The trouble with writing about the history of a watch brand is that watch brands are just businesses. We enthusiasts tend to make quite a lot out of them and imbue them with grand purpose and merit, heroes in a horological Saga, but in reality they’re corporations with managers, sales goals, and balance sheets much like any other that produces consumer products.
The history of a watch brand, therefore, is the history of a business- and for me at least, business history tends to be mildly interesting at best and downright soporific at worst.
I’m a big fan of the brand Fortis; or rather I’m a big fan of many of the watches they’ve produced in their 109-year existence. So even though it’s hardly an original idea, I’d like to explore the history of this lesser known Swiss brand through six of their watches, dating from near the brand’s inception to roughly the present day.
1 – The Harwood Automatic Watch
Fortis was founded in 1912 by one Walter Vogt, a trained watchmaker formerly employed by Eterna. It first opened its doors in Grenchen, Switzerland- one of few watch brands located in a predominantly German speaking canton of Switzerland. Their first fourteen years of existence passed without much note- the business was successful, and the original factory was added onto within five years of opening.
It wasn’t until 1926 that they achieved notoriety as the producer of the world’s first automatic watch. In the past some self-winding mechanisms had been experimented with in pocket watches, but none were ever mass produced or particularly successful.
This watch and movement was invented by British watchmaker and inventor John Harwood, founder of his own brand, Harwood watches. Interestingly, the goal of the self-winding mechanism initially wasn’t simply to provide a longer running time, but to remove the watch’s weakest link against water and dirt intrusion- the crown. Therefore, the Harwood Automatic Watch was crownless, and the time was set via the rotating, coin-edged bezel, which could also be used to wind the movement. The red dot at 6 indicated that the watch was in running mode, while turning the bezel would change it to white, showing that it was in setting mode.
Through some mutual acquaintances he contacted Walter Vogt, who enthusiastically agreed to manufacture the watch for Harwood. The watches premiered at Baselworld 1926 and were moderately successful. They were sold by the Harwood Watch Company to jewelers all throughout the United Kingdom. The watches were cased in 9k gold and sterling silver, with the case diameter being 29.5mm- incredibly small by today’s standards but sold as a man’s watch in 1926.
Original Harwood Automatics are still available today; but they tend to command prices around the $2,000 mark. Keeping such a unique movement serviced and running may also be an expensive and difficult endeavor.
Harwood cooperated with Vogt a second time in 1929 to produce the Autorist, a watch containing a new self-winding mechanism that relied on the motion of its hinged lugs to wind the movement. The collaboration between Vogt and Harwood was successful but doomed to be short-lived as Harwood Watch Company was unable to survive the Great Depression and closed its doors in 1931.
2- The Fortissimo & Marinemaster
Fortis survived the Depression and revealed an innovation in 1940- the Fortissimo, their first water-resistant watch. While not the first to produce a “waterproof” (as the saying went) watch, they were among the earliest to do so. Early versions of these watches featured a hybrid monocoque case, with the bezel and lugs being a separate assembly. The use of the bezel to clamp down over the crystal was an innovation that aided greatly in sealing the watch.
Fortis eventually produced a number of watches in the Fortissimo line, ranging from simple three hand dress and field style watches with A. Schild movements, to chronographs with Landeron movements. Oddly, from my research it seems the chronographs were not marked “Fortissimo” on the dial, and some of the other models have “waterproof” on the dial as well.
What the actual water resistance rating of the Fortissimo models was is unclear. The 40’s and 50’s were still the wild west years of advertising, with little regulation requiring companies to back up stated claims with fact. Most water-resistant watches in this era were simply marketed as “waterproof”.
The Fortissimo watches ranged in the 30-32mm range for three hand and calendar watches, to 37mm for chronographs. Old Fortissimo models can be found occasionally on the secondhand market, with prices ranging wildly from less than $100 to well over a thousand for chronograph models. Redials and refinished dials are the pitfalls with these. Pay careful attention to the Fortis logo and any printing on the dial.
