Implausible stories pepper the history of watches, but how rare and joyous must it be for a watch enthusiast to discover that his family founded an admired British watch brand? And that it contributed a model to the Dirty Dozen? Street cred doesn’t come any better than that, and Don Cochrane is making up for not being more inquisitive in his youth about what also had an air of a family secret.
“I’ve always liked watches, even before I knew that much about our family connections,” says Cochrane. “My great-grandfather, Claude Lyons, started Vertex and then my grandfather and my uncle John joined the company in 1961. The factory closed in the 1970s, two months after I was born. There was always an undercurrent about it…
“My great-grandfather’s first watch company, which he started in 1912, was Dreadnought. Vertex Watches was founded in about 1916. I grew up with stories about him, but not particularly positive ones,” Cochrane says, noting that most of the memories of his relatives were of the period of the company winding down.
Given the timing, one’s first reaction is to guess that the quartz crisis was to blame. “It was a bit of that but it was also down to poor marketing, not spending any money on advertising, other brands coming in with more pro-active approaches to the market and that sort of thing.” As Cochrane’s background includes journalism, advertising, brand-creation, marketing and related matters and, having worked with Aston Martin and Tesla, he’s understandably a bit disappointed not just on a family level, but a professional one, too.
Vertex traded solely in the UK, importing complete watches from Switzerland, as well as top-quality movements to be housed in British-made gold cases. The initial supplier was the famed A.L. Dennison of Birmingham, but Vertex moved on to the more modern manufacturer Shackman’s of Chesham. The latter supplied gold watch cases for men’s models and integral gold cases and bracelets for women’s watches, and was used by Vertex until it went into liquidation.
In the 1930s, Vertex became the sole importer of Thommen movements for fitting into cases in England, and also imported complete watches for the UK market. Thommen was a true manufacture of movements, but it also produced its own watches under the Revue name, which Vertex also handled for the UK.
According to Cochrane’s uncle, John Lazarus: “Thommen made a good quality, very reliable range of movements. It tried to develop watches under the Revue name, but in England because Vertex had been well established with retailers, it was acknowledged that sales would be better under the Vertex name. In my time, under pressure from the factory, we began to call them Vertex Revue – but there were always discussions about the size of the Revue logo, which became larger as time progressed.”
Although it became difficult obtaining imports from Switzerland during the war years, Vertex managed to be selected to provide the British military with watches. The early units were labelled ATP (Army Time Piece), and later were known as Vertex. The company suffered after the war because the system of licences was based on the number of watches one was importing at a given date before the war. This anomaly caused Vertex to lose one of the brands it was distributing: Movado, which terminated the agency in 1960.
Lazarus recalled: “After the war, Vertex continued to prosper, but as advertising became more important in selling products, it was harder to remain the main brand with our customers. Of course, the named Swiss brands were advertising their own names internationally, but because Revue Thommen was not a strong brand internationally, it did very little advertising and, of course, would not promote the Vertex brand in the UK.
“In London our best customers were Garrards, Mappin & Webb, Army & Navy Stores, Harrods and Asprey, and they were strong enough to take a broad range. But more generally people would prefer to have watches they had heard of rather than rely on retailers’ recommendations.”
In 1970, when the lease on the Vertex premises in Hatton Garden was up for renewal, the decision was made to wind down the business. According to Lazarus: “We were not happy about the quality of the MSR movements [that had replaced the Thommen calibres] – although they worked OK, they looked much cheaper than the Thommen designs. Electronic watches were also making an impact, and the future was not too clear.”
Over a period of 18 months, the owners found jobs for the long-serving staff and sold off stock to our customers at a discount. “And that,” says Lazarus, “was how Vertex ended.”
The New Age
Cochrane picks up the story. “In May of last year, my grandmother Peggy died, aged 99. It was her father who founded Vertex and her husband, Henry Lazarus, worked there. They had three children: my mother Jill, my uncle John and Hazel. One day, I was sitting at work thinking about her and thought of Vertex.
I Googled the company – it was weird that I had never done that before – and there was a lot about it online, including the Dirty Dozen story, which I wasn’t aware of. As a kid we used to talk about Vertex. I would draw watches and grandpapa would show me timepieces and talk me though movements and that sort of thing, but I never took a real interest in the company or its history, until then. It was an epiphany.”
Cochrane’s first task was to find out if his family owned anything any more. They didn’t, so he paid some lawyers to find out who did. Cochrane’s research led him to printed material from the time, such as the Horological Journal. He also learned that his grandfather Henry was a Captain in the Army during the war and helped in the military watch procurement process.
From there on, he had to secure rights to the trademark, “Vertex” having ended up with a sports clothing brand that wasn’t really using it. But when it came to what to do with the name, Cochrane was unsure. Driven less by commercialism and more by a need to do something out of respect for the family business, Cochrane decided to make a watch at a time when military pieces are in demand and – by pure happenstance – during the 100th anniversary of the founding of Vertex.
When you see what he’s produced, you believe him, especially when you learn that the delicious reissue of the Vertex W.W.W. cannot be purchased by just anyone, or through traditional channels. He has, effectively, made it a club. You have to know him, or someone who knows him, to be put on the list. “There’ll only be 600 a year, and you can’t just buy one.” He harbours disdain for the way some of the wealthy behave today – no, he’s not a socialist; he just loathes crassness. “So I wanted to make something they can’t have.”
Cochrane sought out opinions from friends of his with greater experience in the watch industry. One suggested that the re-edition should be 40mm, mechanical, manual wind, have the same stylistic points of the original watch, and take as much authority and authenticity from the original watch. The same friend sent Cochrane a pile of articles to read and through these he found a Swiss supplier, met with them during Baselworld 2016 and, less than a year later, has shown Revolution prototypes of one of the best-looking W.W.W. reissues, on a par with heritage models from the major houses. He even managed to secure permission from the MoD to use the broad arrow.
It is, blatantly, a brand-new watch, larger and cleaner, with one or two tiny details that make it distinctive, not that it would ever be mistaken for its forebear. They include spring bars instead of fixed bars for the straps, and the two dots at “12” are red. The movement is a customised ETA 7001.
Cochrane wants it to create a sense of community, and already has a list of the first 60 clients – all of whom are known watch enthusiasts or notable Londoners or both. “They’re people I rate not because they’re wealthy, but because you’d like to sit next to them at dinner.” The price, when you consider an original can be had for under £600, is also part of the exclusivity, because you have to want to be a part of the Vertex “cult” to part with £2,500. Each of the 60 first-generation customers can introduce up to five people to buy one. The website will offer no way to contact Vertex unless you have the special code – this really is industrial-strength networking.
Even without the cachet of owning the same watch as a famed actor, royal, rock star, supermodel or motoring enthusiast, the watch exudes a kind of magic rare in replicas. It’s not even the exclusivity factor that scores biggest here. I’m not a spiritual soul, but the simple fact that this Vertex “Redux” is being produced and sold by the direct descendent of both the founder and a man involved with the actual Dirty Dozen is beyond value.