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The Roskopf-Watch
It's history, inventions and patents

Georges Frederic Roskopf
1813 - 1889
1. History

Georges Frederic Roskopf was born the15th March of 1813 at Niderwiller (pronounced: "Nee-der-whiller"), then part of the Grand Duchy of Baden, Germany, to Johann Georg Roskopf (butcher and innkeeper) and Maria Elisabeth (neé) Gmelin. Today, the Niderwiller village is situated in the French province Alsace, witch is bordering to Switzerland and Germany.

Georges Frederic was the 4th of 10 children. Since there was no future for all of the ten children, in 1829, at the age of sixteen, George travelled to La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland, where he undertook a three year apprenticeship as a sales clerk with Mairet & Sandoz, a firm selling hardware and watchmaker sundries.

Later, in 1834, he became apprenticed as a watchmaker to J. Biber, a firm also in La Chaux de Fonds. He remained there only one year, then quit his watchmaker apprenticeship and married Francoise Lorimier, a well-off, 37 years old widow. She was the mother of two children from her previous marriage.

In 1835, financed by his wife, he set up his own watchmaker business on 18 Leopold-Robert Street. This firm worked as "etablisseur", - a company that buys watch components and assembles them. A son, Fritz Edouard was born the same year.

In 1850 Roskopf sold this firm because he made too little profit out of his business.

He then became joint manager of the La Chaux de Fonds branch of B.J.Guttmann Brothers of Warburg (Germany), at a salary of 5,000 Swiss Francs per annum. This company assembled "English style" cylinder- and lever watches and sold them predominantly to Belgium and the USA.

In 1855, again, Roskopf set up his own business together with his son, Fritz Edouard and Henry Gindraux as ROSKOPF, GINDRAUX & Co. Roskopf was an idealist who dreamed of making good quality, low cost watches for the working man. After two years, his son left him to open his own watch business in Geneva while Gindraux left him to become director of the watch making school of Neuchatel.

In 1860 G.F. Roskopf began to design a watch that could be sold for 20 Swiss francs (then a week's pay of an unskilled laborer) and still be of excellent quality, simple and solid. He called this watch "montre proletaire" (laborer's watch). At first, Roskopf met indifference and hostility among the watchmakers of the area, who were still working as a home industry and who did not wish to make a watch, suitable for mass production. It is said, that in 1866 Roskopf ordered two boxes of ebauches (= raw watch movements) from Emile Roulet and asked Gustave Rosselet to make escapements. Both refused to take his orders.

He finally succeeded in producing his watch in 1867, using ebauches and cases from the MALLERAY WATCH CO., and parts from many other makers, and having them assembled in Damprichard, France, by M. Chatelain. The original order to MALLERAY was 2,000 watches. By the end of 1867 he was in business and by 1870 he had ordered 20,000 ebauches.

Fig 1:
Left, one of the first series of 2000 watches, sold for SFr. 20.- in 1867. The hands of this model were set by finger tip like those of clocks.

Right, a 1870 model with a push button setting mechanism for SFr 25.- in 1870.

Watches shown on a 5 mm grid

Fig 2:
Typical for the first series is the L-shaped barrel bridge and the missing crescent shaped cutout in the top plate.

And note the hinged back on the 1870 model. versus the snap on back on the first model.


Through the influence of the famous house of BREGUET in Paris, Roskopf was able to present his watch at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867. This was a brave decision: 152 Swiss competitors were present with their "masterpiece". The jury gave Roskopf a bronce medal; a surprise to anyone, included Roskopf, but it is to be said that all together 4 golden, 6 silver and 15 bronce medals were distributed. From then on, even Breguet began to send him orders. Some movements were supplied to BOREL & COURVOISIER. And more orders poured in.

In 1869 the Roskopf watch was exhibited at the Amsterdam Exhibition and won a Silver Medal there.

In 1870 G.F. Roskopf introduced a second design with a setting mechanism (Fig. 2, on the right side). This watch cost 25 Swiss francs. In it he reduced the number of parts further, simplified the escapement fitting, and introduced an improved winding system. This watch was crown-wound (still one directional only) and button-set. Inside of his oversize barrel he arranged to use Adrien Philippe's (Patek, Philippe) free mainspring patent, for which he had to pay a royalty on each watch. (See Fig. 8). The purpose of this was an unbreakable mainspring.

