While Italian watch enthusiasts have embraced the timepieces of Eberhard & Co. for well over a century, only a relative handful of American collectors are aware of the brand’s rich history and diverse offerings. Now, buoyed by a surprise Geneva Grand Prix win for its most historically significant model, Eberhard is making the U.S. sit up and take notice.
When we discuss the history of diving watches, we usually focus on a handful of acknowledged icons, like the Rolex Submariner, Omega Seamaster and Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. When we discuss important historical chronographs, we inevitably bring up Heuer, Breitling, Zenith, and Rolex’s Daytona (which, of course, for much of its existence, used a Zenith-made movement). The Daytona, Heuer’s Monaco and Carrera, and perhaps Chopard’s Mille Miglia collection tend to enter the conversation when it turns to watches connected to auto racing. All this is as it should be, though another venerable Swiss watch brand – one that was founded in 1887, yet operated for much of its existence under the radar of many American watch aficionados – makes a fairly convincing case for inclusion in the conversation. Here is a family-by-family tour through the inventions, world’s firsts, and remarkable technical and design achievements of Eberhard & Co., a Bienne-based watch manufacturer that continues to innovate after 130-plus uninterrupted years.
Evolutions in Timing: Extra-fort & Contograf
Founded in La Chaux-de-Fonds by 22-year-old entrepreneur Georges-Lucien Eberhard, whose Bernese family traced its watchmaking heritage back to the 10th century, Eberhard & Co. adopted the chronograph as one of its specialties from very early on. The company’s first chronographs were pocketwatches, which were still predominant in the early 20th century prior to World War I. The company produced its first wrist-worn chronograph in 1919, and as stopwatch technology evolved (along with the popularity of wristwatches, which had eclipsed that of pocketwatches), launched increasingly advanced models: a double-pusher chrono in 1935, a watch with an hours counter in 1938, a flyback in 1939. Eberhard chronographs were worn by Italian Royal Navy officers during these pre- and post-World War II years, pioneering the company’s strong presence in the Italian market that remains today.
The culmination of all this advancement was the launch of the Eberhard Extra-fort in the late 1940s. The Extra-fort, which took its moniker from the toughness of its case (fort means “strong” in French), was notable for its sliding push-button that enabled the user to measure intermediate times, a device introduced to the watch industry by Eberhard. The Extra-fort quickly became a leader model for the company throughout the 1950s and influenced the design of all Eberhard chronograph watches that would follow. Among these models was one still prized by collectors today, the Contograf of the 1960s, which included another new and innovative feature, a fast- changing date, in a distinctly shaped trapezoidal window at 6 o’clock, and whose minutes counter was divided into three sectors meant to help its wearer measure the duration of a telephone call.
In the modern era, producing reliable, competitively priced chronographs remains an Eberhard specialty. In 2014, the company issued a modern version of the Contograf, in a stainless-steel 42-mm case and a ceramic, counterclockwise unidirectional bezel emblazoned with a tachymeter scale. The movement is an ETA 7750, one of the many calibers produced by the Swatch Group-owned movement producer that are used in Eberhard watches – a corporate relationship unlikely to change in the near future despite the growing trend of watch manufacturers moving to in-house production, according to Eberhard CEO Mario Peserico. “We have always had a very good relationship with ETA,” says Perserico, who has been with the company more than 25 years. “We’ve always declared that our base movements are ETA, and this allows us to maintain the price position in our core collection between about $2,000 and $7,000. The technical aspects are important, of course, but we’ve found that at least 50 percent of the reason that a client chooses a watch is its aesthetical aspects. Obviously, of course, there are some special pieces that extend that [price] range.”
One of those outliers is the Extra-fort Rouée à Colonnes Grande Date, whose first generation was a 500-piece limited edition celebrating the company’s 125th anniversary in 2012. Equipped with a column-wheel chronograph movement and the titular big date indicator at 12 o’clock, the model is one of the few Eberhard watches available in precious metal cases, with rose-gold and white-gold versions priced at $21,070. The anniversary edition also paved the way for the further expansion of the venerable Extra-fort collection, which today includes a three-hand automatic, a three-hand with power-reserve indicator, and a limited-edition Rattrapante model in either steel or rose gold.
Diving Into History: The Scafograf
Like most Swiss watch companies at the time, Eberhard invested much research, effort and capital into the development of water-resistant watches for diving, which was growing as both a commercial and recreational pursuit during the 1950s and 1960s. The company had in fact been an early adopter, patenting the Calotte Patrouille case construction, which protected a watch’s movement from dust and humidity, as early as 1921, and building highly water-resistant watches for sporting and military use in the years before World War II. It was the launch of the Scafograf in the 1950s, however, that secured Eberhard a spot in the annals of dive-watch history. The first Scafograf, released in 1958, had a 36-mm case, water-resistant to 100 meters, and a distinctive dial, with triangular hour markers at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock; it did not have a rotating bezel, a fairly new device at the time, which first appeared on one of the Scafograf’s more well-known predecessors, the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. A 200-meter Scafograf would launch just a year later, with a similar dial design and a rotating bezel (but no crown guard) added. Only 200 pieces were made of each of these early models, perhaps indicating that Eberhard found it difficult to find an audience for them, competing as they were with the Rolex Submariner, the Omega Seamaster and the aforementioned Fifty Fathoms, among many others.
