Thursday, January 26, 2012

America's First Woman Watchmaker CEO.

In 1890, three brothers launched a successful watch company, so successful that kings, actors, explorers, navigators and astronomers from around the world used their timekeeping instruments. By 1916, all three brothers had died leaving the million dollar business in the hands of their sister. She knew of the business only through discussions at the dinner table, as she was their home-maker, but had very little horological training; however, she felt a tremendous responsibility to the then 60 year old enterprise baring her family name and she, Martha Wittnauer, learned every aspect of the watchmaking business. The Wittnauer watchmaking business.

In 1872, young Albert Wittnauer, then just 16 and already a skilled watchmaker, arrives in New York from Switzerland to work for his brother-in-law J. Eugene Robert, a watch importer. Two years later, he is joined by his older brother ,Louis. Albert is now quite familiar with the American Watch Market and wants to provide them with a watch having the same functionality and durability as the Swiss imports but priced much lower, thus, in 1880, the Wittnauer Brand is born. America loves the watches and in 1890 J. Eugene Robert transfers the business to Albert. On Maiden Lane, in the hub of New York's jewelry and watchmaking business, the company employs only the best including H.A. Lungrin (inventor of the chronograph system); Ferdinand Haschka who went on to become the head watchmaker at Tiffany & Co, and Charles Johns, who years later crafted a 80-jewel perpetual calender chronometer displayed at the 1939 World's Fair. It was in 1899, when Louis died of tuberculosis and Albert spend more and more time in Geneva overseeing the watch productions. Emile managed the New York offices.

Explorers ventured to uncharted territory, and A. Wittnauer Company became the watchmaker of choice. The accuracy of their chronometers was renowned and used by navigators, explorers, geographers and navigators.

It is interesting to note, in 1904, Albert Wittnauer incorporates the A. Wittnauer Company. He as the president and his brother Emile as vice president, no mention is made of Martha Wittnauer. Women in America at this stage had very little say as the 19th Amendment granting women equal rights was still 16 years away. Martha although adored by her brothers and an able homemaker had no say nor part in the company.

Under the extremely talented Albert Wittnauer, Wittnauer watches became the first company to adapt its watches to aviation. In the dawn of the twentieth century, many aviation pioneers, celebrities, political figures and explorers wore a Wittnauer watch. Amelia Earhart, Richard E. Byrd, Howard Hughes, Kingsford Smith and a host of others dependent on the precision of a Wittnauer chronometer.

In 1908, Albert dies of tuberculosis at the age of 52 and Emile takes charge. Wittnauer now moves uptown to 36th street. In 1916, Emile dies, and now the company is left to Martha Wittnauer, their sister. It is a time when very little women are in authoritative positions. Most women were either working in factories or sitting in parlors. It was a man's world, where women had very little say in matters. Martha felt an overwhelming strength of responsibility, and judging from her almost immediate control of matters she was a women of incredible resolution.
There are many company histories of young entrepreneurs building up huge fortunes and successes, but the incredible step Martha took, influenced America's view of women.

In the 1920's, Martha told a reporter at The Lima News: Running a watch business has many things in common with homemaking tho. The same principles underlay both - harmony. Given good craftsman, and encourage them to co-operate and the outcome is sure to be harmonious.

Martha was a compassionate boss who provided security to her staff, some of who remianed at the company for upwards of 35 years. She understood when an employee needed to return home to Switzerland every summer to attend to his Alpine goats, or when another employee child or wife was ill.

She was the first women to be elected into the Horlogical Society of America. Under her supervision, the Wittnauer watches aided the War efforts. In 1918, Wittnauer introduced the Wittnauer All-Proof, the first waterproof (term no longer used), shock proof, anti magnetic watch. The incredible resilience of the timepiece was dropped from airplanes, flung from the Empire State Building, ventured into the Amazon Jungle and climbed the Himalayas, Alps and Andes. The company creates a Wittnauer aircraft watch for the U.S. Army Air Corps the first clock designed specifically for a military aircraft. In 1926, it is the A. Wittnauer Comapant providing the official timing for America's first radio network - The National Broadcasting Company.
An A. Wittnauer timepiece assist the success of countless historic events:
  • Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennet consults an A. Wittnauer timepiece while flying over the North Pole, a first for mankind.
  • In June of 1926, Clarence D. Chamberlin and Charles A. Levine, completed the first trans-Atlantic flight in "Columbia", their Wright-Bellanca monoplane.
  • In 1928, Captain Charles B.D. Collyer and John Henry Mears circle the globe in 24 days by air and sea thus surpassing the orbiting moon by three days. They used A.Wittnauer timepieces to track their time.
  • In 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first women to fly solo across the Atlantic in her Lockheed Vega-5B monoplane equipped with A. Wittnauer timepieces.

In 1936, in the midst of the depression, the sale of luxury items is suffering and Martha Wittnauer decides to sell A. Wittnaurt to Hella Deltah Company, a successful pearl manufacturer. The sale would ensure the survival and success of the company.

Now Wittnauer is part of Bulova and is manufacturing timepieces with the same longstanding tradition and high accuracy attained by the original Wittnauer siblings.

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