Watchmaking schools were, and continue to be, instrumental in safeguarding the glowing reputation of the Swiss watch industry across the world. It is thanks to these institutions that each new generation of watchmakers is able to master age-old techniques alongside state-of-the-art technologies, and understands the importance of innovation.
The early years
Following calls from watch producers, the first Swiss watchmaking school was founded in 1824 in Geneva; over the next few decades others would open in Neuchâtel and Bern. Since watchmaking in Switzerland at that time amounted to a highly decentralised cottage industry, it was particularly important to keep track of every stage of this complex production process. Generally speaking, watchmaking schools then offered a three-year course which combined theoretical studies with practical training. However, very few students managed to graduate, leading many watch producers to withdraw their support, citing the overly theoretical emphasis of the teaching dispensed by the schools.
It was Jacques David, the technical director of Longines in Saint-Imier, who would shake up the watchmaking schools as well as the industry itself. In 1876 he returned home from the Philadelphia Universal Exhibition, convinced that the Swiss watchmaking industry needed to adopt the American model if it was to rise to the challenge of stiff foreign competition and rapid industrialisation. He recommended that the watchmaking schools should introduce machines in their training laboratories and instruct students on the fundamentals of mechanics. David’s visionary ideas did not sit well with the schools’ conservative approach to education. Not one to give up easily, the far-sighted engineer decided that Longines, which was based in the village of Saint-Imier, should set up its own in-house training centre. Before long, all watchmaking schools in Switzerland had adopted the “Saint-Imier model”.
A very modern education
Nowadays, all professional watchmakers re training programmes combine classroom-based teaching and practical training in a company. Trainee watchmakers have three routes to choose from, the most popular of which is the Advanced Federal Certificate programme at one of the six watchmaking schools, dotted along the arc jurassien (Biel, Geneva, Le Locle, Le Sentier, Porrentruy and Grenchen). The second option is courses run by the watch companies’ own in-house training centres. Third, and finally, adult education providers and the CPIH (Convention Patronale de l’Industrie Horlogère Suisse) offer special watchmaking training programmes.