The history of the Swiss watch industry
courtesy by Richard first class watches
The Swiss weren’t the first to make clocks small enough to carry around, that distinction goes to Germany. The first miniaturised clocks which could realistically be called watches were created somewhere between 1509 and 1530 (the earliest known watch was made in 1530) by Peter Henlein in Nuremberg. At over 3 inches long, the clocks were portable enough to be worn as items of clothing, but a little too big to fit in a pocket. At the time, being incredibly rare and expensive, they were limited to being owned by the nobility.
The Swiss watch industry started shortly afterwards , as the reformation started to change Western Europe (the religious revolution which started in 1517 by Martin Luther), the French Wars of Religion led to widespread persecution of the Huguenots (French protestants). Many Huguenots fled the persecution in France and entered Switzerland, bringing their clock and watch making skills to Geneva. This influx of skilled refugees helped transform the reputation of Geneva into a city known for its high quality watchmaking.
A huge revolution was already underway in Geneva at the time, led by John Calvin. The revolution in Geneva was heavily influenced by the reformation and made it a great place for Huguenots to integrate into the city. This revolution was also a perfect breeding ground for the clocks and watches which were being developed in Geneva.
As part of the changes Calvin was making in Geneva, there was much heavier regulation into people’s lives. Despite being well known for the Jewellery which was produced by the skilled goldsmiths in the city, wearing Jewellery was forbidden in Calvin’s Geneva. This destroyed the businesses of all of the goldsmiths and enamellers in Geneva, who steadily turned towards watchmaking. Goldsmiths and enamellers in Geneva, who had the expertise in beautiful design and craft, worked with the skilled Huguenots who had the knowledge and technique to create clocks and watches.
Finally, when the amount of regulation in Geneva was relaxed — around the end of the 17th Century, the city was known for its watchmaking expertise. Now that people were allowed to wear Jewellery again, the watchmaking expertise could be paired up with the decorative art that the city was traditionally known for. In a short time the Swiss watches produced in Geneva were not just known for their skill and quality watchmaking, but also for their beauty.Of course, at this point, despite a good reputation — Swiss watches were not yet the standard by which all other watches would be judged. In fact, during the 18th Century, that label would probably be applied to watches produced in Britain.
Pocket watches were very popular in Britain at the time, the reason for this is usually attributed to the introduction of waistcoats. Because of this popularity, there was a lot of time and effort invested in the development of watches. Developments in manufacturing, including the tooth-cutting machine — which was devised by Robert Hooke, helped increase the volume of watches produced. While the inventions of the balance spring (arguably invented in the Netherlands by Christiaan Huygens), chronometers and the lever escapement helped increase the accuracy and quality of watches. Specifically in Britain, innovations from James Cox, John Harrison and George Graham paved the way for the kind of mechanical movements you see today.
Whilst the British appeared to lead the way in innovation around this time, a lot of work was going on in Switzerland. Watchmaking spread across the Jura mountains, where the industry flourished. It wasn’t just innovation and excellence in terms of the watches developed, but also in the way watches were produced.
Much of the early innovation in the Jura mountains came from Daniel Jeanrichard, a goldsmith who was the first to apply the division of labour to the watchmaking industry. By using this to increase efficiency and standardisation he was able to increase production volume and quality. By the end of 1790 Geneva was already exporting over 60,000 watches!
Today Jeanrichard is considered the “founder of the watchmaking industry in the canton of Neuchâtel.”
More Swiss innovations came about over the following years. Abraham-Louis Perrelet created the “perpetual” watch in 1770, this watch was the forerunner to the modern self-winding watch. Adrien Philippe, one of the founders of the well respected brand Patek Philippe, invented the pendant winding watch. The fly-back hand was developed in the Jura mountains around this time, too.
You also cannot forget the invention of the tourbillon by Swiss-born Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1795 (patented in 1801). One of the most incredible pieces of high-quality watchmaking expertise, although not one which is, or ever has been affordable enough for most people to own!
The invention which allowed the Swiss to gain control of the watch industry wasn’t actually developed in Switzerland at all. In the 1760’s French watchmaker Jean-Antoine Lépine invented a simplified flat calibre which became known as the Lépine calibre. This calibre allowed the development of smaller, thinner pocket watches. Horological historian David Christianson explained how this ended Britain’s dominance of the watch industry -“At that time, men’s fashion — thin trousers, waistcoats — demanded a nonbulky watch case… and the Brits weren’t willing to thin their watches.”
Jean-Antoine Lépine was part of the French watchmaking industry — in fact, serving as watchmaker to Louis XV, Louis XVI and Napoleon Bonaparte. However, his invention helped to create the Swiss watchmaking powerhouse which was set to dominate the industry and almost destroyed the French watchmaking industry.
