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October 03, 2016

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How the Swiss Cornered the Watch Market



Elevated view of Lucerne, SwitzerlandThe rise of
luxury Swiss watch brands is generally accepted and often remains unchallenged, as fine, luxury timepieces are known internationally as synonymous with authentic Swiss watches. So how did the Swiss corner the watch market? Geographic, cultural, and technological factors each play an important part in the story of how the Swiss became the world leaders in creating perfected pieces of chronometry. However, the seeds of what would become the illustrious history of Swiss watches begins with, of all things, trousers.

The First Watchmaker

The practice of timekeeping has been around for millennia. Ancient Egyptians used the obelisk to track the sun, candle clocks were used in ancient China and Mesopotamia, and water clocks used in third century Greece. It wasn’t until the 16th century that a German artisan created the first portable timepiece. 


Henlein, a locksmith and clockmaker who lived in Nuremberg, specialized in miniature clocks that could be worn as pendants or fastened to clothing. As the Germans and the Dutch led the revolution in horological technology, it would be nearly 300 years before the Swiss would challenge the chronograph supremacy of their European neighbors.

Fashion, Innovation, and Geography

Multiple old fashioned pocket watches | MorgueFile License: No attribution required.

The end of the 18th century brought about increased industrialization and the inklings of mass production that would sweep through the civilized world during the Industrial Revolution. As a result, the sleek European fashions in clothing—exemplified by trimmer trousers—became more precise in cut and widespread in use, like the current authentic Swiss watches. This move toward sophisticated, thin-line clothing cuts created a demand for thin, elegant accessories. Clunky pocket watches from English and French manufacturers no longer suited the fashion of the day, as they used bulky calibers that essentially made them miniaturized clocks.

Enter Jean-Antoine Lepine, Abraham-Louis Breguet, and Frederick Japy. Lepine and Breguet, on the French side of the Jura mountains, were both inventors of significant resources. Lepin’s caliber allowed a thinner watchcase to become a manufacturing reality, while Breguet invented the tourbillon, a rotating device that counteracts the effects of gravity on a pocket watch, the pare-chute, a shock-absorber, and the flat balance-spring, also known as the Breguet overcoil. Japy later adapted the Lepine caliber and Breguet inventions to factory production, merging these new inventions with methods that would allow for mass replication.

Japy’s Influence

Since Japy made his home in the northern region of the Jura Mountains, his methodology quickly emigrated to the Swiss Jura region. As Swiss peasants at the time used the frigid winter months to tinker and craft watch parts for sale, Japy saw an opportunity in a readily available and skilled labor force. This marriage of skilled labor and advanced production would serve to sow the seeds of a timepiece primacy. Though a far cry from the authentic Swiss watches and luxury Swiss watch brands which have come to dominate the market, these early pioneers were the first practitioners in a field that would evolve into the Swiss watch market we know today.

Decentralized Labor and Cultural Centers

Close up of an old pocket watch timepieceSwitzerland’s decentralized labor force found the perfect match in a French concept known as “établissage”: the practice of expediting manufacturing by sourcing parts to various craftspeople and selling the final product under a single firm.

Geneva had long sourced the labor of the neighboring rural artisans, as Switzerland has a long history of decentralization (the Swiss Jura region’s incorporation was not a given until well into the 19th century). A rising hub of craftwork, Geneva was heavily influenced by the artistic influx of Protestant Huguenots, who, at the time, were fleeing persecution in Catholic France.

With their artistry and attention to detail transforming the aesthetics of Geneva and serving as the catalyst for its evolution into the nucleus of fine authentic Swiss watches, the Huguenots provided a standard of excellence in timepiece creation, while Swiss craftsmen from various villages and townships served to provide parts. As a result of this tradition, Swiss firms were able to take advantage of this organic implementation of établissage to compete with the German, French, and English markets—each centralized and heavily managed in manufacturing quarters of major European cities.

Swiss Watch Quality and Abundance

While authentic Swiss watches became plentiful, dominating Europe by sheer ubiquity (between 1800 and 1850, Switzerland saw a 1,000% increase in timepiece production), these Swiss chronometers were known pejoratively as ‘fake watches.’ Though they overwhelmed the stagnant English watch scene, flooded the market, and were widely sold and purchased, the timepieces imported from Switzerland failed to make a true impression at the time.


Ulysse Nardin buildingWhat the
établissage system leant in efficiency towards the production of authentic Swiss watches, it lacked in quality. Industrialization brought with it increased competition, and for the first time the affectations of newly-rich gentry—tailoring, accessories, and reliable timepieces—were in high demand. A change was on the horizon, in Switzerland culturally and in the world of watchmaking methodology. It was from the flaws in this early decentralized Swiss method that several leaders and innovators emerged who would revolutionize the way timepieces were crafted in the years to come.

The Emergence of Luxury

Luxury Swiss watch brands began with companies that eschewed the old methods in order to assemble the entirety of their timepieces with a dedicated group of permanently employed watchmakers. From this particular revolution, houses like Longines and IWC Schaffhausen emerged, albeit, under far different monikers in their early years. This new philosophy saw a turning point in Swiss horology, the first step on the long road to industry dominance that has defined the world of luxury timepieces as we know it today.

