Blancpain Watches

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At the beginning of the 18th century, Jehan-Jacques Blancpain perceived the potential in a completely new business activity: watchmaking. In 1735, he founded the Blancpain brand, setting up his first workshop on the upper floor of his house at Villeret, in the present-day Bernese Jura. By recording his name in the official property register of the municipality of Villeret, this pioneer had created an establishment which is now the world's oldest watchmaking brand.

Blancpain watches enjoyed great success from the earliest years, and the heirs of Jehan-Jacques Blancpain perpetuated his expertise. In 1815, Frédéric-Louis Blancpain, the great-grandson of Jehan-Jacques, who was head of the family business at the time, modernised production methods and transformed the traditional craft workshop into an industrial undertaking capable of serial production. By replacing the crown-wheel mechanism with a cylinder escapement, Frédéric-Louis introduced a major innovation into the watchmaking world.

With the resources of its expertise, by the middle of the 19th century the House of Blancpain had become the most substantial enterprise in Villeret.

In the second half of the 19th century, as industrialization took hold, the prices of watchmaking products were falling and many workshops were fated to close down. To face up to American competition, in 1865 Blancpain built a two-story factory by the River Suze and made use of water power to supply the electricity needed for its production processes. By modernizing its methods and concentrating on top-of-range products, Blancpain become one of the few watchmaking firms to survive in Villeret.

In 1926, the Manufacture entered into a partnership with John Harwood and started marketing the first automatic wristwatch. Four years later, Blancpain adapted the system to watches of small size, and launched the rectangular "Rolls", by Léon Hatot, which became the world's first ladies' automatic watch.

The year 1932 saw the end of the family's management of the firm, which had lasted for over two centuries. On the death of Frédéric-Emile Blancpain, his only daughter, Berthe-Nellie, did not wish to go into watchmaking. The following year, the two members of the staff who had been closest to Frédéric-Emile, Betty Fiechter and André Léal, bought the business. As there was no longer any member of the Blancpain family in control of the firm, the two associates were obliged by law as it stood at the time to change the company name. Henceforth, the firm would be called "Rayville S.A., succ. de Blancpain", "Rayville" being a phonetic anagram of Villeret. Despite this change of name, the identity of the Manufacture was perpetuated, and the characteristics of the brand were preserved. Betty Fiechter remained director of Blancpain until 1950, when her nephew, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, joined her. Together, they brought fresh impetus to the firm.

Among the Manufacture's great successes is the Fifty Fathoms, launched in 1953 and produced at the request of the "Combat Swimmers" of the French navy, who needed a reliable watch for their underwater operations. Captain Robert "Bob" Maloubier and the Lieutenant Claude Riffaud, the co-founders of the unit, submitted the project to Jean-Jacques Fiechter, by then CEO of Blancpain, who accepted the challenge. Worn by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, among others, the Fifty Fathoms became the standard of reference among diving watches. Three years later, Rayville-Blancpain repeated this success with the Ladybird, a model equipped with the smallest round automatic movement of the time.

At the end of the 1950s, Rayville-Blancpain was producing more than 100,000 watches per year. To make it possible to meet the continually growing demand, the firm became part of the SSIH (Swiss company for the watch industry), joining such brands as Omega, Tissot and Lemania. In 1971, production topped 220,000 watches. During the 1970s, the watchmaking industry came up against major problems: quartz watches were revolutionising the watchmaking sector. The fall of the dollar against the Swiss franc reduced transatlantic exports. The first oil crisis, in 1973, provoked a world-wide recession. The SSIH was forced to reduce its output by half and to sell off part of its assets. On 9 January 1983, it sold the Rayville-Blancpain name to Jacques Piguet, son of Frédéric Piguet and director of the company of that name, and Jean-Claude Biver, at that time employed by the SSIH. The company set up production at Le Brassus, in the Joux Valley, and from then on traded under the name of Blancpain SA.

For all intents and purposes, the liquidation of Rayville-Blancpain marks the end of the "vintage" Blancpain era.