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  A short tale of history  
   
From the roots until today's achievements...
 

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 jewellers to turn into a new, independent craft : watchmaking. By the end of the century, Genevan watches were already reputable for their high quality, and watchmakers created in 1601 the Watchmakers' Guild of Geneva, the first to be established anywhere.

One century later and because Geneva was already crowded with watchmakers, many of them decided to leave the city for the receptive region of the Jura Mountains.

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

The centuries were rich in inventions and new developments. In 1770, Abraham-Louis Perrelet created the "perpetual" watch (in French "Montre à secousses"), the forerunner of the modern self-winding watch. In 1816, Louis Moinet presented the first chronograph called "compteur de tierces". In 1842, pendant winding watches were invented by Adrien Philippe, one of the founders of the famous Patek Philippe watch company. At the same time began the production of complicated watches and the introduction of special features such as the perpetual calendar, the fly-back hand and chronographs.

 



The Jura Mountains with its various watchmaking centres

The mass production of watches began at the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the researches and new technologies introduced by reputable watchmakers such as Frédéric Ingold and Georges Léchot. The increase of the productivity, the interchangeability of parts and the standardization progressively led the Swiss watch industry to its world supremacy.

The end of World War I corresponds to the introduction of the wristwatch which soon became very popular. Its traditional round shape was generally adopted in 1960. In 1926, the first self-winding wristwatch was produced in Grenchen, the first electrical watches being introduced later in 1952.

In 1967, the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) in Neuchâtel developed the world first quartz wristwatch - the famous Beta 21. Since then, major technical developments followed without interruption: LED and LCD displays, Swatch, quartz wristwatch without battery, etc.

Since more than four centuries now, tradition, craftmanship, high technologies and permanent innovation have allowed Swiss watchmaking industry to keep its leadership in the world watch market. Because or thanks to the different crisis it had to go through, Swiss watchmaking industry has always been in a position to answer the many technological, economical and structural challenges it was confronted with. Its exceptional dynamism and creative power have made it a state-of-the-art industry, and the many inventions or world records in its possession are so many evidences : the first wristwatch, the first quartz watch, the first water resistant wristwatch, the thinnest wristwatch in the world, the smallest or the most expensive watch in the world, etc.



Compared to today's quartz movements (left), the Beta 21 model (right), the first quartz movement for wrist watches with analog display, seems a veritable antique

 
 
The Swiss watch industry today
 

The watch and clock industry, Switzerland's third largest exporter after the machine and chemical industries, has only one market : The World. Swiss made timepieces are to be found in all the countries of the globe. And, what is no less surprising, to suit all pockets, or almost so : from quartz fashion watches for a modest price to mechanical masterpieces, made of gold and decorated with precious stones, costing several million francs. It is this wide variety and its worldwide vocation which together have ensured the survival of the industry over the course of centuries.

Structures

Historically, the Swiss watch and clock industry has always had a specialized horizontal structure in which suppliers, craftsmen and sub-contractors supply movements and external parts to assemblers called "établisseurs", who put the final product together. However, to a lesser extent, the industry has also developed a vertically integrated structure in which watches and clocks are sometimes made entirely by the same company, in this case called a "manufacture".

During the 1970s and early 1980s, technological upheavals (appearance of the quartz technology) and the difficult economic situation resulted in a reduction in the size of the industry : the number of employees fell from some 90,000 in 1970 to a little over 30,000 in 1984, a figure which has remained stable over the last thirteen years (40,000 employees in 2004) while the number of companies decreased from about 1,600 in 1970 to about 600 now.

The average number of employees per company has remained constant, at just under 70 people per company in 2004, as in 1970. The great majority of watch companies are small sized companies (employing less than 100 people) while a very little number (less than 10) are each employing over 500 people.

Products

One of the great strengths of the Swiss watch and clock industry, by comparison with its foreign competitors, is its ability to offer the consumer a genuinely comprehensive choice of products.

Would you like a mechanical watch (handwound or automatic) or a quartz watch (with analog or digital display) ?

Do you prefer a diamond-set watch of precious metal or one made of stainless steel, wood, plastic or even high tech ceramic ?

Are your more attracted by a sober classic appearance, a sporty look or a fashionable and trendy design ?

Whatever you want, you will always find something to satisfy you amongst the products of the Swiss watch industry. And if you prefer an alarm or other type of clock to a wristwatch, you will have difficulty in choosing from amongst the vast range of models offered by the Swiss manufacturers of this type of product.

Markets and Competition

While the Swiss watch industry is present all over the world (it exports nearly 95% of its production), it does not carry equal weight everywhere.

Asia and Oceania take 56% of Swiss watch exports in value, Europe 29%, Americas 14% and Africa 1%...and the top fifteen countries represent over 82% of these exports.

With their worldwide reputation for quality and styling, Swiss watches are not however the only ones to compete for the favours of customers. They have many competitors in the markets, the most serious of these being the Japanese and Hong Kong producers.

In Short

According to a number of economic analysts, the Swiss watch industry was moribond in the middle of the 1970s, having missed out the electronic revolution and being strongly affected by the economic crisis.

But what is the situation now, thirty years later ? Having successfully completed its structural reconversion, the watch industry is today, as it was yesterday, one of the brightest stars in the Swiss economic firmament. Better still, during the last five or six years, it has taken the leading position amongst the country's most successful industries, breaking its own records in exporting each year and going from 4.3 billion francs in 1986 to 19.3 billion in 2011.

 
 


The Origins
The Industry Today
       
   

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Last update : September 25, 2013