Switzerland - The Watch Story
Written by Marton Radkai
The label ‘Swiss Made’ stands for quality. When it comes to Swiss watches, however, it may be a misnomer because that particular industry is concentrated in the country’s French-speaking regions.
Switzerland owes its extraordinary watchmaking savvy to the particularly harsh climate of the Jura Mountains, which extend in a graceful arc along the French border all the way to the Rhine and beyond. While watchmakers and jewellers were already busy in Geneva during the 16th and 17th centuries, it was on these high-altitude, windswept plains that the craft grew from a lucrative sideline to a full-blown industry that would supply watches and components to, the whole world.
The Jurassiens, be they in France or in Switzerland, are rightfully proud of their traditional handcrafting skills. The remoteness of the villages compounded by the long, cold, snowy but very luminous winters meant that generation after generation had to survive by their wits and their ability to work with their hands. Inventing and building tools and items for daily use was critical, and local museums are filled with evidence of their genial tinkering. It is almost surprising, though, that such powerful limbs, calloused from soil-tilling, wood-chopping, stone-cutting, and building, should ultimately be used to perform one of the most refined and delicate crafts ever practised.
What the job does require, however, is patience, persistence, order, and inner calm; all qualities that come from a proximity to nature. “I knew watchmakers who could identify all the birdsongs; others knew where the best mushrooms were,” recalls Jean-Claude Biver, head of the watch division at LVMH, from his days leading Blancpain. “Others would tell me whether the milk they were drinking was from an Alpine cow or one fed on winter hay!”
Watchmaking is concentrated in two core areas of the Swiss Jura. The first, referred to as ‘Watch Valley’, lies about a one-hour drive northeast of Geneva. It straddles the cold and bountiful waters of Joux Lake, and already had some industry – glassmaking, ironworks, charcoal-burning – before taking on watchmaking in the early 18th century. The second area is much larger and encompasses the mountains above Neuchâtel and a forbidding region beyond, known as the Free Mountains, which was opened tax-free in 1380 to anyone bold enough to settle in this harsh landscape.
Legend has it that when a local horse trader returned home from abroad with a broken pocket watch, a young smithy from La Sagne named Daniel Jeanrichard not only managed to repair it but went on to build a new one for himself. To do so, however, he had to manufacture his own tools – notably a machine to make the crucial gear wheels – something watchmaker apprentices are still expected to do. The year was 1681.
In 1705, Daniel Jeanrichard moved to Le Locle with his family, all of whom were now trained watchmakers. Apprentices came to his workshop, learned the trade, and went back into their villages, and thus the craft spread to the valleys and villages of the Jura as a lucrative activity to pursue during the winter, when heavy snow put a stop to farming and icy winds cleared the sky of clouds. These farmer-watchmakers would set up their établis (workshops) in southern windows cut into the façades of their large farmhouses, a strange asymmetric feature quite visible to this day.
This cottage industry was well organised for efficiency. Different families focused on making specific components, such as wheels, bridges, and mainplates to hold the wheels, the escapement (the unit that controls the energy from the mainspring), dials, hands, and the cases. All these components had to be assembled and decorated before being carried to the markets.
Innovating was a natural evolution of this activity. Watches not only told the time, but featured ‘complications’, such as calendars, or repeater mechanisms that could ring out the hours, quarter hours, or even minutes. Moon phases were another favourite, and later even automatons that performed little ballets or would strike bells. “The Joux Valley is known as the ‘birthplace of horological complications’,” says François-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet, which has been in the valley since 1875. “The unyielding environment shaped the watchmakers, pushing them to become masters during extreme winters spent inside working on watch movements, and their reputation now precedes them around the world.”
Some names stand out, like Abraham-Louis Perrelet (1729–1826), who invented an automatic winding mechanism with an oscillating weight activated by the user’s movements – almost ironic considering Perrelet’s phenomenal longevity (97 years). He also improved wheel cutters and invented an early pedometer. As for Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747–1823) from Neuchâtel, he made a career for himself in Paris as a supplier of watches to kings, queens, and the Bonapartes. His inventions include special gongs for repeaters, the use of decorative guilloché engraving on dials, a special hairspring to regulate the watch, and the tourbillon (see sidebar).
