Lead image: A selection of pocket watches by master watchmaker C.H. Meylan and a prototype wristwatch by the revived company.
On a mild New York City day in October 2008, bidders settled into Sotheby’s for what would become an historic auction.
The sale would be strange by today’s standards. First up: An astrolabe. A gold perpetual calendar Royal Oak sold for chicken feed: $21,250. Gilt Submariners went for $14,000. Daytonas failed to sell at all. And despite the declining market for American pocket watches, the auction’s star was the sole known example of a Waltham grand complication – a perpetual calendar five-minute repeating split-second chronograph with moonphase – likely the most complicated watch made in America.
The watch was remarkable, more like watches from Audemars Piguet or Henry Capt than anything American, and from the same collection as the Henry Graves Supercomplication. The watch blew past the $50,000 – $70,000 estimate, landing at an all-in price of $266,500, then the most expensive American watch ever sold. But where did Waltham, in a country otherwise known for its accurate mass-produced watches, obtain the knowledge to create a grand complication?
The genius lies in a largely forgotten watchmaker once considered among the greatest alive.
LE SENTIER – 1842
Charles-Henri Meylan was born April 21, 1842 in the small town of Le Sentier, Switzerland, where nine years prior Antoine LeCoultre founded the workshop that would become Jaeger-LeCoultre. The Vallée de Joux had already begun to earn its fame as the “Valley of Complications.”
Charles-Henri’s name was synonymous with watchmaking. The valley’s first watchmaker, Samuel-Olivier Meylan, a distant relative, started his workshop in 1743 without the warrant required by the body that oversaw watchmakers. Despite his defiance he eventually was able to secure not only a warrant but the valley’s own governing body, and with it, its future.
Local geography created an evolutionary pressure cooker for watchmaking. While summers were perfect for farming, winters were brutal. When snowfall made the Jura mountains unpassable, farmers turned to watchmaking above their homes for income. Each spring thaw they trekked days through the mountains to sell their movements, highly coveted by prestigious Geneva brands and exporters.
That geography also impacted genealogy. The same names you find today – Aubert, Audemars, Capt, Golay, Guignard, LeCoultre, Meylan, Piguet, Reymond, and Rochat – all worked in watchmaking and their intertwining family trees often make it hard to track the valley’s history.
Charles-Henri and his three older sisters were orphaned and Charles-Henri never received an education beyond primary school. But with plentiful watchmaking jobs from the hundreds of small workshops throughout the valley he took on an early apprenticeship.
At age 22, C.H. Meylan settled in London, interning at Nicole & Capt. The once-famous company made pieces and supplied movements to Frodsham, Dent, and Tiffany & Co., among others, and Meylan worked as a repasseur, one of the most talented watchmakers entrusted with checking, adjusting, and correcting timing of finished watches. After four years Meylan returned to Switzerland, spending three years in Geneva finishing study of the technical science behind designing movements. With these skills, he looked for new frontiers.
NEW YORK – 1871
Meylan arrived in New York in 1871 with the American System of Manufacturing in full swing. Mechanization and replaceable parts created a production revolution. And while the United States had a proven appetite for accurate watches it also presented an opportunity to make something rarely seen there: Complications.
Meylan found work importing and finishing ebauchés for Mathey Bros., Mathez & Co., in New York’s old jewelry district. He patented complications, flexing both finishing and design talents, and developing relationships with ebauché manufacturers H.L. Matile, Louis-Elisee Piguet, LeCoultre, and others.
By 1876 Meylan started to make a name for himself. At America’s first World’s Fair he won an award for improvement in chronograph design and presented a minute repeater and minute repeater chronograph, their “elegant construction [with] the complicated watches upon his plan constructed by Mr. Matile in Switzerland,” according to a British report.
Around the time of Meylan’s arrival, a coterie of Swiss watchmakers established itself in New York. The group included Henry Alfred Lugrin, who focused on chronographs, and Georges Aubert, who worked on repeaters.
