A mechanical watch is an extremely complex item, and requires a number of quite different skills to take it from the designer’s brain to the wearer’s wrist.
Watchmaking was originally a highly-skilled craft performed in individual workshops. By the 17th century, the concept of the division of labour began to gain ground. This is a complex system which breaks down one large task into many different subtasks, with each worker assigned a particular subtask which he is required to carry out over and over again. This specialisation of labour was a boon for Swiss watchmakers: they were able to improve productivity and could react more quickly to burgeoning demand for their wares. Many craftsmen became highly-skilled at producing one particular watch part. Much of this work was performed at home. In Neuchâtel, entire families were employed by the watch industry. The work was a welcome source of income in this remote part of Switzerland, particularly for the farming community during the lean months of winter. The watchmakers then would collect and assemble the parts back in their workshop.
By the end of the 19th century, Switzerland was one of the most industrialised countries in the world. However, this process was predicated on a high degree of standardisation and advances in the field of mechanics. For watchmaking in Switzerland, industrialisation led to the adoption of new working practices and new methods of production, meaning more machinery and less manpower. Technological advances in the 20th century would further change the face of watchmaking. One such advance was the electronic quartz wristwatch. Today, 90% of watches made in Switzerland are quartz, but mechanical watches, the remaining 10%, account for over half the exports in terms of value. The modern Swiss watch industry still adheres to the division of labour principle and has become ever more specialised.
A company which buys in the basic parts, assembles them, and sells the final product under its own name is known by another French word as an «établisseur». A «termineur», on the other hand, is an independent workshop or watchmaker who assembles watches for a company which supplies the components and which markets the final product. Central to the organisation of the modern watch industry is production of the ébauche (another French term). This is a set of about 60 loose parts, making up most of the internal mechanism of the watch.