Although Switzerland is nowadays synonymous with watchmaking, it was not always so. With the advent of mechanical timekeeping in the 14th century, Italy, Germany, France, England and the Netherlands were quick to capitalise on this innovation, becoming pioneers in the field. For over 200 years, these countries produced watches and clocks either as luxury items for their aristocracy, or as high-precision nautical instruments. So, how did Switzerland finally challenge their pre-eminence and become the world-renowned watchmaking centre that it is today?
Geneva: the cradle of Swiss watchmaking
The Swiss watchmaking tradition only truly began with the arrival of the Huguenots in the latter half of the 16th century. Fleeing religious persecution in their native France, many, among them master watch- and clockmakers, took refuge in nearby Geneva, the city of Calvin. At that time, Geneva was a veritable boomtown. One of the main driving forces behind its economic prosperity was the city’s renowned goldsmiths and enamellers. However, Calvin, who ruled Geneva with an iron first, forbade any display of wealth such as the wearing of jewellery, thus forcing these craftsmen to find new outlets for their creative talents. So, they turned their attention to watchmaking, cleverly combining the technical skills of the French with their own decorative expertise. Before long, word spread of their exquisite workmanship, and their timepieces became much sought-after across the world. Between 1770 and 1786 the Swiss watch- and clockmaking industry underwent rapid expansion. However, this golden age was to be short-lived: in 1798, France annexed Geneva, plunging the industry deep into crisis.
Time to move on
As demand grew, the watchmaking industry spread from Geneva to other parts of the country, first across villages along the Swiss Jura, then further east. In the 17th century, entire families in the canton of Neuchâtel were employed in the watchmaking industry, chiefly making pocket watches and scientific instruments. In the 1800s, Neuchâtel began producing pendulum clocks, which would rival those made in Paris for many decades. By the mid-19th century, watchmaking had spread to the German-speaking cantons of Solothurn and Berne. In 1890 around half of the watches and movements which Switzerland exported were produced in Saint-Imier (Bernese Jura), the Franches-Montagnes, Ajoie and Biel. By the turn of the last century, the reach of the Swiss watchmaking industry extended to Basle and Schaffhausen, two German-speaking cantons on the river Rhine.