Although Roskopf's watch was actually intended for the poor man, they were not his first customers, but aristocrats and army officers were. In February 1867 Roskopf hired a young man, Charles Léon Schmid, to sell the monthly output of 500-600 watches. Charles Léon Schmid had the brilliant idea to present the watch to different European armies and railroad companies. Soon, demand could not be met.

After the death of his wife Francoise in 1872, Georges Fréderic sold the house in La Chaux de Fonds, handed over his business to Charles Léon Schmid and the brothers Charles and Eugène Wille. The new company was named WILLE FRERES. Why did Roskopf not hand over his business to his own son Fritz Edouard but to the Wille freres?
Already in 1851 Georges Frederic worked together with Charles-Aimé Wille as joint manager for the La Chaux de Fonds branch of the watch manufactory of Guttmann Frères from Würzburg, Germany. Charles-Aimé Wille had three sons, Charles, Jules and Eugène. Charles married Jenny Borthiewicz, daughter of Médard Borthiewicz and Francoise Lorimier. So, Charles Wille was Roskopf's step-grandson. Since the money for setting up his watch business came from his late wife, it seemed appropriate to Roskopf to hand over his business to his wifes grandson.
The total amount of Roskopf Patent watches can be estimated at 20 million.

In 1873 Roskopf remarried a women from Cernier, a school teacher there and 24 years younger than himself. They lived for a short time in Cernier where Georges Fréderic got the Swiss citizenship in 1874. Later they moved to Berne, where Roskopf died on April 14, 1889. According to his grand-grand-grand daughter Liliane Roskopf (living in Geneva), he was an embittered wounded man who fled away from La Chaux de Fonds, away from the watch making business. In the five years he produced the "Roskopf watch", he did not produce more than 100,000 watches.

When Roskopf died in 1889, a number of firms claimed to be his ,true successor'. But Wille Freres alone actually had the rights to the Roskopf label. They had been using the Roskopf trade mark for years before G. F. Roskopfs death, with his consent.

2. Features of a genuine Roskopf watch

a) The Application of keyless winding.

In the 1860s it was very unusual to design a watch wound by a crown. Roskopfs crown winding system was invented by Jean Adrien Philippe in 1842, and there were some earlier prototypes without sucess. Not untill 1880, the majority of all watches were sold key-wound. Certainly, the rifled winding ball seems to be a Roskopf design. The very first crown-wound watches (ca. 1850) had flat, knurled winding discs. By the way, the latest key wound watch in my collection is dated 1903!


Roskopf and the development of the winding crown:

Fig. 3:
Pendant of a late, key wound watch (ca. 1880)
Fig 4:
Very early disc-shaped winding crown (ca.1850)
Fig. 5:
Roskopf's ball shaped crown, acting forward only (1868)
Fig 6:
Modern pendant (1925) without the globe for fixing the suspension ring.

Characteristic of all the early crown-windings is the globe shaped pendant button, pierced by the suspension ring (Fig. 6 - 8). This was a carryover from the key winding era. The globe was generally abandoned in the 1870s.

b) Suppression of the center wheel and direct gearing of the barrel with the third pinion;

Thus a very large barrel could be used, passing beyond the center of the pillar plate, resulting in a greater motive force.
Then the following wheels are: Third wheel, seconds wheel, escape wheel, and finally the lever and the balance (see Fig 7)

Fig. 7:
Note the very large barrel, passing beyond the center of the pillar plate

This is a late example of a Roskopf watch, the bearings already jeweled.

c) An "unbreakable" free mainspring

The most frequent reason to visit a watchmaker up to 1960 was a broken mainspring. An alternative solution was the free mainspring, or "Philippe-mainspring", invented by Adrien Philippe. (Philippe later became a partner in Patek-Philippe Co, - still a famous brand today.) Though this was not a Roskopf patent, Roskopf generally used this patented mainspring and paid royalties to Philippe.

Fig 8:
Here already placed into the barrel is the Philippe drag-spring with a hook as a connection to the main spring at one end and a spur at the other end.
In this picture the main spring is shown ready to be inserted into the barrel.


