The Rarest Batch of Watches – where’s my Zipper?

If you’re reading this, it is highly likely that you too got bitten by the collecting bug.  It is the match that lights up hearts like a Christmas tree, gives a warm fuzzy glow, sets the mind racing, and makes some of us go more than a little crazy.

Longines earliest known horological creation, watch #183, with the (Augustus) Agassiz AA4 caliber sitting atop the archive records attesting to its creation. The one hundred and fifty plus year old solid silver pocket watch was discovered by @seiji_lepine hiding in France. Records note its sale to Henry Grosjean on the twenty third of October 1867. The piece has matching case and movement numbers, and its grand feu enamel dial is signed E. Francillon and Longines. Aside from helping to colour Longines remarkable history, it powers the balance inside collector’s that makes them passionate and gives them their tick. Image – courtesy Seiji_Lépine

Little wonder the Indiana Jones movie series appeals to so many. Every collector seeks to discover, chase and hopefully find their own so-called Holy Grail.

The early Auguste Agassiz AA4 caliber that clearly features the famous Longines winged hourglass on the movement. Many a collector’s Holy Grail and a 150 plus year old one that has survived in truly spectacular condition. Image – courtesy Seiji_Lépine

To this end, a collector might be fortunate to unearth an exquisite rarity or a milestone in a watch maker’s history – even their earliest known creation. One example that I was privy to early on was the discovery of the world’s oldest known Longines watch through the research and the eagle eye of a passionate Longines collector (@Seiji_Lépine).

The inner caseback of the earliest known Longines timepiece, with number 183 and 2 clearly marked and recorded in Longines remarkable archives. It helps colour Longines illustrious and colourful history. Image – courtesy Seiji_Lépine

Seiji’s archaeological dig unearthed an exceptional Longines silver pocket watch creation with serial number 183. The piece is noted in the St Imier maker’s archive production register as being sold to Henry Grosjean on October the twenty third, 1867. The watch born 150 plus years ago has a perfect grand feu Flückiger enamel dial and uses the Augustus Agazziz 4, (AA4) caliber. This exquisite rarity discovered resting in France by Seiji is the oldest known Longines in the world. Consequently, it is one of the rarest and most valuable known Longines watches.

The top of the movement plate with number 183 stamped. Matching case and movement numbers, a perfect enamel dial and a crisp clean movement together form an exceptional discovery by @Seiji_lepine, a passionate collector. The piece confirmed by Longines Heritage department is a rare, incredible, and exceptional discovery and the earliest of just over ten known pieces with AA4 calibers. Heralding from France, it is what makes the heart race, gives many a collector goosebumps and creates modern day ‘Indiana Jones’ type characters. Image – courtesy Seiji_Lépine.

By 1930, some sixty plus years later Longines had produced an incredible five million watches, with each watch carrying a unique serial number representing an individual creation heralding from the St Imier maker. That event played out in slightly larger numbers for Omega, Waltham, Elgin and smaller numbers for most other watch manufacturers alive at this time.

Longines had produced more than five million watches by the early 1930’s. Imagine finding watches made more than 90 years ago that are separated by just a serial number or two. In Longines case four unique watches occupy a block of just five serial numbers. All are specialist vintage aviation instruments that were made at a time when pilot’s depended upon them with their lives. Longines enjoyed incredible success in this space because of the likes of their technical director Alfred Pfister, aviation’s playmaker John Heinmuller, and the master of air navigation, Philip Van Horn Weems.

I am yet to find a watch that has a serial number with just two characters, something like 5,000,000.  Surely, when numbering such a case, the individual doing so must have thought that piece or case was just that little bit more special. Whilst pieces with these numbered milestones must and do exist, who has or has seen one? All of us have a lucky number or two.   E

The magical hand drawn first iteration E.Francillon and Longines text logo of number 183. Their earliest known horological creation, logo, and a true Holy Grail. The movement on this piece already featured their famed winged hourglass. The hunt, discovery, and details epitomize the joy of many a passionate watch collector. Image – courtesy Seiji_Lépine.

Discoveries of this kind are what hooks collectors. There are certain rarities and peculiarities that happen within all collectable categories. Many a car, stamp, coin, rug, or watch collector understands and knows the joy of finding something rare, unique, and truly special. A one off happening of sorts that chance and words cannot describe, however, one that almost all normal people can equate to or grasp when such a scenario is explained to them.

