06 January 2021 |
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It took a Romanian banker to create the first transcontinental airline in the history of commercial aviation. Today, 100 years later, the limited edition Tissot Heritage Navigator “Săgeata Orientului” comes to tell, 444 times, the story of a winged dream that started in Paris and reached Istanbul, passing through Bucharest.

How much can a watch say? Can it convey the intense emotion you think you need a movie for today? Can time measuring be, in fact, a reason to travel ourselves, before the present, into a realm of ideals? For Ion Schiau, Albini Prassa founder, a watch is far from having ended its mission on our planet overcrowded with smart phones and gadgets that compete, one more than the other, how to save us from any delay or misinformation. His newest challenge, one meant to unite definitively and irreversibly the ideas of time and space, takes the form of a mechanical micro universe whose superpower is to show the time simultaneously in 24 cities around the world. And this without asking you, submissively, to connect it, at least once a day, to a source of electricity. The idea of  a limited edition watch to mark a hundred years since a French-Romanian company operated a transcontinental flight was born by chance.

“I received from long-time family friend Ilinca Balș a little book by former French ambassador in Bucharest, ‘Roumanie: au carrefour des Empires’, very entertaining and complete short book, I immediately saw it as the perfect gift for future visitors from Switzerland. There was the mention of the ‘Flèche d’Orient’ the name of line Paris-Bucharest-Istanbul, then Constantinople, operated by the Compagnie Franco-Roumaine de Navigation Aérienne, world’s first transcontinental airline.”

The information remained not just a miscellaneous fact but on the contrary. Ion Schiau admits that it was the point from which he started on a long and intense journey in which he searched and saved all the information he could find on the internet and with the help of historians. Maybe for everyone else the effect would not have been the same but our character feeds on stories and watches and, in fact, he is the kind who imagines watches with stories. Ion Schiau founded the Albini Prassa company that imports Tissot and other watch brands into Romania and other countries and, in 2018, he wrote history imagining the first limited edition Tissot dedicated to Romania. The watch, named Romania 1918-2018, celebrated a century since the Great Union and all 1918 pieces sold out faster than anyone would have ever imagined.

“I think it’s easier for me to think of a limited edition than not to. I am not trying to hunt for stories, stories hit me, then, I just try to marry these two ideals. I have to point out that when you like watches and you want the best for your customers, a watch that tells a story is the perfect balance.”

Tissot “Flèche d’Orient” brings into question the most beautiful dream of mankind. We wanted to fly, we did everything we could to understand the birds, and when we did, we started behaving as if we had always done that. “It was a beautiful European project where Romania played an important role. My own take on this is: look what we can do when vision and guts meet strong will. They believed in a project that seems absolutely obvious today but that had absolutely no grounds back then. They were the first to fly across the continent and the first to fly by night. From there, everything went very fast. 100 years later we take all that for granted, we fly across Europe in 2-3 hours watching movies and emailing on a phone while sipping a Bloody Mary… how and who is the next chapter going to be written? Extra orbital civilian flights? Private or  taxi drones? I try to bring a reality to the great admiration I have for the Romanians at the forefront of aviation in the early days of the technology: Vuia, Vlaicu, Coanda, Bibescu, and many others we can honour and be proud of, it is not a matter of fantasy, or nostalgia, it’s absolutely fascinating, and a bit sad that we seem to forget.”

Ion Schiau started his project by putting together everything he could find about the “Franco-Romanian Air Navigation Company” that has gone down in history, especially with the acronym CFRNA. He felt that it was a story that had been heard about before but that no one had treated with the importance it deserved. “The notion that at the start the operation was due to be profitable is clearly exposed by Pierre Claret de Fleurieu, the young French war hero of WWI, who then was employed by the Romanian Marmorosh Blank Bank in Paris in 1919 and came up with the airline plan presented it to his boss, Aristide Blank. 

The Romanian banker is said to have been extremely enthusiastic when first presented the plan, he signed the cheque and supposedly said ‘walk in front, we follow your footsteps’. Records and biography show that Blank was more of a romantic figure back then, impressed by Jules Verne’s stories at young age, more than a finance shark. Of course, they all believed it was going to be profitable, or at least they had to make it profitable, but the reality was different. Without state subventions, France’s, Poland’s, Czechoslovakia’s, Romania’s, and support – airfield, concessions for air monopoly, sometimes gas, the operation would not have been able to survive. But this was as well the case for all other airline ventures starting during that period. The unique case represented by the CFRNA for me is the fact that we have the military, the French and Romanian diplomacy, the aviation ‘industry’, the finance tycoons, a strong vision despite the risks, all aligned. For Romanian diplomacy, the idea was supported by Nicolae Titulescu, who was a major figure at State level to promote this project, seen as an instrument of peace between nations and link the people of Europe. For Blank, my impression is that he understood immediately the potential of the new technology for civilian use and invested all his forces to achieve it. He saw the airline as the competitor of the Orient Express. The ads were expressing that analogy over and over: ‘the cost is the same as train’, ‘time is money’, ‘you get to Bucharest in 22h by air (!) vs 66h by train’, the Continent was becoming suddenly very small, despite the fact that such a journey was not possible without making stop overs, the route was therefore: Paris-Strasbourg, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, Istanbul… The autonomy of the planes was the reason, the comfort of passengers, the commercial strategy as well. The company changed its name and structure in 1925 to become the Compagnie Internationale De Navigation Aerienne (CIDNA). CIDNA continued its expansion throughout the continent and in 1933, CIDNA, together with Air Union, Air Orient, SGTA, and absorbing failed Aeropostale, was nothing less than one of the founding companies of Air France.”

