I discovered Lonville while browsing Instagram and although I liked the design of these elegant watches with a hint of racing spirit, I really started paying attention when I saw a picture of the movement — a beautiful micro-rotor calibre with blued screws and a blue rotor. It looked like nothing I’ve seen before and my curiosity got out of control, I had to find out more. After exchanging a few private Instagram messages and emails, we fixed a date for a Skype conversation with Joost Vreeswijk, the man who revived this long forgotten watch brand.
Before we would look at Lonville Watch Company today, let’s put things in historical perspective.
A little bit of history
Everything started in 1873, when Johann Kottman, a member of an influential family of doctors, entrepreneurs and academics from the Swiss canton of Solothurn, established an ébauche watch movement company in the village of Langendorf. Following a near collapse in 1880, Kottman recruited watchmakers from the western part of Switzerland and he provided housing, schooling and other facilities for the workers and the town and the business started flourishing. In 1890 Johann Kottman unexpectedly dies, and the company that was already called Langendorf Watch Company is taken over by the technical director Lucien Tieche. It is Tieche who will start the production of Langendorf and Lonville branded watches — Lonville is the French name of Langendorf. By the turn of the century, Langendorf Watch Company employs between 800-1000 workers. In 1902, the company once again was controlled by the Kottman family, with Ernst Kottman as manager.
In line with other watch companies, Lonville watch movements, dials and cases become more and more elaborate, everything is produced in-house. During the period of 1930 to 1950s, a variety of wrist watches are introduced, from functional watches with dust, water, and shock proofing, to more elegant dress pieces. But in the early 1950’s, Langendorf Watch Company focuses most of its attention on its other brands, most notably Lanco, and Lonville was abandoned and sunk into silence for the next 50 years.
Lonville 2.0 started about eight years ago, when a Dutchman living Switzerland, Joost Vreeswijk, a collector of vintage watches with a soft spot for Memovox-es, bought a Lonville pocket watch on eBay. He liked the look of the watch and the sound of Lonville, so he started researching the history of the brand, this is when he learned that the brand went silent in the early 50’s. He re-registered it and six months later, he started on a journey that he describes as crazy.
He started out with the idea to offer something special to watch aficionados, interesting designs, superior quality, produced in highly limited numbers. The four models of his debut collection, the Virage, are limited to 18 pieces each, while the two versions of the G24 has only 24 pieces each.
As many watchmaking entrepreneurs who come into this business because they love watches, he quickly realized that there is a huge difference between enjoying a watch and making it:
“You can like watches but you don’t know how they are really made. I didn’t know the industry from the inside, essentially I was a consumer looking through pink glasses, I thought, I would just ask people to work with me and everybody would love me. The first year was terrible because either you go to companies that do private-label, meaning that they would build a watch for you using their standards — that was totally not what I wanted. The hunt was on for a movement as I didn’t want a standard movement or a mass movement and then very very few people were left.”
He finally found a small company in La Chaux-de-Fonds that was three years into making their movement from scratch and they are the LV1 movements powering the Virage collection. We are talking about movements because the LV1 has two version, an automatic with a micro-rotor and a hand wound version where a second barrel replaces the micro-rotor. They are both chronometer-certified by COSC and they both offer an excellent view on the elegant decoration of these movements.
“The LV1 micro-rotor, is quite special, it is passing COSC, but it took a few years longer than I hoped, it was just madness because this was weekends, nights, and taking days off” — during the week, Joost is a business consultant, just as his other friends too, who are helping him with Lonville, they all have day jobs.
“The fun part is on the way you meet nice people that help you without expecting any payback, we have a Dutch verb for this, called gunnen. They give you some good advice and they would put you in touch with others and step by step, I found the right people”.
Lonville switched dial suppliers four times, even when the production was rolling because their expectations were really high — “the watch business says that you judge a dial from 30 cm away with the naked eye and if it looks good, it’s good. But we make limited production watches and we are on the dial with a loupe, looking at every single detail”.
After eight years of work and several changes to the movement that resulted in further changes in the tooling of the case, the Lonville Virage collection was launched with four models: a “basic” small second Virage Kind of Blue with silver dial and blued hands, the Virage ’59 Blue GMT with small seconds and GMT on a deep blue dial, the Virage Fuel Tank with small seconds and power reserve, and finally, the Virage Gunmetal that also packs a GMT complication next to the small seconds and power reserve. The first two models are powered by the automatic micro-rotor Calibre LV1, while the Virage Fuel Tank and the Gunmatel are powered by the hand-wound LV1.
All four models of the Virage collection are packaged in a 40 mm white gold case. These are elegant pieces that will catch the eye without being too loud, Joost was looking for and managed to achieve an understated elegance. A collection imagined as if Lonville would have continued to make watches from the mid 50’s onward, watches that would create a bridge between the past and present of the brand.
With the Virage, without knowing, Joost took a really difficult path, he imagined the watches before having a movement and he had to spend a lot of time finding a company that would do it and then wait for it to be built. Usually, it is the other way around, you find a movement that is available and you design a watch around it. This is how he went about the G24 collection.
