The Grail Of Attic Finds: Reunited With The First Watch I Ever Owned, A West End Watch Co Sowar Prima
If you have read my Khanjar and Qaboos Rolexes: Are They The Vintage Watch Industry’s Blood Diamonds?, you may recall that in 1969 I was bought my first watch for my seventh birthday whilst on a family trip to Bahrain. I was certain that this watch had been lost to the sands of time, in one of many house moves between Oman and Scotland.
My last memory of it dated back to the mid-1970s and, as I recall, the movement had seized up. Purely from memory, I described the watch as “a manual-wind, steel-encased boys’ watch on a steel bracelet with a red second hand and luminous Mercedes hour and minute hands that lit up like Blackpool tower at night.”
So it’s little short of a miracle that on a recent visit to see my mother (shortly before the COVID-19 ban on visiting elderly relatives), while tidying away some boxes in her attic, I happened to peer into an open wooden box and there, lying on its side, now on an old black leather strap, was my first watch!
And even more astonishing, when I wound it up it started running perfectly! As you can see from the photo, the case and hands are exactly as I remembered them, and the lume is still remarkably strong given its age.
The second thing I did was to check the dial for the manufacturer’s name, something I did not recall. The dial reads WEST END WATCH CO – SOWAR below the 12 o’clock mark and PRIMA and SWISS MADE above and below the 6 o’clock mark.
This sent me scurrying online to find out more about this company. But the brand name was more than familiar, and it turns out that I had come across some West End Watch Co watches very recently and much closer to home. More on that later.
According to the West End Watch Co website, not long after being founded in 1864 by Alcide Droz and Henri Perret as Droz and Perret, the company decided to target the Indian and Middle East markets, establishing itself under the brand name West End Watch Co as the leading brand in India, Nepal, and Tibet (making deliveries to the latter by yak when roads became impassable!).
In 1886 Droz developed l’Imperméable, the first waterproof pocket watch ever produced, which is now on display at the International Watchmaking Museum (MIH) in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
In another serendipitous connection with my Omani Rolex article, Chinese mountaineer Wang Fu-Zhou became the first man to conquer Mount Everest via the North Ridge in 1960 – wearing a West End Watch Co watch.
At various times West End Watch Co enjoyed manufacturing tie-ups with Longines and Mido, until 1955 being the only brand authorized to market Longines movements, including the 12.68z, under its own name.
Through its Bombay and Calcutta offices, where the West End Watch Co name was first adopted, by 1914 the company had supplied 50,000 watches to British Indian soldiers fighting in Iraq and was supplying watches to most of the Indian Railway companies.
In 1917 it launched the Sowar brand (Sowar means “one who rides” in Farsi and “cavalryman” in Hindi). My watch is a Sowar Prima, indicating that it was water resistant and shockproof, as the company had created its own waterproofing technology and was an early adopter of Incabloc shockproofing.
Given the strong trading links between India and the nascent Arab Gulf States, it is therefore not surprising that if we were looking for a watch for me in Bahrain in the late 1960s, a West End Watch Co model would have been an obvious choice. As watch strap seller David Boettcher states in his comprehensive review, “The West End brand gave the Swiss-made watches a distinctly imperial feel, and the clever juxtaposition of Swiss precision engineering and an Empire brand name was a hit.”
I am fairly certain that my Sowar has never been serviced and that the back has never been opened since it left the factory. This, combined with the waterproofing system, would explain why the dial and hands are in such good condition. The case back (on which I scratched my initials, undoubtedly with the compass from my standard issue “Oxford” mathematical instruments kit, evidence that I took it with me to boarding school) is a decagonal form similar to many dive watches of the period.
In part due to its small size (25 mm) I have been quite unable to open it with the tools in my possession, so I am not able to identify or provide photographs of the movement, but I understand it would have been an ETA (or an associated company). However, I was able to find the following information on www.vintagewatchstraps.com:
“The exploded view of a West End Sowar Prima shows how the watch was assembled using a Taubert Decagonal case. The movement, complete with dial and hands, is first dropped into the carrier ring and secured by the two case screws. The carrier ring is then inserted into the case from the back. The winding stem is then inserted through the stem tube, where the cork seal is already in place, and is secured into the movement by tightening the setting lever screw.
“The case back has 10 flats, hence the name Decagonal, which are gripped by the key used to tightening the back down onto a lead gasket. The lead gasket is not shown in the picture, it is already installed in the main part of the case at the bottom of the threads that the case back screws into.
