As the Swiss airlines advertisement at Zurich Airport says, (“like shopping for a Swiss watch - hard to make a mistake”), Swiss watches are completely synonymous with luxury, opulence and the highest levels of craftsmanship.
In fact, that highly revered “Swiss-made” tag on tickers coming out of some of the most prestigious watch-houses Switzerland offers is the closest guarantee you can have to excellence - so much so that salespeople have been known to chuckle at the idea of a warranty receipt. Because when your watch is architected by Swiss brains and put together by Swiss hands, you’re unlikely to ever need it.
But why is Switzerland, one of Europe’s smallest and most unassuming nations, so synonymous with the leading watch brands? Where does this association come from? What is the history behind the ticker? Watch Direct does the digging and brings the manufacturing history lesson to you.
Our story begins in.... Germany?
Interestingly, the foundations of modern watchmaking cannot be attributed to Switzerland at all - but Germany.
Somewhere between 1509 and 1530, nobility around Europe wore portable miniaturised clocks as a part of their haute couture dress. These 3-inch timepieces were too expensive to be owned by the general public, but widely desired anyway. Fast forward to 1530, and Peter Henlein of Nuremberg had designed the first-known watch.
This essentially began what was known as a slow birth into watchmaking for the reforming Swiss manufacturing industry. Religious revolutions led by the French created a mass exodus of persecuted French protestants into Switzerland, and these folk, actively looking for work, became known as the skilled refugees who helmed Geneva’s boom into high-quality watchmaking.
Regulations and rules
The more refugees that fled to Geneva, the more hands that congregated to create beautiful watches. This, coupled with heavy regulation into the type of jewellery people were allowed to wear (no gold or enamels), led to the city’s entire shift into watchmaking as their primary manufacturing output as goldsmiths and enamelists turned to watchmaking, too.
It was the perfect pairing - beautiful eyes for design coupled with the Huguenots (skilled refugees) ability to work with intricate watch movements - meaning that by the time that this regulation was relaxed (and then eradicated towards the end of the 17th century), watchmaking had put Geneva on the world map.
In James Breiding’s book, ‘Swiss Made - The Untold Story Behind Switzerland’s Success’, he wrote “…by the mid-20th century, the exclusive mark of a quality watch was the words “Swiss Made” on its face.” Which brings us onto Switzerland’s signature trademark.
Mass adoption using the establissage
Swiss watchmakers developed their watches in a vastly different way to their competitors across other parts of Europe and Asia. In fact, Jérôme Lambert, chief executive of Montblanc, believes that the way the Swiss watch industry developed was part and parcel of how Switzerland was as a country. He said: “As a country, Switzerland is very decentralized. Every valley has an owner or organization that has a dynamic, small city centre.
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.” This speed, known formally as the établissage, was a watchmaking system that allowed the Swiss to develop watches at a rate far quicker than any of their competitors - allowing for different parts to be built on different sides on the world, before ending up in Switzerland for the final hurrah.
It was this system that had Swiss manufacturers producing over two million watches by 1850, a huge markup compared to Britain’s measly 200,000. By virtue of sheer mass adoption, Switzerland became the gold standard for a well-made watch, a notion carried forward and still very much alive.
So, in closing, if the Patek Phillippe founders believed that we never actually own a watch - instead, we merely look after it for the next generation, it’s clear that the the history of the watch industry has greatly informed the way they are still perceived today. As treasures of time.
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Watch Direct is Australia’s number one watch website for brand new, high-quality designer watches. They’re exactly the same as those you would find in the shops, simply with a better price tag. A range of styles, brands and designs offer a perfect potential watch for every buyer - including Armani, Citizen, Tissot, Breitling and many more. Hurry, time is ticking!