In Part I of our TWS history lesson we explored the tumultuous past of Horology in Germany, if you haven’t read that and you would like to, jump back to last week’s blog post by clicking here.
Up to date…? Good!
While we began the history of German watchmaking with the fact the first portable timekeeping device was invented in Germany in 1509, but Swiss watchmaking began in earnest not too long after. And as with Germany, had some quite unusual origins! Beginning with the Religious reformation which began in 1517 with Martin Luther, the French wars of religion lead to the persecution of French Protestants known as Huguenots, who fled hostility by emigrating to Switzerland, bringing their clock and watchmaking skills with them. For example, when French Huguenot Pierre LeCoultre fled to Switzerland in around 1530, where he settled is where the Jeager-LeCoultre factory still lies today. Most fleeing Huguenots landed in the South Western Canton of Geneva, bringing their skills and expertise with them to this region.
Another revolution was also taking place in Geneva lead by John Calvin. Despite Geneva being famous for its skilled craftsmen of jewellery, the wearing of jewellery was banned by Calvin. This forced the skilled goldsmiths and enamellers to work with talented Huguenots to create gorgeously crafted clocks and watches. by the time regulation was relaxed in the 17th century, Geneva had become synonymous for its watchmaking expertise and craftsmanship of quality and beautiful creations. by the closing of the 18th century Geneva was already exporting 60,000 watches a year. In the surrounding years, the Swiss watch industry developed its share of innovations, such as the precursor to the automatic watch, the flyback hand, and most notably the Tourbillion invented by Louis Breguet in 1795.
However, the innovation that allowed the Swiss watches was the development of thinner calibres in the 1760s which fitted better with the fashion of the time. With the previously dominant British watch industry refusing to slim their cases the Swiss began dominating the market. Similarly, the mass production of watches that had begun in Switzerland was rejected in both Britain and France who couldn’t compete with the Swiss volume or price. The Swiss watch companies began to master mass production and output increased exponentially. With Switzerland producing 2,200,000 watches a year compared to Britain’s only 200,000. However, these watches weren’t of the finest quality and they were looked down upon in the profitable American markets for it. The combination of the decades of technical knowledge offered by the Swiss watchmakers and optimised production techniques to ensure quality with brands such as IWC being established in Switzerland to crack the American markets. This leading to the Swiss watch manufacturers solidifying their reputation for quality, craftsmanship and intricate beauty.
The first world war meant that pocket watches went out of style as wristwatches were no longer seen as feminine items and were worn by ex-military personnel returning from combat. With innovations such as the water and dustproof Rolex Oyster case and the first automatic wristwatch in 1928. By WW2 the Swiss watch companies were in a fantastic position, with Switzerland being a neutral country and naturally protected from invasion by its mountainous borders meant they were well protected. Similarly, by this point controlling the entire watch market. They were able to manufacture watches for both the allied and axis powers in the war and gained even more prevalence in the American market as US watch manufacturers were re-purposed to aid the war effort.
Though the industry had set something in motion that would lead to a period they wouldn’t soon forget. They had opened the market in Japan and had begun to share watchmaking knowledge. The country that would almost cause the demise of the Swiss mechanical watch industry.
The first electronic wristwatch was actually invented in Switzerland in the mid-1950s by Max Hetzel and was produced by Bulova in America. And soon, Japan was spearheading the research and development of new Quartz technology with the Japanese Seiko Astron being the first Quartz watch on the market. while the Swiss manufacturers did initially investigate with the new technology it was decided that maintaining Swiss tradition was the way to succeed and stopped investigating with Quartz almost altogether.
Quartz quickly became more attainable as research and development, as well as production costs, began to decrease. Cheap American and Japanese quartz watches which despite their price were significantly more accurate than mechanical (swiss) alternatives. This decimated the watch industry in Switzerland and by the early 1980s over 1,000 swiss watch companies had gone into administration and simply disappeared. While the employment of the Swiss watch industry in Switzerland plummeted from 90,000 to only 28,000.
In defence, the Swatch group was created, with Swatch the brand creating cheap, disposable watches with almost fully quartz movements. Over 2.5 million Swatch watches were sold within the first year. The affordability of rival watches from Asia and the USA forced brands like Audemars Piguet & Patek Phillipe to go extremely upmarket to set themselves apart. Despite this, they both teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. With Audemars Piguet being rescued from the brink with the Gerald Genta designed Royal Oak and Patek Phillipe with the also Genta designed Nautilus.
The Swiss watch industry did slowly recover, with modern estimates predicting the Swiss watch industry despite the setbacks have now recaptured their postwar boom levels of market hold with around 50%.
If you have read right the way through both these blog posts, you are now a certified horological historian. Congratulations. Similarly though, if you have read this far I bet you were as surprised as I was in the varied history of both German and Swiss watchmaking. Both suffering major setbacks and recovering resulting in the two powerhouse nations of watchmaking that we see today!
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