OLLECH & WAJS
From 1956 to Today
I’m gonna be honest with you: I would very much like to create my own watch brand one day.
The more I read about watches, the more experience I gain by handling all sorts of watches and the bigger the chance that I will someday bring something unique to the watch market. I’d bet, too, that many watch journalists, enthusiasts, photographers and influencers feel the same. Actually, I know quite a few that have taken that step and created their own brand, but I also feel that I would just be adding yet another brand to an already saturated market. I’m usually the first one to complain that there are too many brands in existence producing more or less the same stuff, after all.
Perhaps, then, I should let the pros do their thing.
In parallel, there are many entrepreneurs and watch collectors who revive brands that perished following the Quartz Revolution. While some of these brands took years to disappear, suffering a slow and agonizing death, some managed to barely survive. By reducing production, simplifying their structure, firing most of their staff, and making cheap quartz watches, they carried on the name. In many cases, what remained was nothing to write home about, and even more rarely, the brand maintained its reputation for manufacturing great watches and was eventually bought by someone with an equal amount of passion and know-how.
The latter is the story of Ollech and Wajs (O&W), the Zurich-based tool watch company that was bought and relaunched in 2017 by a fan of the brand, a savvy watch collector and entrepreneur who goes by the name of Charles Paxson. O&W is a brand that cemented its reputation by making rugged professional tool watches, living within a niche market of small and independent professional watchmakers that manufacture watches for those who love and need good watches more than they care about the brand name stamped on the dial.
More than anything else, this article tells the story of how Charles took over the brand, the state in which he found it, and his vision for assuring a solid future for the next 50 years.
The O&W Caribbean 1000
Ollech & Wajs Before Charles
While this article is about the transition of the brand to new management, I would first like to spend some time talking about Ollech & Wajs and its founders. As is written on the dial of the watches, the brand was founded in 1956 in Zurich. Two men, Albert Wajs and Joseph Ollech came together to create a professional tool watch company that gained a solid reputation by making robust, reasonably sized, and rather unique looking tool watches. I do insist on the “tool” aspects of the brand’s catalog because by all measures, Ollech & Wajs timepieces are resolutely purposeful and well built. Although it’s a recent production unit, I’m wearing a C-1000 diver as I’m typing this article and can attest to its exceptional quality.
The modern C-1000
The brand was Albert Wajs’ first and only real career. Albert started manufacturing bracelets in 1954, and in 1956, the two decided to make watches. Albert handled everything from designing to engineering and manufacturing the watches while Joseph ran the brand’s advertising and marketing effort. Things were very different in the 1950s, and marketing was more advertising in the sense of placing ads in magazines and finding retail partners. At the height of its existence, Ollech & Wajs was manufacturing more or less 1,000 watches a year. When Charles acquired the brand in the mid-2010s, production had dwindled down to barely 100 pieces per annum.
Many collectors, including Charles, particularly love the daring designs the brand used in the 1960s with models such as the Caribbean 1000, the Navichron, and the Aquaguard. The most popular vintage O&W watches stem from that period, and as we will see later, that’s the time period on which Charles based the rebirth of the brand. What I personally like about the first version of Ollech and Wajs was the brand’s innovations in design and engineering. As I gained more and more experience in watch collecting, I started to realize that brands tended to reuse the same design elements, many of which came from very few brands: Ollech & Wajs, Enicar, Rolex, and Omega, among others.
Ollech and Wajs was a pioneer in making ultra-resistant divers that could go to depths of 1,000 meters, and their watches were so robust and well made that they were adopted not only by professional divers but also by pilots, explorers, mountaineers, and GIs. Think of Ollech and Wajs as a boutique brand that did not focus on luxury but on making tool watches for those who truly have the need for them (as opposed to those like me who just like the idea of wearing a well-made watch). I often thought of Rolex as being the best at innovation, but learning about O&W made me realize that there were many more brands offering exceptional watches.
Now of course, no one ever put O&W in the same basket as Rolex because the former was always a small affair: Albert and Joseph had their studio and office in Zurich and got their watches made from different manufacturers spread across the Jura Mountains. The brand had a small team of watchmakers, but the bulk of the work was being done by Albert and Joseph. It truly was almost a family thing, and as we will see later, the way in which Charles acquired the brand reflects that. At the end of the day, Ollech and Wajs saw its production slow down, its offices close down, and most of his staff take on other jobs, but the name remained, giving one astute collector the opportunity of a lifetime.
