As we all know, Switzerland is the home of watchmaking. However, before the Swiss took over the watch industry, French and British dominated the industry, and the challenge came from Japan and America. How did the Swiss overcome all these obstacles and become the superpower in the watch industry? Let us dive in and see how they conquer the watch world.
How Watchmaking Got Into Switzerland
In 1598, by the time the king of France—Henri IV ended the war between Protestants and Roman Catholics in France by embracing Roman Catholicism and the religious toleration of the Huguenots guaranteed by the Edict of Nantes, many watchmakers were Huguenots. With the war ended, they all gathered at Burgundy-Franche-Comté, which later became the true cradle of European watchmaking.
However, in 1685, with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Protestant worship was banned, temples were destroyed and many Protestants (including the Huguenots) were forced into exile. There was a massive emigration of French watchmakers to Switzerland, taking knowledge and manufacturing secrets along with them. The consequences were disastrous for France, where many talented artisans and teachers fled.
(The French Wars of Religion)
Before the revocation (Edict of Nantes), Geneva only had around 100 watch manufacturers and 300 watchmakers, with an annual production of 5000 pocket watches. However, after the revocation, the number raises rapidly to 6000 watchmakers, with an annual production of 50000.
At the same time, Geneva specialized in enamel. The combination of enamel and watches did not only help the Swiss make aesthetic watches, but also resulted in higher performance, making the Swiss more competitive in the watch industry.
In 1789, the French Revolution ended. With the decline of the aristocracy, the French economy collapsed. Many luxury watch manufacturers in France started to shut down one by one. On the other hand, Swiss watches based on low prices began to prevail. With orders soaring from France, many watchmakers in Geneva decided to outsource the production of parts, and the contractors were the farmers coming from the Vallée de Joux.
La Vallée de Joux, a valley localized at a high altitude of 1000 meters, with its long winter covered in snow, away from dust and isolated from the city, became the perfect place for making watches. For instance, BREGUET, BLANCPAIN and PATEK operate their factories there.
The Construction of Switzerland
As we all know, many buildings in Switzerland are perfect for watchmakers to work, but why and how are those buildings perfect for them? To answer these questions, we must talk about a city—La Chaux-de-Fonds.
La Chaux-de-Fonds is one of the most famous watchmaking towns in Switzerland. It is located at 1000 meters of altitude near the French border, with a population of 39,000 people. It is the third largest city in the Swiss French-speaking circle. Although it can be regarded as a modern city in Switzerland, transportation still needs to be improved due to its location in the mountains.
To understand how La Chaux-de-Fonds became a watchmaking center and flourished in Switzerland, we must go back to the 17th century.
In the 17th century, La Chaux-de-Fonds was a well-known horse production place; buyers from all areas went there to purchase horses. One of them is Daniel Jean-Richard, a blacksmith who was given the opportunity and ability to help people repair pocket watches.
The pocket watches kept by businessmen were all made with the latest and most advanced technology at that time. The young Daniel Shangweicha quickly understood the mechanical structure of pocket watches, and soon he was able to make pocket watches by himself. This crafting technology gradually spread out in La Chaux-de-Fonds, and formed a specialized industry. After that, the town began to undertake outsourcing business from the Geneva watch factory, and the scale of the industry grew larger. By the middle of the 18th century, one-third of the population was engaged in watch-related industries.
However, in 1794, much of La Chaux-de-Fonds was destroyed in a fire. To rebuild their home, people at that time decided to redevelop the town and concentrate on watchmaking only.
Based on the slope facing south, the blocks were planned as a checkerboard distribution, with 3- and 4-storey buildings side by side, and courtyards must be set up on the southern side of the buildings; The watchmakers’ studios must also be placed in a position where the sun could shine on. To allow the interior of the building to receive sufficient sunlight during the winter solstice, it should not be built too high in order to resist the cold weather of the highlands. Large windows were also installed, those are also an architectural feature here. Such a construction of the watchmaking "city" being exclusive to the watchmakers has brought the watchmaking industry of La Chaux-de-Fonds back to life, and its development has become better than ever.
