Blog: Hunter Wristwatches
First published: 18 September 2023, last updated 29 September 2023.Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved.
I make additions and corrections to this web site frequently but, because they are buried somewhere on one of the pages, the changes are not very noticeable. I decided to create this blog to highlight new material. Here below you will find part of one of the pages that is either completely new or I have recently changed or added to significantly.
This entry is from the page about World War One Trench Watches.
As always, if you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Wristwatches are usually open face, with only the crystal covering the dial. But sometimes early wristwatches are seen with metal lids over the crystal. These are not common, and for a very good reason.
A hunter, or in French “savonnette”, watch case has a metal lid that completely or partially covers the front of the watch, protecting the crystal. A hunter cased pocket watch is quite convenient; it can be fished out from a pocket and the lid opened by pressing a button on the crown with only one hand.
At first sight, it would seem to be a good idea to have a metal lid to protect the glass crystal of a wristwatch, especially in the trenches at the front during World War One. But there is a conflict between protection and utility, because a hunter lid defeats the fundamental purpose of a wristwatch.
The reason the wristwatch was created was to allow the time to be read easily. An open face wristwatch can be read simply by glancing at the wrist without letting go of anything that hand might be holding eg a horse's reins, and without needing to use the other hand, which might be holding a sword or revolver.
However, to read a hunter wristwatch, both hands are needed. The fundamental difference between a pocket watch and a wristwatch is that the wristwatch is strapped to a wrist, so the other hand is needed to press the button that opens the hunter lid. Both left and right hands have to be brought together to read the time, the one with the wrist that carries the wristwatch and the other to press the button that releases the lid, and to close the lid again after reading the time. This is a nuisance, and quickly becomes irritating.
Half-hunter or demi-savonnette wristwatches, with a small circular window in the centre of the lid, are slightly better, but the small area of dial and hands visible through the small window on a wristwatch means that they are less easy to read than a half-hunter pocket watch or an open face wristwatch, so to read the time accurately the lid still has to opened.
The half-hunter wristwatch in the photograph is a very rare beast, a Borgel hunter, a wristwatch with a Borgel screw case that was fitted with a half-hunter lid by the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company, Ltd, in London. It is set to about 10 minutes past 10, but as can be seen, it is difficult to read this to the accuracy required of better than 30 seconds.
Apart from ease of reading the time, another important consideration is that the display of seconds is either not visible or not fully visible on a hunter or half-hunter watch when the lid is closed. In the heat of battle, when accurate timing of manoeuvres was essential, it was vital to be able to see the seconds display at a glance to confirm that the watch was working and had not stopped; another reason that a hunter lid would have to be opened frequently.
Hunter wristwatches are often seen with their lids missing. In many cases this will be because the joint (hinge) of the lid has worn through due to the lid being opened regularly to check the time and the lid has fallen off, but I wonder how many hunter lids were wrenched off by their owners in frustration? There is a story that Napoleon invented the demi-savonnette pocket watch for the same reason; out of frustration with having to keep opening the lid of his full hunter watch, he took a knife and cut a hole in it.
In 1915, unbreakable crystals became available, making the protection offered by a hunter lid unnecessary. For this reason only a relatively small number of hunter wristwatches were made, which makes them uncommon.
Does the fact that early wristwatches with hunter and demi-hunter lids were only made in small numbers make them desirable and expensive? No; like many things that are scarce, they are not common because they were a bad idea. There was not a great demand for them at the time they were made, which meant that they didn't sell well and manufacturers stopped making them. The same considerations still apply, which is why there no hunter wristwatches made today.
NB: Don't mix confuse hunter cases with hunter movements; the difference is explained here: hunter cases and movements.
Zurbrüegg Patent CH71363
Wristwatches with hunter lids sometimes have the mark "Brevet 71363. Brevet means patent in French and the Swiss federal cross shows that this refers to a Swiss patent. The number refers to a patent granted to Charles Zurbrüegg on 23 June 1915 for a "Boîte-savonnette pour montres-bracelet" or hunter case for wristwatches.
Zurbrüegg was listed as “fabricants de secrets” (meaning a maker of “secret springs”, a term used for the makers of the hidden springs of hunter watch cases), 17 Rue de la Gurzelen, Bienne.
