The Tavaro plant, which still stands on Avenue de Châtelaine in the Charmilles neighborhood of Geneva, is one of Europe's last great urban industrial sites. It's a small vestige of a great and proud manufacturing heritage more than a century old - of companies like Piccard-Pictet (automobiles), Sécheron (electric motors and regulators), Charmilles (wind turbines) and SODECO (mechanical counters). These are all sadly long defunct, but in classic Swiss fashion Geneva's watchmaking sector remains robust, with giants like Patek Philippe, Rolex, Piaget, Baume & Mercier, Frederick Constant, Alpina and Vacheron Constantin providing but a glimpse into those glory days.
Tavaro nevertheless holds a place in the history of Geneva industry for winning a huge and very risky bet against what was, at the time, a major, competitive world market dominated by a single American powerhouse (Singer). Elna, a relatively low value-added product, succeeded on profit margins and productivity instead.
The Elna sewing machine's origins seem unlikely - a workshop manufacturing clockwork fuses, founded by André Varaud (b. 1891, death unknown). Little is known of Varaud's life besides that he was a trained watchmaker with his first small studio at Rue du Stand, a gritty area near the city's quay. In 1931 he was appointed director of Schwob, Fréres & Cie., the firm of brothers Lucien and Isaac Schwob, which supplied numerous vital and innovative patents to watch giant Tavannes. Schwob occupied the first floor of an old car factory, built 18 years earlier by Piccard, Pictet & Cie., or Pic-Pic, as it was affectionately known - one of Geneva's well-established industrial giants, and an original Swiss partner & licensee in the Hispano-Suiza enterprise.
Production floor of the Tavaro works showing clockwork fuse assembly, Geneva, ca. 1939
Schwob's appointment of Varaud and a litany of other highly skilled engineers shows how determined they were to diversify - and fast. The Great Depression was in full swing, and Geneva's economy was terrible, with the failure of the Bank of Geneva and a generally poor economic outlook. It's understandable that lax laws, economic pressure and a general pattern of re-armament in the 1920s and 30s, created opportunities for independent gunsmiths and arms merchants.
Timed explosive charges were first used in the 1870s. Operating conditions for these movements were extremely demanding - keeping perfect time to within milliseconds while surrounded by smoke, moisture, extreme temperature/heat, and extreme air resistance. Schwob began to market components of watch movements modified for use in timed detonators (pendulums, crowns, wheels and springs) to the world's armies - the French, British, Polish, Danish. The Italian army imported Schwob components through the Borletti firm, which would go on to manufacture sewing machines of its own after the war inspired by Elna's success.
Arms manufacture requires significant capital, and years can pass from contract to delivery. Payment is in three equal installments: at the signing of the contract, upon receipt of goods and after firing tests. Competition is fierce - Bofors, Hispano-Suiza, Krupp, Thun, Altdorf, Oerlikon-Bührle and Dixi all do brisk business, jockeying to offer perks like prototype development, laboratory tests, tooling and pre-production, all paid for by the factory. Regime change could make the whole deal fall apart.
To raise capital, the Schwob brothers and Varaud sell all their patents to an investment company, Mefina (Mécanique Fine), which creates a wholly-owned subsidiary, Tavaro (Tavannes Varaud). This two-tier structure obscures the French origin of some of the capital - provided by Parisian firms Lubersac & Cie. and Manufacture des machines du Haut-Rhin - and preserves certain rights for license abroad.
Tavaro began in 1934 in the Pic-Pic works with 43 employees, including Varaud, managers Isaac and Maurice Schwob, attorney Paul Anliker, and engineer Hans Schmocker, formerly of Oerlikon-Bührle. The company ran deficits of hundreds of thousands of francs for its first few operating years, but sales rose to more than 1.5 million francs by 1937. Then, a breakthrough: plans were scrapped by the British for a new munitions plant in favor of a contract with Tavaro worth more than 6 million francs over several years. All this meant expanding, so Tavaro purchases the Pic-Pic factory and divests some of its patents, focusing solely on its military contracts. By 1938, annual turnover was 10 million francs and monthly production was 55,000 units. However, in this year, Andre Varaud, the company's founder and namesake, was accused of working in parallel for a rival engineering firm and was fired - foreshadowing turbulence to come.
Learn about Tavaro's plan for surviving World War II and its transformation into ELNA in part two of this article series.