How the religious and political upheavals of the middle ages transformed Switzerland into the cradle of world watchmaking.
The origins of the Swiss watch industry go back to the mid-16th century, when Protestant Huguenots fled Catholic persecution in France and made their way to neighbouring Geneva and surrounding areas in Switzerland, which were more welcoming of them. They were following in the footsteps or their religious leader, the reformist theologian John Calvin, who had himself fled France and set up base in a Geneva church around 1537. Two things made these Protestant refugees stand out — they were mostly wealthy, and more importantly, they were at the vanguard of the emerging industry of making large timepieces, which had caught the fancy of rich Europeans.
It wasn’t just the French refugees that looked up to Calvin, but also number of the reform-minded Swiss merchants and traders. Many of them were goldsmiths, part of an industry that had given Geneva the reputation of being a centre for gold jewellery-making in Europe. However, this was an industry that was at odds with the new work ethic preached by Calvin (known popularly as Calvinism), where the emphasis was on hard work, discipline and frugality. Making of gold jewellery was equated with Catholic ostentatiousness, and was frowned upon. So, over a period, the skilled craftsmen in the Geneva jewellery business shifted their attention to the nascent watch industry set up in Geneva by the Huguenots. Watchmaking was equated with being punctual, an essential part of Calvinism’s work ethic, and thus was born the Swiss watch industry.
As Calvinism spread to the smaller towns and mountain villages in the areas around Geneva, so did the watch industry. It was helped along by the fact that many of these places would be cut off from the other parts of the country by winter snow, which meant that the watchmakers could work undisturbed for months in winter producing timepieces, which would then be sold all over Europe in summer.
By the year 1700, Geneva alone was making 50,000 timepieces a year, and over the next 100 years, the industry had spread all across the north west of the country, all the way up to Basel and Schaffhausen on the German border. By the early 19th century, Switzerland had replaced Britain as the world’s largest maker of timepieces. Names like Breguet, Longines, Blancpain, Gallet & Co, Vacheron Constantin, Favre Leuba and Jaquet-Droz were already well established as industry leaders by the 1850s.
Every year, Switzerland plays host to two of the world’s biggest watch shows. The salon international De La Haute Horlogerie, or SIHH takes place in the country’s second-largest city Geneva in January and features brands that are part of the world’s largest watchmaking group Richemont, along with some independent luxury watch brands. Baselworld, which takes place in March in the small town of Basel, is a much bigger show featuring watch and jewellery makers from around the world, attracting more than 100,000 visitors every year. The two cities, Geneva in the south west of Switzerland and Basel, 200 km to the in north west, bookend the country’s famous watchmaking region, geographically speaking. This stretch of the country is sometimes referred to as the Swiss `watch valley’. Bordering France in the west, much of it is literally in a valley surrounded by the Jura Mountains, a sub-alpine mountain range that is part of the western Alps.
The stunningly beautiful area, which is populated with mountain villages, lakes, rivers and vineyards (also referred to as Swiss Jura Arc) accounts for more than 90 per cent of the 25 million or so watches that the country produces every year. The tourism-conscious Swiss have now turned the whole region into a 200-km long watchmaking heritage trail that starts in Geneva and ends in Basel, with 38 stages along the way, where one can visit the facilities of many watch companies and their museums.
The watch museum in La Chaux de Fonds
Geneva, of course, is where the Swiss watch industry was born, and it continues to be its biggest centre. But as one moves north, much of the action is concentrated around three small towns in the Jura mountains, the two UNESCO world heritage cities of Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds, and the town of Neuchatel. Among the brands that have facilities in Le Locle are Mido, Zodiac, Tissot, Ulysse Nardin, Zenith, Montblanc and Certina, while La Chaux-de-Fonds is home to the likes of Breitling, Ebel, Corum, Graham, Greubel Forsey, Ernest Borel, Eberhard & Co, Girard-Perregaux, Daniel JeanRichard and TAG Heuer. Neuchatel, where the great watchmaker and inventor Abraham-Louis Breguet was born, provides the base for bands like Bulgari, Rodolphe and Hautlence. Geneva, which is still referred to as Calvin’s city, provides the headquarters to the likes of Chopard, Patek Philippe, Rolex, Piaget, Baume & Mercier, Frederique Constant, Alpina and Vacheron Constantin. Vallee de Joux or rock valley, 50 km north of Geneva, is another critical watch region that is home to the manufacturing facilities of the likes of Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, Breguet, Patek Philippe & Co., Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre. The other major watch related towns in the region include Fleurier (Parmigiani), Biel/Bienne (Omega) and Saint Imier (Longines).
UNESCO Heritage city of La Chaux de Fonds
Switzerland is home to over 100 watch companies, big and small, luxury and mass, all of which exported more than 25 million pieces last year worth upwards of $19 billion. Since most of the watch companies are privately owned, it is difficult to compare the sizes of the big players. A few years ago, Worldtempus, a much-respected watch information site, ranked the top ten players in the following order based on their estimated sales — Rolex, Cartier, Omega, Longines, Patek Philippe, Tissot, TAG Heuer, Swatch, IWC and Breguet. Last year, Statista, the respected international site for business statistics, did a ranking based on their brand value across the world. Rolex again topped the rankings, with a valuation of 7.25 billion Swiss Francs, followed by Omega, Patek Philippe, Chopard, Longines, Breguet, Audemars Piguet, Tissot, Vacheron Constantin, Swatch and IWC.