The Fortissimo name eventually was replaced with the name Marinemaster. The same lines of waterproof watches bear this name on the dial, in addition to several colorful dive watches and dive chronographs. These are quite modernly sized in the 39-42mm range and with very distinct dial layouts and colorways.
These are also rampantly faked, and I would be extremely wary of shopping for these from any but the most trusted dealers, where they often command prices north of $1,000.
3 – The Fortis Spacematic
In 1962 NASA was one year into the Gemini program, the second human spaceflight program undertaken by the United States. The program would be crucial to the success of the moon-going Apollo missions that followed it. Spaceflight was popular all across the world in the 1960s as people everywhere breathlessly followed the progress and rivalry of the United States and Soviet Union space programs.
In that year Rolf Vogt, son of founder Walter Vogt, travelled to the United States and was able to meet with the astronauts of the Gemini program, presenting each one with a brand-new Fortis Spacematic watch. The Spacematic was designed for rigorous use, with a beefy steel case, 250m water resistance, and an antimagnetic, shock protected automatic movement. The “ar” emblem at 9:00 stands for “All Risks”- implying the resilience of the watch.
Claims are made that several of the Gemini astronauts wore their Spacematics not only while training, but in space as well. I couldn’t find anything to positively confirm or deny this claim, but it doesn’t seem implausible. Given this was well before the dominance of the Omega Speedmaster it very well may be true- in any case, they were certainly worn during training exercises.
The heavy, rugged case and crisp, stark dial of the original Spacematic are clear forerunners of Fortis’ bold, purposeful design language that has defined the brand since. The Spacematic more than any other watch seems to connect Fortis of the late 80’s to present with its past, and the Spacematic continues to be a model in Fortis’ catalog today. The 1960’s Spacematic was 35mm in diameter and 18mm between the lugs- a good size for a rugged watch that wears well to this day. Original Spacematics come up for sale periodically and are usually well within most collector’s budgets.
4 – The Fortis Flipper
When you think colorful, playful, inexpensive watches who do you think? Swatch, of course. The much-heralded innovators and saviors of the Swiss watch industry. Too bad they were simply homaging Fortis.
The Fortis Flipper was an odd watch to appear in 1967. These were the years of serious tool watches; the Speedmaster getting some play in the US space program, Rolex releasing the Sea Dweller, Seiko the 62MAS, among others. Enter the Flipper, a dive style watch cased in brightly colored plastic with a selection of equally vivid interchangeable straps and bezels. An ETA automatic movement powered it, and it was sold with five bezels and five straps for $20, about $160 in today’s money.
The Flipper was moderately popular in the 60’s and 70’s. It was cheap, cheerful, and lightweight, and the good pricing didn’t hurt either. A quartz version was introduced in 1975, which was instrumental in its resurgence of popularity in the 1980’s. It was seen on the wrists of many celebrities and even politicians- a few custom runs were made for the Republican party’s 1984 presidential campaign.
Swatch rode this wave of popularity to wild success in the 80’s and beyond. Fortis’ inventiveness with the Flipper certainly helped them weather the difficult 70’s and paved the way for the rest of the Swiss.
The Flipper case was 37mm in diameter, lug to lug about 43, and lug width 17mm. Early models had 50m of water resistance, upped to 200m in later versions. They’re fairly readily available secondhand online, though often pretty worn down as plastic is not a very long-wearing material. They seem to range in price from $100 to several hundred dollars.
5 – The Fortis Official Cosmonauts Chronograph
The Official Cosmonauts Chronograph is perhaps Fortis’ most iconic, well known, and well-loved watch. Fortis themselves weren’t aware of this when they released it in 1994. It was a variation on their popular Flieger chronograph with a steel tachymeter bezel.
It made history because it was noticed by officials of ROSCOSMOS, the Russian space agency. They had been tasked with finding a rugged, purpose-built mechanical chronograph for their cosmonauts to use on board the successful MIR space station. MIR was the largest space station launched to date, and extravehicular activity was a regular occurrence. Outside an earth orbit space station astronauts encounter temperature ranging from 275° to -250° Fahrenheit. Spacewalks are often multiple hours long, and the activities of them require the use of dozens of different tools and tethers. The cosmonauts of MIR needed a watch that was starkly legible, able to function without hesitation in extreme temperatures, and able to withstand any number of blows or scrapes during use. As it turned out, the Fortis chronograph was perfect for this application.
