Swiss brands are looked at being the gold standard for what has become great horology in the world. Perhaps not the best, as some would argue that Japan’s Grand Seiko and Credor have surpassed any Swiss brand in many categories (a debate which we will not have here today, sorry!)—but perhaps really good horology. After all, Switzerland is where the most known and sought after brands herald from—Rolex, Omega, Audemars Piguet, Jaeger Lecoultre, Patek Philippe and many more—which begs the following existential question: why? Just like French people are known for making some of the most refined food in the world, Germans for making the best steel and machinery, and Japan for the most exquisite art, the Swiss are known as being “the watch people of the world.”
In this article, we’ll take a quick look at the history of watchmaking in Switzerland, what factors prompted so many brands to establish camp there, and what the situation is today.
Watchmaking Before Switzerland
A lot has been written about the history of watchmaking. To give you a bite-size look at what is seemingly a very long history, I’ll be sharing a few quick facts which I hope will help put things in context. Watchmaking has been around for a long time, as early as prehistoric England. Before mechanical watches, people used sundials, water clocks, and finally clock towers to keep track of time. (This is an extremely short summary of the fascinating book A Brief History of Timekeeping by Chad Orzel.) The first portable mechanical clock dates back to 1509 and was created by German watchmaker Peter Henlein. The country was the first one to develop what could have been ancestors to the first wristwatches in the early to mid 1500s. The creation of the first wristwatch is attributed to Abraham-Louis Breguet (know this guy?) in 1810.
Phew, that was indeed very condensed!
Religious Persecution Started the Swiss Watch Industry
It all started with the Reformation in the early 1510s, a critical event in the history of Europe which split Western Christianity into Protestants and Roman Catholics. In 1917, Martin Luther, a German theologist, published his *95 Theses* criticizing certain practices of the Catholic Church. This started years of horrendous religious persecutions against Protestants by the Catholic church which led German and French protestants to flee to neutral Switzerland. (The latter has always found ways of remaining neutral during European conflicts.) The German and French protestants—being called the Huguenots—brought with them their expertise in watchmaking to Geneva, a city which welcomed them with open arms.
However, when the protestants arrived in Geneva, they were met with John Calvin’s—then the prominent figure of Swiss Protestantism—strict rules on austere living. In a nutshell, Swiss citizens were forbidden to wear ostentatious and luxury jewelry, and the prosperous jewelry and goldsmithing industries from the cities had to shut down. This left Switzerland, and Geneva in particular, with many unemployed skilled workers. Calvin’s ban, however, did not include portable clocks so the Swiss switched to watchmaking, where they could apply their legendary expertise to other small objects which were becoming in higher demand.
The Evolution of Watchmaking in Switzerland
For about a century, Swiss watchmakers developed unique techniques to create more refined and unique decorations on their watches. The Swiss were mostly known for making beautiful, well-made, and elegant pocket watches. However, Great Britain was where all innovations were coming from, including the balance spring, lever escapement, and unique tools to increase the production speed of watch manufactures. So the Swiss had to step up their game and, in the 1700s, created a decentralized manufacturing process. While the French, British, and Germans were making all parts and assembling the watches in-house, the Swiss opened multiple manufactures, each specializing in making specific watch parts, the latter which would then be assembled elsewhere. This made it possible for Switzerland to become the country manufacturing the most watches in all of Europe.
With that said, Swiss watchmakers wanted to enter the American market. The United States already had prominent watch brands, however they did not rival with the Swiss in terms of finish and refinement, and the Swiss in turn were mesmerized by American’s efficient and ultra developed manufacturing technologies. Therefore, the Swiss found ways to adapt the American entrepreneurial and manufacturing techniques to their higher skilled watchmaking techniques and jewelry-making background. The result was the consolidation of Swiss watch brands' facilities so that most of the watch parts would be made in-house and that the watches would also be assembled in-house.
If I had more time—much more time—I would have talked about specific innovations created by Swiss watchmakers and how they impacted the industry as a whole. The topic of how Switzerland became the world’s center for horology, however, has always fascinated me. Many question the country’s role today as being one of innovation or conservatism, and regardless of how we look at things, it is interesting to know how the Swiss watch industry came to be. In a nutshell, religious persecutions moved skilled watchmakers from France and Germany to Switzerland where austere rules of everyday living prompted Swiss jewelry makers and goldsmiths to find new career paths. There is no question that Switzerland still plays an important role today, however other countries are following suit, for example Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and, yes, China.Featured image: www.iflwatches.com