The gift of time


Swiss horologist Vulcain invented the wristwatch with an alarm, and has been the go-to gift for heads of state ever since

Watchmakers had been trying for decades to make a wristwatch with an alarm when Vulcain launched the Cricket to an astonished world in the late Forties. This groundbreaking watch could be set with an alarm that sounded a little like an insect, and was inspired by the physiology of crickets, which make such a loud noise despite their tiny size. It had been in development since 1942, and required a team of Swiss watchmakers, engineers and a notable French physicist to complete. Truly state-of-the-art, it came to define the optimism and progress of the post-war era when a 14-karat gold Cricket was given to US President Harry S Truman on his last day in office. This started a tradition that has seen the watch worn by almost every President since World War II, earning it the nickname, “The President’s Watch”.

“1947 was the crucial year for Vulcain because we created the famous Cricket, and the heart of that watch has been the same ever since,” says Carla Duarte, who sits on the Board of Directors of the Swiss company. “This was the first alarm wristwatch, which transformed the world, and the Cricket remains our bestseller even now.”

Even more remarkably, Vulcain developed the Cricket having only recently ventured into the wristwatch business. The company was founded in 1858 in La Chaux-de-Fonds by three inventive brothers – Maurice, Gaspard and Aron Ditisheim  – who were excited by the potential for innovation in the watch industry. They Ditisheims wanted to make pocket watches and eventually won a medal at the 1889 World Fair in Paris for the self-winding La vallée de l’Arve. But the Holy Grail of all watchmakers was a wristwatch with an alarm, something that was finally achieved by Robert Ditisheim, the third generation of the family to run the company.

The Cricket’s alarm system was created by constructing a separate chamber within the watch case that housed a small hammer, and then punching holes in the back of the case so the alarm could be clearly heard. Today it is difficult to comprehend how transformative such an invention was to busy people, and the watch became a bestseller. Following the huge success of the Cricket, further innovation came in 1961 with the Nautical – a watch designed for divers that even featured a table to help calculate decompression times on the dial face. It was designed in partnership with Hannes Keller, who at the time held the record for the world’s deepest dive at 222 metres, so the alarm could be heard – and also felt – at great depths. In the days before computerisation, this was a watch that could save lives. New models of the Nautical are still being made, including the Heritage, the strictly limited-edition Trophy and the Nautical Seventies, modelled on the original.

But it was the Cricket that really made a splash, with the classic model featuring a handsome leather strap made in Italy. Crickets were given to numerous US Presidents, from Truman to Trump. Lyndon Johnson was impressed enough to buy a further 200 of the watches as gifts, while Nixon, Carter and many more have written letters of appreciation, eulogising the qualities of the timepiece, from its comfort and appearance to its reliability. Various models of the classic Cricket have since been launched, but all share a commitment to timeless style, elegant mechanics and a reliable alarm.

“We have Cricket variations called the 50s Presidents, the Nautical and the Aviator, which is for travel,” says Carla. “We have introduced a line called the First Lady, which is for women, and we have been making women’s watches for many years, including the Cricket Golden Voice. We recently did some research and asked our customers if they wanted new designs or re-editions of classic designs and they were very keen on getting new versions of these classic watches as they love their tradition, history and style. We have launched a re-edition of the original Cricket from 1947 in a very limited series of 35 in white gold and silver.”

Vulcain’s sister brand, Anonimo, is an Italian brand founded in Florence in 1997 that uses Swiss-made movements for watches designed more for everyday use than Vulcain’s, combining flamboyant Italian style with Swiss artistry. “With Anonimo we have three brands – the Militaire, the Nautilo and the Epurato,” explains Carla. “We are working on developing new lines for women but they often like the Epurato as it is such a classic and contemporary piece.”

The Epurato oozes a casual chic that epitomises the best of Italian fashion. It features outstanding Swiss technology and craftsmanship, and has a modern, minimalist, slim and elegant design that is ideal for men and women. The robust Militaire is a more masculine affair, with an outsized case that makes a statement without stinting on comfort. As well as being solid and versatile, the Militaire is water resistant to a depth of 120 metres. Finally comes the sporty Nautilo, a contemporary reinterpretation of Anonimo’s original diver watches, water resistant up to 200 metres. Both expressive and functional, the Nautilo has unique personality, with the crown at 4 o’clock and a distinctively graduated unidirectional bezel. The Nautilo is available in three styles –  44.4mm, 42mm and the Vintage – which pay tribute to the past while looking confidently contemporary.

A devotion to the past while creating an exciting future is the outlook that distinguishes both Vulcain and Anonimo. “Our history is very important and we want to keep the DNA of Vulcain in every watch we make,” says Duarte. “We want it to be seen in every new watch as well as the re-editions – this is Vulcain quality. We are proud to be handmade and Swiss-made. We have exceptionally high standards and will continue with that vision of outstanding manufacturing. This is what we are recognised for around the world and it is why our watches are on the wrists of US Presidents.”