Sennet Freres

York Lo: Sennet Freres

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Left: Sennet Freres jewelry – likely after WWII (Gwulo); right: the revived Sennet Freres brand as a three story bridal shop on Russell Street in Causeway Bay 

Earlier on the website we covered the watchmaker and jeweler J. Ullmann and Levy Hermanos. Closely associated with these two firms was Sennet Freres, another prominent watch and jewelry retailer in the Far East that traced its roots to France in the late 19th century and was revived in 2020 as a bridal brand in Hong Kong with the help of pop singer Hins Cheung, who resides in the Pokfulam mansion built by the proprietor of the brand in the early 20th century.

Origins (1870s-1920s): Levy Hermanos, the Sennet brothers and the Weills

The Chinese name of Sennet Freres is “Lee Wai Yeung Hong” (利威洋行)as the firm was the successor to the HK and Shanghai watch and jewelry operations of Levy Hermanos, a trading firm founded in the 1870s in the Philippines by the Levy brothers (Adolphe, Charles, Jacques and Raphael) from Alsace-Lorraine region in France.

The earliest record of Levy Hermanos in HK was in 1896 when a newspaper notice reported that “Messrs Levy Hermanos call attention in this issue to the great variety of watches and fancy goods they are now showing in their store.”(The Hong Kong Telegraph, 1896-12-11) Its premises was originally located at 10 Queen’s Road and its original manager was Armand Levy with Albert Weill as watchmaker.

In 1897, Sennet Freres was already listed in the Directory and Chronicle for China, Japan, Corea as the successor to Levy Hermanos at 38 Nanking Road in Shanghai with two brothers from Alsace region who were related to the Levy brothers -Moïse Sennet(1858-1922) and Marx Sennet (born in 1862) as managers. The Sennetbrothers married two sisters on the same day in September 1895 in Paris – Moise to JeanneHeimendinger (1876-1970) and Marx to Anne Heimendinger (1878-1973)and afterwards headed to the Far East to build their watch and jewelry empire.The sisters were daughters of Aron Heimendinger (1847-1923) and Melanie Levy (1852-1924), sister of the Levy brothers. Anne and Marx Sennet have two children – Renee who was born in Manila in 1896 and Robert who was born in Shanghai in 1898 but killed in combat serving in the French Army during World War I in 1918.

The Sennet brothers were assisted in their watch and jewelry business by their nephew Marcel Heimendinger (1890-1958, son of Isaac Heimendinger, the half-brother of their father in law Aron and their sister Mathilde Sennet) in Shanghai who joined them in 1908 and while the Hong Kong operations was led byfellow Alsace native Albert Weill (1873-1922). In addition to Shanghai and HK, Sennet opened branches in Peking (1907) and Tientsin. In November 1914, the Sennet store at the Regines Building on Legation Street in Peking was destroyed when the building was gutted by fire. (Straits Times, 1914-11-20)

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Left: Albert and Rosie Weill with their children; right: Alberose in Pokfulam

According to a Hong Kong Christmas shopping guide in 1913, Sennet Freres “are a firm of the foremost jewelers in the Colony and what their window does not show can generally be found inside. In fact their range of goods is large that anything from personal adornment to choice accessories which partake of the nature of luxuries may be found with them. In particular, they are showing a fine range of silver vases and other table embellishments. Besides that their watches and rings are certainly worth seeing; some of them are positive revelations of the jeweler’s art.” (The HK Telegraph, 1913-12-20)

In July 1916, a Chinese robber slipped into the Shanghai store at 32 Nanking Road and escaped with 36 watches worth over $375. He was arrested the next evening and his fingerprint matched those found in the glass case of the crime scene. (Malaya Tribune, 1916-8-7)

In November 1918, burglars managed to break three walls of neighboring stores of the French Store and Brewer & Co to enter Sennet Freres’ store in Hong Kong, which was guarded by watchman on the outside. (HK Telegraph, 1918-11-4)

In 1920, Sennet Freres founder Moise Sennet left Shanghai for his native Paris and passed the management of the Shanghai operations to his younger brother Marx and his nephew Marcel Heimendinger. Moise died in Paris two years later in July 1922. Out of respect for the firm’s founder, Albert Weill closed the HK store for a day. (HK Telegraph, 1922-7-10)

Sadly, one month later on August 31, 1922, Albert Weill himself died at the French Hospital in HK after an operation for appendicitis. (Singapore Free Press, 1922-9-21) Attendees of his funeral at the Jewsish Cemetery included the French consul F. Kremer, comprador Ho Kwong (father of Stanley Ho), Indian merchant H. Ruttonjee, fellow jewelers R. Ullmann and H. Komor and the who’s who of the HK Jewish community at the time including family members of the Sassoons, Gubbay, Ellis, Raymond and Joseph families and L. Tobias of the optician N. Lazarus covered earlier. (HK Telegraph, 1922-9-1) He was succeeded at Sennetby his widow Rosie Donneberg (1880-1951).

