Quality "A" Timepieces from a Lesser-known Manufacture
by C. Bradley Jacobs
Originally published in International Watch Magazine December 2005
It is not common knowledge that there is a historical connection between the Swiss house of Certina and the legendary American watchmaker Hamilton. Among American collectors of vintage watches there are few brands that invoke as much respect as Hamilton thanks to the quality of their railroad-grade pocket watches, their stylish and prolific wrist watch lines, and their exceptional military chronometers. Most Hamilton aficionados focus on the timepieces made in the companies lovely and expansive former headquarters in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But Hamilton reached a point in their company history, as did other fine American watch houses, when they found it necessary to form alliances with European watchmaking firms. They did this in order to provide the American market with the sort of watches domestic manufacturers were not prepared to produce. Some of the partnerships that Hamilton entered into are well documented, for example the acquisitions of Huguenin and Buren, the latter being noteworthy for it's significance in creating one of the first automatic chronographs in the late 1960s. However, several years before either of these alliances was formed, Hamilton saw a need to add automatic wristwatches to their line. Being ever conscious of their position at the top of the American timepiece market, they chose Certina, a maker of quality timepieces that were little known in the US, to provide automatic calibers for the first Hamilton self-winding watches. In 1954, a few years before their momentous introduction of electric watches, Hamilton began offering watches powered by Grade 661, a 25 mm Swiss-made Certina automatic movement.
Despite this auspicious introduction to the American market, Certina is not a well-known brand in the United States. The brand is an off-shoot of the movement manufacturing firm Kurth Frères which was founded in 1888 and is today part of the Swatch Group. They continue to make watches such as the renowned DS (Double Security) series which has been in production for over 45 years. Such 1960s-era pieces as the DS-2 SuperPH 1000M dive watch are recognized as being very fine representatives of Swiss watchmaking of the time. Certina's 27- and 28-jewel automatic calibers are prized by collectors, especially the fewer than 8000 such 25 mm movements that were offered as certified chronometers. Though there is less attention given to Certina models with hand-wound movements, many of them have stunning features such as very sturdy screw-back cases, lovely dials, and highly accurate movements of in-house design and production. A couple of these watches are described here, one from the 1950s and another from the 1960s. That span represents the heyday of Certina--post W.W.II as the Certina brand became the flagship of Kurth Frères yet prior to the 1970s' so-called quartz revolution which saw many smaller Swiss firms change their direction drastically.
One watch with many striking elements is the Ref. 8777-1 shown. Immediately noticeable is the stylized aircraft pictured on a medallion set into the dial. It appears to be enamel at first glance but, upon further inspection, one can see that it is a plastic disc that has cracked a bit and turned up at the edges with age. Still it is an eye-catcher and contributes to the overall wonderful appeal of the watch. Beside the dial image, several other elements immediately place it in the optimistic and economically prosperous post-war era. These include down-turned sculpted lugs with beveled edges that are continued through the case band, elegant script logo on the dial, and gold-tone markers and faceted dauphine hands. The post-war years saw great advances in the field of case making and design and some noteworthy features of Certina quality are only evident from the back.
Opening the case reveals a very well-made Staybrite construction, with a sturdy threaded back, that protects a lovely in-house movement with above-average finishing. The Cal. 25-14 movement, a simple 17-jewel affair, features nicely grained plates & bridges; polished, rounded edges; polished jewel settings; and a click wheel nicely engraved with the Certina Quality "A" logo. This watch dates from about 1950. Correspondence with Certina recently revealed that neither spare parts nor production records are readily available, but a rough date of manufacture was given for this watch. Collectors are advised to compare styles of Certina watches and use what information they can find (serial numbers of cases, caliber number lists, etc.) to ascertain general dates of manufacture.
The second piece, a simple and elegant Certina Ref. 7101.024 made about the mid-1960s, boasts some of the same qualities as the previous watch. The well-made stainless steel case is attractive, though of a style more befitting the minimalist trends of the age, and features a threaded screw-on back. The hands and applied markers are slimmer and of white metal, to match the case. Overall the watch is wider and thinner than Ref. 8777-1, which is probably attributable less to contemporary design trends than the use of a wider and thinner movement. The Certina Cal. 28-16 exhibits a workmanlike design with faint polishing of edges and jewel settings as the only concessions to beauty. This is clearly a movement made for accuracy, however, as the micro-metric regulator and the impressively large balance attest.
These are but two examples of Certina's mid-20th Century hand-wound watches, but they are emblematic of the company's overall devotion to quality, which is appreciated by watch collectors. Whether you seek sleek models such as those described here, robust automatics with jeweled rotors, or perhaps an example of the earliest self-winding models offered by Hamilton, you can be sure that a vintage Certina movement housed in a quality case is designed to bring years of enjoyment.