Waltham, America’s leading manufacturer, was attempting a return to complications. In 1859, five years after their first watches, Waltham released the “Improved Sporting Watch,” or Chronodrometer, but the movement had to stop to measure elapsed time. When the Civil War forced production reductions, the Chronodrometer was axed, with only 400 made.
Lugrin’s patents gave Waltham an option for inexpensive, reliable, and easily-installed chronographs. They finished stem-wind 14-size movements, mainly 1874 and 1884 models with ¾ plates similar to Swiss ebauché movements, at their factory in Massachusetts and shipped them to their sales representatives Robbins & Appleton in New York where, in addition to placing other watches in high-end gold cases, the company worked with Lugrin and Aubert to modify these movements to add complications.
Waltham introduced Lugrin-patent chronographs in 1877 which, alongside Aubert-patent five-minute repeaters, gave America its first industrial and practical complications. Over the next ten years Waltham produced chronographs of varying designs, plus an estimated 200 to 300 repeaters (selling at $100 each, or more than $2,500 in today’s prices), some five-minute repeating chronographs, scarce split-seconds chronographs, a handful of full minute repeaters, and a few experimental pieces still being discovered.
Surprisingly, Waltham moved on from Lugrin and Aubert after around a decade. It’s possible Meylan’s success and his 1888 patent for a new repeater caught Waltham’s eye. Maybe it was a question of design – Meylan’s chronographs and repeaters had a simplicity and elegance unlike Lugrin’s mess of bridges and levers. Maybe it was a last gasp to save production of complicated watches that never really caught on.
Meylan’s five-minute repeaters appeared in Waltham watches around 1888, as well as five-minute repeating chronographs, split-second chronographs, chronograph minute repeaters, rattrapante five-minute repeaters, and two known full minute repeating rattrapantes, all built in New York.
Capping a banner year, Meylan was named partner in Mathey Bros. And while Waltham would stop producing complicated watches around a year later, it’s hard to argue Meylan hadn’t found the success he had been looking for in America.
In the midst of all this, however, was one of both Meylan and Waltham’s greatest achievements, forgotten until 90 years later.
NEW JERSEY – 1979
In the fall of 1979, William Scolnik’s phone rang. Scolnik had a shop at East 53rd Street and 2nd Avenue in New York, where he fixed clocks and high complication watches, worked with auction houses and collectors, and compiled catalogs. He felt he had seen most of the rarest items in the world.
The man on the other end of the call was a picker, who described a pocket watch to Scolnik – a perpetual calendar with moonphase, five-minute repeater, and a split-seconds chronograph – then said it was a Waltham.
“That’s not possible,” Scolnik remembers saying. “A watch like that doesn’t exist.”
“Well it says Waltham on the movement,” the man responded. “It looks correct.”
Incredulous but intrigued, Scolnik was driving down the Garden State Parkway within the hour to meet at a restaurant off the highway. The picker handed Scolnik the watch, its relatively plain 18K heavy gold hunting case with a pusher and repeater slide. Scolnik opened the inner cuvette and saw the name American Waltham Watch Co.
“I couldn’t believe it was real,” Scolnik told me. The picker named his price, maybe $15,000 to $20,000 by Scolnik’s best recollection, nearly $60,000 to $80,000 in today’s money. “I didn’t even negotiate, I just said yes and couldn’t get home fast enough. I remember driving home feeling like I was floating.”
What sat in front of Scolnik at home was unlike any American watch he had seen. It was a 17-jewel watch with ¾ plate in nickel, stem wind, lever set, with a gold movement train for the perpetual calendar, and five-minute repeater. The dial was quadruple sunk with four subsidiary dials.
Scolnik researched without luck. All he heard was a potentially apocryphal story of watches of various complications, maybe five or six, made for some kind of exhibition. One thing became clear. This particular watch fell in the serial number range of watches made by C.H. Meylan.
