The Beyer Saga
Historic documents first mention the existence of a watchmaker called Beyer in 1760.
The Beyer family originated from the German town of Donaueschingen, in the southwest of Baden-Württemberg, where the Beyers worked as watchmakers and traders. In 1822, 23-three year old Stephan Beyer brought the name and the company to Switzerland; he spent a number of years studying and travelling, during which the qualified clock- and watchmaker worked first in Basel, and later at the watchmaker’s, Wildberger, in Schaffhausen. There he met his later wife, Katharina Gärtner (Chapter 7), with whom he founded the Swiss Beyer dynasty
For Katharina’s sake, Stephan Beyer remained in Switzerland and in 1827 applied for Swiss nationality. Not, however, in Feuerthalen, where they lived. That would have been futile, for Stephan Bayer was Catholic, Feuerthalen a Protestant village. And so he tried in Rheinau, where his fiancée was a registered as a citizen. Even in this Catholic town, it was a close decision. At the municipal meeting, the Rheinau electorate voted 30 to 27 in favour of granting him citizenship.
Matthäus Beyer / 1712 – um 1800
Katharina Götz / 1724 – 20.12.1802
Martin Beyer / 1766 – 5.6.1829
Katharina Merz / 21.9.1771 – 25.1.1828
Stephan Beyer / 1799 – 26.7.1863
Katharina Gärtner / 26.7.1805 – 19.6.1864
Theodor Beyer / 15.10.1827 – 21.3.1870
Karoline Danioth / 15.11.1831 – 19.2.1915
Adelrich Beyer / 20.11.1858 – 31.10.1915
Marie Valentine Meylan / 6.4.1858 – 10.11.1892
Anna Brügger / 5.11.1864 – 19.6.1944
Theodor Julius Beyer / 19.4.1887 – 3.6.1952
Emilie Mathys / 14.8.1900 – 7.10.1955
Theodor René Beyer / 20.7.1926 – 19.8.2002
Annette Wild / 13.7.1933
René Beyer / 5.6.1963
In around 1830, Stephan Beyer founded a “watchmaker’s and spice shop” in Feuerthalen. Presumably the watchmaker also travelled to markets in the region, trading in spices. At this time, the family were still not able to make a living from watchmaking.
Very early on, the Beyer family showed that they had a good nose for prime business locations. In 1860, Theodor Beyer, the oldest son of Stephan Beyer, opened a clock and watch shop on Niederdorfstrasse, which already in those days was one of the best locations in the city. Very conveniently, the building lay between Niederdorfstrasse and Limmatquai; when later on business life focused along the river bank, Theodor Beyer simply set up his shop window on the other side of the building.
From 1863, Theodor Beyer ran the business together with his younger brother, Johann Gustav, under the name of “Gebrüder Beyer” (Beyer Bros.). However, this alliance proved to be short-lived. In 1867, Johann Gustav opened his own watch shop in Riesbach and Theodor Beyer changed his company name to “Th. Beyer”. In 1877, the business moved to the elegant new building belonging to the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt on Paradeplatz.
One would have to begin with the most dauntless wife of them all: Karoline Beyer- Danioth. It was she who in 1870 rescued the still young watch dynasty. Sixteen years earlier, the daughter of a hotelier family from Andermatt had married Theodor Beyer. Together they had relocated the watchmaking business from Feuerthalen to Zurich and Karoline had even trained to become a watchmaker herself, which was uncustomary for a woman in those days. However, at the age of just 42, Theodor Beyer died. His son, Adelrich, was only 12 years old. But Karoline Beyer- Danioth did not for a moment think of giving up. She took over the management, expanded the business, and in 1877 succeeded in renting representative premises in the splendid, newly built Palais du Crédit Suisse on the Bahnhofstrasse. She remained at the helm of the firm for 16 years.
Karoline’s mother-in-law, Katharina Gärtner, was also a woman who knew exactly what she wanted – such as to stay in Switzerland after getting married. In 1827, in his application for Swiss citizenship, her fiancé, Stefan Beyer (Chapter 3), wrote that he had decided to apply for Swiss nationality “to please” Katharina. She was already in her fifth month of pregnancy, which in those days was nothing unusual. She bore her husband a total of 13 children, of which only five reached adult age. The oldest, Theodor, later took over the company, which thanks to his mother had been built up in Switzerland rather than Germany.
Marie Valentine Meylan, on the other hand, reformed the family. She was the daughterin- law of Karoline Beyer-Danioth, who had sent her son to train as an apprentice at Patek Philippe in Geneva. There the young Adelrich met Marie Valentine, who was the same age as him. She came from a well-known family of watchmakers; her grandfather had created the Meylan watches, which were among the finest of the day.
Love might be made in heaven – but even so the Church was against this particular match. For Marie Valentine was a Protestant. Despite this, Adelrich married her in 1883. The entire Beyer family was excommunicated from the Catholic Church, whereupon they converted to the Protestant faith. In 1887, son Theodor Julius was born. He had two sisters. At the young age of 34, Marie Valentine died in childbirth. Adelrich married again and had two sons; years later, Adelrich junior was to fall out with his half-brother, Theodor Julius (Chapter 10).
