Ebel watch history. At The Watch Press we often feature some lesser-known brands (although this by no means implies lesser quality – quite often the opposite in fact) among the brands whose fortunes (and foresight) have afforded them the luxury of high-profile international marketing campaigns and instant recognition worldwide. However, no matter how great the name is today, most share very similar origins in humble beginnings, the luminaries almost always time-served apprentices at the watchmakers bench.
Our attention turns this time to the Architects of Time – Ebel - and to their origins in the early years of the 1900s.
The Ebel story begins in 1911, although this year only marked the formal establishment of the marque, and the main players are the husband and wife Eugène Blum and Alice Lévy, from whose initials emerged the Ebel name, first registered as the trademark of Fabrique Blum & Cie. in the watchmaking centre of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, on July 15th of that year.
Having already spent many years in the industry, they were both accomplished and respected locally and the seemingly natural progression from mender and successful watchmaker, in the case of Eugène, complimented by his wife Alice’s eye for detail and design combined with trend-spotting business acumen and efficiency, brought about the birth of the Ebel watch company.
In only their second year, Fabrique Blum & Cie unveiled their first Ebel timepieces. For the lady the emphasis was on delightful design and the use of precious metals and jewels for the Haute Joaillerie models, while for the menfolk more attention was paid to the aura of sophistication and elegance.
While Eugène oversaw the production of the movements, ensuring that his own uncompromising standards of precision, reliability and quality were ingrained into the manufacturing process, Alice maintained a steady hand at the helm of the business as well as overseeing the design of the timepieces. Her eye for aesthetic elegance and innovative design meant that the first Ebel watches – one of which, the Ebel Ring watch, picked up a gold medal at the 1914 Swiss National Exhibition in Bern - were immediately 'en vogue' and brought the company early success.
As a result of the award Ebel was introduced to a wider audience, and following on from the success of the award it began to receive orders for complete watches from other brands, for resale under their own names. This activity alone would become a significant aspect of the Ebel output for decades to come, and helped secure a prosperous future for the young company.
In 1925 Ebel enjoyed the honour of winning the Grand Prix at the prestigious Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoraties et Industries Modernes in Paris for their High Jewellery Art Déco wristwatches.
Eugène then began to embark on sales tours abroad, encompassing the world and winning orders in the major centres, although the demand which was needed to bring the brand to international prominence eluded him.
Charles- Eugène Blum, the son of the founders, joined the company in 1929 and his arrival along with that of Marcel Reuche, a brilliantly skilled watchmaker, soon afterwards heralded the introduction of a new refined system of production which resulted in ever more precise and reliable movements, to such an extent that even the grandee watch houses such as Vacheron Constantine came calling on Ebel for providing movements.
At this time the majority of the orders which filled the sales books were coming from lucrative private label contracts with other large watch houses, Ebel’s own designs although central to the identity of the brand were less a priority for the company at the time, although their own Paul Breguette brand was selected for another campaign in the US in the 1930s. Of course Ebel still created svelte stylish pieces in their own name, just not in the same volumes as the supply demanded by their illustrious contemporaries.
The ability to provide large numbers of pieces to contract was no bad thing however, and Ebel got a chance to supply their own watches in volume when they won the contract to supply the Royal Air Force from 1939 and through the war years.
Following the war, the brand continued its supply to its larger clients, with its own creations coasting along, but not much more than that. Apart from occasional flashes of the old spirit, the art of design for which Ebel had won its early recognition and plaudits seemed to have been replaced by a period of uninspiring, although technically superb, wristwatches.
1961 marked the 50th anniversary of the Ebel marque and Charles- Eugène premiered the President model to commemorate this milestone. Other pieces contested and won awards through the 1960s, but creative momentum still remained somewhat stagnant.
The son of Charles- Eugène had been on course to do as his father had done and was expected to join the family company and assume some of the responsibilities of directing such an institution, but Pierre-Alain Blum had other ideas and, as a headstrong young man, had dropped out of his education and instead took up at technical college to study engineering before disappearing off to the US to find his calling. In fact, he did rather well for himself after some time, but still resisted his father’s attempts at having him return and joining the company.
Somewhat ironically, it would be Pierre-Alain who would see in the changes upon which the fortunes of the Ebel marque would swing dramatically in a positive direction. Threatened with the sale of the company by his father, Pierre-Alain reluctantly returned to his homeland and despite his abject misery at having to do so under virtual duress, his influence on the procedures of the company began to work through to every department within it.
A charismatic and intelligent leader with a similar eye for stylish design and vision as his grandmother Alice sixty years before, Pierre-Alain masterminded the introduction of new attractive designs for men and women for the new era for Ebel and it's new brand identity as The Architects of Time.
1977 saw the unveiling of the Ebel Sport Classic range of models, featuring the 'wave' bracelet which brought the brand critical acclaim and more importantly, substantial worldwide success. Under the watchful eye of Pierre-Alain, Ebel and it's new models reclaimed the reputation once almost forgotten for being a world-class maker of desirable and affordable watches for the younger, sporty fashion-conscious clientele it now had it's sights on.