Why this watch was made or where it had been for nearly 100 years may never be known. American pocket watch expert Fred Hansen of Jones & Horan auction house was flummoxed.
“You would think a watch like this would have been featured at that same type of events where they had shown other impressive watches,” he said recently. “There was a famous watch made out of rock [quartz] crystal prominently exhibited at the Columbian Exposition. You’d think this would have been for something similar, but I’ve never seen any mention.”
Meylan collector Ethan Lipsig remarked recently that the Waltham grand complication has some similarity to examples of Meylan watches. But the watch is so different from other known C.H. Meylan grand complications, it’s unlikely it was just another movement from Meylan’s Swiss factory. In fact, the placement of the jewels and screws match those of a plain Model 1884, lending credence to the fact that this was something distinctly American. Scolnik had stumbled into an American horological masterpiece.
Scolnik wanted to keep the watch – “it felt like destiny,” he said – and over the next few months a number of rare complicated Walthams came to him from collections in Texas and Louisiana.
He soon realized the watch was worth too much to keep. As he did with many rare items, Scolnik brought it to Illinois industrialist Seth Atwood, whose collection formed the Time Museum. Within three months of the Waltham Grand Complication’s rediscovery, Scolnik let it go.
LE BRASSUS – 1888
When Charles-Henri left for America his wife Louise remained in Switzerland, pregnant with their only child, Ellen. According to Meylan’s great-great granddaughter, when Ellen was around six she was frightened by a man knocking on the door.
“Maman, il y a un monsieur avec un grand chapeau!,” she said. The man was her father, who she had never met.
Meylan resettled in Le Brassus in 1888, founding a workshop near a small brook, surrounded by Louis Elisée Piguet workshops that supplied Meylan and others with ebauchés. Meylan still maintained relationships in America, potentially his largest market, throughout his life. In 1903, he renamed the company The C.H. Meylan Watch Co., an English name reflecting an English market.
Around this time Meylan began producing his masterworks, making it clear his skills surpassed opportunities in the United States. Between around 1890 and 1915, Charles-Henri’s workshop produced an average of one grand complication every other year, though probably finished in batches. They produced everything from fine time-only watches to high-end chronographs, split chronographs, repeaters, and impressively small ladies’ complications, selling them under Meylan’s name and private labels like Cartier, Tiffany, and Van Cleef & Arpels. In fact, Meylan movements appeared in watches from more than 110 different jewelers.
In 1894 Meylan took first place in observatory timing competitions in Geneva besting, among others, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. It’s no surprise that Meylan’s name and picture was listed later alongside Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet as the valley’s most important watchmakers of the time.
After a half-century as a watchmaker, Charles-Henri Meylan passed away in 1916 at the age of 74 after fighting an illness, likely cancer, for more than a year. Most sources say the company was taken over by his son, Max. But a study of C.H. Meylan’s family tree, one supported by descendants, shows he had no sons.
Four years before Charles-Henri’s birth in Le Sentier a different Charles-Henri Meylan was born in nearby Le Chenit. Among that man’s children was a “Max,” who probably worked for the watchmaker who shared his father’s name, resulting in a historical equivalent of a game of telephone, repeating and “clarifying” small bits of information that started disintegrating as soon as C.H. Meylan died.
Despite their founder’s death, the C.H. Meylan Watch Co. soldiered on, adapting to the art deco period with new offices in Geneva. By the 1920s, the company was known for making small baguette movements, ultra-thin movements, and chronographs.
The firm’s famed innovation, however, seemed to decline shortly after Meylan’s death. While beautiful, their pieces from the art deco period – cocktail, purse, and thin pocket watches – looked like other manufacturers’.
It’s hard to say if it was fashion, similar suppliers, or the company buying completed watches and labeling them “Meylan.” One thing is clear: Ethan Lipsig, one of the few Meylan scholars and one who has documented nearly every known Meylan movement, said he had never seen a complicated movement dated later than 1918.