“The West End Watch Co became thus one of the first companies to use the Incabloc shock resisting system in their watches, and they used Taubert’s waterproof Decagonal watch case with the cork stem sealing and screw back from 1934 until 1954, when Taubert were no longer able to keep up with West End’s demand, which by then had risen to more than 2,000 cases per month.”
One striking aspect of a brand like this, given the pedigree of the company and the quality of its products, is the fact that 100 years ago there was little in technical, qualitative, and design terms to differentiate brands such as West End Watch Co from more well-known manufacturers like Ebel, Eterna, Minerva, and now-iconic brands like Rolex, Omega, and Longines – as evidenced by the broad selection of manufacturers included in the Dirty Dozen, even back in the 1940s.
This may sound fanciful, but the proof of this lies in the extent to which these companies supplied each other with movements and cases. West End Watch Co originally had its movements made at parent company Droz & Cie’s factory in St. Imier, but for quality reasons, after 1907 sourced them from a company called Lavina and also from Longines, Mido, Tissot, and other top manufactures.
In an alternative horological universe, Hans Wilsdorf could have decided to exploit his presence in London to launch Rolex as “the Empire watch,” with the result that Wang Fu-Zhou might have conquered the North Ridge wearing a Rolex and Sir Edmund Hillary might just as easily have climbed Everest wearing West End Watch Co timepieces rather than Rolexes!
The Sowar Prima is still in production today in more contemporary 39 mm and 41 mm sizes, and most West End watches are powered by ETA automatic movements.
These include the following automatic (ETA-powered) chronographs, retailing online from £425 up to £875: the Queen Anne chronograph, an automatic ETA chronograph with military-style soldered lugs; the Sowar Prima, an automatic military style watch also available with Arabic and Tibetan numerals; and the Classics, automatic Sowar variants with a fluted bezel on a jubilee bracelet, a thoroughly respectable alternative to wearing a counterfeit Rolex if it’s the Datejust look you’re after.
Closer to home in Bordeaux
When I was first reunited with this watch, I was racking my brain trying to remember where I had quite recently come across West End Watch Co watches closer to home.
Bordeaux, where I live, is something of a desert in horological terms: there are a few authorized dealers selling the customary Rolex, Omega, and Longines lineup, but if you want an Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, or A. Lange & Söhne your only option is the handful of pre-owned dealers. If it’s a Greubel Forsey or an F.P. Journe you’re after you’ll have to jump on a TGV to Paris.
However, a few years ago a young Bordelais called Aurélien Cram opened Horel, a small boutique selling mainly quartz fashion watches in Bordeaux’s old town. He gradually upgraded his product range by adding affordable mechanical brands such as Baltic, Oris, Junkers, Squale, etc. and relocated last year to a larger store on Rue de la Devise to focus primarily on mechanical watches.
And that was where I saw some West End Watch Co watches last year, not realizing that that was what my first watch had been. As soon as this terrible virus business is over, I shall drop in and proudly show him my Sowar Prima.
For more information, please visit www.westendwatchco.ch.
Quick Facts West End Watch Co Sowar Prima 1916
Case: 39 mm, stainless steel, water resistant to 50 meters, sapphire crystal, transparent case back
Movement: automatic Swiss movement
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds; date
You may also enjoy:
Khanjar And Qaboos Rolexes: Are They The Vintage Watch Industry’s Blood Diamonds?
Watches And Guitars: Longines vs. Gibson, And John Mayer’s Take On ‘Relicing’
Gerontohorologyphobia: A Young Man’s Fear Of Being Seen Wearing An Old Man’s Watch
Leave a ReplyWant to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!
We hope you are safe and sound.
Very interested article indeed about West End watch, great to hear that your watch is still in perfect shape. The watch was sold from our shop in Bahrain and we continue to be brand ambassador to such a great brand.
Should you need any help with your watch in the future, hopefully not, we have the spare parts.
Take care and all the best.
Ali Al Zeera
It’s great to hear that you have spare parts for even the older West Ends like that which Colin has. Are you also able to supply/replace cork and other gaskets in the Sowar Prima and related watches to restore some level of water resistance? If not, do you know where such parts might be found?
Thank you and thank you, Colin, for a great article.
Thanks Ali, the watch is still running strongly and keeping good time – hopefully for another 50 years!
