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Home / Jewellery Insurance / Watch Insurance / History of Swiss Watchmaking

History of Swiss Watchmaking

History of Swiss Watch Making

Anyone with a keen interest in watches will acknowledge that when it comes to horology, the Swiss are synonymous with one thing and that’s high end top quality products. Today Swiss watches are prized the world over and represent the country’s third largest export.

Over the centuries most major innovations in design and build have emanated from this centre of watchmaking excellence and if you are looking for “firsts”, first watchmaker’s guild, first perpetual watch, first wristwatch, first waterproof watch, first quartz watch etc. then the Swiss have pretty much got it nailed.

The origins of watch making in Switzerland can be traced back as far as the sixteenth century. At this time, John Calvin a religious reformer, well known for both his controversial views and austere standards of living, decided that citizens should not be allowed to wear jewellery. The jewellery makers faced financial ruin and coupled with the fact that watches were the only item of jewellery still permitted to be worn, decided to turn their attention to the art of watch making for which there was a steadily increasing demand.

By the end of the 16th century, the watchmakers of Geneva had established a reputation for making quality desirable products and although watches were being made all around the world by this time, the Swiss formed the world’s first watchmaking guild. Thus in 1601 history records Geneva in Switzerland as the birthplace of the entire industry.

The early watch designs were manufactured to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible, accuracy of time keeping was not the initial attraction of owning a Swiss timepiece (if you wanted an accurate watch prior to 1850, the bulky rather plain looking watches from Great Britain were perhaps a better choice) although some quality watches were made, manufacturers tended to pander mainly to the demands of their rich fashionable clientele who simply wanted to look good. Other European countries including: Italy Germany & France were also producing quality timepiece and the Genevese watch makers were not averse to travelling abroad for study, to copy designs and improve their skills.

Geneva soon became crowded with watchmakers; some settled in the area from abroad, manufacturing took place in small houses and was very compartmentalized, a lot of intricate handwork was involved. It was typical for one craftsman to work on one part of a watch and then pass it on to another in a different area of the city to work on another part. There was no standardisation in procedure and thus manufacture could be a long drawn out process with corrections having to be made to each watch as it passed from one manufacture to another. It was fairly accurate to say that each watch was unique.

Daniel Jean Richard & The Division of Labour

This overcrowding lead many watchmakers to relocate and the Jura mountain area became popular. One of the pioneers in this location was Daniel Jean Richard, some say he introduced watchmaking to the Jura but unquestionably he was a man who has made a very important impact on the industry. He is credited with introducing the “division of labour concept”. This concept in essence states that large tasks in the watchmaking process are broken down in to smaller sub-tasks, each performed by the same person who has been specifically trained for the job which he repeats over and over again. As well as this streamlining of the build process, he helped to implement standardised tools and machinery as well as strictly controlled apprenticeships ensuring that knowledge could be passed down from generation to generation. This specialisation of labour coupled with a set of rules and guidelines was a major factor in the elevation of Swiss watchmaking to the pinnacle it enjoys today, productivity and quality was greatly improved.

Sections of watches were built to exact specifications (often by farmers who provided a source of labour during the winter months) and then collected for final assembly in the main workshop. Even today, the Swiss watch industry falls in to two groups:

  1. Manufacturers” who produce all parts of a watch from start to finish.
  2. Etablisseurs” who assemble watches from parts made from groups of sub contracted craftsmen.

The following centuries saw a boom time for the industry and the future was shaped by a raft of new innovations such as the first perpetual watch (a self-winding mechanism that winds itself as the wearer moves around) watches with complications such as the perpetual calendar and the fly back hand.

The Geneva Seal

In 1886 the Geneva seal was given legal status after first being introduced earlier in the century to help deal with an industry plagued by counterfeiting. One of the first forms of hallmarking, it is still in use today and is recognised as a label of origin and a guarantee of quality for watches made to superior standards.

The Modern Wrist Watch

The modern wristwatch that is universally popular nowadays has its own origins around the time of the First World War. Soldiers of the day discovered that pocket watches were not at all practical and began to tie them to their wrists using pieces of leather. Officers who could afford them had wrist watches or “trench watches” as they became known which are highly collectable today, many were of a transitional design between pocket watches and wrist watches, incorporating features of both, some came complete with shrapnel guards to protect the watch face.

The end of the war saw the wristwatch gain in popularity and in 1926 the first self-winding wrist watch was produced in Grenchen, with electrical watches introduced in the 1950s.
In 1967 the Centre Electronique Horolger in Neuchatel developed the world’s first quartz wristwatch and sales of electronic watches now account for 90% of all watches produced in Switzerland, however at the quality end of the market, the remaining 10% of traditional mechanical watches account for over 50% in terms of export value.

In recent years since the introduction of electronic watches, the number of producing companies has fallen from several thousand to around 500 with consolidation taking place all of the time. For over four hundred years Switzerland has managed to stay at the forefront of watch production by a combination of tradition and a willingness to embrace both new technology and change. Perhaps the real reason for its success as a producer of watches is the sheer number of products it is able to offer covering all budgets with a seemingly infinite range of designs and specifications.

If you own a quality Swiss watch and require Watch Insurance, contact our office, we specialise in insuring watches as single items or collections.

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