After nearly 60 years and an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 watches from Meylan, Baume et Mercier saw increasing demand for chronographs coming out of Italy and became a majority shareholder in the C. H. Meylan Watch SA manufacture in Le Brassus, on September 1, 1947. Famed Baume et Mercier watchmakers André Juillerat and Marc Beuchat hired Marc’s nephew Edmond Beuchat to reorganize and then direct the Le Brassus factory. Baume et Mercier’s internal history notes that for all of Meylan’s knowledge, the Meylan Watch brand had been greatly weakened and the company bought out Meylan completely in 1952 and absorbed it, giving Baume et Mercier their own in-house chronograph calibers.
Eventually, Baume et Mercier too was bought by Piaget, then both by Cartier. Over time, Meylan slowly faded away.
SWITZERLAND – TODAY
In a building overlooking the Rheinfall of Schaffhausen, Edouard Meylan watched as his father Georges-Henri slowly unpacked bags of watches and documents in the vast family estate of another noted watchmaker, the founder of the company Edouard now runs, Heinrich Moser. While both father and son have made names for themselves in the industry, leading companies bearing other peoples’ names, the two were together to speak about someone closer to home.
For more than 30 years Georges-Henri has collected watches of his distant relative, Charles-Henri Meylan. Before a career beginning at Jaeger-LeCoultre, the chairman of MELB Holding which owns H. Moser & Cie., remembers hearing about the watchmaker in his youth, captivated by their similar names.
“Living in the valley long enough you hear about these brands,” he remembered as we talked over lunch. “The Meylan name is attached to so many companies because of how common it is. But Charles-Henri’s history is like quite a lot of others – forgotten. It’s only those who have perpetuated their name that are remembered.”
For two decades-plus, Georges-Henri led Audemars Piguet, founded by contemporaries of Charles-Henri who were able to perpetuate historical successes. It mirrors Heinrich Moser, another name whose rise, fall, and resurgence under the Meylan family shows the care needed to maintain a brand no matter the historical bona fides.
Throughout his career, Georges-Henri quietly built the largest currently-known collection of C.H. Meylan watches – more than 200 pieces – from pocket, wrist, purse, and cocktail watches, a fact that was unknown until the article. After arriving back at Moser’s headquarters, Georges-Henri unpacked the watches again and called my attention to a small box with typically-Swiss nonchalance belying what was inside.
There sat a C.H. Meylan grand complication, remarkably similar to the Waltham in a nearly untouched case. The caseback was engraved, ”Warner M. Van Norden 1908,” for a descendant of one of the oldest Dutch and Huguenot families in New York. Inside was a movement that could only be described as “new old stock,” recently cleaned and checked by Francisco Passandin, a friend of Georges-Henri’s and Audemars Piguet’s master watch restorer and horloger des complications.
We both stood over the collection, captivated by what was possible 120 years ago – rattrapantes, extra-thin repeaters, 34mm ladies’ repeaters and chronographs, ornate gem-set pieces and Tiffany-signed watches. One of the most interesting was a rattrapante second foudroyante, a jumping seconds complication that nearly made your head spin but brought joy to Georges-Henri’s face. They were collected meticulously, first at auction, and eventually others came to Georges-Henri directly.
While it might not be a prominent name, C.H. Meylan watches have done well at auction. But more interesting is how Meylan’s handiwork has performed when his name was nowhere to be found.
The same movement in Georges-Henri’s grand complication appears in an Audemars Piguet-labeled watch in their archives, preceding Georges-Henri’s watch by one serial number. Another, a Patek Philippe grand complication, with masterpiece enamel by Suzanne Rohr, sold at Christie’s in 2012 for 723,000 CHF. Its movement, assembled by Patek in 1964, was Patek’s smallest post-war grand complication, according to Christie’s. No wonder it was so unique for Patek Philippe. The movement, minus engraving, is identical to Meylan’s.
