Overlooked No More: Betty Fiechter, Pioneer in the World of Watches

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In September, Swatch released a group of watches in collaboration with the venerable brand Blancpain: the Bioceramic Scuba Fifty Fathoms collection, which, the company said, “met all the needs of underwater exploration.”

The original Fifty Fathoms — introduced by Blancpain in 1953 and still an anchor of the brand — was groundbreaking: It was considered to be the first modern divers’ watch, with water resistance of up to about 300 feet. And it wouldn’t have been created without a woman who was equally trailblazing: Betty Fiechter, the first female owner of a Swiss watch house in a traditionally male industry.

Fiechter (pronounced FEESH-tehr), who had started out as an apprentice, rose to the top at Blancpain in 1933. “It was totally unprecedented,” said Pascal Ravessoud, a vice president of the Swiss trade organization the Fondation de la Haute Horlogere. “It would have been twice as hard for a woman to fight her way through.”

In her 30-year tenure at Blancpain, which was acquired by Swatch in 1992, Fiechter held a variety of positions, including president and general director (titles she held simultaneously), and oversaw the creation of some of the company’s most successful watches.

She placed an emphasis on women’s timepieces, like the slim and elegant Rolls, the first automatic watch designed for women, created in 1930, and the Ladybird, a delicate 1956 piece considered at the time to have the smallest round watch movement, or internal mechanism. (Marilyn Monroe was famously a fan of Blancpain’s feminine creations.)

Fiechter managed the company with a dominating presence and shepherded it through difficult eras, including the Great Depression and World War II, with innovative sales methods.

Berthe Marie Fiechter was born on April 29, 1896, in Villeret, Switzerland, a center of Swiss watchmaking since the 1600s. Her father, Jacob Fiechter, was an owner of a company that made watch movements. (It was sold to Blancpain in 1914.) Her mother, Mary Lisa (Ramseyer) Fiechter, raised Betty and her five siblings.

Betty attended vocational school near Villeret and was hired by Blancpain as an apprentice in 1912, when she was 16. For seven generations, starting in 1735, Blancpain had been owned by the family that founded it. Betty worked alongside its last remaining family member, Frédéric-Emile Blancpain.

The expectation at the time would have been for her to eventually take on a secretarial or administrative role with the company, but Frédéric-Emile Blancpain “saw more in her and also pushed her to be more,” Jean-Marie Fiechter, Betty Fiechter’s great-nephew, said in an interview.

“She hadn’t had university education — no M.B.A., or whatever — but she was street smart,” he added. “She knew how the watch company should work.”

Blancpain implicitly trusted Fiechter, who often worked without him by her side; she would run the brand’s watch manufacturing operation while he was at his home in Lausanne, about 60 miles southwest of Villeret, the Swiss town where Blancpain was based at the time. To keep him updated, she would send him weekly reports on wax cylinders that were played on phonographs — essentially the equivalent of a leaving voice mail messages — and he would send back his own recorded replies.

When Blancpain died in 1932, his only daughter chose not to go into the business, so Fiechter and her boyfriend, André Léal, who also worked at the company, took over, with Fiechter becoming its chief executive and Léal serving as the sales director.

(For a time, because of Swiss regulations regarding brand ownership, they released new watches under the brand name Rayville-Blancpain, until 1960.)

Fiechter’s tenure included challenging periods, like World War II, but she came up with inventive ways for the company to survive. During the Depression, for example, when the Buy American Act of 1933 required federal agencies to buy domestic goods, she exported nearly-finished watches to the United States, where the cases and final parts would be added. At one point, she also prioritized selling watch movements to other watch brands in the United States.

But Fiechter’s focus remained on the brand — its survival and success.

She put everything she had into Blancpain, said Jeffrey Kingston, an editor in chief of Lettres du Brassus, a magazine that the watch brand publishes, for which he wrote a profile of Fiechter in 2021.

“Basically, Blancpain became her family,” he said. “It was her whole life. She never married, she had no children, so her whole existence wrapped around Blancpain.”

In 1961, Blancpain joined an alliance of watch brands, the Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère, and Fiechter became a member of its board. The partnership enabled her company to make a vast amount of watch movements for other member brands, like Omega and Tissot.

Standing about 6 feet tall, Fiechter towered over many of her male colleagues and expected them to be as tireless as she was. On one of her daily visits to the brand’s watchmaking atelier, for example, she spotted an employee taking a cigarette break and quickly docked the worker’s pay.

That wasn’t her only eccentricity. She sometimes shopped on Lausanne’s ritzy Rue du Bourg in her mink coat, accessorized by fluffy pink bedroom slippers. One afternoon in Villeret, she walked into a beauty salon and demanded — and got — service, even though the hairdresser was with another client; she then left midway through the session to attend to a pressing matter at the office, with curlers still on her head.

“She absolutely didn’t care,” her great-nephew said. “If it was right for her, it was right for her, period.”

When Léal died suddenly in 1939, Fiechter became Blancpain’s sole owner. By about 1950, she was diagnosed with cancer and brought in a nephew, Jean-Jacques Fiechter, to help her run the company. (His love of diving helped inspire the development of Fifty Fathoms.)

Fiechter’s illness went into remission for almost two decades, but a final bout led to her death, on Sept. 14, 1971. She was 75.

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