The G24 has an interesting story too. In 2011, Joost met Gabriel Gardel — a race car driver — at a wine festival in the South of Switzerland. Now, you have to know that Joost has two big passions, watches and classic cars, especially classic Jaguars — he’s the proud owner of a Jaguar XK120. The two men started chatting and Gabriel accepted to wear a Lonville prototype while racing at the 24 hour Le Mans.
Long story short, that year, Gabriel Gardel not only was racing with a Lonville prototype, but he ended up winning that race in his class. It was an unforgettable day for Joost, if you want more details, you can read about it here.
To mark Gabriel’s victory at Le Mans, they have decided to build the G24 that will be limited to 24 pieces. This time, he started with finding a movement: “A fellow Dutch man in the watch industry introduced me to Technotime, a company who makes proprietary movements in small series — a great fit with Lonville values. And imagine, here is this Dutch guy showing up and asking for six movements. They just look at you with an expression that says ‘can you please leave?’. It always takes a lot of explaining and convincing and in the end I took 10 movements with more to follow, they were customized, the rotor and especially the decoration with the blue decoration that I like.”
Once the movement was sorted out, he needed to find a designer and he ended up working with a young British designer, Matthew Humphries, who was a designer at Morgan’s sports car company. After a lot of back and forth, involving more than 90 sketches, the G24 was starting to take a shape. They asked Gabriel Gardell to give them a feature to be included in the design: “he asked for the black straight, (at Le Mans) when the night turns into morning you have this image of a black line in front of you. So we needed a black straight through the watch. Matthew loves working with materials and the dial has lots of different ways of finishing. The dial maker was a bit upset by it because it’s tricky to make.”
The G24 — a three-hands watch with retrograde date and a power reserve indicator — has two versions, the Superleggera with drilled lugs and drilled case, and the Stradale with solid lugs and solid case, both of them are powered by the automatic calibre LV2 (COSC certified) with two barrels offering 120 hours of power reserve.
I asked Joost about the price for these watches:
“This is an endless source of conversation among the Lonville friends. Basically, we don’t want retail and this allows us to keep prices under control. The G-24 starts at just under $9,000 US, and this goes to $11,000 US for the Superleggera, prices net of taxes.
The issue with Virage is that if you sold that through retail, you end up with an unrealistic number in the $30,000-$40,000, given the series, the costs, the margins. The basic three-hand model, which is in my view the most beautiful one, that is $15,000 and then it goes to $21,000 US (net of taxes) for the most complex one with GMT. They are all white gold and are limited to 18 pieces.”
If there is no retail, it is not only to save costs, but also because Joost prefers to tell his own story, and it is not unusual for the Lonville team to fly out and meet potential customers in person. In the future, they want to organize An evening with Lonville events around the world, with very small groups, where they will present their watches. In the meantime, they will work on improving their online presence and getting out the word as much as possible.
In terms of future models: “no doubt, there will be a few new Virage models because there is more mileage in that beautiful movement in terms of variants. The reactions we get on the Virage watches are strong and it would be a pity to stop it after these four times 18, but we will never make the same model. This is our promise to not make the same model twice. We don’t want to make a special series of this or a special series of that, we will make sure that they are distinctly different watches.
On the two movements we have now, we want to build at least a third watch and possibly a forth in the perspective that in the future the white gold Virage models will go up in terms of price positioning. There is not a huge amount of margin and we need to survive as a company. Then, I’m planning to launch another classic, elegant watch, potentially in steel and positioned bellow the Virage, because we started on this journey to give watch lovers access to something very special. I can’t avoid cost, we do everything in Switzerland, the tooling, everything. This would be a slightly bigger series, I don’t mean hundreds, it would still be very limited because I think it suits us.
The movement from the G-24 will also give us a platform for another sports watch and we are just thinking about what that might look like. It will be totally different from the G-24 and we have a couple of people involved.”
Around the same time when Joost started working on Lonville, as a recent resident of Switzerland, he missed the classic car events he was so used to in the UK. This is how the Lonville Classic was born, an annual event very much in Lonville style, restrained to only to a few people, mostly close friends: “this fits the character of Lonville very well, it’s small, it’s not pretentious, we just try to create special moments, we call these Lonville moments. After this weekend, on Monday, I get back on the plane in a suit being the corporate guy.”
These days, we see these brands popping up that start out by hiring a PR company before even drawing their first sketch. Lonville might not have the sexiest website or the sharpest pictures, but what you see right now is the result eight years of work developing not one, but six models, from two collections, powered by three movements. They approached watchmaking in a rather innocent way, and their passion and love for watches helped them surpassed the challenges that would have discouraged many. I have a soft spot in my heart for watches that are made this way and I’m a firm believer that a watch, beyond its technical and aesthetic attributes, it has to come with a great story. With Lonville, you get everything covered, COSC certified high-end movements, great designs in limited edition, and a fantastic story that you might end up having it delivered by Joost himself.
Keep an eye on Lonville https://lonville.com/
To contact them, email to [email protected].