The name might not ring a bell with a broader audience, but it is well-known and highly respected in some collectors’ communities. A Swiss brand specialising in tool watches, Ollech & Wajs (O&W) was founded in 1956 by Albert Wajs and his friend Joseph Ollech, who formed a partnership and opened a watch shop. At first, they distributed timepieces from Breitling and Omega but eventually decided to establish their own brand, Ollech & Wajs Zürich. They soon agreed that OWZ would specialise in reliable and accurate mechanical watches. In 2017, after more than 60 years at the helm, Albert Wajs passed on O&W to Charles Le Menestrel, who shares his vision to keep the brand’s spirit alive with us.
Xavier Markl, MONOCHROME – Charles, thanks for having us. What is your background, and how did you get into watches?
Charles Le Menestrel, Ollech & Wajs – I have always been into what would be best-called merchandise transactions, buying and selling large quantities worldwide, starting in the 1990s. Once I was doing that, I crossed into the watch world simply because I have always been a watch collector. I went to Baselworld for the first time in 1993. This was actually linked with my profession because I would also buy and sell watches. I went to the Basel fair for personal pleasure and business, meeting with all the manufacturers.
At Baselworld, I would always spend an extra day or two exploring all the tiny manufacturers, subcontractors and companies involved in the watch world. I found it completely fascinating and spent hours and hours talking with those people, year after year. I was also very disappointed to see the Basel fair mutating gradually into something more commercial, concentrating only on the bigger brands. The number of brands dropped drastically, completely changing the ambience. Ultimately, there was not as much pleasure as there used to be.
I started collecting watches when I was about 15. My first watch was a gift, and I bought my first watch at about 20. It was an elegant IWC dress watch. The collector market did not really exist and that time. It allowed me to buy beautiful watches at affordable prices. It started building up my collection, and my passion grew more and more intense with every watch I purchased.
I crossed the path of Ollech & Wajs in the early 1990s with a very nice Astrochron chronograph. I did not really know what it was; I just thought it was a beautiful chronograph. The Valjoux 72 movement, which is identical to that of the Rolex Daytona, made it a very interesting watch. I liked its looks. Whenever I came across a nice Ollech & Wajs, I added it to my collection. But it was not really more than that until my first Baselworld in 1993; walking out of the fair, I said to myself that one day I would own a watch company. It was completely unrealistic, of course, but it was wishful thinking, and eventually, it happened, although it took a while.
It took me 12 years to understand that Ollech & Wajs was still there… of course, it was pre-internet days, and you couldn’t just google the brand. I never considered it a brand to take over until the early 2000s, and in 2005 I met Albert Wajs. I became their French distributor, selling a few dozen of watches per year. I soon started talking with Albert about taking over the brand.
What was the situation of the brand then?
It had changed a lot over time. In the 1960s, O&W was making about 10,000 watches per year. The brand was ordering movements by the thousands from Valjoux. In 2005, the watches offered by Albert Wajs were a combination of old stock from the 1960s and 1970s and a new range he had started developing in the 1990s. He was selling a few hundred watches per year, but he never gave me exact numbers. It was ten times smaller than it used to be, but he used the same suppliers as before, like the Jenny family. O&W and the Jenny family had been collaborating since before the Carribean 1000. It is actually O&W who financed the development of the Carribean 1000 because they were the only ones who took it. Other brands eventually acquired the license much later. They were still using the same Swiss Jura partners. Over time the production dwindled more and more and dropped to something like 100 watches per year in 2017, which is when I bought the brand from Albert.
So, it took me, from 1993, 12 years to find the brand and then another 12 years to buy the brand. It was Albert’s baby; it was all he had ever done in his life. It was difficult for him to give that up, and, at one point, his children envisioned taking over, but it did not happen.
When you took over the brand, what was your vision and what aspects of the brand might not necessarily be known by a wider audience?
I had plenty of time to think about it. My idea was to bring back the brand to the 1960s, or at least to link it more strongly to the 1960s, both in the philosophy and the style of the models. I did not like all of the models produced in the 2000s, although he was still making some of my favourites like the Flieger chronographs and the aviation watches. It was like turning back the style counter without making perfect copies of the original models. The current ranges are clearly inspired by the 1960s, by what I consider some of the best models of Ollech & Wajs, sticking close to the brand’s philosophy of making rugged watches for professionals or semi-professionals. It goes from military personnel to professional divers, from sportsmen to pilots.
This has always been a speciality of O&W. They have always made highly waterproof watches, the first 1000m diving watch, one of the first, if not the first 200m chronograph in the mid-1960s. The watches’ quality standards were superior to many of the other brands. As early as 1962, their standard field waterproof had a screw-down caseback, screw-down crowns and automatic movements. These were specs of more expensive brands like Omega and Rolex rather than some of the cheapest watch brands on the market. A lot of chronographs were Valjoux movements.