In the early 1800’s the Lépine calibre was adapted to factory production by French watchmaker Frédérick Japy. This development favoured Swiss watchmakers more than it did the French as Swiss farmers and peasants would spend their winter months making watch components for firms in Geneva. As further technology was implemented for mass-production, Swiss watchmakers were able to produce watches at much higher volumes than their rivals.
On top of that, the mass-production which was embraced in Switzerland was completely rejected in France. English and French watchmakers were unable to compete with the volume or price of mass-produced Swiss watches. The English watch industry almost collapsed at the end of the 1800’s and the French industry only just survived with a small number of indivuduals creating quality authentically-French timepieces.
The way Swiss watches were developed was incredibly different to that used by their European neighbours. Jérôme Lambert, chief executive of Montblanc, thinks that the way the Swiss watch industry developed was a natural extension of Switzerland as a country. “As a country, Switzerland is very decentralized. Every valley has an owner or organization that has a dynamic, small city centre,” he explained. “That created a very natural extension of the traditional watchmaking way. It was not the same case in England, Germany or France, where it was very much centralized in big cities.”
Swiss watch manufacturers used a watchmaking system called établissage, which allowed them to develop watches much faster than any of their rivals. According to WorldTempus, this means “A procedure for manufacturing the watch and/or movement by assembling its various component parts. It usually involves the following operations: acceptance, inspection and storage of the Èbauches, regulating organs and other parts for the movement and exterior; assembly; timing; fitting the dial and hands; casing; final inspection before packaging and dispatching.”
In practise this means that different parts of the watch would be manufactured in different places, then assembled by the manufacturers to create the finished timepiece. Which is something that is still embraced by the lower priced Swiss watch manufacturers today with parts developed in the far east then assembled in Switzerland. By using this system, the pace of Swiss watch manufacturing increased in an almost unbelievable fashion. In 1800, both Switzerland and Britain produced 200,000 timepieces, in 1850 Switzerland were able to produce 2,200,000 — while Britain produced little more than 200,000.
However, at this time a higher volume of Swiss timepieces did not mean higher quality. In the same way that countries like China and Thailand are able to create a huge number of watch components cheaply and quickly today, quantity doesn’t always mean quality. Many Swiss watches would look just like watches manufactured in France or Britain, albeit with lower prices and wider availability. But the quality wouldn’t match up to the handmade originals. This strategy worked for a while, but was disastrous when they attempted to break the lucrative American market, who were having a watchmaking boom of their own (which we will cover in a future blog post). They flooded the market with cheap Swiss watches which were widely considered to be “junk” by Americans.
Despite the Swiss history of quality, if it had not implemented American — and in particular the Waltham Watch Company who invented the American System of Watch Manufacturing — optimised production processes, it’s very likely that Switzerland would not be the watchmaking powerhouse we know them to be today.
There were quality Swiss companies still putting out great quality watches, but they were eclipsed in number during the mid-1800’s by companies churning out cheap, low-quality watches. Over in America the optimised production process ensured that all watches were reliable, but they lacked the historical watch-making know-how and beauty of Swiss watches.
In 1868 Florentine A. Jones moved from America to Switzerland and founded the International Watch Company (IWC). This was an early company who succeeded in combining Swiss know-how and American production. It was also the start of some Swiss companies moving away from établissage and bringing all of their production in house. Longines, for example, brought their operations in house in 1866 and employed over 1,100 workers within 45 years.
By moving away from watch pieces being produced around the country then quickly assembled and towards optimised in-house production, the Swiss watch industry were able to keep production numbers high and retain their reputation for quality. Of course, none of this would be possible if it wasn’t for research and inventions from Pierre-Frédéric Ingold and Georges-Auguste Léschot. Léschot is the most well-known of the two men — he invented one of the first machines to manufacture various parts of watches in order to obtain interchangeable parts.
Ingold is less known, but in some ways, probably more important. Ingold was involved in the development of a lot of quality French watches of the early-1800’s as an apprentice to Abraham-Louis Breguet, but his lasting innovation came in the machines used to mass-produce watches. In the 1830’s Ingold believed that watchmaking had gone as far as it could in the 19th Century without some kind of mechanisation. Because the machinery didn’t exist yet, Ingold decided to make it himself.
Ingold developed machinery to produce plates with sinks and jewel seats, machines for barrels and even more watch parts. He moved to England where his attempts to bring machine-manufactured watches were opposed by the establishment, leading him to move to the United States where his inventions had a huge influence on watch factories in the Boston area.
