You may think that all roads lead to Europe, specifically Switzerland when it comes to luxury watchmaking. However, one particular luxury watchmaker did not find his start amid the lush valleys and pristine mountaintops of our favorite neutral country.
Enter Don Ramón Fernández Cuervo, the master behind Cuervo y Sobrinos jewelry and watches. As we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, we’d be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to reflect on the 140th anniversary of one of Latin America’s most famous contributors to the luxury watch industry.
Ask any collector or watch repair enthusiast about Cuervo y Sobrinos watches, and don’t be surprised if their eyes light up and they answer with, “Let me tell you a story … .”
The Pearl in the ‘Pearl’
Originally from Spain, Cuervo opened his first jewelry shop on Havana’s Calle de la Amistad in 1862. In 1882, Cuervo invited several of his nephews from Spain to emigrate to Cuba and help build the family business. Cuervo y Sobrinos was born.
Over the next six decades, the company would expand and move its operations around Havana, finally setting down roots in 1917 with a luxury boutique on one of Havana’s busiest downtown thoroughfares, Calle San Rafael y Aguila. A few years later, in 1920, the company opened offices in Germany and France to further broaden its jewelry importing business and strengthen retail operations throughout Latin America and the world.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Cuervo y Sobrinos became a household name in Cuban fine jewelry and watches, much like Tiffany in the U.S. or Cartier in France. Major Swiss luxury brands – including Rolex, Roskopf, and Vacheron – quickly recognized a thriving market in what was then known as “The Pearl of the Caribbean” and co-branded with Cuervo y Sobrinos to make watches exclusively for Don Ramón.
The famous Latin salon would also open a factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, where it designed and created its own brand of Swiss watches to sell in Cuba. With stylish, understated Art-Deco designs and a distinctly Latin flair, the timepieces fit right in with the island’s lush surroundings, aromatic stogies, and flowing white rum.
During the company’s heyday, Cuervo y Sobrinos’ Havana boutique was undoubtedly THE place to shop for the wealthy and elite in both the eastern and western hemispheres, serving the likes of Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Clark Gable.
After Castro took control of Cuba in 1959, things started to change drastically for Cuervo y Sobrinos. Suddenly, its jewelry artisans were forced to work with silver instead of gold and semi-precious stones instead of rare gems. At the same time, the company’s watch offerings dwindled as the new government frowned on everything connected with luxury and excess. Leaders did commission the brand to produce watches for the Cuban army, but Cuervo’s reputation for luxury and quality plummeted, and business dropped off sharply.
Once Cuervo y Sobrinos was nationalized in 1965, the company continued to decline. Soon the last of the Cuervo family escaped with only what they could carry; the government told workers to leave and shuttered the boutique.
Interestingly, the owners left the company’s vault locked with various historical treasures, including original watch parts and blueprints for future watches the company wanted to produce. And so, for more than 40 years, this once-thriving boutique stood closed for business, and the Cuervo family never returned to Cuba or continued in the jewelry industry.
New Owners, New Horizons, Same Name
Marzio Villa, a successful watch distributor with a penchant for all things historic and expensive, visited Cuba in the late 1990s and immediately fell in love with the Cuervo y Sobrinos story. So much so that he purchased the store and the trademark name. With the help of what he found in the old store’s vault, he resurrected the Cuervo y Sobrinos brand and began building Swiss-made watches uniquely designed to promote Latin culture.
This time operating out of Switzerland, Villa authorized retailers in Italy and Spain to sell the newly-designed Cuervo watches and later expanded with sales outlets in Russia, the United States, and Germany. Less than a year later, the brand unveiled its Torpedo, Espléndidos, and Prominente collections at Baselworld, one of the premier watch trade shows in the world.
The self-proclaimed watch with a “Swiss heart and a Latin soul” delivered timepieces that truly harkened back to the glitz and glamor of early 20th century Cuba and paid homage to the island’s most famous export – cigars. In particular, the Espléndidos and Prominente lines are designed to reflect Cuba’s cigar-making heritage, and every Cuervo y Sobrinos watch comes encased in a humidor.
Doubling down on its unique roots, Cuervo y Sobrinos created the annual Latino Award in 2003. The award has showcased several significant Latino cultural figures, among them Cuban track star Javier Sotomayor, an Olympic champion and world-record holder; world-famous Spanish actor Antonio Banderas; and British-Cuban classical ballet master Carlos Acosta.
The watch brand has also worked as the official timekeeper for the Cigar Smoking World Championship since 2015 and is a major partner for the Iberian Historic Endurance Race circuit.
In 2009, Cuervo y Sobrinos opened its flagship Havana boutique on the corner of Calle Muralla and Calle Oficios, just a short three-minute walk from the city’s renowned Plaza Vieja and across the street from its original spot nearly 50 years prior. The brand had finally come full-circle.
To celebrate this event, Cuervo y Sobrinos launched its Historiador line. The collection honors Havana’s official historian, Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, who helped facilitate the restoration of the once-famous boutique.
Today, the brand finds itself under new leadership, but its mission to bring a Latin flair to the world of Swiss watchmaking remains unchanged. Headquartered in Capalago, Switzerland, a village on the south-eastern shores of Lake Lugano, Cuervo y Sobrinos boasts seven fantastic collections decked out with superior Swiss complications:
- Pirata (likely the descendent of the Torpedo)
- Buceador (its diver’s line)
- Vuelo (a contemporary sporty-chic collection that represents a nod to the future).
In addition, the brand has released several new models from its Historiador and Prominente lines to celebrate its 140 years of craftsmanship. These include the Historiador Maestro Doble Luna, the brand’s first double moon phase timepiece that lets you know where the moon is at in both the southern and northern hemispheres; the Historiador Tradición “San Rafael,” a new take on the classic Tradición watch sold in the 1950s at the store on Calle San Rafael; and the Prominente Doble Tiempo, a modern reproduction of the 1940 original equipped with two separate watch movements for telling the time in different places.
Need a hand finding a part for your vintage Cuervo y Sobrinos? Or maybe we can assist you in maintaining your new model. Our Swiss-trained watch repair experts can handle any job, no matter how challenging, so don’t hesitate to give us a call at (801) 991-1097.