The Philippe patent employs a short, sturdy piece of spring, hooked as an appendix to the main spring, covering about 4/5th of the barrels circumference. When the mainspring is wound too tightly, then the appendix-spring is dragged along the inner barrel wall and so safeguarding the mainspring. The drag-spring is equipped with a hook to connect with the mainspring and a spur on the opposite side for arresting in the five notches, distributed along the inner circumference of the barrel rim.

Fig. 9

Jean Adrien Philippe 1815-1894
Co-founder of Patek-Philippe and inventor of the unbreakablable spring and a useful crown winding system (1842).

When a Roskopf watch is excessively wound, the drag spring hooked to the end of the mainspring slides along the inside wall of the barrel with a peculiar clicking sound, caused by the spur at the end of the drag spring, snapping into the grooves inside the barrel wall. One of these grooves is clearly visible in Fig. 8.


d) The application of an exchangeable platform escapement unit,

which facilitated the production and maintenance of the watch and made this part easily replaceable. One of the patent claims is, that this arrangement allows the use of any kind of lever and especially a cylinder escapement too, which Roskopf had favoured at first. This exchangeable escapement unit contains the escape wheel, lever and balance.

Fig. 10:

The escapement platform ready for fastening onto the pillar plate by three screws from beneath.

Fig. 11:

Details of the exchangable escapement platform


e) The employment of the pin pallet escapement,

conceived by the French watchmaker Louis Perron of Besancon in 1798. Jules Grossman of the Le Locle school of horology had recommended this escapement to Roskopf.

The two steel pin pallets were made tapered and staked into a lever. To overcome any defect of planting and depthing of the escape wheel and pallet, the pillar plate is split and arranged for screw adjustment. The tendency of the oil to run off the pins is corrected by having the pin pallets bank to the rim of the escape wheel. The oil collects in the corners of the notches between the escape wheel teeth, and the pins get an oil bath on each banking.

Fig 12:
The original Roskopf pin pallet escapement.


f) Watch case from german silver

At first, Roskopf was planning to make a watch case from brass. Finally he chose german silver, an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel, also called "argentan". The first model had a hinged bezel, since the bezel had to be opened for setting the hands by the owners finger.

The 1867 model had a snap on back because Roskopf believed that hinged backs were less dust proof. But already the 1870 model shows a hinged back. (See Fig. 2, right)

3. Fritz Edouard Roskopf, Georges Frederic's son:

G.F. Roskopfs son, Fritz-Edouard Roskopf (1835-1927) had his own watch business in Geneva since 1857.
As long as his father lived, he did not produce any Roskopf style watch, probably no watches at all. Things would change after the death of his father: In 1897 he registered the "thistel" trade mark for watches and accessories (Look Fig. 1s3a)

Fig 13: An early F-E . Roskopf watch, about 1905, built in the tradition of his father.
Shown on a 10mm grid.

For an enlarged photo klick here

Fig 13a: Note the thistel logo of Fritz Edouards company
Fig 14: A late F-E. watch, ca. 1930. You can tell this by the black numerals 13 to 24 h

For an enlarged photo click here

In 1899, Swiss patent #18632 was granted to Fritz-Edouard for a mechanism to set watch hands by the barrel, useing the Roskopf system. From this year on he had produced his own Roskopf watches, signed F.E. Roskopf & Co. His watches were manufactured by the Société Horlogère in Reconvillier, in 1902 renamed Reconvilier Watch Co. SA 1). In 1913, the trade mark and registration was transmitted to Buffat & Co. This Company continued its operation till the 1970's.
The Société Horlogère had allready made watches for Fritz-Edouard's father Georges-Frederic, so the similarity of their watches doesn't surprise. In fact, the watch is identical with his fathers 25 Francs watch in size and weight, save the crown may be wound bidirectionaly.
The total amount of F.E. Roskopf watches can be estimated at 20 million.