In May 1924, a thief threw a stone at the glass window of the Sennet store on Pedder Street early morning and stole six gold pocket watches valued at several hundred dollars but cutting his hand in the process. The Indian watchman who missed the thief while he was away for 5 minutes traced the blood stain up to Wellington Street but was unable to capture the thief. (HK Daily Press, 1924-5-15)

In December 1926, three well-dressed Chinese men went into the Pedder Street store pretending to be customers and their strange behavior aroused the suspicion of Rosie’s son Leo Weill who caught one of the men having stolen three watches in his shirt sleeve and the other staff was able to seize another man while the third individual managed to escape. (China Mail, 1926-12-14) The HK store later moved to the York Building on Chater Road in a site formerly occupied by a shop called “The Sign of the Lantern”.

Turbulent Times: (1930s and 1940s)

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Left: ad for Sennet Freres in Hong Kong in October 1929, notice that Marcel Heimendinger was listed signaling the change of ownership that year. (China Mail, 1929-10-24); right: Marcel Heimendinger

In July 1929, Rosie Weill decided to retire and sold the HK operations of Sennet to the Shanghai partners.(Straits Times, 1929-7-15) Rosie stayed in Hong Kong with her family where they lived at their residence “Alberose” (named after Albert and Rosie) at 132A & B Pokfulam Road built in 1926 until it was transferred to the University of Hong Kong in 1955 after her death in 1952. Rosie made the headlines in April 1930 when a platinum watch belonging to her was stolen by her coolie Chan Pak-kuen who was arrested while trying to pawn it for $12 at the Lee Tai pawnshop. (HK Telegraph, 1930-4-28)

Albert and Rosie Weill had four children – their eldest daughter Sophie (1900-1979) married Getz Brothers manager Harry Odell who went on to become a famous impresario and their second daughter Susannah (1904-1968) married stockbroker Alexander Hutton Potts. Their eldest son Leon Weill (aka “Leo”, 1906-1944) became a stockbroker after working for Sennetand sadly both he and his younger brother Maurice Weill (1908-1944)died in the Shamshuipo Camp during the Japanese occupation.

Under the leadership of Marcel Heimendinger, Sennet’s operations in Shanghai remained one of the leading jewelers in the city. In August 1927, a Russian gang rented an empty shop next to the Sennet store at 24 Nanking Road and drilled a hole through the wall into Sennet but failed to drill open the large Fichet safe which contained $200,000 worth of diamonds and other jewels.  (HK Telegraph, 1927-8-23)

In January 1929, a Russian man smashed the window of the Shanghai store with a brick and took $25000 worth of jewelry in broad daylight but the manager Mr. Levy was able to catch him and he was tried in court. (HK Telegraph, 1929-1-29)

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Left: ad for surplus auction at Sennet Freres in Hong Kong in 1931 (HK Daily Press, 1931-6-26); right: Picture of the Sennet store in 1940 in the aftermath of the robbery which killed Jean Dubois (HK Daily Press, 1940-5-3)

In 1931, the HK store of Sennet moved from York Building to the Gloucester Building on Chater Road in Central. By the late 1930s, the HK operations of Sennet was managed by Jean Dubois (1884-1940), who left Le Lochle, Switzerland to work for J. Ullmann in Hankow, China before heading to HK.

