A (brief) history of British and Swiss watch production
Ask someone on the street about the country they’d most typically associate with watchmaking, and chances are their answer would be Switzerland. Even a quick search on Google returns suggestions like ‘Why are Swiss watches the best’, ‘why are watches produced in Switzerland’, ‘why are Swiss watches luxury’ – the list goes on. Today, Swiss watch production stands at over 20 million watches a year – about 2% of the watches produced globally – yet this equates to 50% of the watch industry in terms of value. A nation synonymous with watchmaking precision and prestige, Switzerland continues to produce a steady stream of high-end watches known and respected the world over.
But what if it wasn’t always this way?
To those conditioned to believe that Switzerland has always been the go-to place for world-class watchmaking, you’ll be intrigued to discover it hasn’t always led the charge. For those of us on British shores, the answer lies closer to home – a lot closer. Although it was German craftsmen like Peter Henlein who made the first steps towards portable timekeeping with the creation of ‘clock-watches’ during the 16th century, it was Great Britain who became a prominent driving force. Look up the names of many pioneers in early horology, and you’ll find a number of rather non-Continental-sounding surnames like Graham, Mudge and Harrison.
Many of the developments used in watches today exist thanks to the efforts of British watch and clockmakers. Robert Hooke invented the balance spring (hairspring) and anchor escapement; Thomas Mudge, the lever escapement; Thomas Prest, the keyless works; Daniel Quare, the minute hand; John Whitehurst, central seconds; John Harrison, the chronometer; Thomas Young, the chronograph. As recently as 1924, Britain continued to break new horological ground with John Harwood’s creation of the self-winding movement.
Yet back in the 17th century, Britain was an epicentre of watchmaking. Its contribution during that period remains intact even today. Look at any conventional world map, and you’ll find Britain firmly at the centre: GMT, or Greenwich Mean Time, is the mean solar time against which all other time zones are based. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, on the south bank of the River Thames in London, is located at 0 degrees longitude (also known as the Prime Meridian), with midday arriving when the Sun rises to its highest point over the Observatory. Commissioned by King Charles II in 1675, the Royal Observatory was built to assist with the understanding of astronomy and navigation, disciplines essential to Britain as a seafaring nation. John Harrison’s invention of the marine chronometer in 1728 helped solve the British government’s infamous ‘longitude problem’, in turn helping ships to safely navigate their route across the oceans with complete understanding of their current location. Long distance trade routes were opened up, and new overseas colonies formed. Britain’s history of watch production had helped cement its place as a supreme world power.
By 1800, Britain was creating about 200,000 watches a year – around half of the world’s output. Yet just a century later, this number had halved. Despite a huge surge in demand for wearable timekeeping, British watch production was on the wane, losing its foothold to nations like – you guessed it – Switzerland.
When did watch production move to Switzerland?
This is something of a trick question – Switzerland had had a watch industry of its own since the 16th century too. Following The Reformation, where religious violence against Protestant Christians in Germany and France had forced their escape into neutral Switzerland, many of these exiles had settled in cities such as Geneva. Crucially, reformist John Calvin had banned the wearing of jewellery in the city, believing materials like gold and diamonds to go against the austere lifestyle his puritanical regime demanded. He did, however, allow the use of these materials in timepieces, which he considered to be a practical tool. This small loophole was all the Swiss watch industry needed. Geneva became the first hub of Swiss watchmaking, utilising the skills of the French and German immigrants. Today, if you think about the various excesses of the industry – multi-million-pound sponsorships, watches that cost more than a family home, eyesores with 18-carat gold and diamonds set into them – it all stemmed from a man who didn’t approve of any kind of extravagance. The irony.
Fast-forward to the middle of the 19th century, and Swiss watch production was leaving British watch production in its wake. Why did watch production move to Switzerland? Simply, the country was ready and willing to adopt practices that others wouldn’t. Its innovation led to the decimation of the French industry, and, by the end of the century, the British industry was on its knees too. Both had stubbornly continued to utilise the same traditional methods by creating watches from scratch under one roof. It was a noble endeavour, but it came at a cost by ignoring the mass production techniques that had become available. Switzerland adopted what became known as the ‘Etablissage’ system – and it revolutionised its output.
Etablissage, in layman terms, is the method where a watchmaker would receive and assemble the various components, rather than starting from scratch like their British or French counterparts. This meant that Switzerland was bustling with different factories that specialised in creating specific parts. By focussing on an individual aspect, each factory could optimise its output. A hotbed of productivity, and with a decentralised setup that allowed it to be more agile in responding to new developments, by 1850 Switzerland was out-producing Britain’s watchmaking numbers by a ratio of 10 to 1.
This output initially came at a price. Swiss watchmaking became known for quantity over quality, with the resulting watches referred to as ‘junk’ over the pond in America. While etablissage was a useful method for creating watches efficiently, there was a balance to be struck. What if companies could move their assembly under one roof, therefore combining efficient production with the highest levels of quality? With watchmakers throughout the country adopting this policy, and a number of watchmaking headquarters springing up through Switzerland’s famous ‘Watch Valley’ between Geneva to Basel, the country soon began to grow the aura of distinction we know today. Swiss watch production was to become a byword for craftmanship; having regained its reputation, now all Switzerland had to do was protect it.
Why are watches made in Switzerland?
Because of two words: ‘Swiss-made’. You’ll find them on any TRIBUS dial, and on the dials of hundreds of other prestigious watchmakers too. The reason why so many watches are made in Switzerland, is because of the strength of what the ‘Swiss-made’ label means. As a nation, Switzerland is very proud of its reputation, so it made legislative measures to safeguard it (it has similar procedures in place with products like chocolate and cheese).
To preserve the standing of Swiss watch production, a number of steps must be completed just to be able to apply the phrase to a dial, backplate or anywhere else. For a watch to be classed as Swiss-made, 60% of its production needs to take place within Switzerland’s borders, its movement must be Swiss (and also cased in Switzerland), while the manufacturer’s final checks must be carried out there too. These checks are essential so that the customer can purchase a Swiss-made watch knowing that each of these measures have been completed, offering peace of mind as a consumer, while the manufacturer equally feels certain that every product that leaves their factory continues to uphold those vital standards. It’s win-win.
For a country stereotypically associated with an attention to detail, the Swiss obviously had to go one step further with their approach to watch production. The result was the creation of its own testing institute, the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC)
, which is responsible for guaranteeing the accuracy of all Swiss watch movements leaving the country. COSC tests each movement in a number of positions and temperatures over a 15-day period, ensuring they continuously operate within the accepted timekeeping tolerance of -4/+6 seconds per day. If they pass these stringent tests, then they are sent back to a manufacturer with a certificate listing each of these results; this certificate is supplied to the customer with the watch as another indicator of its precision. Fail the COSC’s tests, and the movement is sent back to the manufacturer, where it needs to be re-regulated before being submitted for another test by COSC. If it sounds long-winded, it is – but if you want to know why watches are made in Switzerland, or why Swiss watches are considered ‘luxury’, it’s because Swiss watch production simply doesn’t cut any corners. You get what you pay for, which is centuries’ worth of know-how, skill and precision.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
But everything we do now, couldn’t have been possible without the genius and graft by those in the centuries before us – including the Brits who helped to shape the watch as we know it today. Because if you think about it, a piece of engineering that operates on its owner’s wrist for years on end – all whilst keeping precise time despite knocking a beer over it – may just be one of the most spectacular achievements humankind ever accomplished. Wherever you come from, the wristwatch is something we can all be proud of.