WW1 veteran, coachbuilder, car designer, watch guy. The story of an Eterna Chronometer and it's fascinating owner...

Vintage watches make the most wonderful family heirlooms when they are passed down generations. Here we look at the history of one family’s Eterna Chronometer and the life of its original World War One veteran owner.

The original owner of the Eterna Chronometer

The Eterna-Matic Centenaire Chronometer today - Image Credit: Richard Brown

The town of Orchies in France is not particularly well known. It has a population of just less than 9,000 people and is situated in the Hautes-de-France region, close to the Belgian border. Its historical significance is often overshadowed by towns in the area with more prominent military history such as Amiens and Dunkirk. Today Orchies is quiet, twinned with Kelso in Scotland, and there is little to illustrate that it suffered one of the great tragedies of WW1. In 1914, early in the war, the town was raised to the ground by German troops of the 1st Bavarian Pioneer Battalion following an alleged resistance attack launched by local residents. In the words of the occupying Battalion Commandant, Major von Mehring, written on 27 September 2014:

“I have been forced to employ the most severe measures allowed under the laws of war upon the town of Orchies. In the town there were attacks on German Medical personnel and the murder of approximately 20 German soldiers. The most terrible mutilation was carried out on the soldiers. As a result I gave orders to destroy the town of Orchies, previously home to 5 000 inhabitants. The town no longer exists, Houses, Mayor’s office and Church have disappeared, and there are no longer habitants in the town.

Our family has numerous WW1 connections with several members of a generation fighting in France and two being lucky enough to return home. Orchies is particularly significant as we have a few treasured sepia photographs of my wife’s grandfather in the town while serving with the British Armed Forces. Our favourite is of Luke Lewis Cowell Howgill, always known as Lewis, standing proudly next to his Thornycroft War Department Type J truck. We do not know who his fellow soldiers are, or who the local lady to his right is. The photo is undated other than to say it was taken in Orchies during WW1. What we do know is that Lewis was in the Mechanised Transport unit of the ASC, responsible for front line transportation of anything from the injured to ammunition.

Pte. Lewis Howgill (standing) in the town of Orchies during WW1 - Image Credit: Richard Brown

Lewis survived the Great War and returned home to Leicester to become a Coach Builder in the relatively new automobile industry. He was an engineer by trade and became an accomplished carpenter in his free time. He was much loved by my wife as a doting grandfather and although I never met Lewis I feel sure we would have been friends.

The principle reason for this belief is that as I am currently wearing his beautiful 1961 Eterna-Matic Centenaire Chronometer which was gifted to me last year. Lewis loved watches and travelled to Europe to source this particular model. Not tempted by other equally high-end Chronometers of the day such as Rolex or Omega he was fascinated by the thin case of the Eterna and how such a reduced size automatic movement could be so accurate.

The Eterna-Matic Centenaire Chronometer today - Image Credit: Richard Brown

As soon as I took ownership of the watch I contacted Eterna who helpfully informed me that Lewis bought the watch directly from them in 1961, for the not insubstantial amount of CHF490 (around £1,000 today). The watch is model reference 329T which specifically differentiates this variant with gold on the case and the arrowhead hour indices. Additionally, I learned it is powered by Eterna’s calibre 1439 movement first launched in 1956 with the Centenaire edition celebrating 100 years of Eterna watches.

The watch is not the style I would normally wear however I am increasingly taken with the design. (Perhaps it’s an age thing…?) I am constantly on the lookout for a fine 1968 Rolex Oyster Perpetual of yet to be determined model but the generally smaller 34-36mm diameters of that era put me off a little. I always thought of myself as very much a 40+mm Omega or Rolex type user who does not normally entertain small thin dress watches. However, I had a surprising and immediate connection with the Eterna. There is a real sense of intricate engineering with the watch rather than, dare I say, the mass-produced feel one gets from some mainstream high-end brands. I also sense a strong connection to the original owner who we know was a real enthusiast and had our paths crossed I feel sure we would have enjoyed detailed conversations about the watch and how it compared to others on the market both in the 1960s and today.

Ever the engineer, Lewis’1939 hand-made car - Image Credit: Richard Brown

After the War Lewis married, had two children and ultimately became a grandfather to my wife. He went on to become the director of a small car bodywork business in Leicester and continued to enjoy his passion for engineering. His crowning achievement was to come in 1939, sadly the year his world would be ravaged by war again, when he built, from scratch, his own motor car. We know very little about this vehicle and only one photograph survives which has writing on the reverse stating that Lewis designed and built it in 1939 as a personal project.

One can only imagine the cost in both time and material and what level of technical expertise he must have required to complete the vehicle with 1930s tools. It helps me build up a picture of the character of a man who would have thoroughly researched which Chronometer watch he wanted to own almost thirty years later on a European trip.

