J. Ullmann (烏利文) – Swiss Watchmaker and Jeweler in HK and China

York Lo: J. Ullmann (烏利文) – Swiss Watchmaker and Jeweler in HK and China

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Pictures of the interior and exterior of J. Ullmann’sTientsin store in the 1900s. (Directory and Chronicle of China, 1905)

Founded in HK in the 19th century by a Swiss native of the same name, J. Ullmann & Co was a leading watchmaker not just in Hong Kong but throughout China for close to a century before fading into history.

The history of Swiss watches in China can be traced back to Eduoard Bovet (1797-1849), a Swiss native who went to Canton in 1818 to develop the Chinese market for Swiss watches. Sensing a strong demand for Swiss watches in the Chinese market, Bovet and his brothers established the Bovet watch company in 1822 with manufacturing being done in their native Fleurier and Eduoard himself handling sales in Canton and Macau.By the mid-19th century, Swiss watches had become very popular in the Chinese market and Bovet under the Chinese name of “Po Wai” was one of the most recognizable brands. It was against this backdrop that Jacques Ullmann came to HK to seek his fortune.

There are some disputes regarding the inception date of J. Ullmann in HK. The book Seaports of the Far East published in 1907 listed 1860 as the inception date but according to the 1910 obituary of J. Ullmann’s eponymous founder Jacques Ullmann (1850-1909), he left Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland for Hong Kongin 1871 and established his firm in the British colony the same year.(HK Telegraph, 1910-1-20) Since Jacques would have been only 10 years old if 1860 was the inception date, the inception date of 1871 was more likely. (It should be noted that in the late 1900s J. Ullmann was embroiled in a lawsuit over the Bovet trademark)

In 1874, the address of the J. Ullmann store in HK was listed as 96-98 Queen’s Road Central and in addition to Jacques, Emmanuel Ullmann was also attached to the firm. (Directory & Chronicle, 1874). By the late 1880s, the J.Ullmann store in HK was located at 74 Queen’s Road Central with a branch in Paris managed by Felix Ullmann and another branch in Switzerland managed by Jerome Ullmann and M. Bernheim had joined the firm in HK. (Directory and Chronicle, 1889)

In 1891, Jacques Ullmann left HK to return to Chaux-de-Fonds where he set up a watch factory to supply to his shop back East managed by M. Bernheim.

Under Bernheim,J. Ullmann began to expand in China, opening a branch in Shanghai at 564 Nanking Road and another branch in Tientsin in the French Concession (the Last Emperor Pu Yi was a customer during his exile in the city in the late 1920s) in 1896 while the management of the HK business was left to Eugene Bernheim (presumably his brother), who joined in 1897.Another branch was also added in the trading post of Vladivostock managed by E. Clemann. Aside from watches, J. Ullmann also sold diamonds, jewelry, glassware, artwork and in the early 1900s, it also partnered with Columbia Records in the US in the production and distribution of Chinese records. In the arrangement, Ullmann arranged artists in Shanghai and HK to be recorded by recording experts sent by Columbia from the US, the recordings were then pressed in Connecticut and the finished discs were sent back to Ullmann for distribution in HK and China.

In 1902, Leuba Freres of Fleurier, who had by then secured the ownership of the Bovet brand which has been sold in HK by Chas. Gaupp& Co (see article) since 1868 sued Ullmann in the HK Supreme Court for trademark infringement by producing similar looking watches under the similar sounding “Po Wai” brand in Chinese and received an injunction.(Reports of Patent Design, Sep 1908)  In 1907, Ullmann hired Sir Henry Berkeley to appeal the decision. (HK Telegraph, 1907-2-4)

In October 1909, E. Bernheim was sued by A. Dreyfuss, a former employee of J. Ullmann in HK for wrongful detention of personal effects and Leo d’Almada e Castro represented the plaintiff while Reader Harris (then with Wilkinson & Grist) represented the defendant. (HK Telegraph, 1909-10-9)

In December 1909, Jacques Ullmann died in Chaux-de-Fonds at the age of 59 after a brief illness of 2 days and was survived by his wife and two of sons who were born in HK and were attached to the business there. One of the staff members of the HK store was “R. Ullmann” and it is unclear if it is the same person as Rene Ullmann, who was the sole agent of Movado watches in Singapore in the 1920s-30s.