.1) According to "Revue culturelle du Jura Bernoise et de Bienne, Hiver 1996"


4. Louis-Frederic Roskopf,..Roskopf's grandson

Fig. 15: A Louis Frederic Roskopf watch, ca. 1925

For an enlarged photo click here

Fritz-Edouard Roskopf in his turn had one son, Louis-Frederic Roskopf.
Louis-Frederic was not a watch maker, but dealer of tropical birds. Around 1900, when he realised that almost any watch company in La Chaux de Fonds was making money with the Roskopf watch, he returned to La Chaux de Fonds and, together with watchmaker Léon-Henri Reinbold, he founded the Louis Roskopf & Cie watch company. Trade marks were 'Louis Roskopf S.A.', 'Petit Fils Roskopf' and 'Roskopf Nieto'.
Around 1923, the companies merged with Reconvilier Watch Co SA, a company active since 1902 and among others making Roskopf type watches. The company remained active till the 1970's.
The total amount of Louis Roskopf watches can be estimated at 10 million.







3. Fakes

By this time, the idea of the Roskopf-type watch was becoming popular in Switzerland and a number of Swiss companies began making Roskopf copies, labeled "System Roskopf". "Gre. Roskopf"[1] or labeled "Rosskopf" spelled with two 's' for bypassing registered trade mark. Such as A. Rosskopf, E. Rosskopf, G. Rosskopf, H. Rosskopf (from Hollstein, Switzerland), J. Rosskopf, W. Rosskopf (trade mark of Vittori & Cie, La Chaux de Fonds), etc.
In order to be really cheap, these watches were all machine-manufactured and not so well made. Though these watches were pin-levers, they didn't have the platform mounted escapement.

 

In the USA, Roskopf's idea led to the construction of a One Dollar Watch, which also made use of Roskopfs pin pallet escapement. These watches usually employed all punched parts, assembled in riveted movements for making them even cheaper, though un-serviceable.

 

On the other hand, beginning in ca 1890, CORTEBERT WATCH Co manufactured high quality "Roskopf watches", usually characterized by jeweled bearings and gold-plated movements. They were signed "Cortebert", not Rosskopf.



[1] Gre. = short for French: genre. In Englisch = style


3. Obtained Patents

A patent office was founded in Switzerland not before 1888. Hence Roskopf was not able to patent his inventions in Switzerland. At least he patented his inventions in France, Belgium and the USA, then the world's major watch centers. That’s why Roskopfs watches were copied in Switzerland frequently.

French patent # 54528, on 18 June1862 Georges-Frederic Roskopf patented his crown winding system

Belgium Patent # 21988, 3 Aug 1867

USA Patent #75463 10. March 1868 for an exchangeable escapement unit for watches (this patent says explicitly that the escapement may be adapted for use with a cylinder or lever as well as a pin pallet).

French patent # 80611, 25 March 1868 Georges-Frederic Roskopf - for a changeable escapement unit for watches. Here the watch was called: "Montre de proletaire" meaning "laborers watch"

And finally the Swiss patents after Switzerland established a patent office in 1888:

#6269, ...15 Sept 1893 ..........Wille frères and Vve Ch.L. Schmid

#11489, 15 Sept 1896 ...........Ch.L. Schmid

#18632, ...3. Jan 1899 ............Fritz Edouard Roskopf, Roskopfs son, for an improved setting of the hands.

#20371, ..27 July 1900 ...........Greder Freres a Longeau pres Berne

#22530, ...5. Feb 1902 ...........Wille frères

#26514, .26 May 1903.............K. Rosskopf & Cie, Chaux de Fonds

#28545,... 9 Feb 1904 .............K. Rosskopf & Cie, Chaux de Fonds

#30353, .15. Dec 1904 ...........Ch.L. Schmid

#29831, ..20 July 1904............ H. Rosskopf & Cie, Holstein (Switzerland), Cattin & Christian Holstein, .................................................Manufacture Horlogerie (patent on watch paper)

#30353, ..23 Feb 1904 ...........Ch. Leon Schmid & Cie Chaux de Fonds

#90517,.. 21 Mar 1921 ...........Alex Dubois Fab de Grenier Chaux de Fonds


Acknowledgement:
I'm greatly indebted to Paul Van Rompay, Belgium, who provided me with a lot of material about the history of the Roskopf family, faked Roskopf watches and has contributed to the list of patents.
Thanks also to my many readers who censored this page with good remarks and questions that forced me to amend this paper.

Last updated:  9. Nov. 2007

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