The third generation debuted in 1964. The Scafograf 300, as its name implies, upped the water resistance to 300 meters, expanded the case dimensions to 42 mm, and streamlined the dial design. It was also the first Scafograf to be powered by a self-winding caliber. The somewhat immodestly dubbed Scafograf Super followed it in 1984, deep in the heart of the Quartz Crisis, with a quartz-powered movement, a helium-release valve, and an extreme water resistance of 1,000 meters, a depth achieved by only a handful of other watches at the time. A professional-grade offshoot of the collection, the Scafodat, with a 500-meter water resistant case, an internal rotating bezel controlled by a large crown, and a dial design reminiscent of the first two Scafograf models, debuted in 2006 and remains in the portfolio today.
It is the design of the Scafograf 300 that appears to have best stood the test of time and trends, as it was that watch that Eberhard resurrected in spectacular fashion in 2016. Decidedly modern in many of its elements – a larger 43-mm case in stainless steel, a ceramic unidirectional bezel, Super-LumiNova on its hands, indexes and 15-minute bezel dive scale, three color options for the central seconds hand, and an integrated black rubber strap – it is nevertheless a very faithful homage to the original in an era where retro-look watches, particularly dive watches, continue to grow in popularity. Under its screwed caseback, engraved with a starfish, beats the automatic ETA 2824-2 caliber, with a 40-hour power reserve. Eberhard’s modern-day stewards were no doubt beaming with pride when the Scafograf 300 took home the Sports Watch prize at the 2016 Geneva Grand Prix, against stalwart competitors like the Tudor Heritage Black Bay Dark and TAG Heuer Monza.
In the wake of the prize-winning re-edition, Eberhard has added two more versions of the Scafograf. The Scafograf GMT, introduced in 2017, adds a triple-time-zone indication to the dial, which is offered in both blue and black, with matching rubber straps. That model’s 43-mm steel case features a stylized globe, rather than a starfish, engraved on its caseback, and its bezel, also in ceramic, is bidirectional rather than unidirectional, the better to easily use it in conjunction with the GMT hand to set additional time zones. And since the watch is more of a “desk diver” than an actual dive watch, the water resistance is dialed down to a more mainstream, though hardly pedes-trian, 100 meters. At Baselworld 2018, the brand introduced a new feminine version, the Scafograf 100, in a 38-mm steel case with ceramic bezel and mother-of-pearl dial, as well as the limited-edition “Black Sheep” version of the Scafograf GMT, in a 43-mm black DLC-coated case, black ceramic bezel insert and dial, and a contrasting orange GMT hand. “We see the term ‘Black Sheep’ in a positive sense,” says Peserico. “It is a watch for someone who wants to stand out from the crowd.”
Pursuing Power: The 8 Jours
In addition to the ongoing quest for the most waterproof watch, Eberhard has also embraced the challenge of making a self-winding watch with a lengthy power reserve. In 1997, with the mechanical watch renaissance just ramping up, the maker introduced the simply named 8 Jours (“Eight Days”) timepiece, which incorporated a new, and now patented, winding module with two overlapping springs, which together are an extra-long 1 1/2 meters in length (compared to a standard spring, which is only around 30 cm). The device enabled the base movement to amass an eight-day power reserve, thus meeting Eberhard’s goal of offering a watch that its wearer would need to wind only once per week. The watch’s unconventional, asymmetrical dial had a left-side power-reserve indicator, and its caseback featured a sapphire porthole with the bridge of the large going barrel visible through a silhouetted number 8. The original version of the 8 Jours came in a 39.5-mm case, but Eberhard, once again at the forefront of a watch industry trend, debuted the 42-mm “Grand Taille” (big size) version shortly thereafter. The “Grand Taille” case size, which emerged as a response to consumer demands in the late ’90s and early 2000s for bigger watches, has since become a fixture in nearly all of Eberhard’s collections.
Auto Racing Inspiration: Tazio Nuvolari
Eberhard’s fondness for Italian design and culture, and Italy’s embrace of the brand, also brought about one of the most enduring relationships between a watch company and an auto racing icon. Tazio Nuvolari (1892 – 1953), known as Montovano Volante or the Flying Mantuan, was a motorcycle racer turned race car driver who won 24 Grand Prix races and raced for Alfa Corse, Scuderia Ferrari and Maserati. Once dubbed “the greatest driver of the past, present and future” by none other than Ferdinand Porsche, he remains revered by fans of racing history, especially in his native Italy.