After that, many cities in Switzerland used La Chaux-de-Fonds as a reference for new constructions, such as the reconstruction of Geneva in 1871.
(Photo of La Chaux-de-Fonds)
The Napoleon War
After the third and fourth Coalition wars in 1807 with Napoleon victory, Napoleon announced the Continental System that totally shut out the UK from continental trade. It left the UK no choice but to increase their trades with other parts of the world like America.
At that time, the center of watchmaking began to move from Great Britain to Switzerland. Sturdy watches made in England dominated the industry until the late 18th century, with a production of two hundred thousand watches per annum. However, with the Continental System, English watches had failed to keep up with constantly changing technology. As a result, they surrendered their commercial supremacy to the new styles and methods that were pioneered in Europe.
The adoption carried out by Continental watchmakers, Jean-Antoine Lépine innovative caliber, enabled European watchmakers to produce increasingly slim watches, and the beginning of the industrialization of the production of basic components in Switzerland by the likes of Frédéric Japy, and later Antoine LeCoultre, meant that watches could be made with increasing precision.
(Jean-Antoine Lépine innovative caliber, an innovation that revolutionized watchmaking)
At the time, people in Switzerland started to hop into the watch industry. In the middle of the 18th century, five thousand of the city's twenty-five thousand inhabitants worked in the watch trade. By the early years of the 19th century, almost half of Geneva's citizens worked in the watchmaking industry, and annual production had increased from around 5,000 to 100,000.
It was during this period, Geneva's watchmaking began to take shape as a systemic and codified set of craft skills, within a system known as the "Fabrique". This was a term that described a way of working as much as a physical location: a structure at the top of which sat the établisseur, who organized the construction chain beginning with the baseplates (which at that time came from the Jura), and supervised the assembly of the components in Genevois cabinets, the light-flooded workshops at the very top of buildings, where master watchmakers, or cabinotiers, sat at benches unimpeded by any shadows cast by neighbouring buildings, and uninterrupted by noise from the streets below.
The Great Exhibition
In 1851, it was the time for Switzerland to shine and show their watches to the world.
The Great Exhibition was one of the defining events of the nineteenth century. It was hosted to present the works of industry of all Nations of 1851. Conceived by His Royal Highness, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, the Great Exhibition demonstrated his limitless appetite for technological and moral improvement.
The official descriptive and illustrated catalogue of the event lists exhibitors from throughout Britain and its "Colonies and Dependencies" and 44 "Foreign States". Numbering 13,000 in total, the exhibits included a Jacquard loom, an envelope machine, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays, and a reaping machine that was sent from the United States.
Nevertheless, watchmakers' works were presented at the Great Exhibition. The Swiss national area in the south transept of the glass and iron cathedral of commerce bristled with a pleasingly heterogeneous group of exhibits that included everything from a "wooden leg, used either for amputation above or below the knee; with girdle and straps" to a lady's "mechanical writing desk carved with scenes representing the rustic economy and alpine life of the inhabitants of Switzerland."
At the Swiss section, the display was nothing if not comprehensive, including plain watches, repeaters, self-acting clockwork watches, tact watches (intended for the blind), watches equipped with independent seconds hands and date hands, also those with insulated sea-compasses, spy-glasses, secret compartments, and extra plates, likewise, watches called "à triple effet', capable of being transformed into three different shapes. The smallest watch ever constructed, the diameter of its works being no more than three and three-quarter lines, about three-tenths of an English inch.
Patek also sold his watches at the end of the exhibition. It was about the size of a child's fingernail and decorated with a tiny enamel painting of a wild rose. It was bought by the renowned London firm Dent for the remarkable sum of £150 (which is £19,710 today). This was evidence of how the Swiss manufacturers were eclipsing the once dominant British watch trade.