A stamp enthusiast might seek a stamp with a misspelled or upside-down word, or one with incomplete printing. For a watch collector, finding the maker’s first known or other unique piece, discovering a watch owned by someone special (aren’t we all?), or attached to a remarkable event or happening sets the heart racing. This joy may also stem from finding watches delivered as part of the very same order, the same batch, the same day, or with consecutive serial numbers.

A spectacular unique Longines 1930’s Weems prototype tool watch with serial 5167804 that has a dial featuring both inner and outer rotating chapters. An incredible rarity created under the tenure of Alfred Pfister. The piece used the robust 18.69N pocket watch caliber with the outer chapter being turned by the crown at two and the pin set mechanism at four allowing the inner chapter to be adjusted forwards or backwards to a known accurate time source. The second setting watch variation was developed by PV.H Weems after the introduction of the Greenwich Time Signal in 1924 by Sir Frank Dyson. This watch is one of many unique and exceptional creations resting in the Longines museum.

Imagine finding a pair of watches from any maker delivered ninety years ago that have consecutive serial numbers. Such an event is truly extraordinary when one is talking about a production of five million or more watches and the passing of multiple decades. How would one top that? Well, by discovering the whereabouts of a group of four magical, historically important Longines prototypes – all unique watch survivors in the space of just a five serial number manufacturing block from 90 years ago.

Incredibly, such a thing exists with four remarkable and unique Longines aviation instruments. They are numbered from 5167802 – 5167806. The missing example 5167803 is a Weems pilot watch delivered to the Polish agent Zipper and remains at large. This batch all use the famous Longines 18.69N, pocket watch caliber with the “N” notation standing for nouveau or new execution.

The known survivors of this group of pilot watch instruments came to life at a time when Alfred Pfister, one of Longines and the Swiss horological industry’s most influential and talented technical directors presided over what was the most important chapter in aviation and the St Imier maker’s history.

One of the men most responsible for Longines incredible aviation centric creations was John Heinmuller. A qualified pilot, watchmaker, inventor, employee, and later VP and President of Wittnauer, the US agent for Longines he was the ultimate playmaker in this space. Serving as official timer and later president of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale he recorded and brought recognition to the majority of history’s seminal flights. Many of Longines incredible creations stemmed from the efforts of Heinmuller and the talents of Alfred Pfister. Image – courtesy Man’s Fight to Fly.

In 1912, leapfrogging the family connections of others Pfister was appointed to the role of Longines Technical Director. Extraordinarily talented, by 1927, he became Longines Managing Director and ran the two roles simultaneously.

The St Imier maker enjoyed an unrivalled zenith, winning more precision timing awards than all others. The technical director created specialist sports timing chronographs featuring the 13.33Z and 13ZN calibers.  He also oversaw the evolution of the second setting and hour angle wristwatches along with specialist chronometers, and dashboard instruments that were used in aviation and exploration timing.

Pfister and the Longines technical department worked with both Philip Van Horn Weems, the man considered the grandfather of today’s GPS system, and aviation’s greatest playmaker, John Heinmuller. They were responsible for crafting Longines multi-decade dominance as the key supplier of specialist aviation instruments to aviation’s greatest names.

The latter would later become VP and President of Wittnauer, the American agent for Longines. He sponsored flights, supplied technical equipment, shared relationships and was a personal friend with many of aviation’s golden year heroes and heroines. As official timer and later president of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, Heinmuller timed, brought recognition, tested, and supplied specialist aviation instruments and timepieces to most of history’s seminal flights.

John Heinmuller was one of aviation’s greatest playmakers anchoring Wittnauer and Longines to the hip of aviation’s so called ‘Golden years’. He worked with pilots, Alfred Pfister, and the technical team in St Imier to create a range of unique and extra-ordinary aviation and sports timing pieces to conquer the challenges of interwar air navigation. Image – courtesy Man’s Fight to Fly.

The development of these complex instruments’ points to the remarkable prowess of Longines and Pfister’s technical department during the 1930’s. The first of these instruments in descending order is a unique hacking pre-series ref 5893 Weems nickel chromed aviator prototype watch with serial #5167806.

The experimental creation never went into production and featured a 47mm case with roman marker enamel dial with two metal rotating chapters. Whilst the watch was finished in 1932, it is noted as a scientific timepiece in a May 1939 Longines invoice. The case is marked number two on the inside and the red inner chapter ring is only used in the other prototype.  The calibration lines in black are used on later Weems inner chapter rings.

