Friday, June 28, 2019

Unicorn - a rose by any other name...not really

In order to expand his market beyond Rolex branded timepieces, Hans Wilsdorf took it upon himself to trademark as many names as he could get his hands on.  In fact, he registered a total of 109 trademarks including some oddities like Omigra (somewhat familiar!), Elvira, Lexis, Brex, Lonex, Hofex, Rox, Genex, Rolexis, Irex, and Calix.  Not to mention the true gems like Sousmarine, Wicked, and Lilliputian.

Above all, Wilsdorf was obsessed with Marconi, the inventor of radio.  For recognition of his contribution to wireless telegraphy Marconi received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909.  Jumping on the bandwagon of Marconi's fame and popularity, Wilsdorf registered Marconi Lever as his own brand name on 24 January 1911.  
For an unknown reason, he ditched the Marconi brand in 1919, renaming it Unicorn. Yet he ran into a similar problem. With Unicorn being a recognised noun, it could not be registered as a unique brand name, so he had to register his new business under both Unicorn Lever and Unicorn Watch.

Rolex Vintage Unicorn

Like Marconi, these were ostensibly Rolex watches, just with a cheaper movement, and aimed at those whose budget couldn't quite stretch to the full-blooded originator. And again, like the Marconi, the Unicorn models outsold Rolex models by huge amounts. For all Wilsdorf's attempts to differentiate between the two, the public - still taking its first tentative steps into this new wristwatch phenomenon - wanted the best they could get for the least amount of money. 

So why such a long introduction? Around 1930 the Unicorn Lever name was available for trademark renewal and many speculate that it was re-registered by A. Schild (ASSA).  ASSA was a maker of high grade pocket watch movements, and as it happened, a batch of railroad grade pocket watches were supplied to the South Australian Railway.  Based on this historical evidence - as well as the quality of Unicorn Lever movements which speaks for itself - I am convinced that South Australian government issued watches have absolutely nothing to do with neither Rolex, nor Hans Wilsdorf himself.  Which is actually a good thing: the less hype, the better.

This week I was lucky to acquire a Unicorn SAR pocket watch number 682. What makes this acquisition special is that the watch comes with repair cards from the date of first service in 1935 to decommission in 1975. This is remarkably important data, helping us to better understand the "working life" of a typical railroad watch used daily as a tool piece. For example, the average repair turnaround  time was 3 weeks. The watch had a new balance staff installed every 10 years or so (a major repair, most likely caused due to the watch being dropped).  Main spring replacement was common as well, but the list of more specific repairs was long - from jewel and gear replacements down to screws and crystal.

Each repair is signed, dated, detailing the parts replaced, and the time required to complete the job.

Absolutely priceless!

As for Wilsdorf's silly trademark game, he finally got it right in 1936 when he renewed his Rolex registration, now expanding it to cover everything from cigarettes to paper and explosives!  Super cool.

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