In 1922, Theodor Julius married Emilie Mathys. Although she was only 22 years old, she had a very strong personality. In spite of having young children, she was actively involved in running the business.With her self-confident manner, she was years ahead of her time and was not always popular. However, she succeeded in keeping the business going when her husband took part in jazz concerts in Zermatt as guest trumpeter. Emilie Beyer-Mathys also had a heart for students; she would make them hot coffee and occasionally slipped them a 20 franc note. She was one of the first ladies in Zurich to drive a motorcar and from 1931–1933 was president of the ladies’ division of the Zurich section of the Automobile Club of Switzerland. Emilie Beyer-Mathys also maintained regular contact with friends abroad, such as the famous composer, Franz Lehar, and his wife, Sophie, and during the war, she sent parcels containing coffee, chocolate and butter all over the world.
Since time immemorial, Beyer has upheld the fundamental principle that top-quality handicraft has first to be learned. All of the firm‘s proprietors have undergone comprehensive training. Adelrich Beyer, too, sent his son, Theodor Julius, to the famous watchmaking school in Geneva, as well as to the best watchmakers in London, Brussels and Paris. In 1911, at the age of 24, Theodor Julius started work at his father’s firm.
Beyer launched a legendary competition to find the best design for a table clock, wall clock or grandfather clock. A total of 1,200 entries were submitted. No wonder – it was 1918, the war had just come to an end, the General Strike was on, and a sixth of the population were living under the existence level. The prize money offered by Beyer was a dizzying 4,000 Swiss francs – for a worker, the equivalent of more than 400 days’ salary.
From 1915, the company was run by two brothers, or rather, two half-brothers. Theodor Julius Beyer was born from Adelrich Beyer’s union with his first wife (Chapter 7), while Adelrich Beyer jun. was the offspring of his second marriage. However, this partnership did not work out. Between 1920 and 1922, Theodor Julius conducted a lawsuit against his younger brother. He accused Adelrich of turning up to work too late or not at all, and when he did come to work that he failed to do anything useful, held up the employees with his silly jokes, and with his moral conduct “overall caused considerable damage to the company”. The case was subsequently withdrawn when the brothers came to an out-of-court arrangement, whereby Adelrich agreed to be bought out. From 1922, Theodor Julius managed the business on his own and renamed it “Chronometrie Beyer, Zürich”.
In 1922, Beyer sold watches at discounted prices of up to 50%, sometimes even below their cost price. The Zurich Watchmakers’ Association was angered by this and published an advertisement warning of such business dealings. An interesting detail in this respect is that the proprietor of Beyer Chronometrie, Theodor Julius Beyer, was the president of this belligerent association.
For 50 years, Beyer had carried out its business at the Palais de Crédit Suisse on the Bahnhofstrasse, a magnificent building constructed by Alfred Escher. However, in 1927, the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt needed more space and terminated the rental contract. This proved to be rather convenient for Beyer, for it meant that the firm was able to rent larger premises in the brand new Orell Füssli building at Bahnhofstrasse 31. Beyer has remained at this exclusive address to this day.
Theodor Julius Beyer was not just the owner of Beyer and president of the Watchmakers’ Association; he was also president of the Zurich Motorcycle Club and later became member of the Sports Commission of the Automobile Club of Switzerland. His enthusiasm for “hot wheels” stemmed from his involvement as timekeeper at major motorcycle races, particularly the annual race on the Klausen Pass. And it did not just limit itself to timekeeping … Theodor Julius Beyer was a passionate motorcyclist and took part in such races himself.
1934 was a sad year for the Beyer family. As a result of the world economic crisis, they were forced to sell their beautiful house on the Zürichberg and move into a modest apartment in the Kreis 3 quarter of Zurich.
In 1936, Beyer’s existence hung on a thread, a fate that it shared with many other companies during the world economic crisis. The collapse of various foreign currencies, the absence of German clients and the devaluation of goods caused considerable problems for the company. However, here Beyer’s strong, longstanding business relations paid off: banks came to the rescue and the landlord reduced the rent. And as in the past Beyer had supported such suppliers as Rolex and Patek Philippe in difficult times, they now returned the favour (Chapter 25). Together, they managed to bring the firm through the hard years.
This watch truly travelled far before it came to rest in the Beyer collection around 1960. But it was to take another 50 years before state-of-the-art technology confirmed for once and for all that this prototype of a Rolex Explorer was the first watch to reach the highest point on earth. It was worn by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953 when he became the first person to climb Mount Everest. Nowadays, this adventurer’s watch is exhibited at Beyer’s Clock and Watch Museum in Zurich (Chapter 19).
When Patek Philippe began producing electric clocks and watches, in 1968 Beyer followed suit. Its department for electronic time measurement and acoustics existed until 1993. From the clock at the meeting point at Zurich railway station, to the display panels of the Forch local railway line, to the flower clock at Bürkliplatz, Beyer clocks can still be found in public places all over the city.