I just purchased a Sowar Prima identical to yours. I found your web page while researching the brand. Mine came from a Middle-Eastern gentleman living in the Montreal area. It belonged to his father. I assume the latter acquired the watch overseas, in his home country.
The dial on mine is in less perfect shape than yours, but I’m happy about owning a nice piece of history!
Congratulations François, good choice! These are fun to collect – I wanted a larger one as mine is 28mm, eventually I got a black dial one with the day and date in Farsi!. Quite unusual I think as I have never seen another one like it. Is yours on a steel bracelet ?
What a lovely, heartwarming informative article.
Thank you for your heartwarming comment, Dave!
I own a west end watch , gold sowar prima watch , it belonged to my grandmother who was born in India abd my dad was also born in Calcutta it was given to my Nan as a engagement present it came with a gold strap but my Nan had it melted down to make my grandad a wedding ring they moved to the uk in 1952 , it was passed to my mum when my Nan passed and I was given it for my 30th birthday it still works today .
That’s a lovely story Emma. My grandmother was born in India too. I would love to see a photo of your watch, send one to me at filtran at hotmail.co.uk.
Fascinating revelations. I inherited my Sowar from my father who bought it in Bombay when he was serving on the Indian Army in the 1940s. It never left his wrist and now it is proudly on mine, keeping perfect time. My recollection was that T E Lawrence, ex of Arabia had one too.
Hi. Thanks for good & complete information about west end watch co. I realy like the design of it’s vintage brands.
But there is a problem, in real world, there is no “Arabic gulf” any where on the map. If you mean “Persian gulf” so just don’t try to change the map please.
Firstly the term is “Arabian Gulf” not the “Arabic Gulf”. The term Persian Gulf dates back to the Sassanid empire (which included parts of the Arabian peninsula) so is something of an anachronism given the geopolitical changes in the region (at one point it was called the “British Sea”!). What one chooses to call it largely depends on one’s background, and I am sure that if I had lived in Iran rather than Oman, I would call it the Persian Gulf today.
Unfortunately, you are wrong.The name there is the Persian Gulf and it is mentioned in all the official maps of the world and the history and geography books called the Persian Gulf.
Persian Gulf-Arabian Gulf naming is an interesting story by itself Ahmad.
Amazing information. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Hey, thanks for the informative and quite personal story regarding your old Prima. You helped convince me to buy one being offered to me over here in the Philippines. Never heard of the brand before since I’m really new at this collection hobby (I’m more into collecting unnecessary flyfishing gear). Anyway, it is now part of my modest military collection which nowincludes a very modern GPW, an old Vostok Komandirskiy, and a Seiko 5 6119 from 1973. These four excellent watches constitute a very nice collection full of historical significance spanning decades and neverending ideological battles. Thanks again and happy new year! Al
Hi . I came across your article aftwr I decided to do some research on this watch which my father passed down to me . He purchased it 50 yrs ago in Iran and since I am an avid watch junky my dad brought this watch back for me after a trip back home last year . Mine is exactly like yours . I have reached out to the company to see where o can purchase the new version to surprise my dad with it . This watch has put my dad through high school , medical school and life basically . I would love to see your watch with the Farsi dates . Thank you for the article .
Great story! I am currently restoring an old Sowar Prima for a gentleman in Kuwait who wants to surprise his 85-year old father with it, because he has lost the one he bought in 1965!
There is a French watch dealer called Horel (horel.fr), I know they have a couple of new Sowars in stock or could help you find one.
You can see my Farsi Sowar on my Instagram @calexandersmith.
Learnt so much about the history of West End watches! Thank you! I am trying to get my late father’s West End Sowar Prima manual watch to work, but the case can’t be opened! I believe my dad bought his watch in Mumbai in the early 1950s. It was his favorite watch. It has 07610 and 2557 stamped on the back. I gave it to a trusted watch repair shop in Kolkata who were unable to open and damaged the back. Just broke my heart seeing the damage! They don’t seem to have the right tools to open the back. How can I post a picture of the watch? Any suggestions on what are the right tools to open the watch? Thanks so much for your help! Sarina Paranjape
Hello Sarina, thanks for getting in touch and sorry to hear about your watch. The Taubert cases can be very difficult to open without the right tool.
I have sent you an email.
Nice article, thanks. Will email you a photo of my recently bought sowar prima.