The watch on Lewis' wrist - The Eterna-Matic Centenaire Chronometer

The Eterna-Matic Centenaire Chronometer today - Image Credit: Richard Brown

Looking closely at the 1961 34mm Eterna the level of design and detail is quite exceptional. One can easily imagine the 1950s Swiss design team looked at every element of the watch and wondering how could they put a unique signature on it? The face is clear and uncomplicated offering excellent legibility. The hour indices are intricate arrowheads pointing inwards with sharp contours catching the light from different angles. The 12, 9, and 6 indices are rectangular gold batons which lock in the cardinal points of the face. The indices are subdivided by small minute dots and each hour marker has a precise luminescence spot with double spots at the 12 mark. The hands are elegant but not too thin adding to the functional look of the watch. They are about one-third luminescent and two-thirds inlaid with black so they stand out proudly from the champagne coloured face in night and day. The date window is sharp and clear with the backing colour of the date wheel almost matching the dial.

There is something gloriously 60s about the “Matic” after Eterna; in an era when such branding was suggestive of advanced technology – typified by the wonderfully named Dynaflow gears in classic American automobiles. The Chronometer word is very small and subtle but commands a place at the top of the dial leaving no doubts as to the accuracy of the timepiece while the celebratory Centenaire is lower and elegantly written in a larger font which adds sophistication to the overall package. Topped off with classic 60s armoured plexiglass the watch is very light yet feels robust enough to take the knocks of life.

There is some rotor wobble from the calibre 1439 but it is very minor compared to a Valjoux 7750 and not perceivable in daily wear.

As I wanted to own the watch at its very best I sought a quote for a complete service and authentic replacement plexiglass from the private watch servicer I use for all my high-end brands. A favourable response was forthcoming and the watch was submitted being returned around four weeks later. The horologist reported back that he was most impressed by the condition of the movement and that the watch had probably not been opened since purchase in 1961. He had to replace very few parts and commented that the watch displayed outstanding accuracy. I wore the watch for a full day immediately on return and then deliberately took it off to check the power reserve. A full forty hours later, when I could no longer resist the temptation to wear it, the watch was still ticking smoothly and had retained accuracy.

Of course, my wife is delighted that I am wearing the Eterna. Her grandfather was a very important figure in her early life. Although she only knew him for nine years he made a huge impact on her as a child. She would not wear the watch now as it is clearly a gent’s model but we both feel sure that Lewis would approve wholeheartedly that she has passed it on to me. I took enormous family pride in having the watch serviced and then again when I collected it, polished, ticking smoothly with new “heritage” bespoke plexiglass beautifully adorning it. I feel sure Lewis would have approved that his beloved Eterna was being well looked after.

A much-needed strap change for the Eterna

The Eterna-Matic Centenaire Chronometer on the Geckota Hinxhill Leather in Mahogany - Image Credit: Richard Brown

When the watch was unearthed only a year ago it was not on a strap. I have until recently been wearing it on a mid-range 20mm handmade brown leather strap which did little to enhance the watch. I did manage to source a period used gold Eterna buckle (a great find) but the strap still needed a rethink. Therefore I took advantage of a November visit to WatchGecko in Tewkesbury to discuss strap options with Tim Vaux, the Head of Marketing and Content. I want to take this moment to extend much thanks to Tim who was patient and spent a considerable time with me as we tried various options, both of us agreeing that the champagne and gold dial was a tough one to match sympathetically. We finally settled on a beautiful mahogany Hinxhill Premium Quality Horween Leather Watch Strap by Geckota. When the strap bends around the wrist there is almost a perceivable red finish within the leather and it absolutely sets the watch off perfectly. Its taper is perfect for the size of the case and the stitching will mellow with age to nicely reflect the dial colour. I cannot believe that in 1961, when Lewis bought the watch brand new, it looked any better.

Family medals - Image Credit: Richard Brown

I wear the Eterna every week as I am determined to keep the movement active. To my right as I sit in my home office in Derbyshire two of Lewis’WW1 medals are framed on my wall along with other Armed Forces memorabilia. In the centre of Lewis’ two WW1 medals sits a further part of family history. His own father’s India medal, presented after combat during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-59 where Sergeant F. Howgill served in the 37th North Hampshire Regiment of Foot.

And as for the next generation?

I hope that my son will too one day claim the Eterna and I know he will enjoy the ownership of it. He is perhaps not quite the obsessive watch fan that I am but he has made passing references to one day acquiring my Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch and he did wear my Breitling Blackbird on his wedding day so he is a gentleman of good taste! I know for sure that he will treasure the Eterna-Matic Chronometer Centenaire which is so special to the family.

It will certainly not be another fifty-eight years before the watch is serviced but I would like to think that when my son is the permanent owner of the watch, in years to come, he too will value it and be found visiting a horologist to keep his Great-grandfather’s watch in pristine condition.