The story of “Flèche d’Orient” takes you far and wide and I’m sure that reaching the ears of a Hollywood screenwriter could become, at any time, a successful film. Ion Schiau knew that he had to find a watch that matched the fascination with which the banker Aristide Blank decided to finance a trip between continents above the clouds. And so it came to one of the most spectacular models that Tissot has ever created, a model originally presented when the Swiss brand was about to turn 100 years old. “For me the Tissot Navigator is one of these rare timepieces that has the magical balance between design, function, history and atemporality. First it is a fascinating complication, a World Timer, that directly calls for travel and adventure. As such World Time Watches are the only complication that not only evolve due to mechanical improvements but also because they reflect the geopolitics of their time. And I love that. From the early 30’s when the invention of Louis Cottier was first applied by Patek Philippe on a first wristwatch the cities and time zones displayed reflected the reality of each era, never mind the spelling of the cities which as well evolved. By 1951/1952, when Tissot issued the Navigator, it was still among the first to make such complication and was the only World Timer displayed on an inner disk, not an outer ring like notorious Longines, Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin and actually like most watches even today.

It furthermore was conceived from the beginning as very user-friendly. Tissot made the Navigator to celebrate its 100 years and more recently its 160 years! So what best watch to celebrate 100 years of the magnificent achievements by the CFRNA, a tribute to travel and Romania, than the Navigator, allowing us for a world premiere and have the first world time watch showing Bucharest for the GMT+2 time zone. Maybe it is also one of the first to correctly position Istanbul as since 2016 it chose to keep GMT+3 throughout the year, hence the time difference we have half of the year. We were able to take that stance on GMT+3, following a precious input from Dan-Cătălin Buzdugan, founder of Time Club Romania and ceasuripentruromania.ro

The limited edition Tissot “Flèche d’Orient” keeps everything delicious on the iconic Navigator model, but it also has the details meant to make you understand that the memory of the joy of flying will ennoble every look meant to find out what time it is. “Firstly Bucharest is shown to represent GMT +2 and this is a first, on a Tissot watch but to our knowledge and research to any World Timer. Paris and Istanbul the 2 other times zones and line start and finish are as well displayed on the redesigned dial. The new seconds-hand designed to express the ‘arrow’ complete the dial and the link to ‘Orient’s arrow’. The back case reproduces the map of the first transcontinental line, a SPAD 46 plane, very popular for the company.

The case is engraved with the limited series name and individual number as only 444 watches are produced. The black leather calf strap with red stitches, in a typically vintage style was designed and produced, introducing as well the easy fix pin, allowing you to exchange the strap without any tool.”

The “Flèche d’Orient” package is clearly the “work” of a storyteller, so it includes many more elements than what a manufacturer normally offers with a watch, be it a limited edition one. “I believe the story deserved to be served accordingly, the watch has a special watch box, including an additional strap. The watch is COSC certified and besides the COSC certificate we developed a dedicated numbered individual certificate. As a tribute to travelling, we designed and produced a special leather watch travel box, reproducing the logo of the company, inside you will have a unique Microscope labelled Tissot ‘Săgeata Orientului’ and a Tissot cleaning cloth. Last but not least, we wrote a book together with Historian Dumitru Lăcătușu from ‘Centrul de Consultanță istorică’ with whom we researched during many months for hidden gems. We are extremely proud of this book as we found out very few was written and available in Romanian about the topic. On a more personal level, I dedicated this book to my late grandfather, Octavian “Bebe” Bălteanu, who became a military pilot in 1922.”

It seems that Ion Schiau can talk endlessly about “Flèche d’Orient” and, with each fascinating happening that is related to the romantic airline CFRNA, you discover another reason why the limited edition seems too small a gesture for how big the dream of flying is. The story told by the 444 Tissot Navigator watches refers to the courage to open the world to those who will follow you, sometimes at the cost of your life. It refers to pilots who flew with almost non-existent on-board instruments and to emergency landings that were a possibility during the trip, the flight ticket even provided an explicit warning of that. Surely, whoever comes to buy a Tissot “Orient’s Arrow” will enjoy the watch but also the stories in the accompanying book. Ion Schiau’s passion, together with the openness and support of Tissot, bring a well-deserved homage to a Romanian dream meant to bring people closer to each other.

“‘Săgeata Orientului’ is a World Timer, as such it is a tribute to travel, and yes flying and time are linked in my opinion. The way I see it is that in our everyday life we have what I call “faster time” and “slower time » inputs, induced by architecture, landscapes or even objects. Take a book for example and your notion of time related to it is not the same as a car, for example. This is how I relate to this watch and the notion of time: by displaying the 24 time zones, by linking us to the notion that you flew to Bucharest from Paris not in 2 hours but in 22 hours, you are invited to consider time differently, to consider air-travel differently, to acknowledge the gigantic steps made in 100 years, starting with this very first transcontinental airline. 

Time and travel have the ability to transform us. For the latter, no better words than those of Swiss adventurer and traveler Nicolas Bouvier who wrote: You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you.”

The Tissot Heritage Navigator “Săgeata Orientului” watch is distinguished by its dial and custom case back for the limited edition of 444 pieces. The steel case has a diameter of 43 mm and inside there is a COSC automatic mechanical movement with a power reserve of 42 hours. The World Timer complication involves displaying the 24 time zones around the globe, each represented by a city, including Bucharest.

More details Albini Prassa and Sageata Orientului