Element Of Surprise: Omega’s Constellation And Seamaster Were Designed By René Bannwart, Founder Of Corum
I wrote a book entitled Bridging Art and Mechanics: The Unabridged Story of the Corum Golden Bridge that was published earlier in 2015.
Corum’s Golden Bridge is one of my all-time favorite watches. So writing this book was more than just another arm of my journalism business; it was a labor of love.
Part of the fun was getting to know more about Corum’s artistic co-founder, René Bannwart. Through extensive interviews with his son, Jean-René Bannwart, as well as research in Corum’s own archives I was able to learn a few extremely interesting facts about Bannwart’s early career.
In 1940, as World War II was underway, Bannwart and his wife moved to the bilingual city of Biel (Bienne to French-speakers). Bannwart, who was born in Basel, had been living in Geneva and the move to Biel was caused by Bannwart’s new job. He had started working for Omega, whose business was faring much better than that of the traditional Genevan watch manufactures thanks to the robust watches Omega was manufacturing during wartime.
While Biel isn’t usually on anyone’s list of top three watchmaking cities, you might get a sense of the importance of both its rich watchmaking culture and abundance of suppliers by the fact that both Omega and its owner, the Swatch Group, have headquarters in Biel. The city is also home to one of Rolex’s biggest production facilities.
The creation department: a first in watchmaking
According to not only Jean-René Bannwart, but also to Omega’s own encyclopedic compendiums Omega Saga and Omega Voyage à Travers le Temps, both of which were written by previous Omega Museum director Marco Richon, the 25-year-old creative brought something to Omega that had not yet been part of any Swiss manufacture up to that point: a unit that would henceforth be called the “creation department.”
This first in Swiss watchmaking occurred largely thanks to the shrewd direction of Adolphe Vallat, Omega’s sales director at the time and a leader who was by all accounts remarkable.
Before I continue, it is important to note that at that point in watch history, companies were organized much differently than they are today. Brands did not truly design their products in the same way we are familiar with in the modern era. Pre-1940s timepieces were more often than not designs that case and dial makers supplying the brands brought with them.
For example, if you take a leisurely stroll through the floor that exhibits examples of watch history in Patek Philippe’s amazing museum, you will quickly notice that historical wristwatches of many brands from the same era tend to look similar to each other. This was one effect of the practice of design practically being peddled by case and dial suppliers.
Case and dial makers were always outside suppliers, which is still the norm today (with just a few exceptions). However, the main difference today is that the brand generally designs the case and dial for the supplier to manufacture.
Sometimes, similarities will pop up among a number of brands if a supplier has discovered a new technique or offers an interesting new look that more than one brand buys into. However, the brands are quite careful to cultivate unique looks to differentiate themselves today.
Designers, as well, did not exist in the modern definition of this word in the watch industry of the 1940s. Vallat and Bannwart’s ways of thinking led them to create this.
Vallat’s concept included not only the actual design of the wristwatches, it also encompassed maintaining close contact with the brand’s clients all over the world, which was not as easy in the 1940s during wartime as it is today. This meant concretely that Bannwart remained in dialogue with foreign clients, thereby able to create specific concepts for various markets.
“My father always had to discuss with customers from all over the world,” Jean-René Bannwart remembers. “They were coming and asking, ‘For our country we need things like this, things like that.’ And he was making a kind of a collection of all these ideas and bringing some models to their next visit or the Basel Fair.”
In Omega Saga, Richon even went so far as to write that the success of implementing Vallat’s ideas was what led Omega down its prosperous commercial path. History was to prove Vallat and Bannwart right: Omega has become one of the most successful watch brands on the planet.
Father of Omega Flagship Seamaster
In 1948, Bannwart was put in charge of the new “creation” department at Omega, thereby officially bringing the design aspect of haute horlogerie a step closer to its current incarnation. Bannwart’s sense of design and creation came from inside the brand, while the brand’s competitors were still receiving design impulses from outside.
In a further display of inventiveness, Richon documents in his Omega books that Bannwart was the first to apply the idea of luminous substance to the dials of wristwatches. In particular, he added a dot of radium into a recess to create a luminous dot marker.
While this may not seem at all special today, as a great many elements like numerals, markers and logos are now luminous on the dials of luxury watches, in the 1940s lume had not yet been instituted. The technique was quickly picked up by others to become a luxury standard.
“Demand for watches was great right after the war,” says Jean-René Bannwart, who began working with his father at Corum in 1966. And in particular those of highly utilitarian design.
As Omega had been delivering watches to the British armed forces, the brand was experienced in making its timepieces water-resistant, reliable, and robust. These attributes planted the seed for the origins of the automatic Seamaster; Bannwart is considered the “father” of the era-making Seamaster line introduced in 1948.
According to Richon’s books, Vallat was in a big hurry to get the Seamaster on the market. However, Bannwart – a perfectionist – hardly seemed satisfied with his designs, which he deemed “too heavy.” After much pressing, Bannwart finally ended up showing him what he had, and Richon writes that Vallat exclaimed, “But that’s exactly what I needed!”
Father of Omega Flagship Constellation
With Europe finally recovering from the war and returning to less austerity and more small luxuries again, Bannwart bloomed with his own elegant style, creating some of Omega’s most refined models.
He kicked it off with 1948’s Centenary, an automatic wristwatch chronometer to celebrate Omega’s one-hundredth anniversary. Introduced in two sizes limited to 2,000 and 4,000 pieces respectively, the idea behind this particular timepiece was to represent Omega’s 100 years of timepiece creation.
Though its dial was unusually functional in design, its graceful gold case boasting playful lugs was the thinnest of its era.
It created demand.
This caused Omega to follow it up with a new model in 1952: the Constellation.
Still one of Omega’s most sought-after modern lines – just like the Seamaster – the Constellation marking the brand’s first serially manufactured wrist chronometers has remained a flagship. In fact, Robert-Jan Broer of Fratello Watches, a noted expert in vintage Omega, has told me that the Constellation was the watch that kicked off his own passion for this brand.
And I can see why: unlike most of Omega’s popular lines, the Constellation’s look is far less utilitarian and more elegant and playful. The vintage examples are truly breathtaking in their rich details.
“Created by René Bannwart and produced by Merusa in Biel, it became a sensation by deliberately breaking with the uniformity and the monotony of the dials of the era,” Richon wrote.
Just two years later, Bannwart was named head of production and became responsible for Omega’s entire collection.
Overall, Richon pinpointed 1953 as the year that Omega released its most elegant creations boasting particularly luxurious presentation and finishing.
By the time 1955 came around, Bannwart was 40 years old. The successful designer and creator appreciated his wonderful time with Omega, but he felt it was time for him to make his own mark on Swiss watchmaking. And, thus, Corum was born.
But that’s a story for another day. Or just read Bridging Art and Mechanics: The Unabridged Story of the Corum Golden Bridge.
Special thanks to Robert-Jan Broer of Fratello Watches, who aided me greatly in researching this aspect of René Bannwart’s professional life for this chapter of Bridging Art and Mechanics: The Unabridged Story of the Corum Golden Bridge as well as this article. Special thanks also go to him for the wonderful photographs of the original Omega models.
For a collector’s view of the Omega Centenary, please read Broer’s The Omega Centenary From A Collector’s Perspective. His story In-Depth: Vintage Omega Constellation Watches is also excellent, with truly gorgeous photography.