The History of Swiss Watches

by Alex McKenzie on May 25, 2021

All great things have to start somewhere. The Beatles came from Liverpool. The Roman Empire grew from three tribes, known as Tribus. Sometimes, though, the stories we think we know aren’t exactly the truth. Look no further than the case of the Swiss and watchmaking. Such is the country’s connection with horology, you might assume it emerged fully formed out of Switzerland’s blend of picturesque lakes, lush valleys and mountainous peaks. Other countries produce watches, but for those new to the world of watchmaking, questions typically focus on one nation only. ‘How are Swiss watches made?’, ‘why are Swiss watches better’? Swiss watch movements, Swiss watch quality, Swiss mechanisms – different terms, all preceded by the same word.

It’s a rational assumption to make, too. Switzerland has been the central hub for hundreds of watch brands and watchmakers for centuries, whilst in 2020, the country spent its 10th consecutive year atop the annual Global Innovation Index. A nation that constantly strives to progress in its attempts to remain at the head of the pack, whether in watchmaking or other industries, past, present and future. Yet there’s another revealing statistic that could help explain the astronomical rise of the Swiss watch industry: 25% of Switzerland’s population is foreign. While that may seem like a trivial fact at first, it soon reveals a lot about the history of Swiss watches and why Switzerland has become such a horological colossus.

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How it all began

The root of Swiss watch history and many Swiss watchmakers can initially be traced back to outside of Switzerland’s borders. In the early 16th century, German clockmaker Peter Henlein invented the first ‘clock-watch’, a sphere-shaped object that opened upon a hinge to reveal a dial and hands inside. His clock-watch, among the first developments to implement a mainspring into its design, became the first portable mode of timekeeping – and the implications of Henlein’s creation were massive. Clockmakers who had previously been installing their work into church towers or wooden cabinets were now racing to shrink the mechanisms down to wearable size.

While the first ‘clock-watches’ had been predominantly status symbols for the rich – the timekeeping was very much secondary, sometimes ending up hours off over the course of a day – the need for accuracy soon became essential. This pursuit came with its own challenges: a watch needed to offer accurate timekeeping, all whilst being subjected to the motions of being worn on somebody’s wrist.

Henlein’s clock-watch was just one of many innovations emerging out of Germany; regions such as Nuremberg and Augsburg were a hotbed for watch and clockmaking advancements at the time. Meanwhile, another upheaval was taking place not too far from Henlein – and one with a much wider-reaching impact. On October 31st 1517, a man called Martin Luther marched up to the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, and nailed a copy of his work, ‘Ninety-five Theses’, to the door. A protest against the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences, something Luther believed to be an abuse of their power and which led Christians to show less repentance for their sins, Luther’s act kick-started something called the Reformation. This movement, led by Luther’s search for a purer and more austere form of Christianity, spilled out of Germany and across Europe. This religious divide soon escalated to full-blown conflict and rebellion, scything its way through communities and classes as families and friends were pitted against one another.

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So how does this all relate to Swiss watchmaking history?

In 1515, after the Swiss Confederacy lost to the French at the Battle of Marignano, the state began to set itself on a course towards a position of neutrality. Rather than attempting to annex any further lands, it was content to exist within its own borders. (Three centuries later, Switzerland’s ‘perpetual neutrality’ was accepted by the international community at the 1815 Congress of Vienna.) This stance was to become a crucial factor in the advancement of the Swiss watch industry. Its neutrality allowed it to become a destination for those escaping from the violence of the Reformation – including those from the watchmaking centres in Germany and France (known as ‘Huguenots’). Having crossed the border into Switzerland, many of these talented craftsmen settled in the city of Geneva.

Nowadays, Geneva is known as one of Switzerland’s most prominent watchmaking cities – yet the reason it earned that reputation happened almost entirely by accident. In 1541, reformist John Calvin was placed in charge of the city. With his belief that people should lead a modest life in service of God, he banned the display of any flamboyant items, including shows of riches like rings, necklaces and more. Diamonds and gold were suddenly redundant, much to the dismay of the city’s jewellery makers and goldsmiths. Yet there was a loophole within Calvin’s rule: items of function were still permitted, including portable clocks, or, say, a wristwatch… Turning their skills from jewellery to intricately designed watch cases, sometimes made from rare metals, the city found itself at the forefront of a watchmaking boom. By 1601, the Watchmakers Guild of Geneva had been founded, while a century later, it alone was producing 50,000 timepieces a year.

As a city that had positioned itself as a destination for pioneers and talented watchmakers, Geneva soon found itself crowded with watchmakers. Within a century, the city was oversaturated. With the relaxation of Calvin’s rules surrounding jewellery, watchmakers spilled out of the city into the adjacent countryside, setting up their own workshops and factories in a stretch of land up towards the Jura mountains. Nowadays, this 120-mile expanse between Geneva and Basel is the stronghold of the Swiss watch industry, labelled ‘Watch Valley’.

