The history of Ollech & Wajs begins in 1956, when a young resident of Zurich, Albert Wajs, decides to partner with his friend Joseph Ollech to open a luxury watch shop. They first distribute the Breitling and Omega brands, before launching their own brand: OWZ, Ollech & Wajs Zürich.
The production, modest in its beginnings, is assembled on site at No. 55 Stocker Strasse, on the ground floor of a beautiful bourgeois building located near the Hotel Baur au Lac.
Albert Wajs, spearhead of the company Ollech & Wajs, very quickly decides to specialize in the assembly of reliable and accurate watches, using for that proven movements (Dubois Dépraz, Landeron, Valjoux), robust cases in stainless steel (Maison Etienne), Tritium needles (Universo à la Chaux-de-Fonds) and functional and legible dials (Brothers Lender du Locle). Ollech & Wajs manufactured under different brands, including OWZ, Helsa and Piz Palu, before focusing on OW in the early 1960s.
The OW range consists of men’s watches, sport or military type:
- The chronographs, mechanical type with two counters (Valjoux movements) often include tachymetric scales and are intended for sportsmen.
- Diving watches, mechanical or automatic (ETA movements) are sought-after by professional divers and clubs, in particular the very famous Caribbean 1000, which is, as its name suggests, the first water-resistant diving watch at 1000 m, thanks to its patented monobloc stainless steel case.
- Military watches, much appreciated by American soldiers who order OWs by whole battalions, including the Early Bird and M60, because of their precision combined with incomparable robustness. Pilots of the French and other Air Forces also appreciated OW watches!
- Finally, the professional watches, such as the Selectron type, whose slide rule is very useful for civil or military pilots.
Ollech & Wajs forges a reputation for precision, robustness and durability, as evidenced by hundreds of letters received from soldiers, divers, pilots and professionals around the world.
This result is by no means a coincidence, because Albert Wajs always requests quality components, for example ordering tens of thousands of movements at Valjoux (references 72, 92, 7730, 7733, 7750, 7765), and supplier of reputable brands such as Breitling, Heuer, Rolex or Universal Geneva.
In the same way, the stainless-steel cases include screwed bottoms, associated with screwed crowns, thus ensuring the OWs an incomparable water resistance for it’s time, including 200 M for chronometers.
The assembly and adjustment is done by qualified watchmakers, a guarantee lasting of precision and reliability.
As early as the mid-1960s, Ollech & Wajs delivered up to 10,000 pieces a year, through a network of watch dealers, Army and Air Force Exchange Service stores or direct mail sales (articles and advertising in the United States in military or professional publications).
At the beginning of the 70's, new OW models made their appearance (3 counters chronographs, new Caribbean etc ...). The English series The Professionals contributed to the brand's fame, with actors Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins wearing an OW Caribbean 1000 on the wrist. Production stabilizes at around 2,000 watches a year.
In this period, the appearance of cheap Asian watch and intense competition lead to a decline in production of OW watches. Albert Wajs has never wanted to manufacture anything other than mechanical watches (Ollech & Wajs is one of the very few Swiss brands that has never adopted quartz) and is looking for new markets, convinced that the Swiss quality mechanical watch has still a future. In relation with Willy Breitling for years, he buys tooling and stocks (as well as Patek Philippe and Helmut Sinn) from Breitling.
Albert Wajs thus continues to produce the Navitimer, under one of his brands, Aviation, for almost two decades, before relaunching the OW in 1995, following the death of his partner, Joseph Ollech.
True to his habits, Albert Wajs selects the best components and recreates a range of sports OW watches. First of diving watches, with the M series, equipped with ETA 2824 movement, and a solid stainless-steel case with screw down crown, which further enhances the company’s reputation. Then he launches a range of chronographs, including a limited series based on the Valjoux 7733 which enjoys a great success, and which is completed by the superb Mirage equipped with a Valjoux 7750.
Military-style watches are added to the range, which runs until 2017, before Albert Wajs finally decides to transfer his business. This is taken over by a passionate collector of the Ollech & Wajs brand, who meets Albert Wajs in 2005 in Zurich. Quickly becoming an OW distributor for the French market, he establishes a friendly relationship with Mr. Wajs and his Italian wife, during visits to his home on Bederstrasse in Zurich.
Interview of Albert Wajs
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 conviced 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.