Sometimes a story takes a while to unravel. And sometimes it takes a fresh source to provide new insights. In the Enicar book, I described the last decade of the company before it would close its doors permanently in 1987. The years 1979 and 1980 seemed to be crucial for the survival of the brand. Through an article from 1984 in Bieler Tagblatt, I learned that the Enicar management was very close to finalize a deal in 1980 with a Romanian partner. A deal that would perhaps have earned the Swiss company sufficient cash to stretch watch production for at least another couple of years. The deal never happened and a few months later, Enicar’s management had to file for liquidation.
I never discovered the details about the Romanian endeavor. Until recently, when I was contacted by watch sleuth Dan-Cătălin Buzdugan from Braslov (@ceasuripentruromania on Instagram). His mission is to document the history of the Romanian watch industry and he has collected a respectable amount of information on his website www.ceasuripentruromania.ro that is very much worth a visit if you’re hoping to discover new watch stories (and who doesn’t want that?).
Ceaușescu’s dream: one million Romanian mechanical watches a year
In the mid seventies, Romania was still a closed nation. A socialist republic, firmly led by the Romanian Communist Party. Their leader, General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu, ruled the country with an iron hand, resulting in mass surveillance by the secret service ‘Securitate’, human rights abuses and controlled media and press. Economic mismanagement due to failed oil ventures during the 1970s led to skyrocketing foreign debts for Romania. It did not temper Ceaușescu’s ambitions. The President’s personal mission (in 1974, Ceaușescu converted his post of president of the State Council to a full-fledged executive presidency) was to create a Romanian car brand, the domestic production of airplanes, developing nuclear energy plants and… to kickstart the Romanian watch industry.
Now why would Ceaușescu so eagerly want Romania to develop its own watch industry? According to Dan-Cătălin, there were two main reasons. First, a wristwatch is a personal item, worn on a daily base. A Romanian made watch could therefor strengthen the bond between the owner and the nation, as a symbol of pride and a constant reminder of the Romanian identity. Second, there are more than just a few similarities between mechanical watches and control devices for weaponry. The political situation was tense in the 1970s, with the Warshaw Pact on the one side and NATO on the other. Ceaușescu eagerly wanted to improve Romania’s international influence and had already been seeking for more political independence from the Soviet Union for a while. The fact that one million watches were imported from Russia every year therefor did not sit well with the President.
OPTEL, Seiko, Tissot and Enicar to the rescue
Romania didn’t have much of a watch making tradition, so the expertise and machinery to mass produce large numbers of mechanical watches had to be sourced from outside. In an attempt to meet with the dictator’s requests, Intreprinderea Mecanica Fina from Bucharest, entrusted with the task, acquired a license from the American OPTEL company to build LED quartz watches. It did result in a Romanian quartz watch, branded OPTIMEF. But Ceaușescu was not satisfied: he insisted in producing mechanical watches, not the “inferior battery timekeepers”. According to Dan-Cătălin’s research, a number of foreign watch manufacturers were approached. Among these were Tissot, Seiko and Enicar.
Several Romanian governmental organizations were involved in the negotiations: Mecanica Fina, Central Administration, the Research Institute and Technoimportexport. On behalf of Enicar, Mr. Ariste Racine, his son Mr. Ariste Racine III and Mr. Roland Allemann visited Bucharest several times between 1979 and 1980. There was a lot at stake for the Swiss. At the time Enicar was already in serious trouble as a result of the import stop from China – their largest market for decades – and the Quartz Crises. A collaboration with Mechanica Fina could have been their last chance to survive as a watch manufacturer. So one can assume that this deal, worth a potential 7.5 million USD, was very welcome for the Lengnau based company.
Recap of the timeline
[Mid 1979] – Opening the negotiation, more travels between Longeau and Bucharest, resulting on 22 October 1979 in a “technical contract, the base of the cooperation between Technoimportexport, Romanian state company and Enicar” (L’Impartial, 26.03.1980)
[1980, March 21st] – Signing the commercial contract between Techoimportexport and Enicar (L’Impartial, 26.03.1980, 06.07.1980, Europa Star Trade Bulletin nr.913 1980)
[1980, August 13rd] – Buren District Court gave 4 months extension of bankruptcy (L’Impartial, 14.08.1980)
[1980, November 14th] – Tehnoimportexport informed Enicar that it did not obtain the financing and requested the cancellation of the contract; the cancelation was signed at Bucharest (L’Impartial, 28-29.11.1980)