While Patek leaned on valley watchmakers into the 20th Century, some companies that made in-house movements occasionally fulfilled special orders with outside help. For Patek, it’s possible that in this case they bought movements when a respected manufacturer closed. While there’s no doubt that Patek Philippe did the finishing, it’s possible the groundwork was laid some 50 years earlier by Meylan.
As Georges-Henri approached retirement in 2009, his mind wandered back to Charles-Henri Meylan.
“Charles-Henri, Georges-Henri – C.H. and G.H. – it’s as if someone made a mistake writing the initials,” he recalled. “I thought, why not make something with this name? But I couldn’t while CEO of Audemars Piguet, so I waited.”
In 2012, while he and his children looked for their next endeavor, the C.H. Meylan brand was on the table. In fact Georges-Henri’s passion seemed to hang over the head of Edouard and his brother Bertrand.
“It was so important to him to restart the Meylan brand but we realized how much work it would be to start from zero,” said Edouard. “With Moser, we had a head start. We had the people, buildings, machines. We had an identity, movements, a network. We could crystallize who we were as a brand and try to make our values come through.”
The H. Moser & Cie. operation is different than most modern manufactures – far from C.H. Meylan’s time, there’s not an ebauché in sight. Everything related to their movements is made in Neuhausen am Rheinfall, outside Schaffhausen, encouraging collaboration between engineers and watchmakers. Precision Engineering, Moser’s sister company, produces escapement components including hairsprings, assembled and tested near CNC machines that manufacture components, including prototypes, that can be tested by watchmakers immediately before fine-tuning with the engineers just feet away. The hairsprings are not only for Moser but also for daring brands like MB&F and Kari Voutilainen.
There’s a unifying undercurrent between the companies, a willingness to take risks in the hopes of disrupting a status quo. And while Meylan mastered elegant modular solutions for complications for other watchmakers’ movements, Moser took the search for elegant solutions further, creating the Modular Escapement System, a novel solution that allows Moser’s watchmakers to drastically shorten a watch’s service time by swapping for a new escapement.
Maybe even more similar is their feeling that the work should speak for itself. Edouard had grown up looking at the C.H. Meylan pocket watches in his father’s collection but only after looking closely, he noticed something lacking on some of the greatest watches of their time.
“Meylan’s watches were the first real pocket watches that I really looked at in detail and after studying them I noticed many of them don’t have any logos on the dial. Back in the 19th and even 20th century, on some of Meylan’s greatest watches, there was no logo. I remember wondering why,” Edouard said. “Suddenly, I realized that it used to be that when you went to a watchmaker, you knew what you got – there was no need for a name. I realized I wanted Moser to be the essence of that experience.”
As Moser’s success grew the family realized it wasn’t the right time to start another brand. Edouard admitted that while the hope is still there, Moser alone has more customer demand than production capability and requires the family’s full attention.
A day later I arrived in Charles-Henri’s hometown of Le Sentier, at the Espace Horloger, an interactive museum dedicated to the watchmaking history of the Vallée de Joux and one supported by the most prominent local watchmakers. Hoping there would be some answers to questions about the watchmaker’s life, I carefully considered each watch on display. As I stood in front of one of Meylan’s grand complications made for Tiffany & Co., the operations manager of the museum, Tania Cotting, asked me if I’d like to see the lone document in the museum’s archive about Meylan.
Tania arrived carrying a large frame, followed by Georges-Henri Meylan, who had come to meet me. Turning the frame around she revealed a certificate given to Charles-Henri from the 1876 World’s Fair, the award that helped him rise to prominence in America. Georges-Henri was excited by the revelation and, like any true collector, took his phone out of his jacket to photograph this piece of history – meanwhile I had goosebumps thinking of how important that document had been to C.H. Meylan.
Georges-Henri picked me up the next day at my hotel on the banks of the Lac de Joux. We planned to look at more watches, spending a third day talking about the watchmaker that captivated us both, but first he wanted to show me something.