Eberhard & Co. launched the first Tazio Nuvolari Chronograph in 1992, the centenary of the racing legend’s birth. It was the brainchild of Palmiro Monti, who bought the company from the founding family in 1969 and strengthened its ties to the Italian market. “Eberhard is a Swiss brand owned since 1969 by an Italian family,” says Peserico, “but the roots stretch back even further, because when Mr. [Maurice] Eberhard of the founding family used to travel to Italy during the 1950s he was building a very strong distribution network. At that same time, Nuvolari was becoming a myth in the racing world. So the idea to build a product that would honor the memory of this great pilot was one that made sense to us.”
A milestone piece in the Tazio Nuvolari collection came in 2013, though its inspiration traced all the way back to 1936, the year that Nuvolari drove his 12-cylinder Alfa Romeo 300 miles on New York’s Roosevelt Raceway to capture the prestigious Vanderbilt Cup. The watch that celebrated that victory was dubbed the “Naked” Chronograph, and it was the first in the family to feature a black dial with white Arabic numerals. On the technical side, the watch also incorporated a chronograph stop-pusher that was co-axial with the winding crown, a feature that debuted in Eberhard chronographs of the 1930s. In 2017, Eberhard added a three-hand automatic to the line, which had previously consisted exclusively of chronographs, to woo customers with simpler tastes and, presumably, leaner wallets. The latest addition, which premiered at Baselworld 2018, is the Nuvolari Legend, a black-dialed chronograph with big, luminescent Arabic numerals, and a vintage-look spiral tachymeter scale in km/hr in the center, overlapping the minutes counter at 12 o’clock and hour counter at 6 o’clock. The driver’s Alfa Romeo Type 12C car is emblazoned on the screw-down exhibition caseback, and the watch, avail-able in both 39.5-mm and 43-mm sizes, secures its retro look with the addition of an “antiquated” leather strap.
Dashboard Design: The Chrono 4
Perhaps the most recognizable model in the contemporary Eberhard collection made its debut relatively recently, in 2001, and its DNA can also be traced to Eberhard’s connection to the Nuvolari racing mystique. The Chrono 4 – another creation of Monti, who died in 2005 – brought to the world an entirely new design for a chronograph wristwatch, one influenced by the look of the dashboards of the race cars admired by Eberhard’s large Italian audience, and one that boasts yet another Eberhard patent. Below the central skeletonized hands and unusually placed 12 o’clock date window, four overlapping subdials line up in a horizontal arrangement, displaying chronograph minutes, chronograph hours, the time on a 24-houe scale and the running seconds. To accomplish this feat, Eberhard created its own module that would modify the base ETA 2894-2 movement. “If you look at chronograph dials over the last 20 or 30 years, they are all some version of 3-6-9 or 3-6-12. We wanted to change the positioning, to create a watch on which you can read the time in a different way,” says Peserico. “It took three years to develop, partly because of the difficulty in adjusting the existing movements for the positioning of the subdials.”
Making its debut in an era when large watches were in vogue, the original 40-mm Chrono 4 swiftly begat larger models in the ensuing years, first the 43-mm Grand Taille version in 2008, and eventually an even larger iteration, the Chrono 4 Géant, (“Giant”), whose case was a hulking 46 mm, in 2010. Arguably, the larger case versions were a sensible aesthetic choice, as they allowed the horizontally aligned subdials, which due to the design needed to be quite small, to be slightly enlarged and thus more legible. All three versions continued to adopt new dial colors and case materials, such as titanium, as the collection expanded. The most avant-garde version is the “Full Injection” Géant limited edition of 2013, distinguished by its carbon-coated steel case and côtes de Genève finished dial with sporty red accents.
Since its introduction, Eberhard has tinkered further with the design of the Chrono 4, with its most extreme iteration being the tonneau- cased Temerario, whose four subdials are stacked vertically, rather than horizontally, along the dial’s right side, and whose pushers are unconventionally positioned at 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock, somewhat reminiscent of a classical “bullhead” arrangement. Among the three patented innovations in this model are the clever crown-access system, which uses a hidden lever beneath the case to pop open the lid of the chamber that conceals the winding crown at 12 o’clock.
With Eberhard & Co. attaining a higher international profile after the GPHG prize, Peserico knows the time has come, after many years of spotty U.S. distribution, to pursue a larger footprint in the U.S. market. “We’ve been in the U.S. for several years, through some rocky times and some less rocky times,” he says. “The brand has always been there and hasn’t changed, but local distribution at times was difficult. But we think we have found the solutions. We have partners, we’ll be at some events, and we will be helping dealers with communication. We want to rebuild the American market because it is a market with huge potential. It’s only a matter of time.”
This article originally appeared in the September-October 2018 issue of WatchTime.