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Silver Tavannes trench watch, 1914.

This is a black dialled Tavannes trench watch from 1914. It took me several days to complete my research and I had been looking to add a black-dialled trench watch to my collection for a long time because they are quite rare. The vast majority of World War One trench watches that come up for sale have white dials. I was hesitant at first, because of the sloppy paintwork on the watch hands, which had obviously been added after the luminous paint had been removed. By the time I had managed to convince myself that the paintwork was only visible under magnification and that the watch was worth buying, it had been sold. However, I am not going to waste the research.

Tavannes Watch Company

Henri Frédéric Sandoz (1851 – 1913) of Le Locle, Switzerland, founded a watchmaking company, Henri Sandoz & Cie in 1871.  In 1891, he relocated to Tavannes and established the Tavannes Watch Company. This was in partnership with Schwab Freres & Cie, although the companies operated independently at first. The most well-known brand of the companies was Cyma. The Tavannes Watch Company became a public limited company in 1895. The town of Tavannes is in a French speaking canton so the s is silent: it should be pronounced ‘ta-van’.

At the time of its founding, the Tavannes Watch Company was part of a wave of new watchmaking companies that were emerging across Switzerland. These companies were taking advantage of advances in manufacturing technology, particularly in the area of machine tooling. The new technology allowed for more efficient and accurate production of watch components.

Tavannes black dialled trench watch.
Tavannes black dialled trench watch.

Tavannes quickly established a reputation for high-quality watches. As a result, by the early 1900s, the company was exporting its watches to markets around the world, including the United States, South America, and Asia.

Trench watches

Trench watches first made their appearance on the battlefield during the Boer Wars, and soon found widespread use during World War I. The need for practical and reliable timepieces was great, but pocket watches were simply not suitable for use in battle. To meet this demand, trench watches were designed with features such as water-resistant cases, luminous dials, and straps made of leather or fabric that could be easily adjusted even in field conditions. By using these timepieces, soldiers were able to quickly and accurately measure the passing of time during battle, allowing for greater coordination and efficiency in the trenches and on the battlefield.

Tavannes Calibre 332 13”’

This Tavannes trench watch has a hand-winding Swiss made movement which is working well. It is keeping good time to with +/- 2 minutes per day, which is perfectly acceptable for an antique watch. The movement has been identified as a Tavannes Calibre 332 13”’ (13 ligne) movement in a savonnette layout.  The shape of the main cock, which holds the pivots of the centre, third and fourth wheels is very distinctive. This movement was made in several grades from a basic 15 jewel movement with no decoration to movements with extra jewels, jewels set in chatons, and decorative gilding on the plates. In this instance, we see the basic model without decoration. It may be the basic model, but with 15 jewels, it would have been considered fully jewelled at the time of manufacture. The watch comes with a new leather strap.

Tavannes movement.
Tavannes movement.

Negative set patent

The movement is stamped U.S. PAT 24 May 1904 which references a patent movement granted to Henri-Frédéric Sandoz, founder of the Tavannes Watch Company. The patent was for a negative set stem winding and setting mechanism. The patent describes a keyless mechanism with a two-piece stem, one part in the movement and the other part in the case. The stem in the movement has a square socket in its outer end into which the square end of the case stem can enter to connect the two parts together so that turning the crown and case stem causes the movement stem to turn.

The negative set keyless mechanism is spring-biased into the hand setting mode and is put into winding mode by pushing the movement stem into the centre of the movement. The mechanism is normally kept in winding mode with the crown against the case to prevent the mechanism from exerting a drag on the wheel train, which would affect timekeeping. A detent mechanism is fitted in the case to hold the crown and case stem in place.


The watch measures 36mm in diameter excluding the winding crown and the fixed wire lugs. The case is silver and there are British hallmarks inside the screw-on case back for Birmingham 1914, together with a case maker’s mark for Aaron Lufkin Dennison, a prolific Birmingham based case maker and supplier to various companies. The front and sides of the case are in good condition. The case back has some unevenness.

The Dennison Watch Case Company

Aaron Lufkin Dennison (1812 – 1895) was an American-born watchmaker. In 1874, he founded the highly successful Dennison Watch Case Company in Birmingham, England. Originally, the company was called Dennison, Wigley & Company. It operated from a small workshop on the side of the Dennison family home. Over time it grew to produce 100,000 high-quality watch cases per year using various materials from silver to rolled gold. Dennison died in 1895, and he was succeeded in business by his son, Franklin Dennison. The company was renamed the Dennison Watch Case Company Ltd in 1905 and continued as a successful business until 1967.


The glass lens is in good condition. The black enamel dial is in its original finish. There are some faint hairlines which are hard to see, even with a jeweller’s loupe. The hands have been sloppily overpainted at some point. The cathedral hands would have originally been filled with luminous paint to allow the user to read the time in the dark. However, this would have been removed as the paint contained radioactive radium which was used to produce the glow.

Black dialled watches

Before the First World War pocket watches had white enamel dials with either Roman or Arabic numerals to mark the time. This pattern was to continue with the first trench watches. Often, the 12 marker was highlighted in red to give a clear orientation. However, over time, it became clear that a black dial with white hour markers was easier to see in poor light conditions. The black dial wasn’t adopted officially until WW2. Most WW1 trench watches have white dials with Arabic numerals and hands painted with luminous paint. The white-dialled watches became less desirable because they had a reflective quality that could draw the attention of snipers. Initially, the black dialled watches were much rarer and remained so during the First World War.


This Tavannes trench watch was another near miss for me. It is a shame because I want to add a black dialled watch to my collection. I doubt the sloppy paintwork on the hands would have been noticeable without magnification. If it had bothered me too much I could have had it removed. However, I did enjoy the research and I will continue on my search for the elusive black dialled trench watch.

Related content

Tavannes 332 calibre movement at Vintage Watch Straps.

Author, Jason.

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