The History of the Roskopf Watch

An example of an 1896 Exposition watch made by Georges Frederic Roskopf .

An example of an 1896 Exposition watch made by Georges Frederic Roskopf .

I am telling the story of Georges Fredric Roskopf not only because it is a fascinating history, but to make a point to watch collectors and enthusiasts: collections of watches don’t necessarily have to be high grade, bejeweled, gold, or “high falutin’” to be interesting and collectible. A collection of Roskopf and Roskopf-type watches can be very interesting and historically important, as well as a relatively “cheap and easy” way to get into the hobby.

Many thousands of Roskopf style watches were made, and a romp through eBay will turn up several good examples. No serious watch collection should be without an original number one model Roskopf.

So what makes Roskopf interesting? In the 1860s, all watches were wound with a key. But Roskopf’s watches were wound with a crown—also known as stem-wound. It was the beginning of keyless winding.

Stem wind or keyless winding systems in watches was considered “high tech” at this time, and Roskopf’s watch was “avant guard” and ahead of it’s time. The story that follows it that of the brilliant inventor and innovator—Georges Fredric Roskopf—and his watch.

Roskopf wasn’t the first watchmaker to utilize stem-winding mechanisms in watches, but his system was simple, robust, cheaply produced, and very successful. Roskopf’s watches used the basic winding system invented by Jean Adrian Philippe in 1842. There were some earlier, unsuccessful prototypes and consequent variations of winding systems for watches. Philippe’s was so successful that Count Von Patek of the prestigious house of Patek made him a partner in the firm, but that’s another story.

Roskopf made a wise decision choosing Philippe’s system, and coupled with his own patented inventions, made his watch unique, affordable, and successful. His watch subsequently inspired a whole new area of the watch industry in Switzerland and some decades later in the United States.

Georges Frederic Roskopf was born in March of 1813 at Niderwiller, then part of the Grand Duchy of Baden, Germany. Today, the Niderwiller village is situated in the French province Alsace, bordering Switzerland and Germany.

Becoming a Watch Maker

In 1829, at the age of 16, George travelled to La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, where he undertook a three-year apprenticeship as a sales clerk with Mairet & Sandoz, a firm selling hardware and watchmaker’s supplies. This was his introduction to the watch making industry.

In 1834, he apprenticed as a watchmaker in La Chaux de Fonds, where he stayed for only a year before quitting apprenticeship to marriy Francoise Lorimier, a well-off widow 17 years his senior. She had two children from her previous marriage.

In 1835, financed by his wife, he set up his own watchmaker business on 18 Leopold-Robert Street. This firm worked as “etablisseur“—a company that buys watch components and assembles them. A son, Fritz Edouard, was born the same year.

Georges Fredric Roskopf

Georges Fredric Roskopf

Roskopf sold his business in 1850 because it wasn’t profitable, moving to become the joint manager of the La Chaux de Fonds branch of Guttmann Brothers of Warburg, Germany. This company assembled “English style” watches and marketed them to Belgium and the USA.

In 1855 Roskopf set up another business together with his son, Fritz Edouard and Henry Gindraux, as ROSKOPF, GINDRAUX & Co. Roskopf was an idealist who dreamed of making good-quality, low-cost watches for the working man. After two years, his son left him to open his own watch business and Gindraux left to become the director of a watch making school.

In 1860 Roskopf began to design a watch that could be sold for 20 Swiss francs and still be of good quality, simple and solid. He called this watch “montre proletaire“—the laborer’s watch. Roskopf’s workingman’s watch was with met indifference and hostility among the watchmakers of the area, who were still working as a home industry and did not wish to make a watch suitable for mass production. In 1866 Roskopf ordered two boxes of ebauches (raw watch movements) from Emile Roulet and asked Gustave Rosselet to make escapements. Both refused to take his orders.

In 1867 Roskopf finally succeeded in producing his watch. The Malleray Watch Co. supplied the ebauches and cases, while other necessary parts came from sundry other makers. The watches themselves were assembled in France, by M. Chatelain. The original order to Malleray was 2,000 watches. By the end of 1867 he was in business and three years later he had expanded orders tenfold, ordering 20,000 ebauches for production.

Roskopf's first watch looked like any other of the time on the outside...

Roskopf's first watch looked like any other of the time on the outside but ...

... but on the inside, the works were crudely fashioned, which helped to keep the price down.

... on the inside, the works were crudely fashioned, which kept the price down.

Roskopf’s first choice for case material was brass, but he finally chose German Silver, an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel. The first model had a hinged bezel, facilitating the setting of the hands. The hands of the Roskopf watch were set to time by the use of the fingertip, and were of heavy, robust construction. The watch met Roskopf’s specifications: they were simple, effective and cheaply produced.

Through the influence of the famous house of Breguet in Paris, Roskopf was able to present his watch at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867. This was a precipitous move on Roskopf’s part; there were 152 Swiss competitors present, each bringing their best watches and vying for prizes. The winners would be recognized worldwide, and demand for their product would likely increase dramatically. Roskopf’s entry was a watch with a simple, unrefined mechanism housed in a cheap German silver Case. His competitors entered high-quality refined and complicated watches housed in gold, or at the very least, and silver. The judges awarded four gold, six silver and 15 bronze medals. To the complete surprise to everyone, included Roskopf, the judges awarded Roskopf a bronze medal.

From then on, even the House of Breguet began sending him orders. The distinguished house of Borel & Courvoisier also placed ordered with Roskopf, and other orders for his watches poured in from everywhere. The Roskopf watch was an immediate success. In 1869 the Roskopf watch was exhibited at the Amsterdam Exhibition and won a silver medal.

