Hermann Thorens, 1862 – 1883 – 1910 – 1985

Hermann Thorens, 1856–1943 (Chapuis, Alfred, Abb. 181, S. 195)

Hermann Thorens, in Sainte-Croix since 1874, from 1877 to 1881 tuning filer
“Hermann Thorens originally came from Concise. Born in 1856 in the Rhineland where his father was a textile designer, Hermann was the youngest of a family of four. When his father died prematurely, the children were boarded out with a teacher in the country. At the age of fourteen, Hermann did some practical training with a local company where he learned all about life in the factory, in addition to some rudimentary commerce. When he was eighteen, he came to Sainte-Croix to live with some close relatives, namely Fritz Thorens, who was an engraver. As he did not find work immediately, he helped out in the office of a notary public in Neuchȃtel and then worked as a clerk in a Savings Bank in Lausanne, until 1877, when he put his hands on a tuning file.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“The local music box industry was in full development and Hermann was an excellent musician, so in the company of Arthur Jeanrenaud, he had more than enough to do. Jeanrenaud introduced him to musical composition, manufacturing techniques and office work.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1881: Selling pianos and harmoniums
“On 5th march 1881, he added to his activity by opening a shop selling French and German pianos and harmoniums costing 180 francs and more, harmoniflutes, violins for fifteen francs, guitars, etc., which he sold at factory prices. At age twenty-six, Hermann Thorens had acquired a wide range of professional experience; he knew how to manufacture music boxes and mastered commercial techniques. It was time for him to set up his own company and to jump on the bandwagon of the music box production industry.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1882: manufacturer of music boxes, 1883: factory
“On 11th February of the following year, he was admitted to the Société industrielle et commerciale, which listed him as manufacturer. He took on staff and developed his business which supposedly was created on 31st August 1882 and registered on 16th March 1883 as a “music box factory”, in the Rue des Arts 13.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

Up to 1882: 28 and 36 notes toy movements (operas)
Thorens: 8-, 12 und 18-notes toy movements (simple tunes)
“Making use of his knowledge of the industry and of the German language, the young boss promptly contacted some toy manufacturers and set up his own speciality: musical toys, which developed steadily. For more than thirty years, he visited the fairs in Leipzig regularly and suceeded in opening new markets and little by little the factory changed and grew and counted thirty workers in 1887, developing further as time went on. (FAS 1943). Conscious of the fact that modest purses were more numerous, Hermann Thorens tried to create a new and more affordable toy, of excellent quality. Up to then, musical toys were only made with 36 and 28 notes, playing rather complicated tunes, operas and dances.

Hermann Thorens proceeded to make eighteen, twelve and even 8-note movements, playing simple tunes more to the liking of the little ones.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“He met with immediate and considerable success and the manufacture of musical toys increased in proportions hitherto unknown. The company also sold large quantities of musical movements for all types of toys and fancy articles to companies abroad.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1887: Fortissimo and Forte Piccolo boxes
“In 1887, it added small and large music boxes to its product range, creating the Fortissimo and Forte Piccolo boxes, which had a wonderful and very powerful sound. Its range included all kinds of music boxes, from the 5-note musical toy to the large interchangeable boxes, capable of playing an unlimited number of tunes. The Thorens products were renowned for their quality.” (Le Pays horloger).” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

~1893: G. A. Bornand was an agent in London for Thorens, c. 1893.

1895: First factory
“In 1895, the Thorens company was so successful that the workshops in the Rue des Arts were no longer adequate. Thorens bought more land and built his first factory in the Avenue des Alpes, opposite that of Mermod Frères. Numerous buildings would be added in later years, forming an industrial center. ” (Le Pays horloger).” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1896: Exhibition in Geneva
“In 1896, Hermann Thorens took part for the very first time in an exhibition. He presented his entire range of products in Geneva. It was most successful. He was awarded a gold medal (outcome of an appeal he won) for his product range covering large and small music boxes with combs made with great precision in his own workshops.” (Le Pays horloger).” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“The miniature boxes attracted special attention: “We find in the presentation of this company combs with five notes – just enough to play ‘J'ai du bon tabac’ or ‘Le Roi Dagobert’ – on cylinders of one centimeter. They are the smallest of a range, going up to 42 notes, of movements of sufficiently small dimensions to be included in a large number of objects, especially children´s toys. (Le Genevois, 2nd July 1896) ” (Le Pays horloger).” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“The large music boxes were also greatly appreciated, apparently as far as the colonies, where people liked to listen to a succession of five to six overtures, dances or other melodies in vogue on interchangeable cylinders which could be bought separately in order to build up one´s own cylindrotheque, if you could call it that.” (Le Pays horloger).” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1897: Disc playing models Edelweiss and Helvetia
“In 1897, Hermann Thorens followed Mermod Frères and Paillard in producing his own discplaying boxes, more than ten years after their creation in Leipzig. It was Louis Hössly who made the design and filed the patents attributed to his employer for the manufacture of the Edelweiss model, and then the Helvetia. Both these trade marks clearly confirmed the emphasis put on Swiss quality in relation to German and American competition.” (Le Pays horloger).” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