After returning to France and then Switzerland he continued to invent. Many of his inventions and techniques were implemented, — like the “Ingold fraise” (which is used to correct the profile of gear-wheel teeth) and a new type of a escapement he created in 1852. These inventions and techniques were vital in allowing the Swiss industry to move towards in-house optimised production. Ingold’s influence in America was vitally important in changing the Swiss industry, just as much as his inventions in Switzerland were important in allowing the industry to change.
Despite the number lower quality Swiss watchmakers flooding the market, many Geneva watchmakers still held a good reputation. Unfortunately, with that reputation came a lot of people wanting to make some quick money out of it for themselves. So, it’s no surprise that counterfeiting took place on a large scale, especially in a country full to the brim with watchmakers. In order to combat the counterfeiting, the Society of Watchmakers pushed the parliament of the Republic and the Canton of Geneva to pass a law setting out the conditions for an authentic Geneva-made watch.
The Geneva Seal was (and still is) used as the seal of authenticity for any Geneva-made watch. Any watch which carries it has had the movement made by a Genevoise craftsman in the Canton of Geneva. This wasn’t the only anti-counterfeiting measure which was put into place at the end of the 19th Century. The well known seal of quality “Swiss Made” started to appear around 1880 — although 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 concept for wristwatches had been around for almost as long as pocket watches, but they were never really taken seriously as a product of their own. In fact, Queen Elizabeth was presented with an “arm watch” from the Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, in 1571.Even though a watch worn on the arm appears all the way back in 1571, the Guiness Book of Records credits Patek Philippe with the creation of the first wristwatch — in 1868. This watch was designed for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary.
The truth is that nobody knows when the first wristwatch was ever created. Chances are, the first one appeared when someone decided to affix a strap to a pocket watch and put it on their arm. It’s also just as likely that the first one ever sold only came about because an aspiring watchmaker saw it and decided to exactly the same thing themselves (as Professor Jaquet and Doctor Chapuis, not-entirely-seriously, suggested in the Technique and History of the Swiss Watch). But no matter who actually made the first wristwatch, the Swiss helped bring mass appeal to them. In doing so they achieved worldwide recognition, even more so than Swiss watches had ever known before!
There were a few issues to overcome in order to gain mass appeal for wristwatches. Firstly, making them small while keeping them accurate was not easy in the 19th century. And, even if someone managed to make a watch which was small and accurate — people wouldn’t trust it. The general perception of watch buyers was that a watch needed to be a certain size to be accurate. Secondly, wristwatches are susceptible to hazards that pocket watches aren’t. To simplify it right down — pocket watches are unlikely to get splashed with water or covered in dust when they’re in your pocket, but it is likely when they are on your wrist. If either of those things happened to your watch, it could very easily break the components inside the watch. Finally, watches were seen as incredibly effeminate, which meant that men were very unlikely to buy them. A quote which sums this up is this one from the the Albuquerque Journal: “The fellow who wears a wrist-watch is frequently suspected of having lace on his lingerie, and of braiding his hair at night.”
Of course, this perception is not really a surprise as most previous wristwatches were made for women at this time. Most of them were called “bracelet watches” and were incredibly beautiful, as well as very feminine.
The only time men would have been noticed wearing wristwatches will have been in the military, because it is much easier to check the time on a watch on your wrist than a watch in your pocket. So, how could that change? It changed in stages as watchmakers started to make purpose-built wristwatches. A wristwatch design was patented by Dimier Frères & Cie (watches with handles) in 1903. In 1904 Alberto Santos-Dumont, an aviator, asked Louis Cartier to design a watch which would be useful in flights — which unsurprisingly was one which he would wear on his wrist.
One of the biggest changes actually happened in Britain, but via Switzerland. It happened when Hans Wilsdorf moved to London in 1905 and set up a watch business with his brother-in-law, Alfred Davis, called Wilsdorf and Davis. Wilsdorf quickly took an interest in the wristwatch and decided to produce his own line. Wilsdorf contacted Swiss company Aegler and placed the largest order ever seen for wristwatches at that time. He sold both men’s and women’s watches with leather straps. Despite the perception of wristwatches as effeminate, these watches found great success. When an expanding bracelet was launched by a popular jewellery firm, he added it to his watches, once again with great success.
As he was finding a lot of success with wristwatches in Britain, Wilsdorf wanted to create his own watch brand. He opened an office in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland in 1907 and originally decided to register the name Lusitania — after the most luxurious liner in the world. This name didn’t last long and in 1908 he registered the name Rolex — mainly because it was “a word easy to memorise.” Wilsdorf wanted to create a brand which would set his watches apart from all others, even though other watches would have very likely included the same movement parts produced by Les Fils de Jean Aegler of Hermann Aegler.