In 1870 G.F. Roskopf introduced a second design with a hand-setting mechanism, but had also reduced the number of working parts further, simplified the escapement fitting, and introduced an improved winding system. This watch, which cost 25 Swiss francs, was crown-wound and the hands were set via a button on the side of the case. He utilized Adrien Philippe’s (Patek, Philippe) free mainspring barrel patent, for which he paid a royalty to Philippe on each watch. This ingenious mainspring patent virtually eliminated mainspring breakage.

The face of a Georges Frederic Roskopf watch.

The face of a Georges Frederic Roskopf watch.

Not Just for the Working Man

Roskopf’s very affordable watch was intended for the working man, but aristocrats and army officers were actually his first customers. In February 1867 Roskopf hired Charles Léon Schmid, to sell the monthly output of 500-600 watches. This very enterprising young man came up with the brilliant idea to present the watch to officers of different European armies and railroads. Orders came rolling in and demand overcame production.

The idea of the Roskopf-type watch had become very popular in Switzerland and a number of Swiss companies began making Roskopf copies, labeled “System Roskopf,” “Gre. Roskopf” or labeled “Rosskopf” (with two s’s) to bypass Roskopf’s registered trade mark. Watches labeled A. Rosskopf, E. Rosskopf, G. Rosskopf, H. Rosskopf (from Hollstein, Switzerland), J. Rosskopf, and W. Rosskopf (trade mark of Vittori & Cie, La Chaux de Fonds) began popping up all over Europe. In order to be cheap, these watches were all machine-manufactured and badly made. Although these watches were pin-lever watches, they didn’t have Roskopf’s patented platform-mounted escapement.

Here you can see the difference in the worked between the first and second generation of the Roskopf watch.

Here you can see the difference in the worked between the first and second generation of the Roskopf watch.

In 1872, after the passing of his wife, Roskopf sold the house in La Chaux de Fonds, and turned over his business to Charles Léon Schmid and the brothers C. and E. Wille, his wife’s grandsons. Although the Wille brothers were only his step grandsons, Roskopf felt he had an obligation to repay his wife’s generous investment in his idea and company. The new company was named Wille Freres. This was the measure of integrity of Georges Fredric Roskopf.

The newly founded company went on to produce an estimated 20 million watches! In 1873 Roskopf remarried a school teacher 24 years younger than himself and they lived for a short time in Cernier, where Roskopf acquired Swiss citizenship in 1874. Later they moved to Berne, where Roskopf died on April 14, 1889. According to Liliane Roskopf, his great-granddaughter, he was an embittered, wounded man who fled from La Chaux de Fonds, away from the watch making business. It was a sad end to a brilliant and capable man of grit and determination.

In the five-year span he invented and produced the “Roskopf watch,” the ultimate production was less than 100,000 watches.

Following Roskopf’s death in 1889, a number of firms claimed to be his “true successor.” But Wille Freres alone actually had the rights to the Roskopf label. They had been using the Roskopf trade mark for years—with his consent—before G. F. Roskopfs death.

A patent office was not established in Switzerland until 1888. Hence, Roskopf was unable to patent his inventions in Switzerland, although he did manage to patent his inventions in France, Belgium and the United State. The inability to protect his inventions in Switzerland opened the door to charlatans, and he was copied many times over. Roskopf held four patents for watch mechanisms in France, Belgium, and the U.S., and later some 11 Swiss patents were taken out for Roskopf watch mechanisms by his descendants and business associates.

In 1890, the Cortbert Watch Co. manufactured high-quality “Roskopf watches” with jeweled pivots and gold-plated movements. They were signed “Cortebert,” not Rosskopf.

Roskopf’s watches and ideas inspired D.A. Buck in the U.S. to produce a good, cheap, easily manufactured pocket watch—the “Dollar Watch”—which also made use of Roskopf’s pin pallet escapement. These watches usually employed massed-produced, machine-punched parts, later assembled in riveted movements, making them even cheaper, and unserviceable; the first “throw away watch.”

Fritz-Edouard Roskopf (1835-1927) had his own watch business in Geneva since 1857. He did not produce a Roskopf-style watch, most probably no complete watches at all. Things would change after the death of his father: In 1897 he registered the “thistle” trade mark for watches and began producing a Roskopf watch in the manor of his father’s brainchild. Following in his father’s footsteps, he was granted a patent for a hand-setting mechanism. He was moderately successful and produced many thousands of watches.

The patent marking of a Georges Frederic Roskopf watch.

The patent marking of a Georges Frederic Roskopf watch.

The Roskopf legacy continues

Roskopf’s grandson—Fritz-Edouard Roskopf—had one son, Louis-Frederic Roskopf. Louis-Frederic was not a watch maker, but dealer of tropical birds. Around 1900, when he realized that almost any watch company in La Chaux de Fonds was making money producing a “Roskopf watch,” he returned to La Chaux de Fonds and, together with watchmaker Léon-Henri Reinbold, founded the Louis Roskopf & Cie watch company. Trade marks were “Louis Roskopf S.A.,” “Petit Fils Roskopf” and “Roskopf Nieto.”

Around 1923, the companies merged with Reconvilier Watch Co. SA, a company active since 1902, and among others making Roskopf type watches. The company remained active till the 1970’s.

Louis Roskopf’s estimated watch production is 10 million watches!

My thanks and acknowledgement to Ulrich Brecher and Paul Von Rampoy.

David Mycko is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in antique and vintage watches.

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