(The Great Exhibition in 1951)
In August 1951, both H.M. Queen Victoria and H.R.H. Prince Albert purchased a Patek Philippe during the visit to the Exhibition. The Queen selected a dainty blue enamel watch, No. 4719, with floral engraving, while her husband chose a suitably masculine, heavy, gold, hunter-cased chronometer with a repeater mechanism, watch No. 3218, which benefited from the firm's much-lauded stem-winding system.
(The pendant watch, No.4719, was purchased from Patek Philippe by Queen Victoria. The caseback features a flower bouquet set with rose-cut diamonds on a sky-blue enamel background.)
Challenges From America
America was a huge country and news of the spectacular gold found that led to the Great California Gold Rush of 1849, which had filtered back to the Old World. As a result, in the early 1850s, agents from Swiss watch companies went to the major port cities of America's eastern seaboard.
However, at the same time, America was fully industrialised. As Patek once wrote, "I visited the new watch factory in Waltham, a large building was erected, everything there is steam operated with twelve horsepower, I saw stone holes thus set, in this same manner they turn the tiniest pivots, etc." Patek was fascinated by what he saw at Waltham, where parts were made with such precision that they were entirely interchangeable, with a production of 100,000 annually. Indeed, he was witnessing the birth of the American mass production of timepieces, which would provoke another watchmaking crisis in Switzerland within a couple of decades.
To combat this, Geneva's watchmaking industry had various measures instituted to protect and strengthen the position of Swiss manufacturers regarding the American competition. The Observatory rate trial was one of the most important "weapons" in this fightback.
Chronometer testing by observatories had begun out of necessity in the eighteenth-century Greenwich Observatory, England. A system was devised to replace lengthy sea trials of the timepieces that were necessary for precise navigation. Using standardized mathematical procedures and placing the timepiece in various positions, a reliable result could be achieved without the chronometer needing to be left in a dry environment. Only when the threat from America began to be taken seriously did the cantonal authorities create some form of external technical validation that would be a useful marketing tool. In 1873, the Geneva Observatory began hosting precision competitions.
(Above is a first-class rating certificate awarded by the Geneva Observatory in 1896)
The Geneva Seal was (and still is) used as the seal of authenticity for any Geneva-made watch. Any watch that carries it has had the movement made by a Genevois craftsman in the Canton of Geneva.
This wasn’t the only anti-counterfeiting measure implemented at the end of the 19th Century, the well-known seal of quality, “Swiss Made” started to appear around 1880 – even though it had no legal status at this point.
With new seals of quality in effect, the quality Swiss watchmakers were ready to stand out from the crowd.
(The Geneva Seal)
World War One
The First World War, from 1914 to 1918, is undoubtedly one of the most influential military conflicts in shaping the modern world, and the world of horology.
Switzerland maintained its neutrality in World War I. Still, the conflict has engendered heavy tensions between the Germanophone Swiss and their French- and Italian-speaking compatriots—the result of each group’s cultural identification with the combatants—and cast a heavy burden on the working class. As part of the militia army, they were mobilized for long periods to guard Swiss borders, but they have received no compensation for their loss of wages. Moreover, the working class was also hurt by the government’s decision to finance defense efforts by issuing currency, which caused a surge in inflation. Some Swiss did profit from the war, as the country’s persistent balance-of-payments deficit was reversed for the first time. One of them was watchmaking industries’ furnished goods to both belligerent camps. Meanwhile, farmers have benefited from increasing demand and prices.
At that time, Switzerland supplied watches to the Axis and Allied countries but mostly were watch parts because many soldiers on the front line preferred their own country’s production instead of foreign goods. Therefore, watch parts would be made and delivered to those countries (Axis and Allies). After that, they would assemble the watches by themselves and distribute them to the front line.
Little fun fact, the concept of skeleton and openwork watches was invented during WW1 as watchmakers were forced to join the battle. They would disassemble their watch in order to use those parts for repairing guns and gears for survival, as life in the trench was always a lack of supplies with awful conditions as well.
(Life in trench)
World War Two
Again, Switzerland remained neutral in World War Two even after the fall of France in 1940. This helped stabilize the Swiss watchmaking industry.
