The past has long been a battleground for the most storied of watchmakers, where maisons fight it out to win in the heritage stakes. It is an arena in which Longines has an enviable advantage. Founded in 1832 and later based on a stretch of land south of Saint-Imier known as les longines, or ‘long meadows’, hence the name, Longines’ archives include a register of every single watch the house has sold since 1867.
“It shows the date of the production and to whom we sold the watch,” says CEO, Matthias Breschan. “But we also have a list of components that need to be inside for the watch to be authentic.” Breschan adds that the brand, still based in Saint-Imier, keeps a “huge stock” of components on hand. “Which means that when collectors bring in watches that are 50 or 60 years old, or even older, we are, in most cases, able to restore them.”
Breschan is speaking to me from the top of a Times Square hotel, a sweep of high-rise towers pitched towards the sky behind him, the Hudson River glistening under a crisp autumn sun in the distance. We’re here for the launch of the new Mini DolceVita, Longines’ rectangular women’s watch that’s been downsized to a chic 21.5mm by 29mm, and made available in a slew of new dial shades, including mint green and blossom pink. Inspired by a Longines watch created in 1927, the design today sets a circular dial within a rectangular case, which is paired with a state-of-the-art, 198-link integrated stainless steel bracelet.
The design screams modern art deco, but is also a masterclass in evoking the past – the Longines way. The deco nods echo the New York architecture that surrounds us, but are also a way of Longines introducing the esteemed aviator Elinor Smith. In 1927, the New York native became the world’s youngest licensed pilot, aged just 16. A few months after her accreditation, Smith flew under all four of the city’s bridges – the first and only pilot ever to do so having been challenged by a male acquaintance who had tried, and failed, the attempt himself.
The daredevil stunt earned Smith the nickname the ‘Flying Flapper’, and set the stage for a host of aviation records, notably achieved with Longines watches. In 1930, when the 19-year-old Smith broke a new altitude record of 8,357 metres, she announced in a letter: ‘Happy to advise you of a new altitude record just accomplished again exclusively with Longines watches. Watches functioned perfectly at all times.’ That year, Smith’s fellow pilots named her Woman Pilot of the Year. “She was pioneering not just in aviation but in her lifestyle,” says Breschan, who points out that Smith notably piloted her planes wearing trousers rather than a skirt. “Ladies wearing trousers in the 1920s was a revolution,” he says.
This type of “pioneering spirit” has been Breschan’s focus at Longines since he took the helm in 2020 (he had previously headed up both Rado and Hamilton, the trinity of brands belonging to parent company, Swatch Group). Longines can boast bona fide explorer cred. Alongside Smith, aviation legends Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes and Amelia Earhart all wore Longines watches. There have been plenty of pioneering horological firsts, too. Consider 1913, when Longines produced the first compact chronograph, a 29mm wristwatch that became a blueprint for modern chronographs, updated versions of which Earhart wore for her two Atlantic crossings in 1928 and 1932.
Then there’s 1925, a banner year for Longines, when the brand introduced the first wristwatch chronograph equipped with two independent pushers and fly-back function. This model and the 1913 are on show at the Longines museum in Saint-Imier. That year will go down in history for GMT fans, as it was in 1925 that Longines created the first wristwatch indicating a second time zone, a timepiece that ship radio operators initially adopted to convert local time to universal world time, also known as ‘Z’ time or ‘Zulu’ time.
Such Hall of Famers inspire Longines’ “product roadmap for the future”, to use Breschan’s words. Popular models today include the Spirit Zulu Time with a GMT function, or the rugged and sporty HydroConquest diver, which pairs GMT functionality with innovative bells and whistles, such as silicon balance springs and other non-magnetic components.
Although we may not be navigating the seas by wristwatch, or flying under the Big Apple’s four bridges, today, such tool watches – a huge horological trend right now – are all about evoking a derring-do spirit. “It’s all a question of mindset, of attitude,” says Breschan. “What you want is to show on your wrist the affinities you share with a particular universe.”
Research from a report by Morgan Stanley and the consultancy firm LuxeConsult puts Longines, in terms of turnover, in Switzerland’s seven-strong ‘billionaire’s club’. Parent company Swatch does not report individual brand performance, but the report estimated Longines sales in 2022 to be around £1.1 billion. In seventh place, Longines trails Richard Mille’s £1.19 billion and Patek Philippe’s £1.65 billion. By way of comparison, Rolex’s turnover in 2022 was thought to be around £8.5 billion (Cartier, Omega and Audemars Piguet take second, third and fourth place, respectively).
The report puts Longines’ sales as representing around a four per cent share of the retail market. That’s a pretty impressive feat given that the brand operates at a price point of between approximately £850-£4,500. A far cry from the price tags at Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille and Patek Philippe. “Since we are part of a group, we have discipline in terms of pricing,” says Breschan, a member of Swatch’s extended group management board since 2005. “There is no need to go up because there is Omega. There is no need to go down because there is Tissot.”
Still, that’s not to say there won’t be potentially rocky times ahead. Longines has fallen from fourth place in the list of best-selling Swiss watchmakers in 2019 to seventh in 2022, with Morgan Stanley highlighting the company’s overreliance on China (Chinese nationals accounted for more than 70 per cent of Longines’ sales worldwide in 2021, according to the paper).
Breschan, however, seems confident. The domestic market in China “continues to be very solid and strong,” he says, adding that currently the company “has been on a better-than-average trend worldwide”. Plus, Longines has a unique position in China as the go-to brand to buy a watch to mark one’s first job.
Yet the brand is clearly considering the next generation. Later that evening Breschan launches the new Mini DolceVita collection with an event attended by brand ambassadors Bae Suzy, the south Korean actress and singer, and Oscar-winning Jennifer Lawrence. Both women will resonate with the next generation of watch fans – with Lawrence calling the new DolceVita “timely and timeless”. Breschan will be hoping that Longines’ latest female ambassadors help steer the brand on a course as spirited as the one set by its earliest aviators.
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