Exposition universelle in Paris
“In 1900, Thorens exhibited at the Exposition universelle in Paris, where he obtained another gold medal. The chairman of the jury, Louis-Philippe Mermod, paid tribute to Thorens´ contribution to the toy sector and to children´s tunes, in particular to the application of the safety device preventing the cylinder from backwinding and breaking the teeth of the comb. He added: “Among the luxury products, a plerodienique box with nonstop axial displacement, and the Edelweiss, interchangeable disc box with the interesting oscillating and lateral motion lever; the discs are moreover perfectly smooth, carefully finished, with excellent resonance and well-tuned combs. (Le Pays horloger).” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

Cantonal Exhibition in Vevey
“The following year, Hermann Thorens went to the Exhibition in Vevey, together with colleagues from Sainte-Croix. He obtained a gold medal and the congratulations of the jury.

World Exhibition in Milan
In 1906, he was at the World Exhibition in Milan, but as chairman of the jury of the musical instrument category, he did not compete. His report explained the rapid evolution of the sound reproduction instrument market and the way the three most important manufacturers of Sainte-Croix – Paillard, Mermod Frères and Thorens – adapted themselves to the market. (Le Pays horloger).” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

In 15 years Thorens produced handcrank, large cylinder and disc-playing boxes, which were of faultless technical and sound quality, then phonographs and sound recording and reproduction techniques
“In a time span of fifteen years, Thorens produced handcrank, large cylinder and disc-playing boxes, which were of faultless technical and sound quality. The economic situation forced him to progressively abandon the large boxes in favor of phonographs and sound recording and reproduction techniques, for which he would subsequently become famous.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

Zu St. Croix um 1905

1906: The phonograph sector took precedence over the music box sector
“From 1906 onwards, the phonograph sector took precedence over the music box sector, even tough the latter was never really abandoned.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“Social life: Hermann Thorens was very active within the Sociéte industrielle et commerciale. The company employed about eighty people and many more home workers, so new buildings had to be erected, in 1904 in the Avenue des Alpes, and in 1906.

In 1911, he suceeded his brother-in-law Ernest Paillard as chairman of the SIC until 1920, a period which was characterized by the biggest problems the music box industry ever experienced in its entire history.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“In 1912, Hermann Thorens started to build his family home.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

Hermann Thorens was renowned for the quality of his products, in particular for the excellence of their sound. He was a musician who had learned to play the violin, who had practiced comb-tuning and who had exercised all the trades involved in music box production. He made all the musical arrangements, adapted hundreds of tunes to the potential of the combs and to satisfy public taste. He was very responsive to any possibility of improving the instruments made in his factories and, when he was alone, he often listened to the music of his favorite composers.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1910s and 1920s: in spite of the decline of the music boxes, the company continued to develop
“In the 1910s and later, in spite of the decline of the music boxes, the company continued to develop and became part of the local industrial scenery. Naturally receptions and factory excursions were organized.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1910: fourth factory
“In the same year [1910], a fourth factory was built, just when the First World War broke out, obliging all manufacturers to close their doors on short notice. In Hermann Thorens´ words: “At that moment, we feared for our dear country; business was interrupted suddenly, there was an absolute shortage of money and above all people were afraid of going hungry. Thank God that we had lives in peace for so long and that there was work for so many workers and employees in spite of the difficulties accumulated. (Copy of SIC letter 95)” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1910–1917: New market: USA, Frédéric Thorens his cousin Albert Paillard, their agencies in the same building
“The hostilities in Europe persisted doggedly and caused the withdrawal of some of the most important buyers of Thorens products, in particular in Germany and in Russia. He had no other option but to look for new markets. This was a typical mission for Frédéric Thorens, whose background was commerce. He set off for the Unites States together with his cousin Albert Paillard. With the help of the Swiss Consul, who came from Sainte-Croix, they both opened their agencies in the same building and proceeded to establish contacts in order to find new business. Paillard managed to organize the manufacture of American gramophones for the European market, and Thorens saw potential in the sale of cigarette lighters. They came home in 1917, just when the German navy was trying to sink all traffic coming from the United States.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“Then, a short while later, came the Russian revolution. It destroyed an important part of their market. As he [Hermann Thorens] knew the situation well and could speak Russian, [...] he left for Denmark to try and solve the financial problems caused by this new situation.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