The new sporty image was bolstered by the association of the Ebel watch as title sponsor of many prestigious golf and tennis tournaments around the world. Success built on success, and by the time Ebel was marking it's 75th year in 1986, it had moved it's offices into the magnificent and architecturally important Villa Turqe in La Chaux-de-Fonds, originally designed by the iconic architect Le Corbusier in 1927 - a fitting home indeed for The Architects of Time.
The following years would see production increase and the brand appeal widened as a succession of new additions to the Ebel range of models were unveiled. Collections to be introduced during this remarkable period of growth included the Beluga, Sport Wave, E-Type and 1911 models, all of which featured distinctive Ebel styling. This bloodline remains at the heart of the marque today, and the ranges of models are still a major element of the Ebel portfolio to this day.
As the Ebel brand hit never-before seen heights and profits soared, so a new holding company was established. Ebel Finance began to invest in non-watch related pursuits such as property, the acquisition of ski equipment manufacturers Authier and Look ski bindings (which had been inaccurately overvalued - grossly) and even a foray into the movies.
Unfortunately, these diversifications proved to be a drain on the resources which had financed them in the beginning and by 1992 Ebel admitted that it was looking for a buyer or investor. And so it was that sadly, the Architect of Growth, Pierre-Alain Blum, was forced to resign from his company in 1994, and Ebel was acquired by Anglo-Arabic InvestCorp even though the company was still selling it's watches in volume.
Once the visionary and family influence was removed, Ebel began to lose momentum, once again due to stagnation in the design department as well as the fact that InvestCorp represented just that - an investment corporation - something which became obvious a mere five years after the take-over when InvestCorp sold Ebel on at huge profit to the luxury group LVMH in 1999, without having contributed anything to the maintain the lustre of the Ebel brand while in it's care.
Initially added to the illustrious LVMH catalogue of luxury brands to compliment the already acquired TAG Heuer and Zenith watch brands, Ebel finally seemed to be back among friends and hopes were high for a new resurgence in the brand's popularity worldwide. However, the Ebel story was to endure yet further difficulties as the marriage inside LVMH failed to rectify the downward slide experienced since the departure of Pierre-Alain Blum. Ebel seemed to operate successfully only under the command of a driven individual and this had been in it's signature since the company had been founded in 1911.
A driven man with a clear vision for the company stepped up in 2004 in the form of Ephraim Grinberg, head of the Movado group and a long time admirer of the Ebel brand and it's philosophy, he jumped when the opportunity presented itself to acquire Ebel from LVMH.
Ephraim Grinberg recognised that Ebel had been generating confusion among customers and it's retail partners in recent years. There had been no clear corporate direction for some time and he was well aware where the key to unlock the potential of this great company lay; Ebel needed to become Ebel once more and not the wandering behemoth it had been allowed to become of late.
He would oversee the refocusing of his designers on the classic sensuous lines of the Ebel ladies collections and the sophistication of the sporty collections aimed at the aspiring gent.
Ephraim Grinberg also soon got his hands dirty by taking the plinth himself at the Ebel manufacture to address the workforce and break the news that for the company to have any possibility of survival, jobs would have to go. This hands-on attitude with an awareness of the responsibilities of restructuring was exactly what was required at that moment, and the job of turning around Ebel once more was underway.
As Ebel retraced it’s steps to the roots of it’s heyday, ‘The Architects of Time’ legend - unfathomably dropped by the more recent owners - was reintroduced and with the firm objective of having the marque seen as a status symbol, as a luxury and most certainly not as a fashion watch, a targeted campaign to bring in it’s existing customers and retailers commenced. Together with evocative advertising imagery and the enrolment of aspirational brand ambassadors and sporting icons Ebel struck out again to reclaim its place among the recognised luxury watchmakers.
Under the direction of Ephraim Grinberg, the iconic models all received complete reworkings, redefining the watch while simultaneously retaining the instantly recognisable Ebel design cues such as the Ebel ‘Wave’, all of which brought the collections up to date and ready to grace the wrists of a new audience. Ebel was back.
In its newest incarnation and under careful and brand-sympathetic leadership, Ebel has once again established itself as a manufacturer of high quality modern luxury timepieces with sophisticated feminine designs for the ladies in the Classic, Beluga and Brasilia collections and strong, masculine accents on the men’s sports watches such as the 1911 BTR Chronographs and new 1911 Tektron collections.
Still under the ownership of Ephraim Grinberg’s Movado group, Ebel today develops and assembles its movements to the exacting C.O.S.C. chronometer standard and continues to encourage its designers to blend creativity with tradition to acclaim.
This time, for the first time in a long while, the future of Ebel looks to be in good shape. It is a brand which has proven to flourish in a loving environment where there is a sense of history in the name and an understanding of the expectations of its’ evolving marketplace.
It’s fascinating to observe how so many prestigious watchmakers have found their greatest successes have been achieved by remaining true or returning to the ideals of their founders a century or more ago. The history of the Ebel marque is a solid reminder of that fact.