What are the first things we think of when someone says Switzerland? Mountains, cowbells, cheese – there’s no escaping those mildly inaccurate postcard images. But some – and we stress some – national stereotypes ring true for good reason, and one of those is the Swiss’ ability to make a good timepiece. It raises the question, how do you become master of watch making?
Head to any Swiss station and you’ll be greeted by their ubiquitous clock faces and their hypnotically smooth second hands. Catching the 10:00am train to Bern? It’ll arrive just as the minute hand ticks over onto the hour. It’s amazing.
The Swiss know time. They embrace time. They live time. So it should come as no surprise that some of the best quality and most famous watchmakers are situated in the cantons of the landlocked European country. To reel off a list of great Swiss watchmakers would be to reel off a list of nearly all the most recognisable brands around: Rolex, Breitling, Omega – they’re all Swiss. And now that watches have become just as much a fashion statement as a practical piece of jewellery, the design element of watches is just as important as the mechanism of the piece.
In Switzerland they take their watchmaking seriously – there’s even the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry – the FH – to help keep things in check.
But why exactly did Switzerland develop as the hub of watchmaking the world over? The story lies in the mid-16th century, when the controversial religious reformer John (known as Jean in the region) Calvin and his supporters gained prominence, and eventually the theocratical rule, of the city of Geneva. The protestant reformer brought in rules banning the wearing of jewels, which means the town’s goldsmiths and jewellers had to turn to a new craft to sell their wares. Their answer? Watchmaking. Within 50 years Geneva had established itself as the Swiss centre of watchmaking, the first global town to have its own Watchmakers’ guild.
Flicking on to turn off the 20th century, notable Swiss makers including Georges Lechot and Frederic Ingold were instrumental in the introduction of mass produced watches, which brought the region increased prominence worldwide. Since then, many of the fashion and technological trends associated with wrist watches have found their roots in Switzerland, including the first quartz watch and the first water resistant wristwatch.
Today the picture of Switzerland is just as vibrant, and the watch and clock industries form the country’s third largest exporters. Prominent manufacturers including Omega and Rolex still maintain their headquarters and production lines in the European region, and yet nearly 95% of their production lines head outside of the country – with particularly strong sales in Japan and the far East. Switzerland has become synonymous with watchmaking; watchmaking with Switzerland – there is even a luxurious high street store in the UK called Watches of Switzerland. With the strength of their identity and collaborative organisation, the Swiss will undoubtedly continue to be the masters of time.
Julian is a freelance copywriter from Manchester with a passion for fashion and design.