Diversification: harmonicas and lighters
“However, all these measures could not prevent the decline of the music boxes, with the result that Thorens developed the gramophone sector instead and diversified his production, hoping to optimize his machinery. He made harmonicas and lighters, which were very popular and were part of the product range for many years.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

Second Trade Fair in Lausanne (1917)
“In 1917 also, the Hermann Thorens company took part in the second Trade Fair in Lausanne, its objective being the home market.

Swiss Watch Fair Basel (1942)
Until the end of his career, Thorens would remain faithful to this national commercial event and to the Basel Fair. This consolidated his reputation for continuity, experience and quality.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“When peace returned to Europe and the first signs of economic revival began to be felt, Hermann Thorens was confronted with the social demands which became manifest throughout the continent, and also in Sainte-Croix. It was reality he found difficult to admit.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

Thorens fought tooth and nail against the new federal law limiting the working week to 48 hours
“Like his colleagues, he saw no point in responding favorably to the proposal of the newly constituted trade union to attend a meeting. Thorens was of the opinion that affairs were best dealt with on home territory, without outside intervention. Like his colleagues also, he fought tooth and nail against the adoption and the subsequent application of the new federal law limiting the working week to forty-eight hours. The timetable of the local factories was closer to fifty-nine than to fifty-five hours, there was a shortage of staff, so he could not see how it was possible to agree to forty-eight. He was convinced that the workers themselves agreed with their employers to work fifty-two hours. With this in mind, he proposed to send to the Federal Council a petition opposing the law and circulated it for signature in the factories, without much success.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“In 1919 also, Hermann Thorens had to deal with the demands oft he women cylinder-pinners´ section. , who wanted substantial wage increases. He was instrumental in finding a solution. The manufacturers having only very condenscendingly granted paltry improvements, the pinners´ protested vociferously, so Thorens consented to see Anna Lassueur, president of the pinners´ section, who argued so convincingly that a satisfactory agreement was concluded. Even though he did not tolerate any union labor in his factory, Hermann Thorens agreed to negotiate with the home workers´ section, and existing agreements were renewed as and when the context required. ” (Piguet 2004, p. 303)

“In 1924, the company did exceptionally well. They were cramped for room, and the shortage of manpower did not allow them to satisfy the demand. Hermann Thorens had shares in real estate companies which built rental buildings. He decided to build an additional factory, his fifth. A few years earlier, he had also bought buildings in the Rue de la Conversion, destined for the production of wood products. However, all this was not enough.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“At that particular time, Mermod Frères, on the opposite side of the Avenue des Alpes, was going through a difficult phase and envisaged reorganization. In the ensuring negotiations Thorens managed to acquire Mermod premises, qualified staff and machines in the immediate vicinity.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“It was not so much for the music box production that he took over the Mermod Frères premises, nor for the latter´s manufacturing experience, but rather for the gramophone sector which was expanding rapidly. The move to the new premises was accompanied by memorable “purges” when the Thorens employees – sometimes with a hint of vengefulness – destroyed the machines of their former competitor. But for those who were born when the large music boxes were at the peak of their glory, times had changed … they had to put the past behind them.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1928: Hermann Thorens SA
“A short while later, officially on 6th October 1928, the company´s trade name was modified. It became a limited company named Hermann Thorens SA, in Ste-Croix, with the objective: “transfer and operation of the Hermann Thorens factories in Ste-Croix. (Trade register)” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

Consolidating the music box sector
“In the twenties and after, Thorens devoted an essential part of its resources to research in the sound recording and reproduction field, without abandoning music boxes, in particular the models which had been successful from the beginning.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

The articles which sold the best were the round and square manivelle boxes and the organ-boxes for children, but also whatever could reasonably contain a musical movement, from decanters to shoebrushes, children´s chairs, dessert platters and tea-glasses.