How Charles Acquired O&W
As I mentioned in the introduction, it is common for brands that closed down to be brought back to life. In most cases, someone who is not related to the brand or its founders buys the rights to the name and some archival documents. That’s all one truly needs today to recreate a brand, but again, the brand is started anew. It has not transitioned since it had officially closed down. The tricky part about doing that is that some corporation or investment firm usually owns the rights to the name and registers it in different parts of the world. Someone could have bought the rights to the name of the brand in Europe, then, but not in Asia or the United States.
I know of a few brands that are in this precarious situation.
Although buying the rights to the name and recreating the brand is not an easy task—I can only imagine the amount of paperwork and the lawyers fees involved in this process—what Charles did was spectacularly difficult and time-consuming. Charles bought the brand from Albert Wajs over the course of 12 years of negotiation.
Yes, 12 years! This is not a typo.
The reason it took so long is because Charles wanted to go through this process organically by respecting the fact that Albert had worked his entire adult life for the brand. Charles’ goal was to ensure a smooth transition, but it ended up taking 12 years and not the two that Charles had initially anticipated it would.
Doing things organically meant a constant renegotiation of the terms of the sale, because Charles had to offer a price that would work for Albert and encompass the brand name, the archives, and whatever inventory was left (such as the inventory of assembled watches and of thousands of parts of watches that were never assembled). Because it would take the two men sometimes months to get back to each other, inventories would change and the offer had to be renegotiated. I will spare you the details of the process, but all of what you have to know is this: it took 12 years for Charles to acquire the brand.
It should be noted for posterity's sake that Charles was not the only person interested in taking over Ollech and Wajs. The way I understand this part of the horological world is that there are investors who have a passion for watches that are on the constant lookout for brands to acquire. At any given time, there are several brands that have closed down or become dormant that can be acquired by people like Charles, and it takes years to find out which brands are available and what it is that can be purchased. While Charles bought the rights to the name, archival documents, and parts, others only bought the name and a box of documents with drawings of watches. That’s it.
I won’t name brands, but if you are reading this article, you probably know which one I’m talking about.
Have you ever seen the shows where people buy the content of storage units without knowing what’s inside? People actually fight with one another to win an auction to get the rights to a storage unit (the owner of which stopped paying rent for it) by just taking a quick look at it? Sometimes the storage units reveal themselves to be full of junk, but sometimes there are real treasures to be had (I remember seeing an episode where the lucky owner of the junk found a rare vintage car in pristine condition). It seems that buying the rights to a brand is more or less the same: full of surprises, sometimes good ones and other times some rather bad ones.
Astronaut Anthony Llewellyn wearing an O&W 105
An old catalog
Where Ollech & Wajs Stands in the World of Independent Horology
When I first started learning about watches many years ago, I was only interested in dive watches. Because I have a deep affinity for the ocean, diving, and swimming, I naturally gravitated toward divers. I loved the fact that they looked sporty and that they were capable and versatile. When I began educating myself about this type of watch, I learned about two types of horological houses that made good divers. On one hand, there are luxury brands such as Rolex, Omega, and Blancpain, brands that sell watches for thousands of dollars and are adorned with precious metals, unique materials, and with chronometer-certified movements. On the other hand, there are brands that make tool watches for professionals.
And yes, I know that the first Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was created in collaboration with French frogmen, that is, professionals that needed a reliable dive watch for military operations. Modern Submariners, though, are made of gold, ceramic, and glossy dials, and they retail for close to $10,000 (by the way, the first Submariners retailed for today’s equivalent of $1,500, approximately). So, the watches sold by the second type of brands resonate more with me: Doxa, Zodiac, and Ollech and Wajs among others. These brands made watches for professionals that needed rudimentary tool watches that were solid, easy to use, and long-lasting without the need for precious metals.
Also, brands like Doxa and O&W still make these types of watches today. These brands, I believe, exist within a niche market of the horological market. The watches that these brands make today are as robust as they were 50 years ago, and they are endowed with the same purposefulness that they had back then. While people talk about Jaeger LeCoultre as the watchmaker’s watchmaker, I see brands like Ollech and Wajs as the astute professional enthusiast’s brand. If tomorrow I depart for a one-month diving expedition, I’d rather have an O&W than a Rolex.
Getting the Brand Back on Track
As we know, Ollech and Wajs was not in great shape when Charles acquired it. Production had almost ground to a halt, and no new models were being made. Before officially relaunching the brand, Charles did a real-life exercise to test people’s interest in it. He grabbed cases that were 30 years old, had new dials and hands made, sourced a strap from a UK manufacturer, and released 56 super limited edition watches that sold out in weeks (and only through word of mouth). This exercise showed Charles that people were interested in the brand and that they wanted it back.
