Albert Pellaton’s lifelong passion for fine timepieces

by David Seyffer

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Anniversary_wristwatch_Albert_Pellaton_1966_front.jpg
—Anniversary wristwatch by Albert Pellaton, 1966 (front)

Quality and precision: these two watchwords were central to Albert Pellaton’s lifelong passion for fine timepieces. He joined the company in Schaffhausen exactly 70 years ago and, while there, established himself as a truly great figure in the watch industry.

Born on 1 April 1898 in Travers (Neuchâtel in French-speaking Switzerland), Albert Pellaton, was weaned on watchmaking. His grandfather Albert Pellaton-Favre (1834-1914) from Le Locle was an outstanding watchmaker, who had became world-famous for his skill at making “chronomètres à tourbillon and mastered the art like no other. All in all he handmade 82 tourbillons. His precision timepieces won various awards in competitions for chronometers organized by the observatories of Geneva and Neuchâtel. Albert Pellaton’s uncle, James Pellaton (1873-1954), continued the work started by Albert Pellaton-Favres. He was principal of the Technicum watchmaking school in Le Locle from 1925 until his retirement in 1939 and published works on watchmaking topics such as the escapement.

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So, it was no surprise that Albert Pellaton too decided to follow the family tradition and learn the art of watchmaking. He spent his youth and completed his training in the centres of Switzerland’s watch industry, Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds. Seminal for developments in his later career were the periods of employment he spent with various Swiss watch manufacturing companies. In the 1930s, for instance, he worked for the Geneva-based watch firm Vacheron Constantin. One of the projects entrusted to him there on the occasion of the 1936 Swiss Grand Prix in Bern was the design of a special chronograph that was able to clock the drivers’ intermediate and lap times. On this particular occasion, he served as an inspiration to the Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows on the spot. From 1940 to 1944, Pellaton worked for Omega in Biel as head of production. Apart from his knowledge of and expertise in watchmaking, he later learned and developed processes and methods of his own to be used in the large series production of top-quality watches.

Monday, 3 April 1944 was a big day in Albert Pellaton’s life: for it was then that he took up his new job with IWC in the factory on the banks of the Rhine. It so happened that his first day at work found Schaffhausen paralysed, in a state of deep shock and mourning. Two days earlier, on 1 April, the allied air forces had mistakenly bombed the town. For Albert Pellaton and his family, who had moved there with him, it was a depressing situation, particularly since his new place of work, IWC, had likewise been hit by a bomb. Nevertheless, the Pellaton family stayed in Schaffhausen and Albert Pellaton took up his post as Technical Director with IWC with undiminished enthusiasm.

Albert Pellaton
—Albert Pellaton (1898-1976)

Monday, 3 April 1944 was a big day in Albert Pellaton’s life: for it was then that he took up his new job with IWC in the factory on the banks of the Rhine.

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—Albert Pellaton in his office

IWC owes a great deal to Albert Pellaton. His achievements include several trailblazing IWC movements. Sources in IWC’s company archives document his ideas and visions. He devoted himself to his work, made sketches of watch movements and often mused about ways and means of manufacturing individual parts and assembling watch movements. His first stroke of genius (1946) was the IWC hand-wound 89 calibre, which was used in 240,000 movements between 1947 and 1976. Even today, watch devotees wax lyrical about the movement’s quality and precision. Other important movements created by Pellaton were the 41, 431 and 44 calibres for women’s watches and in 1950 the first IWC automatic movement, the 85 calibre, with a pawl-winding system that is very much admired in the watch industry, the famous “Pellaton winding system”. He patented his first design, in which movement of the rotor was still restricted, as early as 1946. But it simply failed to satisfy a perfectionist like Pellaton. His aim was full bidirectional rotation and optimum shock absorption for the rotor. Four years later, Pellaton had achieved his goal. Even today, IWC’s automatic calibres with Pellaton winding are still based on his ingenious invention. In the 1960s, when the watch industry followed the trend towards increasingly slim timepieces with automatic movements, Pellaton drew on all his watchmaking experience to declare himself against it. Quality comes before slimness.” become a much-repeated dictum. IWC heeded Pellaton’s advice not to follow the general trend and ensured that its movements remained high enough to guarantee a precise rate.