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Left: Lucien Léon Blum, head of J. Ullmann in Shanghai(Leaders of Commerce Industry and Thought in China, 1920); Right: back and front of a J. Ullmann pocket watch

By the early 1910s, the Bernheims had moved back to Europe with M. Bernheim in Paris and E. Bernheim in Chaux-de-Fonds and the management of the HK operations, which by then was already located at 34 Queen’s Road Central, was passed to S. Goldschmidt while the Shanghai operations was passed to Lucien Léon Blumin 1911. Born and educated in Belfort, France, Blum came to China in 1901. (Directory & Chronicle, 1912)

In 1919, J. Ullmann applied to the HK government to install a new clock in front of its store. The clock, which was imported from Europe with two faces – one facing Queen’s Road Central and the other one facing Wyndham Street.  (Wah Tsz Yat Po, 1919-6-12)

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Three J. Ullmann ads in HK from the 1920s.Left: English ad in 1926 (HK Telegraph, 1926-5-17) Center: Chinese ad in 1929 (KSDN, 1929-6-18);Right: (HK Telegraph, 1926-5-20) 

In the 1920s, J. Ullmann had branches in HK, Tientsin, Paris, Shanghai, Hankow and Peking and factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland. As shown in one of the ads below, the firm was providing 5-year guarantee and free repairs at any of its branches.

In June 1920, a gang of burglars broke into Ullmann’s on Queen’s Road Central, broke open two safes at the back of the premise and took $200,000 worth of diamonds, gold and silver watches, making it one of the biggest burglaries at the time. (China Mail, 1920-6-28)

In April 1921, J. Ullmann reported to the HK police that 4 out of the 20 boxes of watches and jewelry imported from Switzerland were opened and its content were stolen, resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in losses. (Wah Tsz Yat Po, 1921-4-7)

By the mid-1920s, both M. Bernheim and E. Bernheim were both operating out of Paris while the HK operations of J. Ullmann was managed by L.D. Walch who was assistant for the firm in Tientsin while L. Blum continued to run the Shanghai operations. (Comacrib Directory, 1925)

In April 1928, a soldier was arrested for throwing a stone at the glass windows of J. Ullmann’s store in HK which resulted in damages. (HK Telegraph, 1928-4-18) In September of the same year, J. Ullman sent one of its staff by the name of Lam Yat-hang to Canton to sell some watches and telescopes but Lam who had worked for the firm for over a decade took the $9707 worth of goods and disappeared. (KSDN, 1928-9-26)

In June 1929, Leon Blum decided to discontinue the retail side of the Shanghai business to focus on wholesale and announced plans to close the firm’s store on Nanking Road in Shanghai. (HK Telegraph, 1929-6-5) In October, the Nanking Road store was robbed by a thief who stole $100,000 worth of jewelry and watches. (Singapore Free Press, 1929-10-16) The Shanghainese operation of J. Ullmann was taken by P.A. Laroche and was renamed P. Laroche &Cie but other Ullmann branches maintained its English and Chinese name.

In December 1929, a robber smashed one of the window-displays at the J. Ullmann store at Alexandra Building with a hammer one morning while the security guard went for a bathroom break and police patrolman were not around and ran away with $600 worth of watches. (KSDN, 1929-12-27)

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Left: Ad for sale at J Ullmann in HK in 1929 (HK Telegraph, 1929-6-5); Right: English and Chinese ad for the exhibition of British and French paintings at J. Ullmann in 1936 (China Mail, 1936-5-4) (Wah Tsz Yat Po, 1936-5-3)

In 1931, a man with German/Russian accent attempted to swindle L.D. Walch in HK by claiming that he had a machine capable of producing gold at half the market price but fortunately Walch did not fall into the trap. (Straits Times, 1931-8-11)

In June 1936, J. Ullmann hosted a high-profile exhibition of British and French paintings in HK with Governor Caldecott and French ambassador J. Leurquin as guests of honor. (see ads above)

After the War, J. Ullmann resumed its business in Gloucester Building on Pedder Street with Marcel Berruex (who was listed as assistant for the firm in the 1930 HK Jurors List) as manager while L.D. Walch remained director of the firm (Business Directory of HK, Canton and Macao, 1949)

Sources (other than those cited above):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bovet_Fleurier

http://www.recordingpioneers.com/RP_MARKER1.html

This article was first posted on 12th October 2020.

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