History of the Swiss Watch

The Swiss watch and clock industry appeared in Geneva in the middle of the 16th century. In 1541, reforms implemented by Jean Calvin and banning the wear of jewels, forced the goldsmiths and other jewelers to turn into a new, independent craft : watchmaking. By the end of the century, Genevan watches were already reputed for their high quality, and watchmakers created in 1601 the Watchmakers’ Guild of Geneva, the first to be established anywhere.

Switzerland has long been associated with high-quality watchmaking. Watches are the country’s third biggest export after the chemical and engineering industries in terms of value.

Important though accuracy is to us today, it was not always so. For several centuries, watches were extremely expensive and were status symbols for the wealthy. The wristwatch is a 20th century invention; before then they were worn in different ways, often as items of jewelry, and decorated accordingly.

The market for Swiss watches is concentrated in three continents. The two biggest customers are the US and Hong Kong. (Hong Kong is a major hub: many of its imports are re-exported.)

Italy, Germany and France are the leading customers in Europe.

Watchmaking in the Jura remains indebted to a young goldsmith called Daniel Jeanrichard (1665-1741), who, for the first time, introduced the division of labor in watchmaking. In 1790, Geneva was already exporting more than 60,000 watches.

Switzerland owes it success not only to the high-quality of its output, but also to the wide range of the watches it produces, in terms of both technology and appearance. Nearly 90% of the watches made in Switzerland are electronic, but mechanical watches, the remaining 10%, account for over half the exports in terms of value. Some of the watches at the upper price range are among the most complex in the world.

As for appearance, this ranges from sober classic, through diamond-studded, to cheap and cheerful.

The watchmaking industry has been one of constant innovation, demanding ingenuity, dexterity, design skill, patience and good business sense – all qualities on which the Swiss pride themselves.

The challenges continue: how to balance smallness of size with complexity of function, or low cost with high accuracy and reliability, and how to face up to competition from all over the world.

Time does not stand still; neither do the makers of watches.

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