I have a large collection of O&W watches, and I found them to be extremely reliable. Some of the ones I bought had a rough life; the cases had been mistreated, but they always seemed to have survived the worst… In the archives, several letters from Vietnam GIs and officers clearly showed how O&W watches had saved their life in many circumstances or how their O&W watch was the only watch still working after a day out in the swamps. Many of them were sold to US personnel in Vietnam by word of mouth because they saw the watch’s performance in real life.
So I just stuck to what was evidently the brand’s credo: to make relatively simple, solid Swiss watches with the highest possible quality in this price range.
What was the first watch you immediately thought of recreating?
The first models were a combination of the P-101 and P-104. I wanted a simple pilot watch, a three-hand watch with a 12-hour bezel, in other words, a watch with a second time zone. It has the basic necessities of a watch which you can wear every day and do pretty much anything with. At the same time, because it is an OW, I wanted to make it very rugged, which explains why the stainless steel case, although it is only 39.56mm, is relatively thick. Of course, it has a screw-down caseback and crown to ensure the 300m water resistance of the case, which goes quite beyond some so-called dive watches.
The P-104, which is its brother, was developed with the same case. It is reminiscent of the Selectron because it functions as a calculator. They were actually called computers at the time. The Selectron range was quite popular with NASA engineers. We wanted to forge a link with some past models.
Then came the diving watches, of which my favourite is the C-1000, which is a modern interpretation of the Caribbean 1000. I have several original Caribbean 1000 in my collection, and I have always loved this unique look with its domed crystal. Here the idea was to have clear links with the original, but I did not want to make a copy. That is something we want to stay away from. I have always found that it does not make sense. If you apply this to the car world, you would not expect Ferrari to make a copy of a 250 GTO, for example. To me, this applies to the watch world also. The originals are still there. If you like the original, buy one; don’t buy a copy. We much prefer to take styling cues from older models and apply these to modern designs. Technically these watches are quite different. Obviously, you can build better watches today than what was possible in the 1960s while keeping some of their styling cues.
This year, with the 8001, you are presenting a model which is still a sports watch but with less of this functional, rugged tool watch character.
I understand the comment. The history behind this watch is pretty simple. In the OW archive, we have two OW 8000. The 8000 is an integrated bracelet watch which came out in the early 1970s with a Valjoux 7750 movement. It has always been one of my 10 favourite watches. I wear them all the time.
A couple of years ago, I thought about all of these brands that are coming out with integrated bracelet models but had actually never manufactured one. Here, we were one of the few to have such a model in the period, that Gerald Genta Period but who had not yet come up with a modern alternative.
So, we decided to keep some of the styling traits of the original, the dial, indexes, and the bracelet, but at the same time, we were conscious that people might see this as an attempt to produce a more stylish, less rugged watch. So, we made sure it had all the benefits of an OW watch. This is something you can understand when you have the watch in your hands. It is actually not that thick; it is only 13.5mm thick. But we think it is one of the most solid watches we have ever made. It can withstand almost anything. It has a 300m water resistance, which we tested far beyond. It feels as rugged as it could be. The appearance, which we call brutalist, is not deceptive; this watch can do exactly the same thing as other watches in our range.
One of the elite professionals we work with, an Arctic explorer, is planning to take the model 8001 on his next expedition to see how it stands up to the same conditions as the C-1000 that he usually wears.
What is the best way for people to find O&W watches today?
They can pop into one of our dealers – although we don’t cover the whole planet – where they can see and feel the watches and try them on. If there are no dealers within range, the watches can be bought on our website, all taxes and duties paid with the possibility of refund or exchange. We sometimes ship watches to pretty unexpected places, which is what O&W used to do.
What is your main challenge for the brand today?
By now, the world of collectors and watch professionals is aware that the brand has a new agenda and is redeveloping itself. We now need to get this message across to a wider audience. We need to educate people about the existence of the brand and its history.
The exciting part is that when I took over the brand, I was unaware of several of the most interesting chapters of its history. We are still discovering new chapters. Let me give you an example. In a forum, someone posted a 1967 press photo of a NASA Group 6 astronaut and asked if anyone knew about the watch on his wrist. NASA has very high-resolution pictures, of course. It was evident that it was one of our military models. This astronaut was Anthony Llewellyn. He never went to the Moon but ended up diving with Cousteau. We also eventually got in touch with several Vietnam GIs with fascinating stories about their watches…
What I did know is the NASA connection with NASA directors owning an Astrochron, an aptly named watch for them. There is also the link with Global Marine, which is a bit like COMEX but a much larger American company. It is the world’s largest diving company. Top divers from Global Marine wore O&W watches. So, there are a lot of chapters like that, and we think there are more to come. We want to get this story out!
It is really exciting for me to see the brand emerge from under the radar and to try to bring it up to what I think is its rightful place amongst quality Swiss brands. I use the word quality and not prestige because O&W is not a prestige brand but simply a smaller brand that makes quality watches. I firmly believe that the brand deserves that!
For more information, please visit www.ow-watch.ch.