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51 Million Watches Later, the Longines Watch Company Is Still Operating Full-Speed Ahead

Swiss watch manufacture Longines has been using the same sequential serial number system since 1832, and in that time they’ve produced over 51 million watches — all accounted for, one after the other, in either red leather-bound books of yesteryear or a modern electronic database. Your great-great-grandfather’s Longines pocket watch and the sporty blacked-out Longines diver that just sold in the Tokyo airport ten minutes ago are both in there, and Longines is able to service either watch by cross-referencing its serial number with their vast and meticulous archive of spare parts.

This meticulous organization plays close to stereotypes of the Swiss, but meeting Longines CEO Walter von Känel—who has been with the Swatch Group for 50 years and at the helm of Longines for over 30 years—proves that the deeper impact of the company’s taxonomic achievements is emotional and psychological. Those serial numbers seem to engender pride in the company’s uninterrupted production while also offering a clear perspective on its future.

The Longines Museum and the impressively bunkered archive that feeds it house historically significant watches like Charles Lindbergh’s storied Avigation watch (a model Ameila Erhart also used), while the factory upstairs runs high-speed shipping robots and two cutting-edge ETA movement manufacturers to produce millions of watch annually. The past, the present, and the future of watchmaking, all stored beneath one roof.

Some of Longines most critically acclaimed timepieces come from their Heritage Collection, which draws on the archive to offer faithful recreations. The most recent of these offerings is the Heritage Classic, a no-date sector dial watch at 38mm based on a 1934 reference that’s prominently on display in the Longines museum. Despite the critical acclaim, it’s clear that Longiones doesn’t do the bulk of its trade in this category, but as trends continue to lean toward old-school watches, the brand promises to continue a steady supply of historically accurate reissues.

The original Sector Dial watch from 1934 (left) and the 2019 offering (right).

Timing Is Everything

Longines’ storied history also includes their innovations in sports timekeeping. Given the world-class skiing a stone’s throw from the factory, it’s no surprise that the company was present at the beginning of competitive downhill skiing. Early on, an array of stopwatches were triggered by neutral parties listening for a starting gun and then averaged to get a read of the skier’s time. Today Longines uses their proprietary gated timers to give multiple instantaneous time checks during a downhill run, and even cross-references GPS signals to give hang-time counts for racers catching air on their descent. Wires buried in the snow carry all the timekeeping signals, as wireless systems are simply not reliable enough.

Longines has been the Official Timekeeper for both the Summer and Winter Olympics, The Kentucky Derby, multiple Formula 1 events, professional tennis tournaments, and much more. Their collection of timekeeping devices is a fascinating journey through different technological eras, beginning with mechanical watches and moving through primitive analog computing devices and early digital ones. An analysis of these devices alone could be a topic for a lengthy dissertation on 20th-century design. And yet Longines’ CEO Walter von Känel insists that the company will never make a smartwatch — today 80% of their business is in mechanical watches.

Fighting the Good Fight

As part of The Swatch Group, Longines occupies the price category above Tissot and below Omega. Longines’ prices begin in the mid hundreds and top out in the lower tens-of-thousands for solid gold references, but most of their watches hover in the $750 to $2,500 range. Von Känel speaks frankly of the demands to keep Longines a leader in this position, and currently the brand holds well over 30% of that market globally. Annual revenues crest above $1 billion, making Longines one of only five Swiss watch brands who can make this claim.

When asked what the greatest challenges are for Longines today, von Känel immediately said, “Counterfeiting.” In fact, he considers fighting counterfeiting one of their most pressing and demanding ongoing projects, one that involves employing scouts to find the counterfeiters as well as sending investigators to work with police to break up these schemes. During our interview in his decidedly paper-oriented office, von Känel reached into an unwieldy pile and pulled a folder filled with images of counterfeits of recent Longines models, explaining that the company is working to bust this latest effort.

Counterfeiting is a very real concern for Longines despite its largely approachable price point.

Later that evening, halfway through a meal of fondue, schnitzel and cherry schnapps, von Känel began to tell of his days as an international competitive cross-country skier, and how he managed to keep that level of fitness while heading up one of Switzerland’s largest watch companies. “I was a machine back then,” he said with neither pride nor nostalgia. Asked if he performed in biathalon cross-country skiing (which includes target shooting), he said no, but opened up about his gun collection.

Does he collect watches? “I can’t be in competition with Longines, so whatever I have goes to the museum.” What about collecting other brands? “No, again, I can’t be in competition with Longines.” From a man who has helmed Longines for so many decades — through the Quartz Crisis, endless market downturns, and onto record sales during the digital era — it would be difficult to doubt the man’s loyalty to this storied brand.

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