A Brief History of Watchmaking in Switzerland

The Swiss are famous for their timeless timepieces | © foeoc kannilc/Flickr
The Swiss are famous for their timeless timepieces | © foeoc kannilc/Flickr
Photo of Sean Mowbray
16 February 2018

Nothing runs quite like a Swiss watch. But where did the Swiss penchant for watchmaking come from, and how did a small country perched between lakes and mountains come to dominate a global market?

Watchmaking, the art of creating the mechanical timepieces we know today, only came into existence in the 14th century. The trade didn’t even reach Switzerland until much later, when Huguenot refugees, who were fleeing religious persecution in neighbouring France, set up shop in Geneva. Records show that by 1554 watchmakers were present and working in Geneva.

The Huguenots’ arrival coincided with John Calvin’s dominion over Geneva. Anyone who owns a Swiss watch has a lot to thank Calvin for, because the strict code of conduct he applied to Geneva gave life to the nascent watching industry. The Protestant reformer instituted a series of rules that essentially prohibited the wearing of jewellery. At this time, Geneva was renowned for its fine jewellery industry and quite rightly the city’s jewelers feared for their income.

Luckily, wearing timepieces was considered to be a less ostentatious means of expression. So, watchmakers found themselves with a ready, and growing, market and jewelers saw an opportunity to change their trade. Soon, the world’s first watchmaking guild was established in Geneva. Over time, the small city that sits on the banks of Lac Léman became crowded with watchmakers, many of whom sought to branch out, heading to the Jura Mountains to ply their trade.

Innovations like Rolex’s first waterproof watch helped the Swiss gain a reputation for unsurpassed craftsmanship | amh1988

During the nineteenth century, the Swiss industry truly blossomed. Victoria Gomelsky explains how Swiss peasants used their winter downtime to craft watch parts, which gave Geneva’s industry a leg-up. By 1850, the Swiss were making over two million watches per year, compared to around only 200,000 in England, who were their main competitors. Up until that time, the Swiss had mostly excelled at making cheaper, knock-off versions of other countries’ watches. It was a strategy that worked remarkably well for them.

Yet it wasn’t all smooth-sailing for the Swiss. American watchmakers brought out their own, highly accurate timepieces that cut back Swiss exports to the US by a whopping 75%. As ever though, the Swiss industry innovated and, in 1926, Rolex rolled out the Oyster, the world’s first waterproof watch. This and other innovations gave a nudge to the Swiss industry, tipping it back onto the winning side.

As the twentieth century rolled on, two world wars and the Depression hit the industry once again, but did not destroy it. The Swiss resilience for reliable timepieces seemed enough to pull them through a rapid decline in demand.

Geneva celebrates its watchmaking heritage with a giant floral clock | © Pedro/ Flickr

During the 1970s, the Swiss industry once again faced competition from highly accurate, and not to mention cheaper, Japanese quartz watches. Under this pressure, the Swiss watchmaking industry began to crumble and, between 1970 and 1980, the industry laid off nearly half of its workers. Down, but far from being out, one Swiss designer named Nicolas G. Hayek, hit back with Swatch in 1983. Over time this quartz-made Swiss watch revitalised the country’s watchmaking industry as a whole.

Today, the Swiss watch industry is again facing pressure, this time from tech-giant Apple. The company, better known for its mobile phones, has become a major player in the watch industry and outsold its Swiss competitors during the last quarter of 2017 – that’s despite the Swiss watch industry posting higher sales.

However, if the history of the Swiss watch industry shows us anything, it’s that it has become adept at seeing off challengers to its tick-tocking hegemony. Whether it will do so again remains to be seen.