Switzerland has been known as the centre of the watch industry for more than 400 years and today it continues to produce outstanding timepieces. We explore its horological story
Swiss-made is one of the most respected references in the world of watchmaking. It is a carefully protected appellation, determined by exacting standards. The beginnings of the Swiss watch industry reach as far back as the 16th century, but its rise has not always been a smooth trajectory.
The inception of Swiss watchmaking was a direct result of the arrival of Protestantism in Geneva. In 1541, Protestant reformer John Calvin banned the wearing of ornamental objects; faced with the prospect of losing their jobs, goldsmiths turned to watchmaking instead. So successful was this transition that a century later many of Geneva’s watchmakers felt challenged by too much competition and began to leave the city, opting for the Jura mountains instead. To this day, some of the biggest Swiss watch brands are headquartered in this region.
One such is Blancpain. The oldest Swiss watch company still in existence, it was founded in 1735 by Jehan-Jacques Blancpain, who set up his workshop on the top floor of his house in the village of Villeret. More than 280 years later, now headquartered at Le Brassus, Blancpain proudly produces watches that are designed and assembled in Switzerland.
Brands acknowledge and pay tribute to the beginnings that shaped them. Blancpain, for example, has a collection called Villeret, its place of origin. Vacheron Constantin, the third oldest Swiss watch brand (after Blancpain and Favre-Leuba), offers a bespoke service called Les Cabinotiers. This was the name used in the 18th century for the artisans who worked for Geneva’s cabinets, or watchmaking workshops, which were located on the top floor of the city’s buildings in order to benefit from natural light.
In the 18th century, pioneer watchmaker Daniel Jeanrichard introduced a labour division system, known as établissage, which was to have a massive impact on the industry. Farmers in the Jura region, who had less agricultural work during the winter months, became specialised in making specific watch parts, which would then be assembled by watchmakers. This was a first step towards the industrialisation of watchmaking and, by 1790, more than 60,000 watches were being exported from Geneva.
In the mid to late 1800s, American competition and industrialisation posed a threat to the Swiss watch industry. Switzerland’s watchmakers tried to flood the US market with cheap watches, but to no avail. It was only when they adopted a new strategy, opting to create better quality, mid-range timepieces, that Swiss brands started to remedy the situation.
The 20th century saw a rise in a number of brands, with newcomers such as Corum. Founded in 1955, this brand is headquartered in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a town renowned for watchmaking. Marie-Alexandrine Leibowitch, PR director at Corum, highlights the brand’s relationship with its place of origin. ‘Corum was founded by a family from La Chaux-de-Fonds and has always had its headquarters there. Its links with the city are therefore very strong and most of our suppliers are located in La Chaux-de-Fonds, or nearby.’ This proximity, she adds, is integral to the brand. Of course La Chaux-de-Fonds isn’t the only watchmaking hotspot. Le Brassus is another town famed for its links to the industry, and is home to Audemars Piguet as well as Blancpain.
The development of the quartz watch almost led to the demise of Swiss watchmaking. Despite being invented in Switzerland in 1967, it was appropriated by Japanese companies such as Seiko. Faced with this competition and a bad exchange rate, Switzerland’s mechanical watch focused industry suffered. From 1970 to 1984, the workforce dropped from around 90,000 to 30,000. It was partly due to the founding of Swatch by Nicolas Hayek, that Switzerland regained a foothold. Hayek saw the potential of promoting a watch with a more fashion-led aesthetic, and an affordable price-tag, and the world was rapidly won over by Swatch’s plastic watches.
Brands also realised that the only way to survive was to streamline, integrate production and reorganise. Adopting a luxury positioning in the face of quartz, brands of mechanical watches started to leverage their technical expertise, craftsmanship and rich legacy in order to appeal to customers. The 90s witnessed a surge in sales of mechanical timepieces and it was around this time that luxury conglomerates, in particular the Swatch Group, Richemont and LVMH, started to invest in luxury brands.
The most recent threat to the industry has come in the form of digital timepieces. However, looking at history, it is clear that the Swiss watch brands have always known how to reinvent themselves when faced with a challenge. A leisurely walk through Geneva is proof that Switzerland’s relationship with watches is still very much alive and well. The streets are lined with boutiques from many of the country’s most prestigious haute horlogerie names. It is evident that Swiss-made watches are here to stay.