An experimental hacking Weems type prototype second setting watch with serial number 5147806 from 1932. The chrome cased watch features both an inner and external rotating metal chapter ring and the robust 18.69N pocket watch caliber. The oversized crown on the right hacked the movement to allow better time synchronization. Image – courtesy Christies.

The Longines name and the serial number are clearly marked on the movement but other details including – fifteen jewels, unadjusted, Swiss, LXW Watch Co appear to be missing.

However, these notations are finely engraved on the movement with a needle as if the watch is still waiting to be finished. There is no sales record for the piece and in the archives note Musée.

The watch somehow appeared at Christies Auction in Geneva in November 2010, where it sold for 31,250CHF. It now lies with one of the biggest dealers in the world and enjoys a six-figure price tag.

A one-off oversized Hour angle table clock creation bearing reference 5888 with serial 5167805 gifted to the Longines technical wizard Alfred Pfister. The piece features a wide calibrated silver bezel. His role, endeavours, and excellence cannot be overstated, and he enabled Longines to play a preeminent role in providing timepieces to help solve the navigational challenges of the early aviation industry. The St Imier maker’s technical department was second to none producing exceptional chronographs using the 13.33Z and 13ZN calibers and their hour angle watch produced a year earlier was the world’s first wristwatch with a scaled turning bezel.

Two of the other pieces in the lineup are also noted as scientific timepieces within the archives and remain in the museum.  The first of these, reference 5888, is a unique all silver 50mm desk mounted oversized specialist Lindbergh type clock – with an oversized silver bezel featuring unit of arc calibrations that enable the calculation of the Hour-angle. 

The silver bezel of the hour angle table clock with green and black enamel unit of arc calibrations that have tarnished over its 90-year life. The piece uses a 25mm inner chapter ring that was used on the production wristwatch models made at the same time.

The piece in a walnut wooden case was fittingly gifted to Alfred Pfister, the St Imier technical director who was one of the key architects and directly responsible for bringing the Longines hour-angle watch to fruition.

This incredible, magnificent and unique example of horological history now lies as a centre piece on display in the aviation themed section of the Longines Museum in St Imier. The pin set 15 jewel 18.69N pocket watch caliber movement with serial 5167805 was also produced in 1932 and works like the day it was created.  

The oversized crown and wider solid silver bezel of the Hour-angle table clock ref 5888. The unit of arc calibrations marked in green and black enamel mirroring the colours used on their first production wristwatches. A recent prototype hour angle watch discovery with a thinner red and green enamel bezel work highlights the evolution of this remarkable tool watch as they tested it for legibility. By 1937, the wristwatch bezels had their font size increased, and the green was replaced with blue enamel to improve their legibility.

The black single colour printed Flückiger et fils grand feu white enamel dial mirrors the first-generation wristwatch version of the watch with two exceptions – its size and the use and placement of the words Swiss Made which are widely spaced at six o’clock.  

The hour angle table clock uses the 18.69N pin set movement that requires depressing the pin to change from time setting to moving the inner chapter. The extended crown tube used for winding the watch. The creation was originally gifted to Alfred Pfister for his role in the creation of the Hour-angle. It was later regifted to the museum.

The spectacular Hour-angle clock has a wider more functional silver bezel with the unit of arc calibrations clearly marked. The hour divisions are in green enamel whilst the subdivisions are in black. Like the pin set mechanisms of wristwatch versions of the hour-angle the oversized onion crown enables the inner chapter to be turned. However, the time is set with the onion crown when the lever below the onion crown is depressed simultaneously.

A unique 47mm Weems prototype pilot watch using the robust 18.69N pocket watch caliber with a grand feu enamel dial. The inner chapter ring adjusted with the pinset mechanism at four and the outer rotating chapter ring with the crown at two. The red 25mm inner second setting adjustment chapter was used on just two prototype Weems pieces with half line calibrations splitting the numbers.

The other museum piece also bears the serial number 5167804. It is a 47mm chrome cased Weems prototype with dual crowns on the right-hand side of the case and the pin-set pocket watch function that engages the time and an inner rotating dial. The additional crown at two moves the small red scaled outer chapter ring. The inner case features the number two on the inside back and a roman character grand feu enamel dial with two rotating metal chapters that share the similar qualities with the other pre prototype Weems. 

The only exception being the placement of the Longines text which was moved to the 6 o’clock position. The twenty-five-millimeter unique red inner turning chapter is used only with Weems creation 5167806 and 5167804. The scale numbers are divided by the calibration line and it is different to those that preceded and followed it.

