Throughout history, Switzerland’s expert watchmakers have come to dominate the industry. The tradition and craft of watchmaking in Switzerland date back centuries and have survived a multitude of industry shifts and shake-ups. The history behind this industry is fairly fascinating. As you will see throughout this short dive into the past of this beautiful artform, many different circumstances had to happen to allow for the growth of this industry which is now viewed as one of the columns of Swiss culture.
In the medieval period, monks and nuns used bells, hourglasses and hour candles to divide up their daily routine. Sundials, modeled after the examples the Chinese first used 2’500 years before Christ, were painted on the outside walls of the monasteries and indicated the time of day by using the shadows casted by the sun.
In the 15th century, public clocks with mechanical movements appeared throughout Europe, first in the cities where they also often served a representational purpose. People aligned themselves more and more to this mechanical time, which did not adapt to the change of the seasons like the church, but rather remained unchanging. The use of calendars and the spread of grandfather clocks in households from 1400 onwards, as evidenced by inventories, also prove that the perception of time changed in the 15th century and lead to the resolution of the monopoly which was until then held by the state and the churches as their extended arm. This paved the way for clocks to become a luxury item for novelty and ordinary citizens alike.
Zytglogge Tower, Bern, built around 1220 A.D., equipped with clockwork around 1530 A.D.
Towards the end of the early modern period
With the advent of portable timepieces from 1650 onwards and the steady growth of demand fueled by emerging cities and the bourgeoisie, the first watchmakers settled in all parts of what is now known as Switzerland, from Basel to Ticino, from Geneva to Graubünden. Between Winterthur and Zurich, the mechanics were responsible for the maintenance of the already existing tower clockworks. In Bern, the clockmakers belonged to the Association of the blacksmiths (Gesellschaft zu Schmieden). In the 18th century, the clock mechanics of Lucerne, Zug, St. Gallen, Chur and Schaffhausen moved to the countryside, where they built pendulum clocks of wood or iron, the style of which varied according to the region. The clockmakers in Geneva and the Jura Arc, on the other hand, specialized entirely in making portable small clocks, a huge milestone on the way to the wristwatches of today.
Rise of the cradle of Swiss watchmaking in Geneva
The tradition of Haute Horlogerie only truly began with the arrival of the Huguenots in the latter half of the 16th century. Fleeing religious persecution in their native France, many, among them master watch- and clockmakers, took refuge in the nearby Geneva, the city of Calvin.
St. Bartholomew's Night, on the night of August 23-24, 1572, murder of thousands of Huguenots in Paris, which triggered a wave of religious persecution against the Protestant minority in France.
At that time, Geneva was a veritable boomtown. One of the main driving forces behind its economic prosperity was the city’s renowned goldsmiths and enamellers. This combined fruitfully with the skills of the Huguenots, which resulted in Geneva becoming the center of timekeeping.
From 1660 onwards, case makers and engravers began to specialize. The separation into two separate professions was completed with the establishment of a separate mastery for each in 1698. The strict split allowed for further specialization and increased the edge in quality the Swiss manufacturers had on foreign competition. Women, even though they were denied access to these crafts until 1785, were involved in the production of complementary goods as chain makers and joined the watchmakers' guild, which was operating since 1601, in 1690.
Huguenots in Geneva in the late 16th century in a timepiece manufactory
From the end of the 17th century, Geneva watchmakers confined themselves to the finishing of the clocks and outsourced the manufacture of the raw movements to the neighboring Jura valleys or to the Pays de Gex and Faucigny which allowed for even greater specialization. The so-called cabinotiers, as the Geneva watchmakers who worked in small rooms were called, were grouped together with the other artisans and workers in the watch and jewelry industry (bijouterie) in the so-called fabrique. It was thanks to their hard work and good trade relations that Geneva's watchmaking flourished around 1770-1786. Geneva watches were delivered as far as the Orient and also reached the flourishing American colonies. When France annexed Geneva in 1798, the championships were abolished. The French policy which gifted the watch industry with the skills of the Huguenots now threatened to destroy the industry as it plunged into a crisis and the unemployment rose dramatically.
At the beginning of the 18th century, watchmakers from Geneva settled in Vaud and brought their skills to the region. However, the masterships of Rolle, Nyon, Coppet and Moudon were abolished as early as 1776, and those of Vevey in 1802. Only the watchmakers in the Vallée de Joux remained, who specialized in complicated mechanisms and watch jewel production.
In the Montagnes neuchâteloises, watchmaking spread from the 17th century onwards and gradually caught up with that of Geneva, which in turn faced strong English competition. There were no guilds in Neuchâtel and freedom of production due to this factual monopoly being abolished led to trade prevailing, which encouraged many Geneva watchmakers to move their production there.