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As Technical Director, however, Pellaton was responsible not only for the development of new movements. From the moment he embarked on his career, he had always seen a close link between the creation of movements ready for series production and their designs. Ultimately, the man from Travers followed the principles of “design for assembly” (DFA) and “design for manufacturability” long before they became common practice in the production of high-quality watches. In 2005, Otto Heller, former CFO of IWC and a long-time peer and colleague of Pellaton, recalled him thus: “He didn’t demand exact plans of every minutest detail. A sketch was good enough for him. He achieved an enormous amount with a minimum of effort and bureaucracy.” For all that, his designs and plans complied with the company’s stipulations. Apart from this, however, Albert Pellaton never tired in his efforts to introduce new machines, testing instruments and processes to IWC. In the course of more than 20 years with the company, he remained very open to progress in the watch industry.

calibre_89361
—Calibre 89361
IWC Watchmaking Tools
—Watchmaking tools

Under Albert Pellaton’s guidance, IWC had not only developed and perfected a huge number of new, state-of-the-art watches but also tried out and introduced many new ideas and improvements to production methods. During the planning process, he always attached importance to efficient assembly. But here, too, supreme quality in design and construction was always his overriding goal: whenever he was informed of problems or errors at the assembly stage, he would first check things out for himself on the spot and then sit down with the watchmakers in production to study and analyse the matter in hand and work out solutions. His strengths lay in the practical approach he took and his ability to improvise. Every day, he would take a tour of the entire workshop. He spoke to individual employees and listened to them carefully. He was thoughtful and attentive, and provided tips and advice. In the assembly department, he would dispassionately inspect the work carried out and praise it if it had been done well. If work in the small parts production or assembly department failed to meet his high quality standards, he would explain his reasons openly and directly, on the spot. Pellaton watched his staff carefully, providing advice where necessary until errors had been corrected to his satisfaction. He understood the technical challenges intrinsic to haute horlogerie as well as cost management and the achievement of planning targets. He was able to communicate with employees from all the different departments, take their ideas on board and then implement them without any unnecessary bureaucracy.

His first stroke of genius (1946) was the IWC hand-wound 89 calibre, which was used in 240,000 movements between 1947 and 1976

Back_Albert Pellaton_anniversary_wristwatch
— Back of Albert Pellaton’s anniversary wristwatch with engraved base: "Albert Pellaton in dankbarer Erinnerung an 22-jährige treue Mitarbeit" (For Albert Pellaton, in grateful memory of 22 years of loyal service), 1966, H. E. Homberger, International Watch Co.

His role within the company was almost a paternal one. Combined with his gentlemanly demeanour, it made him extremely popular with his staff. His expertise in so many areas made him a strong and universally accepted managerial figure. In his private life Albert Pellaton was a modest man: he loved his family holidays and the mountains – where he would go hiking in summer and ski touring in winter – exerted a magical attraction on him. He always lived close to IWC headquarters and walked to work. He spoke German with an engaging French accent. And although he felt very much at home in Schaffhausen, he retained close ties with his homeland and the culture of the French-speaking part of Switzerland. He was a member of the “Cercle Romand” and attended mass in French. His artistic side was given freedom of expression not only in the design and creation of new watch movements but also in his private life, where he painted and sculpted. After 22 years with the company, Albert Pellaton took well-deserved retirement at the end of June 1966, but even as a pensioner continued to support IWC in various projects. He died in 1976. His designs, ideas and visions, however, will continue to inspire further generations of watchmakers. His achievements are his legacy: he was and remains an inspirational figure for all IWC employees.