Achille Hirsch

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Achille Hirsch (1847-1927) was a watchmaker in La Chaux-de-Fonds active from the 1880s through his death in 1927, and his family firm lasted through the 1970s. His company produced watches using the Vigilant, Montres Invar, and Cervine brands, later adopting these names for the company. They were also closely associated with the Nouvelle Fabrique de Tavannes, which bore the Vigilant Watch brand name on the facade.

Ancestry and Early Life

Feiss Hirschel (1773-1832) was the common ancestor of Achille Hirsch, his brother Daniel Hirsch, and their cousin and fellow watchmaker, Salomon Hirsch. Hirschel lived in Hattstatt, Haut-Rhin, Alsace, and married Léah Leyé Rueff (1777-1849) in 1794. Among Herschel's many children were Moïse Hirsch (April 8, 1801-1876) and Cerf Hirtzel Hirsch (April 6, 1813-October 30, 1888). Moïse's son Salomon-Léopold (1847-1908) would partner with Cerf's son Achille in a variety of watchmaking enterprises and his daughter Rachel Léa (1851-1941) would become Achille's wife in 1875.

Achille was descended from Cerf Hirtzel Hirsch (1813-1888) and his second wife, Caroline Dreyfus (1822-1874) whom he married in 1843. Achille Hirsch was born on February 17, 1847, in Hattstatt, and his youngest brother and fellow watchmaker Daniel Emmanuel was born in 1853.

Most of the Hirsch family emigrated to La Chaux-de-Fonds around 1874 to become involved in watchmaking there. Achille Hirsch married his cousin Rachel Léa Hirsch (1851-1941) on September 1, 1875, in La Chaux-de-Fonds. She was the youngest daughter of Moïse Hirsch (1801-1876) and sister of Achille's future business partner in Tavannes, Salomon Hirsch. The couple would remain married for 52 years until Achille's death in 1827.

Although Achille Hirsch likely entered the watch trade soon after arriving in La Chaux-de-Fonds, his family was said to have been involved in agriculture originally. The first definitive mention of him in the business is a listing for A. and S. Hirsch in Indicateur Davoine in 1877 as a "commissioner and broker" of watches at Rue de la Serre 18. The "S" is likely his cousin, Salomon Léopold, who was also the brother of Achille's wife. A. and S. Hirsch continued to deal in watches made by others for a few years at Rue Léopold-Robert 24 before, in 1883, becoming a true watchmaking company there. The next step for the company came in 1886 as they moved to Léopold-Robert 32 as A. S. Hirsch & Cie. His obituary places the date of the establishment of his long-lived eponymous watchmaking operation at 1875.

Salomon left this business by 1890 and would lease the Nouvelle Fabrique de Tavannes with Achille a decade later. For now, the La Chaux-de-Fonds watchmaking operation was listed simply as Achille Hirsch. He moved to Rue Daniel-JeanRichard 9 by 1894, and the firm began to steadily grow. By 1897 the company produced steel and electro-plated gold watches using the Vigilant brand and had just introduced a new watch under the Tosca name. In 1898, Achille Hirsch is listed at a new facility at Rue Daniel-JeanRichard 21, and by 1900, Hirsch was focused on the exclusive sale of the Unicum brand pocket alarm clock and also sold watches with 6 different dials under the Vigilant, Tosca, and Normal brands. A new gold plated watch later that year was branded Corona, with Velox, Climax, Rugby, and Principal also used. By 1901, Hirsch aded the Omnibus brand as well.

Achille went on to build a factory and to fund the Nouvelle Fabrique de Tavannes with his cousin, Salomon Hirsch, both of which supplied his Vigilant and Invar brands. Hirsch was an early proponent of mechanization in watchmaking, putting him at odds with the establishment in La Chaux-de-Fonds, but it proved extremely successful for him. Hirsch was also deeply involved with promotion of social activity in La Chaux-de-Fonds, as was his wife Rachel.

By 1903 Achille Hirsch had added a second factory across the railroad tracks from the La Chaux-de-Fonds station at Rue du Commerce 13. The family would build a large, luxurious villa next to it at number 15 and would expand this factory to number 11 over the following decade and it would remain associated with Hirsch watchmaking through the 1960s. By 1905, Hirsch's other company, Cie. des Montres Invar (see below), was occupying Commerce 11-15.

