Why are the Swiss so good at making watches?
To many around the world, there is nothing more luxurious than a Swiss watch. Today, watches from the alpine nation can be sold for thousands of Swiss francs a piece, but how did the Swiss become such good watchmakers, and which are the most famous Swiss watch brands today?
Swiss watches are a hallmark of luxury
“The Swiss have that image of producing quality watches at the highest level, as Germans have the image of producing the best cars in the world,” said Georges Kern, former CEO of IWC Schaffhausen. Today, international companies export watches from Switzerland globally, with Patek Philippe, Rolex, Breguet, TAG Heuer and Omega all being symbols of wealth and luxury.
Why are Swiss watches so good?
The story of how Switzerland became the dominant force in watchmaking has its origins in the start of the industry in Europe. From producing fake English watches en masse to developing a new luxury market, here is the story of watchmaking in Switzerland.
History of watchmaking in Switzerland
Most historians agree that Germany was the first place where portable watches were invented and produced. Peter Henlein from Nuremberg in Bavaria is credited as the inventor of the first miniature watch in the early 16th century.
At this time, watchmaking was a cottage industry that could be found across Europe. German and Dutch artisans were responsible for the greatest advances in the 17th century, before England took over in the 18th century. Despite an influx of refugee Huguenot watchmakers in Geneva in the 1700s, Switzerland remained a small player.
First innovations in Swiss watchmaking
One of the first Swiss innovators in watchmaking was Abraham-Louis Breguet, who invented a device to counteract the effect of gravity and shock on a pocket watch. Breguet would hone his craft from the age of 15 as an apprentice in Paris in the late 18th century.
At the start of the 1800s, new manufacturing technology allowed Switzerland to catch up to its European rivals. According to The New York Times, farmers in the Swiss mountains and valleys would use the cold months during winter to make watch components for entrepreneurs, who would then assemble the timepieces in Geneva. This allowed Switzerland to compete with the larger producers like England and France.
Swiss watches mass-produced at a low quality
In 1800, both England and Switzerland produced 200.000 timepieces a year. Through innovation and a decentralised workforce, by 1850, Swiss artisans were producing 2,2 million watches a year, while English production stagnated.
However, these watches did suffer from a most un-Swiss characteristic: they severely lacked quality. Much like the flea markets of today, Swiss watchmakers in the 1800s were famous for their cheap knock-off versions of English or French watches. Barring a few notable exceptions like IWC Schaffhausen and Longines, this would continue until the start of the 20th century.
The rise, fall and rise of Swiss watchmaking in the 20th century to today
In the 1900s, instead of “flooding the market” with cheap watches, Switzerland began to produce “good quality watches at a mid-range price,” according to David Christianson, author of Timepieces: Masterpieces of Chronometry. Firms like Longines, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin began to target the American luxury market with great success.
Unfortunately, by the 1970s, improved quartz technology from Japan made the process of making watches much cheaper overseas. During this time 60.000 workers in Switzerland lost their jobs, as business stalled.
Making a watch a luxury item
In the 1980s, Nicolas G. Hayek, a Swiss-Lebanese entrepreneur, founded Swatch, a Swiss company that would mass-manufacture watches to compete with their new Japanese rivals. Other watch companies embraced new manufacturing techniques and began to market themselves as an ultimate symbol of luxury, to much success. Today, Switzerland remains one of the top watch producers in the world.
Over recent decades, Swiss watches have become synonymous with quality. Despite renewed attempts by Germany, America, Denmark and China to recapture the market, in the words of Daryn Schnipper, head of Sotheby’s International Watch Division, “Any watch brand that starts today - good luck.”
Famous Swiss watch brands & Best Swiss watches
When you think of Swiss watches, it’s inevitable that a few logos and names spring to mind. Here are some of the big players, as well as some lesser-known brands that still manufacture high-quality, luxurious timepieces.
Holy trinity of watches
The holy trinity of Swiss watches, sometimes also referred to as the “Big Three”, consists of the brands Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, and Patek Philippe. Audemars Piguet was founded in 1875 and has been family-owned since its founding. The watch and clockmaker produces around 40.000 timepieces per year.
Founded in 1755, Vacheron Constantin is another Swiss producer of luxury watches known aroumd the world for their high-quality timepieces. Patek Phillipe is also a historic and well-known watchmaker in Switzerland. The company was founded in 1839 and remains the last family-owned watch company in Geneva.
The three firms make the big three watch companies in Switzerland and have been at the forefront of luxury watchmaking in the country for generations. The terms “big three” and “holy trinity” have been used to describe the watchmakers since around 1970.
Gevril watches are another Swiss luxury watch brand, which like many other Swiss watches are often purchased as an investment. Gevril was founded by watchmaker Jacques Gevril in 1758 when he accompanied his colleague Pierre Jaquet-Droz to Madrid. In Spain, the watchmaker impressed King Ferdinand VI with his skills and remained in the country as the king's personal watchmaker. While the company’s headquarters have moved to New York, the watches are still strictly Swiss-manufactured and assembled.
The independently-owned Oris watch company also creates Swiss-made timepieces, including luxury watches and clocks. While perhaps not as renowned as the big three Swiss watchmakers, Oris creates beautiful high-end watches that are popular with collectors and fashion-lovers alike.
LIV creates watches for men, and, having only been around since 2014, is one of the most recent additions to the world of big Swiss luxury watch brands. The company started with a launch on Kickstarter, before branching out to create a range of Swiss-made and Swiss-powered luxury watches. The firm’s 55 watchmakers handcraft LIV watches to create truly one-of-a-kind timepieces.
Another more recent addition to the industry is Urwerk, founded in 1997. The company produces a small amount of watches annually but manufactures truly high-quality Swiss-made watches. By some estimates, the firm makes just 150 watches a year, and is credited with being one of the forerunners of “Nouvelle Horlogerie” in Switzerland.
Other Swiss watchmakers and watch manufacturers
Of course, there are many other great Swiss watchmakers aside from the ones listed above. These include:
- Tag Heuer
Are watches cheaper in Switzerland?
The simple answer to the question of whether watches are cheaper in Switzerland is that it depends on which type of watch you intend to buy. While many things in Switzerland are more expensive than in other nearby countries, luxury watches bought directly from Swiss brands in Switzerland can be more affordable than watches that have been imported to other countries, although the difference is unlikely to be huge.
On the other hand, watches that are not from high-end luxury producers may be sold for cheaper prices elsewhere, especially if they are not produced in Switzerland.
Swiss timepieces: Timeless classics
Switzerland is home to some of the world’s most skilled and famous watchmakers, who have spent centuries passing knowledge down family-run watch businesses and inspiring new generations of watchmakers. The country’s watchmaking industry continues to go from strength to strength and remains a pillar of the Swiss economy.