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Why are the Swiss so good at making watches?

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?

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.

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. 

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.

Swiss watches continue to be a luxury item

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.”

Jan de Boer

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Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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