Watches created for Wilsdorf after this point included the trademark “Rolex” — which quickly became a well respected watch brand. They broke new ground, too, with the Rolex of 1910 being the first to receive certification as a chronometer in Switzerland.
During the First World War it soon became apparent that military personnel needed to have a watch on their wrist. The need for precise synchronisation meant that everyone on the ground needed a wristwatch. With many battles taking to the air, military pilots found, just as Alberto Santos-Dumont did, that a watch on your wrist is much more convenient than one in your pocket.
When the war ended, as conscription meant that practically every working age man in Britain was in the military at some point. This meant that all men returning from the war returned with a wristwatch — and many continued to wear them. Suddenly wristwatches were no longer seen as flimsy or effeminate and were more likely to be worn by former military personnel than anyone else. The ratio of wristwatches to pocketwatches had almost reversed by 1930 — standing at 50 to 1. With most of these watches produced by Swiss companies, usually Rolex or Omega.
In the Second World War wristwatches were already expected for any members of the military. Rotary, who were founded in Switzerland, produced watches for the British Army during the Second World War, putting one in almost every household in the UK.
Swiss manufacturers were quick to take advantage of the gap in the American market. With all American manufacturers being used for the war effort, Swiss manufacturers were able to pick up customers that the American manufacturers weren’t catering for. And this time, unlike the previous attempt to flood the market with Swiss watches, the quality of the products was incredibly high.
One reason why Switzerland were so prepared to take over the American watch market is that they weren’t just producing quality watches, they were on the cutting edge of watch technology. In 1926 Rolex produced their first waterproof wristwatch — the Rolex Oyster. Wilsdorf brought the rights to a patent for a “screw down crown” to make a waterproof watch, but it wasn’t suitable for a wristwatch to be sold to the public. Thankfully his technicians at Aegler managed too adjust the design and produce a top quality watch.
Even if recently it has been materially proven by historian Stan Czubernat that it has been Waltham, with it’s Field & Marine trench watch, to invent the first waterproof wristwatch in 1918, with the aid of Charles Depollier’s crown, case and case-back technology, it has indeed been Rolex to market this invention to the masses.
John Harwood, a watch repairer from Bolton, claimed the patent in England and Switzerland for the first automatic watch. Production started on them in his Swiss factory in 1928 and they worked perfectly, working for 12 hours when fully charged. This heralded a breakthrough in watchmaking, as people had attempted to produce automatic watches since 1770. Including Breguet, who managed to release automatic pocket watches — but had to stop selling them when the public found them unreliable.
Rolex improved upon and incorporated the automatic technology in their watches. By incorporating it in Rolex Oyster they managed to resolve the issue of wear and tear when unscrewing the watch to wind it.
By the end of the 2nd World War, the Swiss Watch industry was in he perfect position. Controlling practically the entire world watch market — in almost every home in the United Kingdom and taking over the American market. This set the Swiss up to be the leaders for the next two decades, almost untouched by anyone else. Although, something else was going on, too. Swiss watchmakers had opened up the market in Japan and the shared knowledge was the backbone of a burgeoning competitor.
As the Swiss were nutral during the war, the manufacturing industry in Switzerland had not been forced to produce items to support any war effort. Which had been the case in their main competitors — Japan and the United States. The biggest coup for the Swiss watch manufacturers was the introduction of Swiss watches into the American market during the war. This huge market is one which the Swiss watch manufacturers had looked to take over in previous years, but could not do so due to the quality of the American watchmakers. But with these watchmakers focusing their attention on bomb fuses and ship chronographs, the Swiss were able to enter the market.
When the war was over — and the American watchmakers needed the time to move back to watch production to civilian purposes. While they were moving back to watch production the Swiss manufacturers capitalised, and what a time it was to capitalise! People had money and, because they weren’t able to spend the money during the war, they wanted to spend it now.
In the absence of any real competition, Swiss manufacturers took complete control of the watch market. By the end of the 1960’s, Swiss manufacturers had 50% of the watch market worldwide. The American and Japanese manufacturers still looked for a way to wrestle back control of the watch market, but it was going to take something big for them to do so.
The commonly accepted story is that the Swiss rested on their laurels after taking control of the market and neglected to innovate, but that isn’t entirely true. Swiss manufacturers did push towards new technology in 50’s and 60’s — although, admittedly, not as much as they had done previously.
