The history of the Ollech&Wajs company begins in 1956, when a young Zürich resident, Albert Wajs, decides to join forces with his friend Joseph Ollech, and open a luxury watch retail store, distributing Breiling and Omega watches, before creating their own brand, OWZ, Ollech & Wajs Zürich.
The production, quite modest initially, is assembled on site at StockerStrasse 55, on the ground floor of a beautiful bourgeois building not far from the famous Baur au Lac Hotel.
Albert Wajs, spearhead of the company, quickly decides to specialise in the assembly of solid watches using reliable movements (Dubois-Dépraz, ETA, Landeron, Valjoux), robust cases in stainless steel (Maison Etienne), Tritium hands (Universo à la Chaux-de-Fonds) and functional and readable watch dials (Frères Lender du Locle). Ollech& Wajs distributes its production under different brands, of which OWZ, Helsa and Piz Palu, until it focusing on OW at the beginning of the 60’s.
The range includes essentially sports and military men watches which can be split in four ranges:
- Chronographs, mainly mechanical (Valjoux movements). They often have a Tachymeter scale and are designed for sportsmen.
- Diving watches which are mechanical or automatic (ETA movements) and are used by professional divers and diving centres. In particular the renowned Caribbean 1000 which is the first diving watch water resistant to 1000 meters thanks to its patented monobloc stainless steel case.
- Army watches, of which the Early Bird and M60, were very popular amongst American soldiers, who used to order them for entire battalions, because of their precision and robustness. French fighter pilots were also regular customers.
- Pilot watches, such as the Selectron, whose circular slide rule is very useful to both civilian or military pilots.
Ollech & Wajs built a great reputation based on precision, robustness and durability, which has been confirmed by hundreds of letters received from military, divers, pilots and professionals around the world.
This is not a result of chance as Albert Wajs would only use high quality parts, ordering tens of thousands of movements from Valjoux (Ref. V72, V92, V7730, V7733, V7750, V7765), who supplied renowned brands such as Breitling, Heuer, Rolex or Universal Genève.
Stainless steel cases also featured screwed backs, often associated with screwed crowns, ensuring an outstanding water resistance to OW watches.
The assembly and adjustment were carried out by qualified watchmakers, guaranteeing accuracy over time and reliability.
By the mid-1960’s Ollech & Wajs was delivering up to 10,000 pieces a year through a network of watch dealers, Army and Air Force Exchange Service military stores, or direct mail sales (articles and advertisements in military or professional print publications).
At the beginning of the 1970’s new OW models were released (Chronos 3 Dials, new Caribbean…) and were quite successful. The English series The Professionals contributed to the fame of the brand with actors Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins wearing an OW Carribean 1000.
At that time the arrival of cheap Japanese watches and an increasingly tough competition impacted Ollech&Wajs’s production, which started to decline to around 1 000 units per year. Albert Wajs never wanted to manufacture anything other than mechanical watches (Ollech &Wajs is one of the very few Swiss brands that never adopted quartz) and therefore sought out new markets, convinced that qualitative Swiss mechanical watches still had a future. Connected to Willy Breitling for years, he bought the tools and stocks (as well as Patek Philippe and Helmut Sinn) from Breitling.
Albert Wajs was able to continue the production of the Nativimer watch under one of his brands, Aviation, for almost two decades before the relaunch of the brands A.Wajs and 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 watches. Starting with diving watches, with the M series equipped with an ETA 2824 movement, that quickly made itself known as a robust time keeper. He then launches a range of chronographs, including a limited series based on the Valjoux 7733 which will be a great success, and complimented by the superb Mirage equipped with a Valjoux 7750.
More military style watches will complete the range and will be produced until 2016, before Albert Wajs finally decides to sell Ollech & Wajs. He passed it over to a passionate collector of OW watches, Charles Le Menestrel, who first met Albert Wajs at his home in BederStrasse in Zurich in 2005. Charles Le Menestrel became the OW distributor for the French market in 2006 and quickly established a friendly relationship with Mr. Wajs and his Italian wife during his numerous visits to Zurich.
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 ther 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.