The history of the Swiss watch is long and full of challenges. It had to go through a lot to be where it is today, the most highly regarded watches in the world. The Swiss watch industry first appeared in Geneva in the middle of the 16th century. Jean Calvin banned the wearing of jewels in 1541 which led to goldsmiths and jewelers turning to the craft of watchmaking. A century later Geneva became crowded with watchmakers so many of them left the city to the Jura mountains. It was here that a goldsmith by the name of Daniel Jeanrichard introduced the division of labor in watchmaking. By 1790 Geneva was already making and exporting more than 60,000 watches. For a few centuries watches were extremely expensive and were status symbols for the wealthy. These watches that were made in Geneva were hailed for their high quality and precision, leading up to today where they still are the most well known watches in the world. Many inventions and innovations helped in the history of the Swiss watch. The quality as well as the wide range of watches with a focus on technology and appearance helped build the Swiss watch image.
It was in the 19th century that the craft of making wristwatches became prevalent and when the term of “Swiss Made” was formally adopted. What sparked major interest for wristwatches was that in World War I many timepieces were too clunky for use so many soldiers wore a timepiece on their wrist by use of a strap or something of similar fashion. After WWI wristwatches became extremely popular and the traditional round shape was adopted around the world in 1960. Mass production of watches began at the start of the 20th century due to new technologies introduced. The increased productivity, interchangeability of parts, and standardization helped in the history of the Swiss watch to be where it is today. Switzerland is known for having created the first wristwatch, the first quartz watch, the first water resistant wristwatch, the thinnest wristwatch in the world, the smallest and the most expensive watch in the world.
But it wasn’t all well in the history of the Swiss Watch. During the 1970’s the industry suffered a reduction in size due to quartz technology and the harsh economic situation. Having missed out on the electronic revolution amidst being in an economic crisis the number of employees plummeted from ~90,000 in 1970 to around ~30,000 in 1984, remaining fairly stable till today (40,000 in 2004 with most companies employing less than 100 people). Since then the Swiss watch industry has again risen in popularity, thanked largely by their creativity, tradition, craftsmanship, technology, as well as their resilience.
Watchmaking makes up Switzerland’s third largest exports, after the machine and chemical industries. 95% of Swiss watches are exported around the world and they range from quartz watches to mechanical masterpieces. Nearly 90% of the watches made in Switzerland are electronic with the remaining 10% mechanical watches, although mechanical watches account for over half the exports in terms of value. The three biggest customers of Swiss watches are from the US, Hong Kong, and Europe (Italy, Germany, and France are leading customers). Having stood the test of time the industry still stands as one of the giants in Swiss economic enterprises and the history of the Swiss watch an inspirational story of rising to the challenge. It even broke its own records in exporting from 4.6 billion dollars in 1986 to over 20 billion in 2011! Switzerland is one of the world’s largest watch manufacturers today. In terms of value the industry accounts for half of the world’s production!