You may never have considered the history of Swiss watch making, but ask yourself this – why do most people most consider a Swiss watch to be the pinnacle of horological achievements? Indeed the term “Swiss watch” is synonymous with “luxury brand watch” in most people’s minds. Switzerland isn’t a particularly large country, so how on earth is it now home to so many luxury watch brands?
The German, Peter Henlein, a locksmith and clockmaker, is credited by most historians for creating the first watch in the early 16th century – he miniaturised clocks to pendants which could be affixed to clothing. Around the same time, in 1541 in Geneva, Protestant reformist John Calvin banned the wearing of jewellery as he declared it was not a necessity; however he deemed that a watch was. Thus former jewellery makers joined forces with clock and watch makers and the expansion of the Swiss watch making industry was born. In 1601 the very first Watch making Guild was established in Geneva.
The English were also creating advances in watch making and in the 18th century, their technical advances paved the way for today’s mechanical movements. However at this time, the English were producing far fewer watches that the Swiss, the latter flooding the American market with cheap watches. Consequently the Swiss became associated with the production of cheap timepieces.
But there were Swiss watch makers who wished to buck the trend. By the early 20th century, the Swiss in general changed their approach and started creating good quality watches at affordable prices. Although Rolex was founded in London in 1905, the company upped sticks to Switzerland in 1919 to avoid paying high taxes on gold and silver imports into the UK, perhaps with an eye on moving closer to other quality manufacturers.
Longines, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin began to target Americans aggressively with their quality watches. This approach was successful, particularly since the 2nd World War had all but wiped out the American watchmaking industry.
All was good for the Swiss until the “quartz crisis” in the 1970s. The Japanese had developed cheap quartz technology, enabling them to dominate the cheaper wrist watch market. This development hit the Swiss watchmaker industry hard and was only overturned by the creation of the Swatch by Swiss watchmaker Nicolas Hayek in the 1980s. Focusing on mechanical watchmaking, the Swatch watches were sold at a relatively modest price and launched via an aggressive marketing campaign. The success of this brand was the beginning of Switzerland’s return as a major player in the world watch market.
Over subsequent decades, the Swiss have restyled themselves as manufacturers of luxury brand wristwatches and are known as such the world over. Top brands of Swiss watches which most people associate with Swiss luxury include: Longines, Omega, TAG Heuer, Tissot, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Chopard, IWC Schaffhausen, Piaget SA and Jaeger-LeCoultre.
And as summed up by Georges Kern, chief executive of the Swiss watchmaker IWC Schaffhause:
“The Swiss have that image of producing quality at the highest level, as Germans have the image of producing the best cars in the world, and you cannot just copy this.”
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For more information about the history of Switzerland’s dominance in the world of luxury watches, please read these great articles: