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Feature: This Sleeping-Giant Swiss Brand Was As Good As Rolex

The watch industry can be a cruel and unforgiving place, a place where the mightiest of brands have often found themselves engaged in a Darwinian fight for survival.

Economic recessions, family tragedies and even Russian communism have all provided the coup de grace for ailing watch companies. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the quartz crisis of the 1970s which snuffed out countless manufacturers, much like the giant comet that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Even brands that survived that cataclysmic event haven’t necessarily enjoyed a smooth ride since, with a handful seeing their profile fall way behind old rivals and ambitious young upstarts.

Take the curious case of Ebel.

Aside from a handful of countries where it has always been held in high esteem and enjoyed due prominence, it’s currently seen as one of those marginal luxury brands that gets perennially left out of website Top Tens and ‘World’s Greatest Watchmakers’-type coffee-table books.

An Ebel automatic perpetual calendar chronograph in 18k yellow gold. Image courtesy of Bonhams

An Ebel automatic perpetual calendar chronograph in 18k yellow gold. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Unfair? Definitely! Despite it sounding like a variety of Swiss cheese, we’re talking about a 112-year-old company that in the late 1980s held the number three position in the luxury watch market. A company, furthermore, that was endorsed by a plethora of A-list celebrities and sporting greats, from Harrison Ford (then the biggest star on the planet) to Formula One supremo, Nikki Lauda.

While it churned out quartz watches with the best of them in the 1980s and 1990s, it never fully abandoned its mechanical roots, either using in-house movements or a certain Zenith calibre that saved Rolex from the chronograph doldrums.

So where—and when—did Ebel lose the plot, and what is this great brand doing to muscle its way back to the front of the queue where it belongs?

An Early Gamble

Ebel was founded by married couple Eugene and Alice Blum in La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 1911. Convinced that wristwatches were the future—much like Rolex co-founder Hans Wilsdorf, who started Rolex three years earlier— they took a huge risk by completely snubbing the still-fashionable pocket watch and putting all their efforts into this pioneering new style. (The name Ebel, by the way, was a contraction of ‘Eugene Blum et Levy’, Levy being Alice’s maiden name.)

Launching their debut model in 1912, they quickly began to win awards at major European exhibitions and started exporting to Russia and Austria-Hungary. World War I boosted the wristwatch’s popularity and by 1918 it was clear the Blum’s gamble had paid off handsomely.

This Ebel world timer sold at auction for just £528 pounds in 2011. Image courtesy of Bonhams

This Ebel world timer sold at auction for just £528 pounds in 2011. Image courtesy of Bonhams

When the couple’s son Charles took over the reins in 1929, the company was in good health and he expanded the business further, growing the brand in the lucrative US market. Even World War II proved no more than a minor setback for Ebel as it became an official watch supplier of the British Royal Air Force.

The Reluctant Heir

Charles had several children, one of which was the future head of the company, Pierre-Alain. In the 1960s Pierre-Alain left Switzerland for the bustle of New York where he spent five years working for the high-end Lucien Piccard watch boutique in Manhattan whose clients included Frank Sinatra.

In New York, during the height of the Mad Men era, Pierre-Alain learnt the value of aggressive US-style marketing, but he had no strong desire to use his new-found knowledge to help his family’s company back in Switzerland.

He was too busy enjoying all the Big Apple had to offer and would have happily stayed there sipping whisky sours at the Waldorf Astoria had he not been summoned home by his father in 1972. Charles had identified Pierre-Alain as the only one of his children with the business acumen to take over the company.

Either he returned from New York or Charles would be forced to liquidate Ebel.

A Le Modulor chronograph with an in-house calibre 137 movement. Image courtesy of Bonhams

A Le Modulor chronograph with an in-house calibre 137 movement. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Within a few years of Pierre-Alain’s return, Charles was forced to retire after an accident, and so his son, now reconciled with being back in Switzerland, bought out his father to become the sole shareholder with absolute control.

With the quartz crisis looming, Pierre-Alain began transforming the way Ebel operated with ruthless efficiency. He replaced old-style management with the marketing strategies he had learnt in New York and secured a lucrative contract to provide Cartier with movements.

He also invested in new watch collections designed to appeal to the upwardly mobile, post-war generation, with 18k-gold women’s cocktail models that oozed high-end luxury and gave the likes of Piaget and Patek Philippe a run for their money.

Quartz Crisis? What Quartz Crisis?

By the mid-1980s, Ebel had increased its workforce from 55 to over 500 full-time employees and multiplied its turnover by 40 in just a decade.

Design-wise, a distinctive Ebel aesthetic had emerged that, to a certain extent, remains today: elegant, sport-luxe, steel or two-tone watches paired with integrated bracelets boasting wave- or E-shaped links. Bezels featured small screws, giving it a bit of an AP Royal Oak feel, the crowns were partially recessed, and they had a robust appearance without reverting to chunkiness.

Ebel made its own quartz movements which it supplied to other companies, but it didn’t stop selling mechanical watches completely. Indeed it was the first company to approach Zenith when it needed a reliable automatic chronograph movement.

Therefore watches from the Sport Classic Chrono line of the 1980s are run on the legendary El Primero Calibre 400 movement, the same one Rolex went on to use—albeit heavily modified—in its first automatic Daytona.

An automatic calendar chronograph in steel with signature 5-screw case. Image courtesy of Bonhams

An automatic calendar chronograph in steel with signature 5-screw case. Image courtesy of Bonhams

You could say the 1980s were Ebel’s glory days. At glitzy auctions in New York, the likes of Clint Eastwood and Madonna donated their Ebel watches for charity. Globally renowned tennis and snooker players like Stefan Edberg and Steve Davis endorsed the brand, while the actor Don Johnson famously wore a gold Ebel in Miami Vice , one of the most-watched TV shows of the decade.

Trouble in the 90s

Looking back to the 1990s, it seems as though Ebel got stuck in a bit of an aesthetic rut, rarely straying from that one style which was very much of its era.

TAG Heuer’s Kirium collection of the time, which now looks a little dated, was very Ebelesque, but the diversity of TAG Heuer’s catalogue meant it could drop the collection when the look passed its sell-by-date. Ebel, in contrast, got lumbered with it.

Furthermore mechanical watches were coming back into fashion but Ebel’s output was now mostly quartz, which was now associated with affordability and mass-market production—the very opposite of luxury.

Ironically, Ebel rode out the quartz crisis with relative ease but was now under threat from the mechanical revival.

Worse still, in the mid-1990s AP’s Royal Oak Offshore kick-started a trend for larger watches and Ebel was slow to respond, its inertia hardly helped by several changes in ownership.

After over 80 years of being in the Blum family, Ebel was sold by Pierre-Alain in 1994 to the Investcorp group who in turn, having done little with the brand, sold it in 1999 to LVMH.

Ebel was now the neglected step kid alongside LVMH’s poster-children, TAG Heuer and Zenith, who remain with LVMH to this day.

Towards the end of 2003, LVMH, perhaps already eyeing up a bid for rising brand Hublot (which they acquired in 2008), sold Ebel to the Movado Group for $62.2 million.

Finally it was under the guardianship of a brand who cared.

New Millennium, New Direction!

There’s no doubt that the Movado Group’s ownership has given Ebel a new lease of life, but the brand has a long way to go before it’s promoted back to horology’s Premier League.

Still, it’s not through lack of effort. Since Movado’s purchase, Ebel has launched numerous campaigns to attract a new generation of Ebel fans, signing up Brazilian supermodel Giselle Bundchen around a decade ago for a series of print ads and forming strategic partnerships with several top-flight European football clubs, including Arsenal and Real Madrid. It even developed a proprietary chronograph movement specifically for timing football matches—a world first.

A contemporary Ebel Discovery dive watch with bronze case and titanium caseback

A contemporary Ebel Discovery dive watch with bronze case and titanium caseback

Unluckily, the timing of this seems to have been a little off. The world wasn’t ready for a football and luxury watch collaboration, and the strategy seems to have been abandoned. It must have been galling, then, to see Hublot become the rich footballer’s watch of choice just a few years later, teaming up with the likes of Paris St Germain and becoming the Premier League’s official timekeeper. Ouch!

Ebel was simply ahead of its time. Or maybe it just needed Jean-Claude Biver’s marketing genius to make the whole football thing work.

Promising Signs

Right now, we can only assume that Ebel is undergoing a period of quiet reflection. It’s stopped recruiting expensive supermodels as brand ambassadors and chasing big-name football clubs, but it does pop up as the official timekeeper of, er, WTA tennis tournaments.

Still, who needs official ambassadors anyway when you have the likes of Max Busser of MB&F singing your praises.

When buying a watch after recovering from a devastating road accident years ago, Busser chose an Ebel chronograph over a Daytona because it was “way more interesting than a Rolex”, going on to describe vintage models with El Primero movements as “an incredible investment” on Hodinkee’s Talking Watches. More recently, it sold the rights to its in-house 137 automatic chronograph movement to Ulysse Nardin, attesting to its quality (Ebel now sells quartz chronographs only).

As for its current line-up, a browse on the Ebel website reveals a decent selection of quartz and mechanical models, the latter powered by Swiss-made Sellita movements.

Yes, the Sport Classic line harks back to the quintessential 1990s Ebel look thanks to those integrated wave-link bracelets and 5-screw bezels—it’s not for everyone—but if you’re looking for something more in vogue, there’s the Discovery dive watch in bronze with a galvanic blue dial (pictured above).

It’s a stunner, and competitively priced at £2,145 RRP. Failing that, find a pre-owned Ebel chronograph with an El Primero movement.

It’ll cost a damn sight less than a Rolex Daytona.

Shop pre-owned Ebel watches