There were lots of reasons why the Germans did not invade Switzerland. One of them is that Switzerland was considered part of Germany's territory. Swiss companies produced weapons for German forces. Although staying neutral and independent, the Swiss supplied 10 times more weapons, military technology and watches to the Axis than the Allies. The British once planned to bomb Switzerland, but fortunately, it did not happen.
Switzerland was also the bank of Germany. As Swiss sociologist and political scientist Jean Ziegler once said “Hitler was crazy, but not crazy enough to attack his own banker”.
Because of these reasons Switzerland remained neutral in the war and established a stable environment for watchmakers to continue their work in the watch industry.
(At the time there are 430,000 soldiers in Switzerland equipped with advanced weapon)
Swiss watches were in high demand after World War 2. As the Swiss government had issued the policy of neutrality during the war, the manufacturing industry in Switzerland had not been forced to produce items to support any war effort while it was the situation in their main competing countries – Japan and the United States.
When the war was over, the American watchmakers needed time to go back for watch production.
Germany was under the Soviet and Allies occupation. At that time, most of the German watch brands were under Soviet control, like Lange & Söhne and Glashütte Original, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Japan was also busy with reconstruction after the Allies had bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with two atomic bombs.
With the absence of any real competition, Swiss manufacturers took complete control of the watch market. By the end of the 1960s, Swiss manufacturers had made up 50% of the watch market worldwide.
The Quartz Crisis
1969 was an important year for the watch industry, Zenith introduced the El Primero, the first automatic chronograph caliber in the world. It beats at an astonishing, ultra-high frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour, much higher than the standard rate, providing unrivaled precision. Tag Heuer also released one of the iconic watches at that time, Tag Heuer Monaco, but the more important one was the release of Seiko Quartz Astron.
At that period of time, the most precise mechanical watch was -2/+2 seconds per day. However, the Seiko Quartz Astron was -5/+5 seconds per month!
(Seiko Quartz Astron)
In fact, in 1973, the total production of Swiss watches was 84.3 million. On the other hand, Japan had only 28 million. However, with the marketing and strategy of Seiko, the total production of Japanese watches was finally higher than the Swiss for the first time in history in 1979.
It was a disaster for the Swiss. Many factories and brands were forced to shut down. Before 1969, there were 150,000 watchmakers in Switzerland, but there were only less than 30,000 watchmakers after the Seiko release. This left many watchmakers no choice but to put down their tools, pick up the ladders and change their careers to be construction workers.
In addition, due to the increased value of Swiss francs at that time and being affected by the exchange rate difference, many watches became more expensive than ever. Therefore, people shifted their focus to cheap and affordable quartz watches.
Still, some watch brands stick to mechanical instead of obedience to quartz. This helped the Swiss mechanical watch to be reborn after the quartz crisis.
The Reborn of Switzerland
Many theories show how Swiss mechanical watches became mainstream again after the quartz crisis. One reason is that most watch brands that survived the crisis were luxury watch brands. All the mechanical watches at that time were created by those brands, which mainly focused on complication, polishing, design, etc.
In 1988, Guinness World Records magazine also used Ulysse Nardin Astrolabium Galileo Galilei as its cover, and the mechanical watches were in the spotlight again.
With the end of the quartz crisis, people started to appreciate mechanical craftsmanship again. The Swiss slowly recovered and created beautiful watch pieces after the crisis, again establishing their position in the watch industry.
(Ulysse Nardin Astrolabium Galilieo Galiliei)
The more I dive into history, the more I find it just never ends. I started my research of horology history back in 2021 when I was 17. I have created some YouTube videos to share my research of horology history, like “A Brief History of Watch Moonphase”. This is the very first time I have written a blog. This blog is not fully complete, as much history and interesting stories still need to be revealed. I will keep researching and updating this blog if I find something new. I will also share my research on “How Ancient People Read Time” in the future.
Big thanks to Freya Leung for correcting all my grammatical mistakes on this blog. Many thanks to her.