A Brief History Of Swiss Watch Making

Wednesday 28th August 2019

Hidden away in the snowy heart of Alpine Europe stands a nation which is well known across the

world for its many idiosyncrasies. Whether this be its political decentralization, the value it places on

privacy or that if it underwent a litmus test it would return a perfect Ph7, there is one peculiarity

that towers above the rest. If you haven’t guessed already; the country is Switzerland and the

activity we are talking about is watch making. But where can the lineage of this rich passion for

horology be traced back to? And how did Switzerland come to tower above all its rivals? In this

article we will examine the genesis of horology in Switzerland and look at the journey which has

culminated with Swiss timepieces being some of the most recognisable and sought after in the

world.


To start this journey we need to revisit the past, in fact all the way back to the mid-16 th century, at

the time when the Religious Reformation was taking place across Europe. Although the exact dates

are widely debated by historians, watch making as an industry is widely attributed as being bought

to Switzerland by Huguenot refugees fleeing religious persecution from neighbouring France. Most

of these Huguenot’s ended up in the city of Geneva. This coincided perfectly with the city’s

administration being taken over by John Calvin. Part of the wider religious and social reforms Calvin

imposed upon the city was the banning of jewellery, which immediately subdued what was at the

time a booming jewellery industry in the city. Luckily for the jewellers in Geneva, watches where the

only item of jewellery left that were still permitted. This led the already established community of

jewellers to form a symbiotic relationship with the newly arrived Huguenots. Hitherto, horology had

always taken a back seat as an industry in Switzerland due to more traditional forms of jewellery

production; but now with the two different group’s beginning to share and exchange their ideas and

expertise, horology was very much at the forefront of the Swiss economy, and soon spread beyond

the city walls of Geneva throughout the Swiss Cantons.


By the time we arrived in the 18th and 19th century horology had become a Swiss mainstay, although

this by no means meant the Swiss were the only skilled horologists in the market. At this time France

was still big producer of pocket watches, and Britain still set the standards by which other watches

should be judged. The Swiss response to this competition was anything but prosaic, innovation in the

alpine nation thrived, with notable technological advancements being attributed to Swiss horologists

such as Daniel Jeanrichard, Abraham-Louis Perrelet and Abraham-Louis Breguet. The Swiss were

now producing watches which were unique in character, and reflected the idiosyncrasies of the

small land locked nation. This uniqueness can be attributed to the decentralised nature of the watch

production process (Establissage), with many components and elements being individually produced

and assembled by different horologists in any given area; although this often meant they were not

as reliable as their British counterparts, the uniqueness of Swiss watches made them an attractive

prospect for buyers, not just in Europe but across the world.


Despite the numerous contributions to innovation within the industry, the technological

development that propelled Switzerland to the top of the horological pile was actually developed in

France. A Frenchman called Jean-Antoine Lépine developed what became known as the Lépine

Calibre. This allowed for producers to make thinner cased pocket watches which were more on

trend with current fashions of the time. The Swiss cultivated this technology and paired it with their

now fervent tradition of Establissage to begin to out produce their biggest rivals. With Britain and

France unable or unwilling to cater to the change in demands of the market, Switzerland really did

begin to excel at producing larger quantities of watches; unlike in yesteryear the quality no longer

wavered, Swiss horologists had now discovered a brilliant harmony, a perfect marriage between

scale and quality.


As the 19th century ploughed on like one of the new locomotive steam engines of the era, horological

culture in Switzerland began to evolve with the times. With industrialisation spreading like a

rampant wildfire across Europe and the United states, Swiss horologists started to move away from

the Establissage tradition and embraced the all-encompassing mechanisation that many industries

across Europe hand now become accustomed to. Horological firms championed this new industrial

outlook and moved production and assembly of watches in house. With the industrial boom of the

mid and late 19th century acting as a catalyst, Swiss production again skyrocketed. The Swiss firms

found competition in the market from new American firms, who by this point where producing

reliable but cheaper timepieces. Despite these challenges coming from across the Atlantic, the Swiss

firms maintained their competitive edge by utilizing the tacit knowledge about watches the firms

had accumulated over generations. This was reflected in the attitudes of watch purchasers across

the world at the time, who still very much valued the history Swiss horology firms could offer them

in comparison with their rudimentary American counterparts.


In our next post we will be discussing the more contemporary success of Switzerland in the horology

market, also we will be looking into who was the first person to ever wear a wrist watch! If that is of

interest make sure you watch out for our post that will be uploaded next week.

In the meantime feel free to visit our website or our office if you have any enquires about the

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By S.Holstein


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