|Watches in Switzerland: history
Although Switzerland is nowadays so closely associated with watches, it was not always so. A slow beginning was followed by a gradual rise to dominance, succeeded by what threatened to be a catastrophic decline, before a dramatic turnaround at the end of the 20th century.
The pioneer nations in clock and watch development were Italy, Germany, France, England and the Netherlands, where clocks were in demand either as luxury items for wealthy monarchs and aristocrats, or as precision instruments for scientific purposes, first and foremost for determining longtitude at sea. The Swiss had no aristocracy and were indeed known – and in some places mocked – for their austerity; nor did they have ships exploring unknown oceans.
There was a flourishing industry in Geneva by the beginning of the 17th century which continued to prosper, in part thanks to the austere rule of Jean Calvin, who had banned ostentatious shows of wealth, forcing jewelers to turn their skills to watchmaking instead.
Geneva remained the centre for design and marketing both before and after it joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815. But manufacturing spread to other areas as well, in particular to Canton Neuchâtel.
Swiss craftsmen also travelled abroad to study and to exercise their skills. Undoubtedly the best known is Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823), born in Neuchâtel, who trained in Versailles and who settled permanently in Paris after a lengthy stay in London. He is regarded by some as the greatest watchmaker of all time. He invented or developed a number of important additions to watch design, including the tourbillon (a device which enables the gear train to function smoothly irrespective of gravity) and the self-winding watch (developing an idea commonly attributed to another Swiss, Abraham-Louis Perrelet (1729-1826)).
Development of the industry
The Swiss (or rather, Genevans,) not only kept at the forefront of innovation, they were also good at commerce and this ability was backed by their banking system. From the beginning, production was export-orientated. A class of merchants developed who specialised in the watch trade, and who could report back on the tastes of different countries.
Initially the watchmakers copied – indeed, pirated - French and English designs, producing them more cheaply, thanks to more efficient production methods, and marketing them successfully. As the industry took hold, they started creating their own designs.
The component parts were made in people's homes or in small workshops in villages around Geneva, under the system known as homeworking. (See: Watch Valley) They were then returned to the craftsmen of Geneva for the finishing touches.
For many years watches were not the relatively austere items that we know today. They were not worn on the wrist (wristwatches only became popular in the 20th century), but on chains, in the pocket, looped through a belt etc. They were as much articles of jewelry as practical timekeepers.
One of the Genevan strengths was in decoration, and this made their wares all the more attractive. The technique of applying a layer of transparent enamel over a painting was invented in the city in 1760, and used to enhance clocks and watches.
Another skill which was exploited in the clock and watch industry was the making of automata, or machines that imitated living creatures. In the simplest form this could simply be a figure whose moving arms pointed to the time, but more complex designs included whole animated scenes. Later, sound was added to movement: at first chiming bells, and later tunes, on the principle of the musical box.
Starting in the 17th century, and growing in importance in the 18th and 19th centuries, Asia was an important market for Swiss clocks and watches. The Genevans started off in Constantinople (where Rousseau's father, Isaac, became official timer in charge of the clocks in the Topkapi Palace), and later expanded to China, where their wares became popular among the Qing dynasty aristocracy in the middle of the 18th century. Exports to China reached a peak in the decade 1810-20, to virtually collapse with the outbreak of the Opium War in 1839.
Watches were adapted to meet the needs and tastes of their customers. Watches with automata were particularly appreciated in Turkey and China, and many of them were given a specifically local touch for this market.
For the Chinese market clocks were made in pairs, probably because it was a Chinese custom to make gifts of two of any item. English merchants were also well aware of the practice, but the Genevans took it one step further, reversing the decoration on their pieces so that they mirrored each other.
In the 19th century they made "Rajah watches" for India, creating enamel portraits based on photographs sent to them for this purpose.
Not all clockmakers had happy experiences. Rudolf Stadler of Zurich, who worked for the King of Persia in the middle of the 17th century, was slandered by a local business rival and executed – something the king immediately regretted, especially since his watch soon stopped working and no-one could repair it. Stadler's tomb can still be seen in the Armenian cemetery in Isfahan.
The 19th century
A major breakthrough in Swiss watch production came in the early 1840s when Georges-Auguste Leschot (1800-84), the technical director of the firm of Vacheron Constantin, invented a series of machine tools able to make watch components – something previously thought impossible. The new watches could be produced in much greater numbers and were far more accurate and much cheaper, although Leschot still insisted that every part should be worked on by hand.
Swiss watchmaking went from strength to strength during the 19th century. By the middle of the century they had overtaken the British both in manufacturing and sales and were the world's major producer.