Several months ago one of our members organized an excursion to the Patek Phillipe Museum. In addition to housing Patek Philippe’s collection since its inception in 1839, the museum maintains a rich collection of watches dating back to the 16th century including masterpieces that mark important moments in the history of watch making; many of which were accomplished here in Geneva
In order to prepare for our excursion to the museum, Nancy -our organizer- laid out the history of these timepieces that became works of art and science.
The first watches
Peter Henlein of Nuremberg ostensibly invented the watch around 1524, inserting springs into a timepiece that allowed the owner to wind it and keep it ticking for several days. He placed it into an egg-shaped casing initially worn as a pedant; it is now known as the Nuremberg Egg. For centuries thereafter mechanical watches–powered by winding a mainspring, turning gears and then moving the hands–were refined and embellished. Ornamented German clock-watches were worn around the neck or attached to clothing. When Charles II of England popularized the waistcoat, watches were flattened to fit into pockets.
Calvin, goldsmith-jewelers and watchmakers
Calvin’s City of Refuge was economically prosperous in the sixteenth century, due in large part to the goldsmiths and jewelers. When the French Huguenots sought refuge in Geneva during this time, they brought with them their knowledge of producing portable timepieces.
Taking Reformation gospel literally, Calvin banned the wearing of jewelry in 1541 in his ‘anti-bling’ pronouncement. Jewelry shops could no longer display sumptuous gold and diamonds, which created a predicament for jewelers. French and Italian refugees saved them by teaching the jewelers how to make watches. Since watches were considered by Calvin to be practical instruments, their production was permitted. No doubt unintended, Calvin’s restrictions and the watchmaking solution brought further abundant prosperity to Geneva.
The watches were high quality and beautifully decorated, garnering an excellent reputation. The jewelry makers had found their new line of work. The watchmaking industry was firmly established in 1601 with the creation of the Watch Makers Guild of Geneva– initial membership of 500.
Competitors soon crowded Geneva, thus many watchmakers moved northward into the Jura and Neuchâtel. In the agricultural Jura, farmers found their hands idle in the long winters and so redeployed their time making watch parts. Entire families in Neuchâtel worked to make pocket watches in the seventeenth century. Parts makers continue to work in the area today, in what is called the “Watch Valley” extending from Geneva to Basel. Companies including Jaeger-LeCoultre, Girard-Perregaux, Piaget, Patek Phillipe, and Rolex are located there.
Watchmakers began to implement a series of innovations in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that make ‘Swiss Made’ watches unique. The pursuit of perfection led to a series of inventions that improved the functioning and accuracy of watches. Adrien Philippe, the co-founder of Patek Philippe, patented a slipping mainspring device in 1863, a precursor to the self-winding watch. Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the tourbillon, a rotating device to counteract the effects of gravity on a pocket watch; the para-chute, a shock absorbing mechanism; and the flat balance-spring with one or two terminal coils, known as the Breguet overcoil. Other well-known companies perfected the mechanical inner workings of the watch, patenting their ideas: Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux and others.
Watchmaking extended to Bern and Solothurn around 1850. By 1890, almost half of Switzerland’s watch and component exports came from Saint-Imier, Franches-Montagnes, Ajoie and Biel. The industry reached Basel and Schaffhausen by about 1900. But American watch manufacturing, using mass-produced components that yielded highly accurate watches, gave the Swiss stiff competition in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Swiss watch exports to the US dropped by 75%.
To shore up the lagging competitiveness, makers added stop watch and calendar functions. Rolex sold its first waterproof watch in the 1920s, leading to a niche sector of diving watches. The first automatic watch was introduced in Grenchen [Canton Solothurn] in 1926. Switzerland regained its primary position in the global watch market.
The quartz crisis
The most significant watchmaking innovation in the twentieth century was developed at the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) in Neuchâtel in 1967–the quartz watch. But Swiss companies did not adopt this new technology, leaving it to Japanese and American firms. Demand for Swiss mechanical watches dropped precipitously; market share declined from 50 to 15 percent while employment dropped from 90,000 to fewer than 25,000. The ‘quartz revolution’ in the rest of the world was the ‘quartz crisis’ in Switzerland.
Swatch saves Swiss watchmaking
Elmar Mock and Jacques Müller conceived a watch that was assembled automatically with fewer parts, all encased in plastic, that was 80% cheaper to produce. Next, the brightly colored designs that Swatch is famous for were introduced. But beyond the design, it was the marketing and the unique concept that propelled Swatch into prime position. A Swiss-Lebanese entrepreneur Nicolas G. Hayek proposed the revolutionary concept of the Swatch as a ‘second watch,’ sufficiently inexpensive so that a person could own a second, or indeed even a third or fourth watch. Swatch comes from this concept of ‘second watch,’ although it could equally be thought of as ‘Swiss watch.’
Swatch continues to bring innovative products to market with new technologies, materials, designs and colors. Swatch watches were introduced in the US markets in 1982 and in Europe in 1983. By 2006, the company had sold 333 million Swatch watches and in 2014 alone grossed sales of CHF 9.2 billion. Sleek white stores and shops-within-stores with their modular displays emphasize the creative colors and designs of the Swatch watches worldwide. Switzerland is once again the premier player in the global watch market.
Stroll the fashionable streets of Geneva, lined with shops displaying high-end traditional watches–exquisite and gleaming–interspersed with Swatch shops, and recognize the inspiration that jeweler-watchmakers in Calvin’s time, and their many successors, have brought to Switzerland.
We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland. If you would like to join the AIWC, please visit our website at http://www.aiwcgeneva.org/