Switzerland had created a firm foundation for itself. Yet its output lagged behind another watchmaking power: Great Britain. Many of the watchmaking developments we rely on today were the brainchild of various British inventors, while by 1800 Britain was producing 200,000 watches a year – about half the world’s entire output. That was about to change. While Britain was a juggernaut built on traditional watchmaking methods – watchmakers would complete their watches from scratch under one roof – this was to become its downfall.

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Welcome to the new way

Switzerland, displaying the same spirit of innovation that continues today, adopted a new way of working. Known as établissage, a system developed by craftsman Daniel Jean Richard and which centred around the division of labour, its introduction proved a crucial turning point in Swiss watch history. It revolutionised the Swiss watch industry by separating the manufacturing process into various stages, with a decentralised system that optimised output by outsourcing componentry rather than engineering them under one roof.

New factories were soon springing up throughout the Swiss countryside with the sole purpose of producing individual Swiss watch parts or the individual components inside a Swiss watch movement. Peasants who had previously been working in agricultural roles now found themselves producing pinions, escapement adjusters and other elaborate watchmaking parts! These components would then be delivered to a for assembly. The outcome of établissage was that Switzerland’s output surged, and by 1850 it was outproducing Britain by a rate of 10 to 1.

While the numbers were exceptional, the initial quality of the watches produced using établissage was not. In what seems like an alternate dimension to us now, Swiss watches were something of a laughing stock in nations such as the USA. The ‘stack em high, sell them cheap’ approach can work for some, but in an industry that is literally selling the luxury of time – and the longevity of it – a different approach was required.

Enter Florentine Ariosto Jones. A watchmaker who had witnessed the industrialisation of the American watch industry first-hand, he moved to Switzerland in 1868. He aimed to combine the know-how of the American production line with the precision and detail of the Swiss, in turn beginning a move away from établissage and towards in-house production. It was thanks to the inventions of Swiss engineers Georges-Auguste Léschot and Pierre Frédéric Ingold, whose mechanical developments helped to standardise watch production, that made Jones’ mission possible. By producing all componentry under one roof using automated processes, quality could be guaranteed, while the expertise of the Swiss watchmakers involved helped to cement the Swiss watch quality we know today. 

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The rise of the wristwatch

Entering the 20th century, the wristwatch faced something of an image problem: they were seen as effeminate, as men typically carried their own pocket watch instead. With the arrival of the First World War, that stance changed. Officers and soldiers were issued with a watch – in a life-or-death scenario, it was better to have the time on your wrist than in your pocket – and this trend of wearing one continued following the war’s end. Combined with developments like water resistance and the self-winding movement, watches were no longer seen as lightweight and untrustworthy, but tough, enduring and practical. By the Second World War, where the American war effort had taken over most other US industries, the Swiss jumped into the space evacuated by American watchmakers. The neutral Swiss had invaded the USA!

By this point, the Swiss watch industry was beginning to resemble the powerhouse it does today. Fortuitously, the Second World War had ensured there was a Swiss watch in most British and American households – excellent brand exposure! But while the Swiss had been looking to the West to push its output, it hadn’t realised that there was another challenge preparing itself in the Far East. While the Swiss had expertise in creating their own mechanical watch movements and mechanisms, they failed to recognise the danger of a new development: the quartz watch powered by a battery. On Christmas Day 1969, Japanese brand Seiko released the Astron, the world’s first commercially available quartz watch. The Swiss realised, far too late, that a hand grenade had just fallen in their laps.

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The quartz crisis

Cheaper and more accurate, the quartz watch became the new go-to technology for consumers. For once, Switzerland had been outfoxed in the race for innovation. Many Swiss watchmakers had deemed quartz technology as unnecessary, and by 1978, when quartz watches overtook mechanical in terms of popularity, the damage was already done. Over 1,000 Swiss watch manufacturers closed, and, over an 18-year period, the number of Swiss people working in the industry shrank from 90,000 to 28,000. Meanwhile, American and Japanese businesses prospered, taking the success of quartz and finessing it.

In hindsight, the so-called ‘quartz crisis’ marked a turning point in Swiss watch history. Perhaps it was a necessary evil; the industry needed a wake-up call, having taken its eye off the ball and become too comfortable in its position. The result was that a collection of Swiss brands joined together to create the Swatch group, which, while being intended to help control the release of the componentry within its group, also released its own attempt at the quartz watch. Known as the ‘Swatch’ – short for Swiss watch or second watch, the latter due to its affordable price – this mass-produced model broke its sales targets in its first year. The money made from the Swatch helped to kickstart the Swiss watch industry again.

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The future…

Nowadays, the Swiss watch industry is thriving. With hundreds of Swiss-made watch brands available, each catering to every need, look or price point, there’s a Swiss watch out there for everyone. Swiss watch history is a fascinating subject, but just as importantly, the future of Swiss watchmaking is just as exciting. At TRIBUS, we’re proud to utilise the centuries of heritage and know-how that this pioneering country has earned, using chronometer-certified Swiss watch movements, along with cases engineered at our facility in Lugano, Switzerland. But time never stands still, and neither do we. Our most exciting project? The next one…

View the TRIBUS range of chronometers here.

View our collaborations here.

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