Cuervo Y Sobrinos The Watch Press are always pleased to feature watchmakers whose watches and history are often somewhat less than conventional, and on this occasion we would like to introduce to readers who might not be familiar, to Cuervo Y Sobrinos.
Our story takes us back to the heat and humidity, the noise, the colour and bustle of late 1800s Cuba and its’ capital city Havana. Just over 125 years ago, the city was a vibrant cosmopolitan melting pot where travellers from the world over found kindred souls as they worked, adventured and explored their way across new lands in search of unfound treasures. It was on Avenida Quinta, in the heart of the city, and close to the station and the port where stood La Casa, the watchmakers shop of the Cuervo family and where our story begins.
As with all cities, there was wealth and poverty living side by side, but Havana had another side to it, an indefinable flavour of life and living which was heightened by the sounds of the jazz culture, the sweet, strong liquors and the odours of the equally robust fine cigars which were to become synonymous with the city ever since. Havana in its heyday was obviously unlike any other city on earth, and because of its many and varied attractions and the philosophy of El Tiempo Liento (or time which passes slowly), there was a continuous stream of international visitors who hungrily soaked up the city’s uniquely Caribbean atmosphere.
The watchmaker Don Ramon Rio Cuervo found ample business among the local and visiting businessmen and his distinctive designs brought many to his doors on a deliberate mission to buy his wares. By 1882, his new store on the prestigious Avenida Quinta had nephew Don Armando Rio Cuervo at the helm and the sign over the door bore the legend Cuervo Y Sobrinos, or Cuervo and nephews.
Sourcing and eventually overseeing production of their watch movements in La Chaux-de-Fonds, meant that Cuervo Y Sobrinos could offer to their customers timepieces which were distinctly Latin in their design, yet which possessed the reassuring Swiss made mechanical movements.
The watches became legend and so the incredible and eclectic list of clients who would become aficionados of this exotic brand began to swell. Among the records in the “Golden Book” of Cuervo Y Sobrinos wearers were to be found names such as Hemmingway, Churchill, Einstein and Caruso along with many other illustrious charcacters in that new and exiting golden era of world travel.
Benefitting from a tightly-run management Cuervo Y Sobrinos became an important player to the finer watch and clock makers who enjoyed significant sales through the store in the early 1900s, and the business grew in Havana until international demand for the watches heralded time for expansion, and new Cuervo Y Sobrinos shops were opened in Baden Germany, Paris and in La Chaux de Fonds in the heart of Swiss watchmaking country.
The distinctive shapes of the Cuervo Y Sobrinos wristwatch found favour across the more arty Europeans and Americans of the time who cherished the unconventionality of the Cuban brand during a time of growing enthusiasm for fine Swiss watches. Cuervo Y Sobrinos held an edge over their competition in that their watches were quite unlike the offerings from Switzerland and as an added benefit, the family business provided a highly respected sales channel for many of the most revered watchmakers both in their prestigious European shops as well as the US and Latin American clients who continued to ‘escape’ on their vacations to the heady culture of Havana.
It is often true that many of the great watch brands would have had a continued and uninterrupted history were it not for outside influences affecting and changing the course of their businesses – not to mention the course of world history too! So as it was for many fine Swiss, French and German watch houses in the early and mid 1900s, the war years, so the Cuervo Y Sobrinos company eventually encountered their own upheaval when their homeland, and still their base, Cuba fell into the throes of revolution in 1959.
High-society very quickly fell out of favour on Cuba, and the trappings of wealth and luxury lifestyle became symbols of all that the revolution was not about. Cuervo Y Sobrinos were forced from their flagship store and most of the family fled the city in which their name had become part of the fabric.
Bearing in mind that now the business built from 1882 was now in the third family generation, and also considering how many family businesses survive the handing down from generation to generation, the Cuervo Y Sobrinos brand suffered heavily from the unceremonious routing from their homeland, unable to maintain the continuity from their home in exile in Europe, and in the following short years, the once celebrated marque fell into decline and eventual quiet disappearance.
As the years passed, the Cuervo Y Sobrinos name and the wonderful timepieces once so loved by so many of the worlds most sought-after clientele became a footnote in watchmaking history. For four decades the brand simply ceased to be.
And perhaps it might still be a forgotten treasure had it not been for the intervention of Italian businessman and historian Luca Musumeci in 1997, Luca Musumeci recognised the potential of restoring life into the Cuervo Y Sobrinos marque when he purchased the now derelict brand and whatever assets still belonged to it. On visiting La Casa, the original shop on Avenida Quinta, Havana, he found a veritable treasure trove, including old watch designs and drawings, movements and cases which had been stored away in three enormous trunks. Perhaps more than he had expected to find, and it was not until 2001 that he and his partner Mario Villa, an experienced distributor of luxury timepieces, recommenced the production of Cuervo Y Sobrinos timepieces in the new production facility in La Chaux de Fonds and began to develop and stimulate new sales grounds in Europe and further afield.
Taking great care to ensure that the new Cuervo Y Sobrinos models remained true to the spirit of the original watches, the new patron's attention to the original philosophy meant that once again the distinctive Cuervo Y Sobrinos designs began to appear in the store windows of luxury watch specialists, initially in Italy and Spain before being rolled out to over 25 countries, including Russia and the US.
As the re-emerged Cuervo Y Sobrinos found a small but dedicated following, enthralled both by the colourful history of the company and by the distinctive designs in pink gold and steel as well as the variation of complications offered, so the brand grew in popularity among collectors and watch lovers whose requirement for unusual yet stunning styling was amply catered for.
The policy of using traditional manufacturing methods which had been synonymous with the brand since its early days, such as the remarkable extraction of the case from a single block of either steel or gold, undergoing several steps in the hands of the Cuervo Y Sobrinos craftsmen before being signed off and numbered and fitted with its movement.
When the Esplendidos Monopulsante single pusher chronograph was unveiled, it marked another significant milestone for Cuervo Y Sobrinos, for this was the first watch to carry an in-house ‘manufacture’ movement. The CyS Caliber 2450 brought the brand into the rarified air of the legendary watchmakers, and was to show that the reborn marque had serious intention.
The Esplendido flagship range, which, like the other models, dates back to the company's early days and which includes dualtime, retrograde variations and even a handless model - the Esplendido 1882 - bolstered an existing selection of truly exotic models. Today these include the round cased Torpedo and Robusto models as well as the stunning overlong rectangular Prominente. Although drawing heavily on their heritage with these models, Cuervo Y Sobrinos are keen to propose that they are indeed their "New Period Watches".
One thing which strikes you when looking at the range – as well as the styling – is the use and combinations of luxuriant coppers, bronzes and ivory colours in the dials, which themselves are hand made from enamelled porcelain, and how almost each and every combination compliments the look and feel of the Cuervo Y Sobrinos timepiece.
In the summer of 2009, Cuervo Y Sobrinos re-opened the doors of La Casa on Avenida Quinta as its flagship store and museum. Restored to the splendour of the halcyon days when the flamboyant watchmaker originally entertained the brave and the beautiful. Among the standout features of the new location stands the magnificent double-doored safe which had been brought up from the vaults.
Only ten years after the rebirth of the brand, Cuervo Y Sobrinos has succeeded in establishing itself as a watch maker to take note of. Proudly retaining the manufacturing values of the original Havana family business, it is this which sets the marque apart from many of its more conservative European contemporaries.