Why a patent was granted for a type of case that had already been in production for hundreds of years is a mystery; it should not have been classed as a new invention. The point which seems to be original, and therefore secured the grant of a patent, is that the joint, the casemaker's term for a hinge, is located above the 12 o'clock, and the button that releases the lid is at 6 o'clock. This is different from the arrangement for a hunter case for a pocket watch, where the joint is located at 9 o'clock and the button that releases the lid is located in the crown, on the side of the case at 3 o'clock.
Zurbrüegg was unfortunate in patenting a wristwatch with a hunter lid at almost exactly the same time that unbreakable crystals were being introduced, making the metal lid to protect the crystal unnecessary.
The composite image here shows a Zurbrüegg half-hunter wristwatch case with the steel secret spring superimposed to show its location in the case. The spring both latches the lid and forces it open when the latch is released. The red arrow indicates where a shaft attached to a small release button passes through the hole in the case between the arms of the lug and operates the end of the spring with the lid latch. The secret spring was not invented by Zurbrüegg, it was already an important component in watch case making.
Reference to Zurbrüegg's patent is sometimes seen in hunter cased wristwatches with Wilsdorf and Davis' sponsor's mark and / or Rolex branding, leading some people to claim that Hans Wilsdorf bought the rights to the patent. This would have been a bit pointless, because Rolex didn't make watch cases and therefore would have needed to find a watch case manufacturer to make the cases, something that Zurbrüegg was already doing. In fact, the story is much simpler; Rolex simply bought watches that had cases made by Zurbrüegg's company.
Charles Zurbrüegg was granted another Swiss patent No. 71602 for an unusual screw back and bezel case. The movement is held in a carrier ring which the screw bezel holds into the middle part of the case, the back screws on as usual. The objective of the invention was not explained.
Huguenin Frères Trademark
Another maker of wristwatch hunter cases was Huguenin Frères in Le Locle, one of the principal watchmaking towns in the Swiss Jura mountains.
Cases made by Huguenin Frères are stamped with their trademark, shown in the image here.
In August 1915, Huguenin Frères were granted Swiss patent number 72290 for a spring for a wristwatch hunter case, “Secret de boîte-savonnette de montre-bracelet”. The lid of a hunter case is normally held closed by a catch. When the catch is released, usually by pressing a button, a concealed spring causes the lid to open. The invention was a small lever next to the crown, instead of a button, to release the catch.
The spring that opens the lid of a hunter case when the catch is released is called in English the “secret spring”, which appears to have come from the French term for this spring of “secret”. The etymology of this term is unknown, but French and Swiss makers of these springs called themselves, rather mysteriously to English ears, “fabricants de secrets”.
Wristwatch hunter cases made by Huguenin Frères have been seen stamped with “BREVET DEM”, the DEM indicating that a patent (brevet) had been “demanded”, that is an application for a patent had been submitted but the patent had not been granted, so its eventual patent number was not known. This implies that these cases were made before August 1915.
Huguenin Frères trademark is sometimes seen in Rolex hunter case wristwatches with Wilsdorf and Davis' W&D sponsors mark such as the one in the second photograph here. This case has London Assay Office import hallmarks for sterling silver with the Roman small date letter "t" for 1914 to 1915.
No case has so far been seen with a lever release for the lid as described in the patent, or that is stamped with the granted patent number 72290. If you have a wristwatch with a Huguenin Frères hunter case with the lever release for the lid or dated after August 1915, please send some photographs, including the marks inside the case back.
August 1915, when the patent was granted to Huguenin Frères, was almost exactly the same time that unbreakable crystals were being introduced, making a hunter lid for protection of the crystal unnecessary. This most likely explains why few, if any, Huguenin Frères wristwatch hunter cases with the lever release or patent number 72290 were made. With a hunter wristwatch, both hands are needed in order to read the time, which defeats the purpose of wearing a wristwatch, so hunter wristwatches were never popular. Many hunter wristwatches are missing their lids and it seems likely that at least some of these were wrenched off by frustrated wearers.
Huguenin Frères were the principal Swiss makers of niello silver items.
If you have any comments or questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch via my Contact Me page.
Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2024 all rights reserved. This page updated September 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.