The large music boxes called cartels, playing thirty-six, forty-one and fifty notes, no longer had the majestic appearance of those made thirty years earlier.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“At the beginning of the twenties, Thorens set up a research and development unit and – in direct competition with Paillard – took on the best graduates from the School of Precision Mechanics in Sainte-Croix. Even if these resources were mainly allocated to the gramophones, the music boxes were not neglected and new techniques and mechanics were developed regularly. New models were added to the product range.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“On 15th February 1937, Hermann Thorens patented a mechanism for the manivelle boxes which was not as bulky and turned out to be more economical to make. The cylinder was replaced by “a rotary disc on one side of which presents, here and there, sudden differences in level, and a comb with teeth. The teeth are directly linked to the side of the disc in question and vibrate when coming into contact with the aforementioned differences in level”. On 24th December 1940, he registered a model with a platform which could accomodate a bird setting the mechanism and the music in motion.

Various other patents were applied for in the years to follow, in particular for a mechanism which allowed a cylinder to be driven in one single direction, independently of the movement. (31st August 1949) ” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“Thorens had a well-organized distribution network, with agencies on all continents and “competent sales representatives who distributed their products all over the world”. The company had catalogs printed which presented the product range in all its finery, insisting on the Swiss brand and the quality of its musical products. “Artists, conductors, musicians and composers praise the fidelity of the musical reproduction attained by the Thorens music boxes. This does not surprise us, given that Thorens employs a famous artist for its musical arrangements. (Thorens USA 1938-39, catalog, p. 20).” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1928: more than 1,000 people employes
“In 1928, the company flourished under Hermann Thorens´ leadership. He employed more than 1,000 people in the fifteen sites under his control, in the Avenue des Alpes and in La Conversion, without counting the home workers. The attention he paid to the technical and sound quality of his products earned him the enviable position of leader in the gramophone field, and of the seven music box manufacturers surviving in 1939, he was the most important and the best known.

1936: Honorary citizenship for Hermann Thorens and his brother-in-law, Eugène Thorens
In 1936, the local authorities decided that he deserved recognition, and granted him and his brother-in-law, Eugène Thorens, honorary citizenship.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

National Exhibition in Zurich 1939
“The company, under the direction of Frédéric Thorens, participated in the National Exhibition in Zurich.

1943: Death of Hermann Thorens
Four years later, on 13th October 1943, Frédéric paid tribute to the founder. “Hermann Thorens left his office only when he was at the end of his strenght, in his 87th year, sad that he could no longer carry out his tasks, and after sixty years of uninterrupted activity. He was an undisputed and much respected leader, hard on himself, enemy of compromise. He did not have a very sound constitution but through sheer force of will and sobriety, he accomplished a long career.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)


A family affair
“The company was under the general management of Frédéric Thorens, who succeeded his father at the Société industrielle et commerciale which he chaired for thirty-one years, from 1932 to 1963. While in office, he had to deal with the same type of problems his father had in the early thirties during the world economic crisis and in 1939 during the Second World War, when he had to fight to ensure distribution and payment of his products in countries at war. For him it was one challenge after another, for example the thirteen containers of music boxes confiscated at Bellegarde in 1944 by the German army and shipped to Paris for investigation because they were suspected of containing secret weapons.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1945: company representatives travelled all over the world to reestablish contacts with clients in America and in Europe
“At the end of the war, in 1945, company representatives travelled all over the world to reestablish contacts with clients in America and in Europe.

In the music box sector, Jules Mellana discovered London. The city was recovering from the devastation of war and was still under serve restrictions; Jean-Paul Thorens visited the Ruhr destroyed by the bombing and Cologne where the only thing still standing was the cathedral, a situation of which the Swiss were blissfully unaware. However, it was in those areas that the market for small music boxes started up again, thanks to the American army which was instrumental in promoting musical products. The soldiers were looking for typical souvenirs to take home, so why not buy a music box? Thorens supplied them by the crateful to army headquarters.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“Thorens at the time had a very efficient production system capable of responding to the strong postwar demand. In 1946, the company employed nearly 900 workers and 250 home workers. These figures confirm the importance of the music box sector in those days. The following year, Thorens bought an industrial building in Crissier and installed its research and development department there, as well as the production of harmonicas and accordion reeds.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