As we drove through the Vallée de Joux, Georges-Henri pointed out locations of watchmaking history and Charles-Henri’s life. There’s Jaeger-LeCoultre, where Charles-Henri bought many of his ebauchés and where Georges-Herni spent his early career, and the technical school for watchmaking, where Charles-Henri was vice-president of the board for its founding in 1901. There were street signs pointing the way to Meylan Frères, a micro-mechanical manufacture, and the preeminent plumbers in the valley, Meylan & Zooler. We passed workshops for Breguet in L’Orient, the Audemars Piguet headquarters, their factory outpost, and a small workshop for Patek Phillippe, all within 10 minutes.
Georges-Henri wound quickly up a tight road, passing a small brook and old mills just off downtown Le Brassus, stopping outside a Blancpain manufacture. He stepped out of the car and looked across the road.
“This is it, C.H. Meylan’s workshop,” he said, smiling ever so slightly. For months I had looked for the building but it seemed as though addresses weren’t needed in Meylan’s day. We walked across the street to the building which, aside from a sign reading “Aubert Mecanique” and a few plants in the windows, sat quiet. “You can tell this was a watchmaker’s shop,” he said. “Look at the large windows, tightly spaced. It gave the most light to make their small parts.”
We left for George-Henri’s chalet on the western shore of the Lac de Joux. Its large windows warmed the house as he yet again pulled out some of his favorite watches while we talked. It was cozy, a small H. Moser fumé wall clock the only evidence of a career in watches. I used my grandfather’s knife to open the watches – it reminded me of sitting across from him as a child, hearing about the watches he found important but had rarely been asked about.
Before we parted ways Georges-Henri pulled out two watches. First, a Meylan jump-hour wrist watch from around the 1920s. The other, a jump-hour wristwatch with second foudroyante, just like his captivating pocket watch, but decidedly more modern. The dial took the shape of a figure-eight, with the hours in the top circle, and a minute track rotating around the outside. The bottom subdial read “C.H. Meylan.”
“We made this watch and two other prototypes a few years ago,” Georges-Henri said. “I wanted to take inspiration from things that Charles-Henri was doing but in a modern way, to show what could be done.”
The watch was fascinating, though very much a prototype, relatively thin but with modern proportions. He told me that the movement proved more complicated than anticipated, but satisfied some of the wonder of what could be, even if it never comes.
I returned to Charles-Henri’s workshop that evening before leaving Le Brassus, wondering the last time anyone beside Georges-Henri or myself stood out front and thought of the watchmaker. In fact, at that moment I was closer in time to C.H. Meylan’s return to Le Brassus than Charles-Henri was to the founding of Samuel-Oliver Meylan’s workshop. It was powerful to be surrounded by history not as distant as it had seemed.
In New York, Charles-Henri’s old haunts are a shell of their former lives; his old offices are run-down and quiet buildings, one housing a Subway sandwich shop on the ground floor. The Robbins & Appleton building, not far from HODINKEE’s offices, now has an art supply store on the ground floor and condos above – one is currently available for $9,000,000.
And as for the Waltham grand complication watch, it remains quietly hidden away yet again. Fred Hansen believes, however, that we may not have heard the last of this watch. In fact, it’s possible, there’s more of Meylan’s genius to be found.
“I’ve heard rumors of another Waltham perpetual calendar of the same design,” he said.
“There’s collections out there where 90% hasn’t been seen publicly. They’re incredible. You have to believe that anything we know about watches isn’t set in stone. When these collections start coming to light, it could change the landscape of watch scholarship completely.”
Thanks to the following sources for sharing their research and help with the story: Ethan Lipsig, Georges-Henri and Edouard Meylan, Stephen Foskett, Yang Shiming, Antonios Vassiliadis and Hans Weil, the auction houses of Bonhams and Sotheby’s, and the authors of NAWCC Bulletins throughout the years.