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INTERVIEW WITH ALBERT WAJSIn 1956, two Swiss watch specialists, Joseph Ollech and Albert Wajs, founded Ollech & Wajs. The Zurich-based company has been dedicated to the creation of men’s mechanical watches from the very beginning. Prizing precision, robustness and durability above all things, the two associates sought only the best components to assemble the finest of wristwatches in their workshop.
Within a few years, OW watches had made a name for themselves on several fronts. The military watches like the OW Early Bird (equipped with the same Valjoux 72 movement as the Rolex Daytona) proved to be popular among American GIs, who needed a sturdy and absolutely reliable watch in the battlefields of Vietnam. Pilots and scientists were depending the early aviator watches like the OW Selectron with its integrated slide rule performing as a calculator, prized all the way up to the NASA headquarters. Underwater, OW’s divers line has won the hearts of deep-sea explorers and diving clubs since the ground-breaking debut of the Caribbean 1000 in 1964. With its patented stainless steel monobloc case, certified to be water-resistant up to a depth of 3,300 feet, it enabled OW to set a new world record in front of Omega and Rolex.
Acquired in 2016 by a watch and car enthusiast, the historical brand returns with several limited editions, using vintage components in pristine condition from the OW vaults, and presenting new collections which will remain faithful to its original pioneer spirit.
Mr. Wajs is accompanied by his daughter because his eyesight has been declining for several years. Mr. Wajs appears very confident and relaxed, stands straight with a piercing and malicious look. Despite his advanced age, he is eager to participate in the following interview for three hours, of which this is an extract.
AW: Our adventure begins in 1956 in Zurich, when we decide with my friend Joseph Ollech, to open a new watch store, Ollech & Wajs Zürich, or OWZ. We sold Omega and Breitling brands. A little later our fancy and our obstinacy then push us to produce our own watches by buying the components piece by piece. Then, in 1964, we launched the production of military-grade watches, following the suggestion of a young American soldier. The latter advises us to make a solid watch, waterproof, accurate and reliable that could replace the usual Hamilton watch and become the accessory-companion of US Army soldiers. Initially, we are targeting this production to American GIs, who will prove to be our most frequent customers, starting in 1965.
AW: We bought very solid boxes at "Maison Bouille", which later became "Etienne." We bought dials at the "Brothers Lender of Le Locle", the needles at La Chaux-de-Fonds at "Universo" and finally the Caliber Automatic Chronographs came from the "Maison Dubois Dépraz” who supplied Patek Philippe. We also worked a lot with the Valjoux 72 B movements, which were used in the Rolex Daytona at the time. At first We were doing the assembly ourselves in our workshop in Zurich. We immediately had great success with the American military before, during and even after the Vietnam War. We sold our watches in US battalion shops all over the world.
AW: We produced between 8,000 and 10,000 pieces a year. We also sold OW watches to the French forces, including Air Force pilots.
AW: After the Vietnam War, we saw a significant drop in demand. We adapted and launched other models and bought inventory and tooling of the Breitling brand for the Navitimer pilot watch, the flagship model of the brand. Note from the author: When Breitling was liquidated in 1978, Ollech & Wajs, Sinn and Patek Philippe acquired the tools and stocks.
AW: We were the first to release a diving watch, tested at a depth of 1000 meters with a graduated rotating bezel, which allowed to calculate the decompression time of the divers. Which for the time was a technological performance.
AW: Indeed, American soldiers and even entire regiments ordered hundreds of OW Chronographs very regularly. They have shown their gratitude in many letters over the years. Yes, NASA officials, including Mr. Von Braun actually wore an OW watch.
AW: I was convinced that there was still a market for quality mechanical watches, so I gradually introduced a new range of watches, including the flagship OW Mirage models, which benefit from the Valjoux 7750 and 7733 caliber. My view declining, I finally made the decision to put my business on sale in 2016.
“Your heart was warm and happy
With the lilt of Irish laughter
Every day and in every way
Now forever and ever after."