Neuchâtel workers had knowledge of metalworking (locksmithing, gunsmithing, toolmaking and nail making). The first clockmakers located in the built medium to large timepieces, but then switched to making pocket watches and clock making tools. The Neuchâtel pendulums found good sales at the fairs from the 18th century onwards and were in no way inferior to the Parisian competition between 1750 and 1810. The clockmakers often employed all the members of their families, passed on their knowledge to apprentices, joined forces with other professionals and entered into purposeful marriages.
The craft of watchmaking spread as a result of growing markets from the Montagnes neuchâteloises to the Vallon de Saint-Imier and the western Franches-Montagnes. But the French government yet again threatened to destroy the industry after the annexation of the prince-bishopric of Basel to France as trade between the workers from the Jura villages in the Mont-Terrible department and the Neuchâtel watchmakers came to a halt. However luckily, watchmaking recovered after 1815 and spread between Tavannes and the Ajoie (industrial sector).
Canton Bern becomes new epicenter of watchmaking
From the middle of the 19th century, the watchmaking industry developed mainly in the cantons of Bern (Vallon de Saint-Imier, Franches-Montagnes, Ajoie, city of Biel) and Solothurn (region around Grenchen). Around 1890, around half of all watches and movements destined for export came from Bernese watchmaking workshops (export industry).
Bern became the new stronghold of a rapidly modernizing watch industry. The continuous mechanization at the end of the 19th century led to further spread to areas outside the Jura arc, such as in Basel-Landschaft and Schaffhausen. In the 20th century, the watchmaking industry was concentrated in the Jura Arc, where it employed around 90% of those working in the sector.
Change in production frameworks
Like the watch itself, the Swiss watchmaking industry was a complex entity, especially due to the progressive division of labor, which led to a differentiation of professions and a continuous gain in abilities and experience. A Geneva occupational statistic from 1788 lists more than 30 different trades united in the fabrique, while a factory census from 1867 in La Chaux-de-Fonds distinguishes 54 watchmaking trades.
The first watchmakers made the watch components (movement and case) themselves and assembled them into the finished product. From the 17th century onwards, the manufacturing process was broken down into individual work steps, each of which was carried out by other specialists working at home, progressingly improving the quality.
Further developments and improvements played an important role early on. The idea of interchangeability of individual parts was known in Jura watchmaking from the 1770s, even before it was applied in the American industry, which competed directly with the Swiss watchmaking industry.
It was not until the end of the 19th century that the transformation of the production process in the watchmaking industry led to changes in the regional economic and social structures. The standardization, machine production of individual parts and mass production of cheap watches in the United States of America from the middle of the century onwards forced the Swiss watch industry to switch from manual labor to industrial production. Technical progress as well as scaling gave the United States a competitive edge that almost led to the collapse of the Swiss watch industry. Exports of Swiss watches there fell from 18.3 million francs in 1872 to 3.5-4 million francs in 1877-1878.
The technical and organizational prerequisites for mass production of watches finally emerged in the Bernese Jura and at the foot of the Jura, where large manufactories formed new centers of watchmaking. They employed hundreds of unskilled and uneducated workers, most of whom came from the rural population. Of the 97 watch factories that fell under the definition of factory in 1883, 46 were located in the canton of Bern and eleven in the canton of Solothurn.
Highs and lows:
The switch to mechanized mass production had a major impact on the labor market. To defend their rights, the workers went on strike 193 times between 1884 and 1914. In 1912, they organized themselves as a trade union in the umbrella organization of watch workers, to which 17,000 people belonged at the time, i.e. about a third of the workers employed in the watch industry at that time.
The Swiss watch industry reacted flexibly to the American competition by pursuing a double strategy. On the one hand, it continued to rely on watchmaking in the field of luxury watches which involved special or manual finishing, so-called complications and precision parts in the traditional centers of watchmaking, and on the other hand on industrial series production for watches in the medium price range as well as the low-price segment in factory complexes. The crisis of 1921-1923, the global economic downturn of the 1930s (Great Depression) and the emerging protectionism put this flexibility to the test and accelerated the cartelisation that had begun to emerge with the creation of the first holdings such as the Ebauches or the Société suisse pour l'industrie horlogère at the end of the 1920s.
After the watch industry recovered, it did well for almost 50 years and was able to increase its sales and expand further every year, until the so-called "quartz crisis" hit in the early 1970s. This almost broke the back of the watch industry and it took two young entrepreneurs who single-handedly saved the Swiss watch industry.