“On 12th June 1952, the company statutes were modified to create Thorens SA, whose objective it was “to manufacture and distribute devices to record and reproduce sound, and radios, music boxes, harmonicas, lighters and all kinds of mechanical products. (Trade register).” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

1945's: Jean-Paul Thorens general manger
“Around the mid-forties, Jean-Paul Thorens became general manger of the company. It continued its traditional production, but at the beginning of the 1960s, it ran into serious financial problems. Even though demand on world markets remained high, the music box sector came up against strong competition. Prices no longer covered the high overheads of a company which continued investing in high-standard technical developments. It looked as if short-term restructuring was the only solution. In 1963, it so happened that Paillard, on account of the overwhelming success of the Bolex movie cameras, did not have adequate resources in staff and premises to meet production demands.

24th December 1963: Paillard SA took over the assets and liabilities of Thorens SA, including staff, premises and patents
The Thorens and Paillard families had known one another for ages, they were after all related. Negotiations were soon under way, and on 24th December 1963, Paillard SA took over the assets and liabilities of Thorens SA, including staff, premises and patents.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

In 1963, Paillard took over Thorens [...] But Paillard was only interested in premises and staff, so they sold the music box part to Jean-Paul Thorens, who continued production with Mélodies SA.
(Piguet 2004, p. 276-285)


Paillard immediately reorganized its workshops in order to accomodate the manufacture of movie cameras. They did not take over the music box sector which Paillard had abandoned forty years earlier. […] Those were difficult months for the employees who had been used to a certain corporate culture and ended up being considered as a mere commodity. Jules Mellana, [later chef de fabrication chez Thorens], who was operating manager at the time, in charge of the liquidation of the record-player section, had bitter memories of those days. All hopes of a takeover were abandoned when he was asked to collect all the drawings and sent them to the company which had bought the rights, to continue production … elsewhere.” (Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

50 million Thorens musical movements
That was the end of a company which had made a major contribution to the excellent renown of the sound reproduction devices in Sainte-Croix, from children´s music boxes to recording equipment, whose quality had always been highly appreciated. Hermann Thorens devoted his life to music boxes and to music. He was the life and soul of a company whose workshops in Sainte-Croix turned out no less than 50 million musical movements.
(Piguet 2004, p. 297-306)

(Saluz, Klangkunst, S. 53)

Teilnehmer an der Uhrenmesse Basel 1946

Exhibition at the Swiss Watch Fair Basel 1947
In Basel in 1947, Reuge exhibited together with Paillard, Thorens and Robert Breitler.

1985: Jean-Paul Thorens sells to Reuge
“Jean-Paul Thorens, who was a jack-of-all-trades
in the company and supervised administration as well as production, was nearing retirement age. He could therefore no longer see much future in this type of activity. He understood that his son did not show any interest in the business, and so the time had come to hand over the reins. He decided to sell the company to Reuge, which had excellent reasons to be interested. On 18th march 1985, the general assembly of Mélodies SA consecrated the takeover by Reuge SA and some time later, the move to the Lador SA premises took place, the latter company having been bought out also. This made Reuge the most important manufacturer of music boxes. With this operation, it killed two birds with one stone. First, Reuge got its hands on a prestigious brand name and, secondly, it took over the most interesting part of production – that of the small disc boxes, thus becoming the sole manufacturer. In addition, the operation allowed them to fill a gap in their product range“  (Piguet 2004, p. 263-264)

Eugène Thorens. Ste-Croix, Switzerland. Was manager of the Paillard factory during the 1880s and was the brother-in-law of Ernest Paillard. Was a musical-box maker in his own right. (Ord-Hume, Musical Boxes, p. 333)

Hermann Thorens. Avenue des Alpes, Ste-Croix, Switzerland. Established in 1881 as a manufacturer of musical boxes, mainly small disc and cylinder movements, including the Edelweiss and Helvetia disc machines which appeared in a variety of sizes. Business finally taken over by Paillard after the 1939-45 war, and finally Paillard itself was taken over by the Austrian Eumig concern. Jean Paul Thorens now has a small factory in L ´Auberson and produces musical movements under the trade name Mélodies S.A. (Ord-Hume, Musical Boxes, p. 333)

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Abbildung einer Leiermannes auf der Musiktafel ()
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Bellamy, Music Makers of Switzerland, (2015), p. 6