The Eterna watch company has a long history that dates back to 1856, when Dr. Joseph Girard (1803- 1869), a physician, and his partner, Urs Schild (1829 – 1888), a schoolteacher, established the ébauche manufacture “Dr. Girard & Schild”.  In watchmaking, an ébauche refers to an incomplete watch movement consisting of plates, bridges, wheels, and barrels to be finished and fitted with jewels, escapement, mainspring, hands, and dial. Ebauches are sold to other watchmakers to complete the assembly.  Dr. Girard & Schild established a factory in Grenchen, Switzerland. The company became a reputable manufacturer of ebauches.

Eterna calibre 1406U movement, 1964.
Eterna calibre 1406U movement, 1964.

In 1865, Adolph Schild, Urs Schild’s brother, joined the company and soon took over technical management. Dr. Girard retired in 1866, and Schild continued the business on his own. with his brother under the name Präzisionsuhren-Fabrik Gebrüder Schild (Precision Watches Factory Schild Brothers) or Schild Fréres & Co. They began producing their own designs of ladies’ wrist watches refurbished from pocket watches.

Eterna collection

In 1876, Schild Fréres & Co. began producing fully assembled and manufactured watches including the case and dial with great success in 1876. By this time, the company had 300 workers and produced 180 timepieces each day. In 1888 Urs Schild died at the age of just 58 years old and his two sons, Max and Theodore took over the company. Adolph Schild continued working with the brothers after the death of Urs. In 1890, the company launched the Eterna collection which proved to be very popular with the watch buying public. However, in 1896 Adolph Schild opened his own movement factory in Grenchen. Uncited sources suggest that Adolph and his nephew Max did not agree with the evolution of the company. The Eterna collection was so successful that in 1905 the company changed its name to Eterna-Werke, Gebrüder Schild & Co.

Innovations

Thanks to modern production processes and electric machinery, the firm continued to develop globally, building multiple branch offices and considerably improving productivity. In 1904, Eterna submitted a patent for a wrist watch case with sliding safety band lugs that was meant for armed troops. in 1908 Eterna patented the first alarm wristwatch. The watch went into production in 1914 and was launched at the Swiss National Exhibition in Bern that year. The alarm wristwatch was improved upon, and a new model with a practical 8-day power capacity was introduced in 1929. In 1930, Eterna unveiled the world’s smallest manufacturing wristwatch with a Baguette movement, the Calibre 610, which measured just 7.25 mm x 22.5 mm. 

Eterna-matic, black dial, 1964.
Eterna-matic, black dial, 1964.

By 1932, Eterna had set up a subsidiary company, ETA SA, to make movements for itself and other Swiss watch companies. This same year, Theodore retired and handed over the control of the company to his nephew Rudolf Schild. Theodore remained on the board of directors after retirement until his death in 1950. Through a subsequent series of mergers, ETA became the largest manufacturer of Swiss watch movements and controls a near monopoly over their production and supply. During the Second World War, Eterna was one of the twelve contributors to The Dirty Dozen watches commissioned by the British War Department.

Eterna-matic

The Eterna-matic watch mechanism was introduced in 1948, which had a revolutionary new self-winding system. Standard automatic watch designs at the time were susceptible to wear and tear, compromising their accuracy and dependability.  Eterna improved the mechanism through the use of five strategically placed ball bearings. This made the movement very efficient and significantly reduced friction and resistance on the oscillating weight that wound the mainspring. This reduced the wear and tear on internal parts, increasing the watch’s accuracy and useful life. With Eterna’s ball-bearing mounted rotor, this was no longer an issue.  The Eterna-matic watch became popular. Its popularity was such that, as a result, Eterna adopted the image of five balls as its corporate logo.

Eterna-matic 2000 Centenaire watch, 1968.
Eterna-matic 2000 Centenaire, 1968.

Eterna consistently refined the Eterna-matic movement, initially scaling it down for women’s timepieces and subsequently streamlining its design. The outcome was the creation of the Eterna-matic Golden Heart for Ladies, powered by the world’s tiniest automatic winding calibre. The endorsements of luminaries such as Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot further propelled the watch’s popularity.

Eterna Kontiki

Kontiki was the name of the balsa wood raft on which the Norwegian biologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru, South America, to the Polynesian island of Puka Puka. This incredibly dangerous trip across the Pacific was plagued by tropical storms, sharks and whales. The journey was undertaken in 1947 by Heyerdahl and a small crew of six other Norwegians. This was in response to academic criticism of Heyerdahl’s controversial theory that Polynesia had been originally populated by settlers from South America and not, as was generally accepted, from Asia. Rather than rely on a bulky marine chronometer, the entire crew were equipped with Etern-matic wristwatches. Heyerdahls’ journey was successful and in 1948 Eterna launched the Kontiki collection of dive watches to commemorate the saga.

Eterna Kontiki 10 vintage watch.
Eterna Kontiki 10 vintage watch.

Quartz era

As electronic watches rose to prominence in the 1970s, Eterna introduced their own tuning fork watch, the Eterna Sonic, as well as a quartz watch in 1974. The 1979 Estrellita Quartz was the smallest water-resistant watch ever made, with a tiny miniaturised quartz movement. In the 1980’s, Eterna’s Museum line competed in the ultra-thin category, with a .98 mm watch as the crowning achievement.

In 1982 Eterna was acquired by the SMH Trust. This emerging conglomerate, later to become Swatch Group, needed access to Eterna’s holdings in ETA, the movement maker. However, SMH kept ETA and quickly sold the Eterna brand to the PCW Group.

Eterna as a collectable

Eterna stands among vintage watch brands like Movado and Zenith, often underrated in the market despite the exceptional quality inherent in its finest period movements from the golden age of Swiss watches. Comparable to Rolex and Omega in terms of craftsmanship, Eterna vintage watches remain surprisingly affordable. While overshadowed by more widely recognized brands in the eyes of the public, Eterna enjoys credibility among vintage watch enthusiasts. These connoisseurs appreciate the quality engineering and superior finish of Eterna movements, recognising the brand’s enduring value beyond its mainstream recognition.

Related content

Eterna at Wikipedia.