World War II was the turning point for Swiss horologists. Prior to the war, the American railroad system created a strong demand for precision timepieces, and the optimized American industrialization had forged America as the chief competition for the Swiss market.

America’s Dwindling Impact on the Watch Industry

Graham Chronofighter Oversize “Black Sahara” WatchAt the turn of the 20th century, authentic Swiss watch makers drew inspiration from industrial leaders like Florentine Jones, who brought American manufacturing techniques to Switzerland.

Jones, who set the groundwork for what became IWC Schaffhausen, arrived at a time when American-made pocket watches set the standard for timepieces. He found contemporaries among such giants as Graham, Glycine, and Ulysse Nardin.

During World War II, American factories turned their efforts to the war, and the dominance of American watchmaking came to an end. In this new era, Swiss firms began to perfect the ability to create high quality, expertly calibrated and reasonably priced authentic Swiss watches. With a newfound vision and the American factories shifting their focus almost solely to military manufacturing, Swiss watchmakers were able to corner the market.

High-end manufacturers such as Longines and Patek Philippe capitalized on the American methods of production and infused their own techniques to appeal to the growing luxury market in Western Europe and North America hungry for authentic Swiss watches.

Historied Quality, Modern Luxury


Ulysse Nardin Dual Manufacture WatchToday, new luxury markets around the world have emerged, giving
authentic Swiss watch manufacturers new audiences to captivate, while incorporating years of history into modern design. Though the days of an English and American supremacy in horology is over, luxury brands such as Graham London have merged London style with the precision of Switzerland’s historied brand of precision artistry. Carrying on the legacy of the eponymous George Graham, Graham Timepieces reflect the Enlightenment Era philosophies which birthed the firm: accuracy, innovation, and progress.

Pilot Watches

The Chronofighter model hearkens back to World War II when these precision pieces reflected not only unparalleled design, but the often life-saving precision required by pilots in Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force. Today, these timepieces boast Swiss manufacturing and English refinement, a rugged elegance that pays homage to the lineage of luxury Swiss watch brands.

Made from materials as high quality as they are durable, Graham’s authentic Swiss watches sport the latest innovations in horology, such as DLC and PVD coated rubber finishes. Scratch-resistant, anti-reflective sapphire crystal faces are housed within cases of ceramic and stainless steel. Like the traditional pieces upon which the design is based, the body of the watch utilizes state-of-the-art carbon fiber construction.

Dive Watches

Watchmaker working on a watch in workshopFrom the sky to the sea, Ulysse Nardin has a distinguished history of crafting marine chronometers. Sought throughout the world for their impeccable design and technological innovation, many of the timepieces from Ulysse Nardin are considered investment quality collection pieces. These pieces are known as both aesthetic and technological marvels, and each unique design showcases a commitment to advancement and dependability against which other brands are judged. Epitomizing the accuracy and refinement for which authentic Swiss watches are known, Ulysse Nardin is the firm responsible for C.O.S.C standard chronometers with advanced features such as:

  • A free-sprung balance wheel
  • Oil-free silicium escapement
  • A full balance bridge
  • Double pawl-winding system

Even the earliest iteration of Swiss manufacturing embraced innovation, accuracy, and durability. Keeping true time is a skill, and these precision timepieces are crafted as the finest of tools with which to do so. Like the adventurers, seamen, and soldiers who found a reliable friend in the timepieces of early Swiss production, the modern traveler will find a suitable chronometer among this collection.

The Power of Modern Authentic Swiss Watches


Rapport Mahogany Eight Watch BoxThe consensus among many watch experts envisions a future where Swiss watches are still on the forefront of the luxury timepiece industry, not because of quality and innovation, though Swiss watch brands have those in abundance, but because the industry is filled with giants, and to dethrone them would require an immense amount of capital. 

Due to the acquisitions and consolidations, rampant in the watch business, many believe that it no longer matters whether a brand is Swiss, German, French, or Chinese, they will eventually merge into a much larger conglomerate of multiple nationalities.

Start Your Journey Today

Expert curators, knowledgeable staff, and Swiss-trained WOSTEP watchmakers make up the company at Timescape. Our goal is to service your every need, from selecting the finest authentic Swiss watches to providing the utmost in service and maintenance from unparalleled experts in the field.

Each of our company members is enthusiastic and passionate about authentic Swiss watches, delivering some of the best examples of contemporary watchmaking every day online and in-store. With an impeccably designed watch acquisition environment and the breadth of knowledge to satisfy even the most curious shopper, TimeScape has the ability to educate customers about the intricacy of fine timepieces and the history of their production.

All inquiries regarding purchasing, service, repairs, maintenance, and our fine collection should be directed to our qualified staff by phone at (877) 525-8880, or by email at info@timescapeusa.com. All orders qualify for free shipping, and our customer service guides pride themselves on guaranteeing your satisfaction. Start your journey today, with a timeless and reliable piece of superior quality.
Craig Zaligson
Craig Zaligson

Author



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