By 1910 the company was known as Achille Hirsch & Fils as his sons joined management, and it was Fils de Achille Hirsch & Co. by 1913 suggesting that he had largely retired from the firm. By 1913 the company had relocated to the new post office building located at Rue Léopold-Robert 63 near the main train station. Given that this was an important landmark in town, it is likely that this was a sales office or headquarters, with assembly and warehousing happening elsewhere in town. Hirsch was also using the Montres Invar and Vigilant Watch Manufactory names by this time, along with Crêtets Watch Co. But this company was deleted from the register in 1926.

By 1920 the company used a new name: Usines de Fils de Achille Hirsch & Co. SA. This reflected that the company now operated multiple factories, including a new location at Léopold-Robert 94 and the Nouvelle Fabrique de Tavannes. The Léopold-Robert office is a La Chaux-de-Fonds landmark along the main road, with a distinctive domed turret and is today home to Jean d'Eve. The company soon expanded it further to encompass number 96 as well.

The Hirsch family faced many challenges in the 1920s, and Achille Hirsch himself did not live to see them resolved. The firm was near bankruptcy in 1926 but was saved when the Banque Cantonale Neuchâteloise recapitalized it. Eventually these debts came due and the firm was forced to liquidate. A debt-reduction agreement was reached but was rejected by a Neuchâtel judge who deemed it too friendly to the Hirsch family and they were forced out in 1930.

Hirsch suffered poor eyesight later in life and died October 8, 1927, in his adopted home of La Chaux-de-Fonds. He was widely memorialized for over five decades there as a watch manufacturer and member of the community.

The three Hirsch brothers (Jules, Jacques, and Maurice) left their family firm to the creditors and formed a new company in 1930. It was initially named Fils d'Achille Hirsch & Co., which was confusing given that the bankrupt firm was then known as S. A. des Usines Fils de Achille Hirsch & Co. The new Hirsch company was initially located in a large and prominent villa in the center of La Chaux-de-Fonds at Rue du Promenade 2. Cie. des Montres Invar remained in operation at the same addresses from this point onward.

The company quickly settled on a new name: Cervine SA. The leaping stag logo explains the name choice: "Hirsche" is the German name for the common fallow deer, which is called "Cervine" in French. In 1933 the firm regained the imposing factory at Commerce 11-13, next to their father's villa at Commerce 15, and it remained there until 1960. The factory was closed and the company address moved to Commerce 15 after this.

Montres Invar

Main Article: Montres Invar

Compagnie des Montres Invar was registered on November 8 1902, and Hirsch transferred ownership of some of his watch designs to this company that year. Montres Invar is named for the nickel-iron alloy of the same name, which was commonly used in balance wheels. The Hirsch family operated Montres Invar in parallel to Achille Hirsch, Vigilant Watch, and Cervine SA for decades, and by the 1970s all of the Hirsch family watchmaking assets fell under Montres Invar.

In 1905, Montres Invar was officially registered at Rue du Commerce 11, 13, and 15, the same address used by Achille Hirsch's Vigilant Watch Manufactory (see above). We know that Commerce 15 was the Hirsch family's own villa, and that the factory at 11 and 13 was connected and would remain home to Hirsch watchmaking for decades. Achille Hirsch had largely retired from his namesake company by 1913 and Montres Invar was renamed Comptoir des Montres Invar by 1919. By 1930 the company advertised itself as "Précision Chronométrique" ("Chronometric Precision") in stylish poster-style artwork produced by the Mettler company.

It appears that the sons of Achille Hirsch merged Montres Invar with Fils de Achille Hirsch & Co. and their Nouvelle Fabrique de Tavannes operations under a holding company known as Société Anonyme des Usines Fils de Achille Hirsch & Co. This was located on Rue Léopold-Robert 94-96 in La Chaux-de-Fonds by 1930, though the company also operated its factory on Rue du Commerce 11-13. The company still used the Vigilant, Minimax, Apt, Metoda, and Starter brands as well, and specialized in export watches for the Americas, including Latin America, and the Far East.