Why the best watchmakers come from Switzerland?
This is one of the questions people who are not into horology tend to ask to watch lovers. And while the world perceives Rolex as the best watch company there is in the world, the biggest part of the iceberg is hidden under water.
The quick answer to this question is that they are really not.
While Switzerland, for many concurrent reasons, and a little bit of luck, has been the Promised Land of watchmaking for the past 150 years does not mean that it still continues to be the One and Only Mecca of quality watchmaking. And we should take a step back and remember history.
A quick history of watchmaking
Even if one of the first historical clocks is the Astrarium by Giovanni de Dondi, made in Padua, Italy around 1350 (that you can see in the top image), we traditionally consider that modern watchmaking was founded in Germany in the beginning of the 1500s, in the city of Nuremberg. In the museum of the city we can find several Nuremberg Eggs, the first portable watches – which were more like clocks.
These first watches were improved during the 1600s with the invention of the balance spring by Huygens and the discovery of the qualities of jewels by Fatio de Duillers. While these discoveries came by foreigners (Huygens was Dutch, and Fatio was French), both of these improvements happened in England. These technical advances spurred the work of exceptional watchmakers like Mudge (the inventor of the lever escapement) and Harrison (who developed marine chronometers and bimetallic balances). Harrison’s discoveries were instrumental for establishing the dominance of the British Navy at sea during the period. And they brought immense riches to the country which became an international Empire.
Then in the late 1700s to the 1800s another great evolution in horology happened in France with watchmakers like Lepine (the inventor of calibers) and especially, Breguet (automatic winding, tourbillon, shock-absorbing systems).
Both transformed the world of watchmaking and rendered it almost modern – check some of their timepieces, which look very different from what was done by their British competitors. This was also the time when the powerhouse of British horology waned into nothingness.
Switzerland came later in the game. Of the Big Three, two companies were founded in the mid-1800s. Only Vacheron Constantin hails from 1755.
From that time we have seen some impressive feats in watchmaking made in the USA, mostly in the period betweeen 1850 and 1900 and in Japan, especially in modern horology history, with the invention of the quartz movement.
Modern watchmakers come from everywhere
The modern global production of watches reaches true excellence.
Despite the late start – mostly from the end of the 1800s – the contemporary companies from Japan have little to envy to Swiss watchmakers. Some of the brands like Grand Seiko and Credor rival the best Swiss companies.
This watch from Credor, a brand that is little-known in the West, has technical and artistic contents that far surpass its relative obscurity. It is a rendition of the famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa. While you might object to its style, you cannot deny its craftsmanship and technical qualities.
We can assert the same about the German brands from Glashutte, of which the most celebrated is Lange und Sohne, also a tad more exclusive and expensive than most swiss brands.
And the best British watchmakers, like the late George Daniels and Roger Smith, have resurrected the excellent tradition of British high-end horology in the UK. The first, who invented the coaxial escapement, has left his entire workshop on the Isle of Man to the second. Today, Mr. Smith makes no more than 12 watches per year, completely handmade. On another note, remember that the same Rolex was originally founded in London.
And we should not forget the modern contributions to horology by a French company like Cartier, which has literally invented the modern “commercial” wristwatch when they launched the Santos and the Tank. Before them, pocket watches were the norm. After the launch of these two models, quickly imitated by other watchmakers, the use of pocket watches started to decline.
And last but not least, do not forget that while Switzerland might be the place where horology has flourished more extensively in the last 200 years, the “seeds” the blossomed often came from somewhere else.
Foreign watchmakers immigrated in Switzerland
Watchmakers migrated to Switzerland, mainly for religious reasons. Many Huguenots – who were Protestants – originally came from the Catholic France and relocated to Geneva. For example, the Swiss family of LeCoultre had Huguenots roots.
The immigration to Switzerland – not anymore for religious reasons – has attracted a large number of professionals in the land between the Alps.
Among the best modern watchmakers currently dwelling in the Confederacy we find FP Journe and Christophe Claret, who are French. Rexhep Rexhepi, who’s Albanian. Konstantin Chaykin, who’s Russian. Kari Voutilainen, who’s Finnish. The McGonigle brothers, who are Irish. The Gronefeld brothers, who are Dutch. Svend Andersen, who’s Danish.
And last but not least, with a bit of chauvinism. Giulio Papi, Vincent Calabrese (the author of the Golden Bridge for Corum), and Antoine Preziuso, who are Italian. Even the mighty Gerald Genta came from an Italian family originating from the region where I was born myself, Piedmont.
So, to assert that Swiss watchmaking has no rivals around the world is a gross exaggeration.
Swiss watchmaking is still the number one reference in the field. However, the rest of the horological world has not stood still.
You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual. It is a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.