Longines were well versed in making chrome cases with many supplied to the Russian and Czech markets. They were used on the Big Russian 19.73N wrist chronographs and on a number of experimental Longines watches made between 1932-1934. This included the two Weems 5167804, 5167806, five Hour angle pieces and the first three test black Weems watches made.

The last of the magical four and the earliest serial numbered piece is 5167802, noted in the Longines archives as a Weems watch ordered by Admiral Byrd for his Second Antarctic Expedition that ran from 1933-1935.  The maker’s records also note a letter from Byrd concerning his order on the 18th of July 1933 and a response to him. 

Admiral Byrd Longines Weems sidereal time red star
An incredible Longines Weems second-setting watch regulated for sidereal time ordered by Admiral Byrd for his Second Antarctica Expedition. Longines were the very first to regulate wrist watches for sidereal time and used the red star to note this. The mission’s flight log details all mission’s 169 hours of flights, their purpose, pilots and GPs co-ordinates help colour a remarkable era.

This letter is unfortunately missing because of the timeframe involved. The solid silver oversized, 47mm ref 2106 pin-set Second-setting watch was supplied to Wittnauer on the 29th of August 1933.  The watch was possibly made in October 1932 when Longines archives first note introduction of the single red star as a dial notation to indicate regulation for star or sidereal time.  The extra regulation requirements ordered by Byrd might have been undertaken in the months preceding delivery.

sidereal time indicator notation Longines archives  October 1932
The notation for Sidereal time indication in French from Longines archives.

Heralding from the Latin word Sidus which meant star, the watch calculated star or sidereal rather than civil time.  The difference of just under four minutes each day is compensated by the watch being regulated 3min 56.4 seconds fast each day. Given the inability of a compass to function properly at the South Pole, using the stars to navigate was a critical and essential requirement.

Longines Weems red star sidereal time
To date the only known Weems sidereal time survivor with the red star at six. Over the life of this model Longines used a variety of ways to note the sidereal time regulation and were the first maker in this space. They were the only company to supply the large Weems aviator model and it closely followed the introduction of the Greenwich Time Signal (GTS) or the so called ‘BBC pips’.

Longines was the very first company to make a wristwatch regulated for sidereal time and Byrd’s one of the first examples. The extra regulation for Byrd’s Weems is noted in Longines archives and to date, it is the only known surviving example discovered with a dial featuring the single red star.

The watch used an 18.69N “extra quality” signed movement regulated for isochronism to ensure the constant frequency of the balance necessary for the extremes of the South Pole and super accurate timekeeping. This was clearly noted in the archives as being requested and undertaken for Byrd.

Longines Isochronism Weems 1930s second antarctica mission extra quality
A 1933 Weems with serial 5167802 ‘extra quality‘ regulated watch was noted in Longines archives as being regulated for Admiral Byrd’s Second Antarctica Expedition. The watch also regulated for Isochronism to keep the balance constant during the polar extremes.

Miraculously, ninety plus years on the watch is accompanied by the unique, original and remarkable eight-page typescript fight log from Byrd’s mission that details all 169 flight hours of his Second Antarctic mission. This document details the pilots, plane used and purpose of each flight, along with their GPS coordinates, time, date, and duration.

A spectacular Weems second setting watch with serial 5167802 that heralds from an incredible batch of consecutive serial numbered Longines watches. To date, this is the only known example with the single red star at six to note regulation for sidereal time, an essential requirement for navigation at the South Pole when a compasses purpose is negated.

This incredible group of 90-year prototype specialist aviation and scientific instrument creations have a serial number range like no other pieces in known horological history from any manufacturer. They came at a time when Longines innovation and precision timing was at a zenith under the stewardship of Longines technical master and managing director Alfred Pfister.

Whilst this might look like the dial of our missing Zipper Weems 5167803 it is unlikely to be it? Perhaps a sharp-eyed collector will know why?

What is missing from this remarkable group of aviation watches to make a Longines Royal Flush is a Weems piece with serial 5167803 supplied to the Polish agent Zipper in the 1930’s. Given the catastrophic events that followed in Poland’s history a few short years later, it may well have been lost forever, lie unknown in the hands of a collector, or perhaps it still awaits discovery.

Who knows where this ripper Zipper Weems Flightbird flies or lies?  A collector’s reward awaits its discovery.

Leave a Comment