In May 1935, a gang of foreigners including a tall blond American as the leader and two Russians robbed the Nanking Road store around lunch hour with pistols, tying up the French assistant manager Andre Meyer and three Chinese assistants with wire and went away with 24 trays of diamonds as well as other costly articles valued at over $200,000. Thankfully according to Marcel Heimendinger who spoke with the press, the stolen jewelry was fully insured. (HK Daily Press, 1935-5-16, 5-22)

In November 1938, two diamond finger rings valued at $3800 were stolen from the Sennet store in the Gloucester Building. A 62 year-old unemployed Northern Chinese man by the name of Chen Ping was arrested when he took one of the rings valued at $2400 and tried to pawn it for $1100 at the Tai Fong Pawnshop at 271 Queen’s Road Central.The charges were later dropped when Chen revealed that he was asked by a friend surnamed Wu to pawn the ring. (China Mail, 1938-11-30, 12-1, 12-5, HK Telegraph, 1938-12-7)

On May 2, 1940, Jean Dubois was killed after a robber shot him in the abdomen during an attempted robbery of the Central store. One of the robbers, Li Hung-fui, also known as Joseph Li, a 20 year-old unemployed native of Kiangsu was wounded and arrested and later convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. (HK Telegraph, 1940-5-28; HK Daily Press, 1940-7-23; The China Mail, 1940-7-22)

In October 1940, the Shanghai store also made headlines when Rudolf Mayer, the brother of Hollywood mogul and MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer was wanted for obtaining $10000 under false pretense from Marcel Heimendinger. (Straits Times, 1940-10-20)Marcel Heimendinger left China for France in 1947.

Japanese Occupation and After the War

According to Anita Dubois Daout, the granddaughter of Jean Dubois who left a message in the article about J. Ullmann, her father Willy Dubois joined Sennet at the age of 17 to support his family upon his father’s death and worked for Sennet which remained opened during the Japanese occupation from December 1941 to August 1945 together with his uncle Marcel Berruex. Willy was repatriated to Switzerland with his wife after the War was over but returned to HK in 1946 to rejoin Sennet. In the late 1940s, Sennet was operating out of the Gloucester Building at 5 Pedder Street with L.D. Walch as owner, M. Berruex as manager and Willy Dubois and J. Gensburger as assistants. The same four individuals were listed as staff members of J. Ullmann at the same address, suggesting that both Ullmann and Sennett were under the same ownership and management by that time. (Business Directory of HK, Canton and Macao, 1949)

By the early 1960s, Sennet Freres was operating out of the new Mandarin Hotel and in November and December 1964, its store was burglarized twice, the first timea bunch of lower end watches worth a total of $10000 was stolen while the second time nine mid-range watches worth a total of $6600 were stolen. (KSDN, 1964-12-12)

In the 1970s, Sennet Freres was operating out of the Marina House with M.A. Gensburger as managing director, J.W. Dubois as general manager and J.G. Williams as sales manager. Staff members at the time included Yip Hung-Sang , Yip Pong , Lee Hin, Chang Shu Hong and Kenneth Ng and the firm acted as the sole agent in HK for the French jewelry brand Boucheron.(HK $ Directory, 1974 and 1977)

In December 1979, Sennet Freres advertised that it would close its doors in HK in February 1980 after 110 years of operations due to the soaring shop rent. (Business Times, 1980-2-5) There were two registration of Sennet Freres Ltd in the HK Company Registry – one was incorporated in 1934 and dissolved in 2003 while the other was incorporated in 1959 and dissolved in 1996.

Sources (aside from those cited above):

https://www.flacsu.fr/mes-histoires-familiales-g%C3%A9n%C3%A9alogie-et-histoire/les-heimendinger-de-grussenheim/salomon-heimendinger-et-jeanne-isaac/

https://www.flacsu.fr/mes-histoires-familiales-g%C3%A9n%C3%A9alogie-et-histoire/moments-d-une-recherche/aventures-en-extr%C3%AAme-orient/

https://jhshk.org/community/the-jewish-cemetery/burial-list/weill-albert/

https://stylenculture.hk01.com/%E7%94%9F%E6%B4%BB%E6%99%82%E5%B0%9A/577340/%E5%BC%B5%E6%95%AC%E8%BB%92%E5%B0%88%E8%A8%AA-%E8%A8%B4%E8%AA%AA%E7%99%BE%E5%B9%B4%E5%8B%95%E4%BA%BA%E6%95%85%E4%BA%8B-%E9%87%8D%E5%A1%91sennet-fr%C3%A8res%E7%9A%84%E5%A5%A2%E8%8F%AF%E8%97%9D%E8%A1%93#media_id=6159225

https://insideretail.asia/2021/01/05/heritage-brand-sennet-freres-makes-hong-kong-return/

http://www.archives.sh.cn/slyj/shyj/201211/t20121105_37163.html

This article was first posted on 11th October 2021.

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