The watch of Presidents

In 1947, watch brand VULCAIN launched the world’s first wristwatch with built-in alarm that could be mass-produced. The “Cricket” became a symbol of the post-war period and has gone down in watchmaking history as the “President’s Watch”.

Gabriel Heim

Gabriel Heim is a book and film author and exhibition organiser. He is principally concerned with research into topics of modern and contemporary history and lives in Basel.

Huge was the joy felt by Michel Ditisheim when, at the end of December 1990, he discovered the cover photo of the US news magazine TIME on display in front of his kiosk in La Chaux-de-Fonds: a close-up shot of Mikhail Gorbachev with his head in his hand. It was not the headline but the highly visible watch on the wrist of the President of the Soviet Union that fascinated him. This was the VULCAIN Cricket watch that he had arranged to be delivered to Moscow some three years earlier as a gift for the then last General Secretary of the CPSU. It is years since Michel Ditisheim last made watches, but still today the former owner and heir of the traditional Swiss brand VULCAIN raves about this experience.

His father, Robert Ditisheim, who was the third-generation family member to run the watchmaking factory, had a dream in the early 1940s. He wanted to design a waterproof, reliable and also elegant watch that incorporated an easily audible alarm. Countless design engineers had already failed at this challenge before him. He and his engineers, Henry Robert and Blaise Fivaz, worked on this complication for five years. The breakthrough finally came when a friend drew their attention to the intensive chirping of crickets, which generate considerable resonance using their slender bodies. The blow of the small alarm hammer in the watch mechanism was reinforced by an elastic membrane. The casing became a resonator, carrying the sound outside.

The watch delighted American Presidents

The Cricket was made ready for mass production in 1947 and became a global success in no time at all. Americans in particular pounced on the first “alarm wrist watch”. The innovative show-stopping loud alarm became a reliable companion: never miss the train again, never allow a meeting to overrun again, and never power nap for too long again!

The Cricket was a state-of-the-art timepiece, which explains why almost every US president of that era wore the “alarm watch” from La Chaux-de-Fonds on their wrists: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and, finally in 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson. The Cricket became known as the “President’s Watch”. It made history, and its shrill sound can even be heard in some Hollywood movies.

In 1987, the last VULCAIN boss, Michel Ditisheim – in keeping with the Cricket tradition – came up with the idea of giving a President’s Watch to the reformer of the Soviet Union. Through the then Swiss President, Pierre Aubert (he too was a Cricket fan), a gold-plated model was taken to Moscow and presented in the Kremlin. There was no word of thanks; one crisis followed the next, and “Gorbi” was probably busy with other things. Though, perhaps it was his famous saying from 1989 – “He who comes too late is punished by life” – that first reminded him of his Cricket again. Maybe he thought that by wearing this watch on his wrist this would not happen to him again thanks to the little alarm from Switzerland.

The mechanical movement of the VULCAIN Cricket has been reproduced unchanged over 100,000 times from 1947 to today.

The VULCAIN Cricket has been worn not just by numerous US Presidents, but also by Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union. Photos: Gabriel Heim

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