The first models that Charles launched officially were pilot watches, the P-101 and P-104. These two models are not recreations of previous models from the brand—contrary to what is generally done when someone relaunches a brand—but were instead Charles’ modern interpretation of them. The Navichron, the third model he launched, was also a modern interpretation of old models, something of an amalgam of previous Ollech and Wajs design elements. The divers that Charles launched, though—the C-1000 and Oceangraph, for example—are more faithful reissues of previous references.
Although O&W has been around for 70 years, it is the models from the 1960s that fascinated Charles, first as a collector and second as the new owner of the brand. Long before Charles acquired O&W, he was collecting watches from something like 20 brands, and many of the watches he owns are Ollech and Wajs models from the 1960s. He loved that these watches looked unique, were well-built, and were equipped with robust movements from ETA and Valjoux. So, when Charles re-launched Ollech, he drew inspiration from the 1960s more than any other decade. This can be seen in the models he chose for the relaunch.
While I have not said much about Charles—an omission which will be corrected in a future article I will publish elsewhere—it’s important to know one thing: Charles has lived his life between France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He has done a lot of business in Switzerland and has a particularly refined sense of what’s going on there in terms of horology. So, I’m saying all of this to explain one crucial move that he did when relaunching the brand: he bought several thousand ETA movements before they became unavailable to brands outside the Swatch Group in 2017. That’s why Ollech & Wajs models being sold today have ETA movements.
Between 2018 and 2022, though, Charles worked tirelessly to find a replacement caliber for the core models of his collections. Since his stocks of ETA movements are thinning down, he knew he would have to find a worthy replacement, and that’s what he and his team worked on for four years. They put calibers from several prominent Swiss manufactures through a series of strenuous tests, from accuracy tests to putting the movements into acid baths to see how they would fare in contact with everyday cleaning products. As far as he knows, no other independent brands subject their watches to these types of advanced tests.
It was important for Charles to establish these protocols for testing new movements because of the massive impact that movements have on the design of watches. Movement manufacturers such as SOPROD, Sellita, and STP basically started by making clones of ETA movements. They had to because too many brands were using ETA movements, and they needed movements that would fit inside their cases and work with their crowns and pinions. For a brand like Ollech and Wajs, changing movement means redesigning the cases and dials, so you’d better get it right, and that’s why Charles established rigorous testing protocols.
By the way, Charles settled for the Soprod Newton Precision P092.
As you might have gathered by now, Charles set out to recreate Ollech and Wajs at its prime and to preserve the brand’s reputation for making ultra robust watches. He could have simply made watches that more or less looked like old O&W models or just stamp the name on dials of watches that look utterly dissimilar to the brand’s iconic and historical models, but he did not do this. Instead, he looked for ways to preserve and revive the brand, honor its tradition of making superior tool watches, and share his 21st-century appreciation of the brand and its past collections. Armed with a new caliber, Charles is working on new collections that will take the brand on new and exciting paths.
M-110 M, first O&W equipped with the Soprod P092
Conclusion: It's About Doing the Right Thing
What I’ve gathered through the numerous conversations I’ve had with Charles is that he had a plan in mind that he kept ready for many, many years. In addition to waiting 12 years to acquire the brand from Albert Wajs, Charles actually waited an additional 12 years to realize his dream of acquiring the brand. Indeed, Charles got the idea of acquiring a Swiss brand in 1993 when he first attended the now defunct Baselworld watch fair. In 1993, he didn’t know which brand he would acquire, but he knew it would be a niche independent Swiss one. There was something about these brands that resonated particularly well with him.
I’m making a long story short but this is what happened: after his epiphany, Charles started collecting vintage watches, Ollech and Wajs among others. It wasn’t until 2003, though, that he realized that the brand was still in existence, although only people on watch forums would talk about it. When the internet spread, Charles was able to find a website that sold Ollech and Wajs watches and that’s how he was first able to contact Albert Wajs (Joseph Ollech had passed away in 2000). In 2005, Charles started to unofficially import O&W watches to France, buying the watch heads, and source straps and selling them through word-of-mouth to interested watch collectors.
I think it’s clear now that Charles’ story is quite unique, and that it takes a very patient and passionate man to acquire a historical brand from one of its cofounders and turning it into a viable 21st-century brand. In my opinion, Charles has been meticulous and patient in rebuilding Ollech and Wajs and doing things right because he wants the brand to live on for several more decades and to survive long after that he is gone. Although we hear every day of an old brand being brought back to life by someone unrelated to the brand and its founders, it’s astonishing to hear of the path Charles took in reviving Ollech and Wajs.
Keep an eye out, then, on the brand’s website to discover what Charles is up to. He is a steward of O&W’s history as he and his team routinely publish archival documents and stories of people who owned Ollech and Wajs timepieces in years past. I highly recommend perusing through the “Classics” and the “Stories” sections of the website.
Thanks for reading.