The Industrial Revolution and the concentration of labour transformed the industry forever. It began with Frédéric Japy, a Frenchman, who opened a factory of ébauches, or kits, that other watchmakers could buy, rebuild, and decorate as they pleased. It is at the origin of companies such as ETA, Soprod, and Sellita, which supply most of today’s brands with basic movements.
Standardisation also meant mass production, which dovetailed perfectly with the consumerism of a wealthy middle class following the French Revolution. Entrepreneurs started opening manufactures, some of which still exist nowadays. Baume et Mercier started in Les Bois in 1830, for example. Longines opened in 1832 in the dark Valley of Saint-Imier and was joined later by the chronograph experts Tag Heuer (1860) and Breitling (1884). Zenith opened in Le Locle in 1865. Following a fire in 1794, La Chaux-de-Fonds was entirely rebuilt along the best lines for natural lighting of watch factories.
Creative engineering and the art of presenting time persist to this day in the Jura. The Joux Valley has over 40 companies in various segments, including leading luxury brands such as Blancpain, Breguet, Audemars Piguet, and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Even the dyed-in-the-wool Genevan Patek Philippe opened a factory here to tap into the local know-how.
“The Jura has always been considered a crucial partner in watchmaking,” says Jacky Epitaux, co-founder of the exclusive Rudis Sylva brand, which is still made the old-fashioned way using individual suppliers. “We often speak of brand DNA, but the DNA is also in the location where our watches are made; it’s in the air, in the earth, in the genetic code of the people who work and create here.”
The connection to location is indeed key to their creativity. The établis in the companies today are clean and dust-free, almost like a biotech lab. The employees even wear white smocks. But amazingly, year after year, working quietly in a miniature world of screws and plates and jewels, they inevitably come up with new ways to actually reproduce the solar system on people’s wrists. This is perhaps the gift of a land that is a bit closer to the stars, where the air is just a bit clearer than elsewhere. As Epitaux puts it: “A writer or musician will thrive in Paris, London or New York; our watchmaking thrives best right here in the Jura.”
Among the greatest virtuosos of the watchmaking craft is Christophe Claret. Born in Lyon, France, in 1962, he trained in Switzerland and then opened a manufacture in Le Locle. He mostly supplied brands with special complications before launching his own line of extremely complicated models. The DualTow, for example, features hours and minutes on two tracks, while the recent Margot watch for women has an ingenious mechanism which ‘picks’ the petals of the central flower.
Blancpain, originally founded in 1735 by Jehan-Jacques Blancpain in Villeret, is Switzerland’s oldest brand. It was revived in Le Brassus in the early 1980s by Jean-Claude Biver and Jacques Piguet, who boldly manufactured very high-end models like the 1735. Jean-Claude Biver later took over the niche brand Hublot in 2005 and turned it into one of the horological powerhouses of Switzerland. The company is known for its exuberant ‘Big Bang’ family, which combines rare materials with highly complicated models.
A native of the Jura soil, Michel Parmigiani started off as a restorer, which gave him extremely deep insight into horological history. He went from a one-man operation to a manufacture thanks to a sizable investment by the Sandoz Family Foundation. Parmigiani watches balance technology with a keen sense of aesthetics. They range from the understated, like the Tonda 1950 or Metrograph series, to sophisticated pieces like the Toric Quaestor Labyrinthe the Kalpa Tourbillon.
Tourbillon – a whirlwind romance
Among the various complications available for high-end watches – minute repeaters, moon phases, perpetual calendars, chronographs, etc. – the tourbillon (whirlwind) reigns supreme. Its purpose originally was to increase precision. Pocket watches would stay in one position for a long time in the wearer’s pocket. It was Abraham-Louis Breguet who suspected that gravity might affect the functioning of the escapement, the assembly responsible for regulating the energy from the mainspring. So he placed it inside a cage that turned, thus changing its position with respect to the earth.
With wristwatches, the tourbillon is moot. However, it has become representative of watchmaking virtuosity and can easily raise the price of a watch above six figures. Among the greatest tourbillon builders are Greubel Forsey from La Chaux-de-Fonds, with watches comprising four tourbillons, some inclined, that run at different speeds. Harry Winston has produced the Histoire de Tourbillon family that explores this feature in depth. And independent Thomas Prescher has created double-axis and triple-axis tourbillons that are mind-boggling works of engineering art.
Distance: 4,629 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 30 minutes