ROSCOSMOS invited Fortis to send several of the chronographs to them for testing and subjected them to six months of rigorous trials. Space is hard on machinery, and astronauts’ watches are exposed to every bit of it.
The watches passed with flying colors and received a certification from the agency. The Official Cosmonauts Chronograph would go on to fly dozens of missions and thousands of hours throughout the 1990s and early 2000s on MIR and later the ISS. It’s widely accepted that the Cosmonauts Chronograph has most likely spent the most actual hours in spaceflight of any watch.
The original Official Cosmonauts Chronograph was powered by the venerable Lemania 5100 movement, with running seconds at 9, 12-hour totalizer at 6, and a 24-hour sundial at 12. The second and 60 minute hands were centrally located. It was cased in a bead blasted 38mm stainless steel case, only 13mm thick, and with a screw-down crown and pushers. Water resistance was a rugged 200m.
Eventually the movement was replaced with the Valjoux 7750. Versions were produced with countdown or timer bezels instead of the tachymeter, but the case shape and size remained the same.
Despite, or perhaps because of its stark, purely functional aesthetics the Cosmonauts Chronograph has a unique beauty and attraction. Aside from its qualifications as a no-nonsense tool there is a classical beauty to its simple, svelte case shape and attractive use of colors.
The original Official Cosmonauts Chronograph is getting very difficult to find, particularly versions with the tachymeter bezel. Expect to pay well over $1000 for a piece in decent condition. The screw-down crowns on these watches are a known trouble point and are known to fail, so be observant of it when considering a purchase.
6 – The F-39 Flieger
The F-39 Flieger is a relatively new release from Fortis, released in September of 2020. It’s a bold, purposeful design- I’m sure I’m overusing those words, but it seems inevitable when talking Fortis- and is the latest in one of Fortis’ longest running series of watches.
The Flieger was first introduced in 1987 for the brand’s 75th anniversary. The line began with a simple type A dial but grew to include chronographs as well. This watch exploded in popularity with armed forces across the world; Germany, Hungary, Greece, Taiwan, Portugal, Switzerland, and multiple NATO units all had special runs made for them. It grew to be known as the real deal pilot watch, on the wrists of many combat flyers and support staff. The Flieger cemented Fortis’ burgeoning relationship with the aerospace industry, one that has come to define the brand.
The F-39 is rugged, modern watch- 39mm in diameter, with a beautifully designed, if heavy and angular, case and bracelet. The case curves aggressively downward at the lugs, allowing the long lugs to be worn with ease and comfort on even smaller wrists. A 12-hour bezel allows the simple timing of a second time zone.
The F-39 carries a hefty MSRP; $1,780 from one US AD. When looking at raw specs this is a lot of money for this watch. It’s up to you if the design, quality assurance, and heritage make up the difference.
This article, lengthy though it is, represents only a cursory view of Fortis and its history and accomplishments. There are so many more good watches and good stories than are detailed here.
They have remained independently and family owned and operated throughout their entire 109 year history, and have always been one of those watchmakers that fly a little under the radar- creating watches that stand on their own when it comes to design and quality, but free from hype and overt luxury associations.
Collecting Fortis requires a measure of dedication and knowledge. Some of the chronograph models from the 1990s are known to be commonly faked, as are their Marinemaster watches from the 1960s and 70s. For some bewildering reason Fortis is the name used by many producers of cobbled-together re-dialed frankenwatches coming mostly out of India. Avoid these like the plague, they are in no shape or form actual Fortis products.
Fortis watches also tend to be pricey. Here at Watch Clicker and 40 & 20, our focus tends to be on affordable, sub-$1k watches. Fortis’ flagship offerings are well over $1,000 USD, many over $2,000. For many collectors (myself included) these are aspirational pieces. Perhaps not many of us can spend a lot of money on Fortis, but we can all enjoy spending a little time on their great designs and fascinating history.