The first attempts at a electromechanical watch, which is one powered by a battery rather than a spring, were produced in the early 1950’s. These prototypes were produced in a joint venture between the Elgin Watch Company, of the United States, and Lip, of France. The Hamilton Watch Company managed to produce the first battery powered watch with the Hamilton 500 in 1957.
The first electronic wristwatch was developed in 1954 by Swiss engineer Max Hetzel. This watch was powered by an electrically charged tuning fork powered by a battery. This watch was the Accutron and it was produced by Bulova — an American company. These small advancements led to both Centre Electronique Horloger and Seiko to start attempting to develop the quartz watch.
It was expected that this move towards quartz would be a defining moment in the watch industry. The Seiko Crystal Chronometer QC-951, a portable clock, was one of the signs that the Japanese were advancing ahead of the Swiss. This clock was used as a backup timekeeper in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
As it turned out, the Swiss weren’t actually all that far behind the Japanese in creating a quartz watch. While the Seiko Astron (marketed with the prediction that “One day all watches will be made this way”) was the first quartz watch on the scene in 1969, the first Swiss quartz watch followed in 1970.
The Swiss watch was the Ebauches SA Beta 21 which didn’t catch on with the public in the way that they would have hoped. So, instead of embracing the new technology or working on a strong marketing effort, they just went back to the traditional way of doing things. The problem was not so much that the Swiss refused to innovate at all, it is clear that they did innovate. But that they were not willing to embrace the new technology when it didn’t bring instant success. They believed that the Swiss tradition was the only reason people brought Swiss watches so they returned to their traditional roots.At this point, innovation did appear to halt altogether as Swiss manufacturers believed that tradition was the only way to succeed.
This ended up being devastating for the Swiss watch industry, the Seiko Astron started a watch revolution. American and Japanese manufacturers embraced quartz technology and continued to tweak and improve it.
Cheaper production costs drove down the cost of watches dramatically, allowing the production of very affordable watches. Because of the shaky economic market worldwide, following the oil crisis of the early 1970’s, people were more price conscious than they were before. Cheaper Japanese or American quartz watches became more attractive than expensive mechanical Swiss watches. Especially for those who know all that much about what was actually inside the watch itself.
Within 10 years exports of Swiss-made mechanical watches declined dramatically — in 1973 they exported 40 million, by 1983 they exported just 3 million. Many successful Swiss watch manufacturers went out of business altogether, by 1983 1,000 Swiss watch manufacturers disappeared. It hit the Swiss people, too — over the 18 years from 1970 to 1988, employment in the Swiss watch industry fell by more two-thirds — down from 90,000 to 28,000.
Saving the Swiss Watch Industry
By 1983, it was clear that something needed to be done to save the Swiss watch industry. A research consortium was put together to come up with a solution and they decided on the Swatch. A plastic, disposable watch which was practically automated — making it cheap to produce and cheap to sell while remaining incredibly profitable.Over 2.5 million Swatches were sold within two years, helping to gain back an important part of the market which they had lost. It also kickstarted the revival of an industry which was struggling. The Swiss watch industry was a lot smaller than it was before the quartz crisis, with many manufacturers focusing on the ultra-high end of the market. The likes of Rolex and Patek Philippe were not interested in selling cheap, mass produced watches and were forced out into selling ultra expensive watches. Other Swiss manufacturers focused on the mid-range watch market, with watches retailing from £500-£1,000 — but not as cheap as Swatches or the very low-priced Japanese watches.
The Swatch, and Nicola Hayek, were instrumental in saving the Swiss watch industry and brought an end to the quartz crisis. If it wasn’t for this watch then chances are the Swiss watch industry, on the affordable end, could have died out completely.
Swiss Watches Vs Japanese Watches
Over the following 3 decades Swiss watches and Japanese watches battled for supremacy, as they did before the Second World War. One of the biggest changes following the quartz crisis was where most of the manufacturing of watches moved to. Prior to the quartz crisis most watches were made in Switzerland, but most of the manufacturing moved over to the far east.
Today, most watch manufacturing — other than manufacturing of ultra-high end mechanical watches — is carried out in the far east. Even with the stronger Swiss made laws, which will demand that 60% of the cost of a watch, and its technical developement is realised in Switzerland, a good portion of the Swiss Made watches are produced in the far east.
The Swiss watch industry has changed a lot over the years and it has overcome a lot of competition. Firstly from Britain, America, Germany and France — and more recently from Japan.
Today they face another challenge from a new digital technology, in the from of smartwatches and smart wrist devices, but one thing which has never changed is the quality and beauty of Swiss watches.
It doesn’t matter what new technology turns up, there will always be a market for traditional Swiss watches made according to Swiss production standards and methods.