a corner in the UK, living up to its name and surely something John Harwood would be pleased about.
John Harwood’s horology
John Harwood, born in 1893, was a horologist and inventor with a chequered history of hits and misses.
The Harwood story is more extraordinary than even Fortis will recount. As an armoury staff sergeant during World War I, Harwood invented an automatic pistol (its recoil was so powerful it was more dangerous to the shooter than his enemy, according to his son, John Harwood Junior). More successful was a screwdriver that twisted slightly when hit with a hammer – the genesis of the impact driver that all mechanics use today to loosen stubborn screws.
After the war, he returned to his passion for watchmaking, and served an apprenticeship with Hirst Brothers and Co., a watchmaker and repairer in Oldham. In 1922, he moved to the Isle of Man where, along with running his own watch repair business, he began refining his ideas for how to improve the rather unreliable timepieces typical of the era. By day, Harwood cleaned dust, grime and moisture from the winding mechanisms of his customers’ watches. By night, he was inventing a system that would make those mechanisms obsolete.
“I was determined to change this state of affairs, and develop a means of winding the mainspring automatically and without conscious human aid,” he later recalled.
On September 1, 1924, his work paid off and he was awarded a patent at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property of the Swiss Confederation in Berne for his new automatic wristwatch movement.
Harwood turned his invention into a commercial product by licensing the design to A. Schild, who created a prototype that was shown to Walter Vogt at Fortis Watch Company in Grenchen.
Fortis founded a commercial powerhouse from the Harwood movement, but John Harwood profited little from his invention. He launched the Harwood Self Winding Watch Company back in the UK in 1928 that aimed to create and sell his watches to other retailers. The timing was unfortunate as the Wall Street precipitated the Great Depression that drove the company to bankruptcy in 1932.
Harwood’s patented mechanism was superseded in the 1930s when Rolex created its own automatic winding mechanism that captured energy from a winding rotor turning in either direction. Rolex claimed to have invented the first automatic self-winding mechanism, but later withdrew the claim and apologised to Harwood, however his patent had expired by the time he received it so he was awarded no official compensation from Rolex.
Like most inventors, the brilliance of Harwood’s creation was matched only by his inability to profit from it. He died in 1958 with the honour of being recognised forever as the inventor of the self-winding wristwatch, but with barely a penny to show for it.
Fortis: A brief history of time
1912 – The watch company was founded in Grenchen, Switzerland by Walter Vogt, although the Fortis trademark and logo were first registered a year later.
1922 – John Harwood visited Switzerland in search of a production company for the self-winding wristwatch he had invented. He met Walter Vogt and they agreed to work together.
1937 – The first chronographs were manufactured on the occasion of the company’s 25th anniversary.
1961 – The early years of the Space Race was spotted as an opportunity by Fortis, which created the Spacematic Automatic, constructed for extreme conditions, which prompted seven astronauts of the US space programme to choose it during training.
1992 – Fortis recorded the first instance when one of its watches finally made it into space. A Russian proton rocket launched what was billed as the first art museum in orbit, including a painted Fortis Stratoliner Chronograph dial.
1994 – Russia’s legendary Star City Training Centre selected Fortis’ Official Cosmonauts Chronograph for its kit, and its watches became part of the cosmonauts’ official equipment. In 1997, the German Aerospace Centre also selected Fortis chronographs for the German-Russian MIR 97 space mission.
2004 – 10 years after the first official flight, Fortis was reconfirmed as the exclusive supplier of manned space missions for the Federal Space Agency of Russia. The new B-42 Official Cosmonauts Chronograph performed on board the International Space Station, floating in weightlessness.
2009 – The start of a second space race, as Russia announced plans for a manned mission to Mars – a round trip that will take 500 days to complete. Fortis was named as the official mission supplier and launched the B-42 Official Cosmonauts Mars 500 Titanium as a special commemorating edition.
2012 – On the occasion of the 100th anniversary Fortis presents the new Chronograph Alarm GMT Automatic calibre F-2012 with two power reserves and indications for a 2nd time zone and AM/PM indication. The mechanism is used in what Fortis calls its masterpiece, the F-43 Flieger Chronograph Alarm GMT Chronometer.
This article was taken from the April 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine. To read a digital version of this issue online click here.