Over the years, the Beyer family had accumulated a wealth of knowledge about measuring time. Official bodies, such as the Swiss National Museum, also took advantage of its expertise. In 1971, the company’s reputation even reached as far afield as Istanbul. Theodor R. Beyer and his wife, Annette Beyer-Wild (Chapter 24), were invited to the museum at Topkapi Palace, where they were asked to catalogue the horological exhibits. This journey resulted in a lifelong business relationship between the museum and the Beyers.
In the meantime, the private clock and watch collection belonging to Theodor R. Beyer had grown considerably, and the large basement of the store on the Bahnhofstrasse was still unused. Two facts, one idea: the collection should be made accessible to the general public. In 1971, the Clock and Watch Museum Beyer opened its doors in the shop basement.
In 1986, Theodor R. Beyer suffered a heart attack. René Beyer cut short his stay in the USA, where he had been working and travelling, and returned to Switzerland to take over the running of the family firm, together with his mother, Annette Beyer. In 1996, the operational management was wholly transferred to 33-year old René Beyer, representing the eigth generation of family proprietors. The firm was given a complete facelift, both inside and out.
In 1989, on the initiative of Annette Beyer, the family firm started selling jewellery, which proved to be a huge success. In 2002, Beyer decided to set up its own jewellery atelier. Today six goldsmiths have been successfully creating masterpieces from gold and jewels.
In 1994, René Beyer’s sister, Muriel Zahn- Beyer (born in 1964), returned from the USA and took over responsibility for human resources and marketing. She developed the new museum concept and the strategy for the jewellery atelier. In 2003, she left the company to set up her own personnel agency. Together with Annette Beyer as an honorary member, Muriel Zahn, René Beyer and Dr. Peter Max Gutzwiller make up the Board of Directors of Beyer Chronometrie.
Yet another business deal between friends: René Beyer put his expertise at the disposal of the watch manufacture, Aerowatch, in the canton of Jura, during their reorganisation measures. In return, the family-owned firm agreed to make special Beyer watch dials in a variety of price categories. In 2003, the first Beyer wristwatch was launched on the market.
Annette Beyer accompanied her husband all over the world on his search for rare clocks and watches, worked at Beyer for 15 years and still impresses today as a “lady of the world”.
Mrs. Beyer, in what way were things different in earlier times? We took over the company during the war, when it was running at a loss and nobody had any money. And we were more loyal to our suppliers: we only dealt with Patek Philippe, Rolex and Chopard. We fostered a close friendship with these families. These days, the product range is broader and the company enjoys an excellent position in the market. Nevertheless, my children say that nowadays it is more difficult to run the firm. Human resources management has changed, and the watch brands are increasingly run by managers rather than owners.
What luxury did the Beyers treat themselves to in those days, during the hard times? They owned a car very early on – the 90th to be licensed in canton Zurich. I still drive with the licence plate, ZH 1090. That was without doubt a particular luxury.
The Beyer women have always been very strong personalities. Why was that? Because we had to be; either it was war, or their husband had died early or he didn’t take a particular interest in the firm. Somebody had to make sure that business continued. And if you were in the shop, you were Mrs. Beyer, and dealt with kings, actors and musicians.
Or with Maradona. What was he like? Completely normal. In those days, when he was at his prime, he trained with his team in Zurich. He used to telephone every day to ask if I was there and would then drop by.
He bought himself a Nautilus with diamonds, which was actually a ladies’ watch. His fiancée and her mother also received beautiful watches – as well as those of his teammates who had played him good passes. In the course of eight days, I sold him 12 watches.
What did you like best about your work? My husband always walked through the shop hoping that nobody would speak to him. I, however, loved working on the front, with clients from all over the world – and I think they liked me, too. Many of them brought gifts with them: flowers, chocolates or wine. Some told how they had first visited our shop as a child, holding their father‘s hand. Nowadays, they come with their grandchildren. Or, like the jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson, they send us a New Year’s card every year.
You spent a lot of time travelling with your husband. Was it really as exciting as it sounds? It was often exciting, but sometimes also very boring; in the antique shops, my husband would immediately disappear into the corner with all the clocks and watches, and could spend days there. I was more attracted by the old toys. That was how I discovered doll automata. I became passionate about collecting them and also wrote a comprehensive book on the subject.
You weren’t as interested in the watches? Of course I was interested in them, too. Sometimes I helped my husband at an auction. I often told him that he should not spend vast amounts of money on the watches. So during the bidding for the famous “Sympathique” by Breguet, he stopped and didn’t dare go any higher. So I continued bidding on his behalf. That pleased him no end.
If you could start all over again, what would you do differently? I would probably do everything exactly the same. Of course, the fact that everything turned out so well involved a certain measure of luck. But if you think positively, you can also influence fate a little.
Beyer has always represented the most prestigious watch brands of the day. Of the partnerships dating from the 19th century, only Patek Philippe and IWC have remained to the present day. However, since then a number of excellent new brands have been added to Beyer’s portfolio.
Patek Philippe, around 1842
Jaeger-LeCoultre, around 1932
A. Lange & Söhne, 1994
Baume & Mercier, 1997
Jaquet Droz, 2006