Mechanical watches are not retros. Young people are showing still a greater interest in Prim watches, says the Elton company sales director

Lenka Petrášová

Although we perceive the Prim watch as a traditional and purely Czech brand, things are not that simple. For years there has been a dispute, as there are two companies that produce watches under this brand name. One of them is Elton hodinářská, a. s. This company from Nové Město nad Metují is a successor of the seventy-year-old tradition of watchmaking. Even today, the company produces watches in the Czech Republic; they are made of high-quality materials and there is a high share of handiwork. had the opportunity to see what such production actually looks like.

Before you go to the newly opened Elton showroom in Nové Město nad Metují, be sure to save some money first. You can't get a Prim watch under ten thousand Czech crowns. One has to pay for quality, and whoever had the opportunity to see the diligent handiwork in the local workshops is also clear about why. 

In the showroom, you will come across so called „golf“ watches or those made for a rock band that ordered them. You will also find the Anthropoid edition, which was released on the 75th anniversary of this historic event (Operation Anthropoid, 2WW, assassination of R. Heydrich, the Reich Protector; translator´s note).

„There were only 75 of them and they cost 75,000, but they were sold out in two weeks“, Aleš Vernar, director of the company's sales department, explains. Another limited edition, which he said disappeared at lightning speed, was Aviatik, which was a total of fifty watches with an unusual design that were made for the centenary of the Czech aviation.

Although the company website is still decorated with a picture of a simple silver watch – a model called the Republic which was made for the centenary of the country in cooperation with the Olgoj Chorchoj designers, in reality, only a few pieces remain from the special eighteen-piece gold edition of the Republic model. The hundred-piece silver edition was sold out very quickly last autumn. However, there is still extant a model, which practically launched the entire production of wristwatches in Czechoslovakia. At that time, the Spartak was the watch brand name. The name Prim did not appear until 1965 and by far the most famous Prim watch was the Orlík model.

„Today, of course, we are a small-series production, manufacturing 650 mechanical watches a year, and it also means that they are no longer as affordable as they used to be“, says Mr Vernar.

„We design our watches, of course, we base the design on historical models because those are really beautiful watches. But we also collaborated with designer Beata Rajská, or an idea is proposed to us by a customer. Some customers come with their designers“, says the sales director, who describes the process behind the custom made watches.

Many people also bring their inherited historical pieces to have them renovated and cleaned. According to the company's estimates, a total of three million watches still function well across the country, out of the 13 million watches produced.

Anyone who wants to have the watch renovated must expect to wait a few months before they get their Prim watch back as it's an arduous and meticulous job. Therefore, the company can produce not more than a total of two thousand pieces of watches per year, including the quartz watches and usually two special limited editions.

The clockwork consists of up to 130 parts

The Manufacture Prim model family is manufactured completely from start to finish, including the clockwork, at the company´s main place of business, as are all limited editions. „We procure some parts and clockwork mechanisms for the cheaper battery-operated watches, of which we produce about a thousand pieces a year. These we buy for example from a traditional Swiss watchmaker. Only this way there is a guarantee that the watch can last for decades“, tells me the company sales director while showing me one room after another so I can see how, for example, the tiny hands are made and how laborious it is to make a watch face.

They produce many things here with accuracy up to thousandths of millimetres. But not always it is a fine watchmaking work – at one of the workstations a milling machine is roaring where the master-watchmaker creates and polishes the watch-cases. He is one of a total of sixty people in the company who put their name to the Prim watches. This is where the journey of all watches begins, i.e. the production of the case.

Incidentally, regarding the watch case, it is possible upon request to have any inscription engraved, and also the case itself can be made of various materials: steel, titanium, gold, bronze or silver. „Every part that goes in the watch is checked several times before we proceed to complete the watch. This makes us one of only twenty companies in the world that can produce watches in such a hand-made manner, such are for example the Rolex or Omega manufacturers“, says the director, while we have a chance to see the complete handmade parts that make up the heart of the watch, i.e. the clockwork.

In the grinding shop, a grinder is making a decorative cut, they call it a “New Town cut” here. I am observing the watchmakers' hands, and Aleš Vernar is talking to me using a lot of expressions, unknown to a layperson, describing the various types of milling tools, spindles, cotton polishers or the eight types of clockwork they use here. Some of the parts that make up a Prim watch are so tiny that I can't see them with my untrained eye. Where I like it the most, is in the shop where the faces are created.

„We even created enamelled faces for the limited edition, unlike the ones you see here“, the manager explains. Watchmakers work a lot with tools similar to those used by dentists, but toothpicks as a work aid surprise me. Employees hang on them the watch hands to be able to paint them. When a watch face is a complex one it can take a whole day to make it.

I can see the final phase – the assembly and a check of the watch – only from behind a glass window. Access is only to the authorized people in order to keep the workshop dust-free and the sensitive mechanism of the clockwork from getting dirty. They also work here in gloves and under a special light. This is where all parts arrive to be checked under the microscopes. „We have air purifiers installed and we put great emphasis on cleaning“, says the director.

When the watch is finished and checked, it goes through a fortnightly accuracy test. Water-resistance, which is up to 50 atmospheres in sports watches, is also tested. The company gets the straps made by European suppliers. Only in case of limited editions, the company tries to look for a suitable supplier from the Czech Republic.

„Every watchmaker who works here has the task of assembling an entire watch, and even signing it with his or her monogram,“ explains the manager the very last stage. In addition to being serial-numbered, the watch also has its birth certificate and test reports, so the company knows all the details about each piece.

The company managed to penetrate the Polish market last year 

Ales Vernar just brings up a point that they need more watchmakers and experts, people who can completely adjust and set up the machines they must use at work. But there are only a few of such craftsmen. „It takes a year for someone skilful to learn to assemble a watch properly. And it takes years to learn to recognize and detect different types of defects“, he says. The company though still has watchmakers who were abroad and worked for companies producing world-famous watch brands. It's not just technical work, but a kind of art. „You really need to know what you are doing to put together accurately all the 150 parts that make the watch“, adds Mr Vernar.

The fact that Elton is not really a serial production is evidenced by the fact that a customer waits for his watch 6 to 8 weeks since ordering. „But if he or she comes up with their sketch of what the watch should look like, including the strap, and they want one original custom-made piece, then the development will take a year and a half. And it will cost at least half a million“, says the director, and adds that such demand exists.

„There is demand and it's probably the direction we want to go – towards uniqueness“, he says. He sees the future of the company in the Prim watch penetrating the US market. Already last year the company created fifty pieces of watches for the USA and is considering a special edition. „But we are also interested in the German and Polish markets. Especially Poland is a very interesting country, economically it is currently the biggest tiger of Europe. Last year we were there for the first time at a trade-fair and won the award for the best design, so we already receive orders from there“, says Mr Vernar.

By the way: those who like winding watches don't have to worry about winding them every day, it is enough to do it every three days. And it is no retro-style to have a mechanical watch, according to Aleš Vernar, young people in their thirties are showing ever-growing interest in them.

„They are not afraid to invest large sums, or simply save money to buy the watch because they simply like it. Of course, we are limited by our production capacity, but we want to go to a limit of a thousand mechanical watches, not more, to keep our uniqueness and not to be as sensitive to economic developments as big giants are“, says Elton´s sales director about the company future.