: Geographical History of Watchmaking (Switzerland)
TEXT Francis Cheung

The place of birth of a brand is often mentioned in their communications, or signed on the dial or movement of a watch, to distinguish themselves more accurately under the realm of “Swiss made” watches. In a two part feature, we will first be looking into the historical significance behind some of these locations, and the geographical spread of modern watch manufacturers and independent watchmakers in Switzerland, before turning to the rest of the world in our second installment.

For your reference, you may refer to  the map embedded below that we have put together, pinpointing the locations of manufacturers located in Switzerland, starting with the place that many now consider the home of fine watchmaking: Geneva.

You may use the button on the upper-left corner to navigate through brands alphabetically. 

Lake Geneva, Switzerland

Geneva

Filled with skilled goldsmiths and enamellers from the 15th century, Geneva was known for its jewellery crafts. Under John Calvin’s reformation, and his strong religious beliefs, jewellery was considered a form of idolatry, and therefore banned, leaving all the artisans and craftsmen to turn their hands and minds towards watchmaking, and consequently working with the French from across the border, who possessed the know-how to create these mechanical devices.

Over time, Geneva would gradually build a reputation for producing a variety of horological instruments; such fame soon spread and attracted counterfeit products that wanted to take advantage of the prestigious name. The Poinçon de Genève, or Geneva Seal was introduced in 1886 to ensure the origin and the quality of the watch, and at the same time protect watchmakers and craftsmen within the canton.

Although there are now a number of certificates for levels of finishing and chronometer performance in use in the industry, it is worth mentioning that the admission prerequisites for obtaining a Geneva Seal only requires the watch to be assembled and adjusted within the canton of Geneva (notwithstanding the technical and functional requirements it imposes as well, which do add a significant cost to the production of the watch in question). So, for brands with a relatively large production scale, a relocation for the manufacturing facility would become reasonable and a more cost-effective option than operating one in Geneva. Despite the high running cost in large scale, there are still keen independents who respect the heritage and tradition and decide to set up their workshop in and around the canton of Geneva, namely François-Paul Journe and Rexhep Rexhepi, in addition to the well known names such as Patek Philippe, Rolex and Vacheron Constantin.

Vallée de Joux, Pmau / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Vallée de Joux

Located within Vaud, a canton north of Geneva, is the renown Vallée de Joux, a place that originated with iron and other blacksmith industries, and is now commonly referred to as the “home of watchmaking”. In the 18th century, it began with the manufacturing of large clocks, and because of the increased interest in pocket watches, watchmakers trained in Geneva would return to the Vallée de Joux, passing on their skills to the locals.

So that they can better use their time during the snowy winter, when all agriculture activities ground to a halt, farmers would utilize the higher floors of their farmhouses for better lighting, set up their workbench, and start making the ébauche (basic movement) of a watch. Through generations of effort and development, they expanded their skills from crafting wheels, bridges, springs, to some more elaborated complications. Hence, for a period of time, Geneva would rely on the  Vallée de Joux to supply components and high complexity calibres.

Brands such as Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Vacheron Constantin and some others would eventually settle their manufacturing facilities around tranquil villages, such as Le Brassus. As of independents, there are Romain Gauthier and Philippe Dufour in nearby Le Sentier, and in fact, Mr Dufour himself was born in the Vallée de Joux, starting his career by repairing vintage watches locally, before establishing his own workshop in 1978.

La Chaux-de-Fonds,  Jérémy Toma / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

La Chaux-de-Fonds / Le Locle

North-East of the Vallée de Joux, situated below the French border and the Swiss Jura mountains, are two closely connected towns, Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds. Not the remote, countryside watchmaking setting you might picture, in fact, they are relatively urbanized and well-developed areas, thanks to the rise of mechanized production in watchmaking. Up until today, there is a good mix of manufacturing facilities from major brands, independents, and movement suppliers, as well as headquarters for other corporations that specialized in machinery, materials and finishing for the industry.

Historically, both towns were supported by agriculture and lace-making industries, but by the end of the 18th century, they were slowly replaced by watchmaking, soon becoming famous for their pocket watches and marine chronometers in the 19th century. An interesting side note is that Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis, from London, founded Lusitania in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1907, which was then renamed to Rolex one year after. All the factories built in recent years have been neatly distanced and arranged, with large windows facing the same direction, deliberately bringing in the natural light necessary for the watchmakers. As a result, a varied architectural cityscape has been created, with the two towns added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2009.

Swatch headquarter in Bienne, designed by Shigeru Ban Architects.

Bienne

Located just an hour’s drive from La Chaux-de-Fonds, Bienne (or Biel in German,) is a city within the canton of Bern and home to the Swatch Group, its subsidiary Omega, as well as part of Rolex. Bienne has been a key part of Swiss watchmaking since the 19th century, thanks to the former biggest Swiss watch industry group, Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie (ASUAG), who had its headquarter set up in the city.

Due to the quartz crisis during the 1970s, it would eventually merge with its French rival Societé Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH) in 1983, as a consequence of financial distress in both companies, then in 1998, it was renamed into what we know today as the Swatch Group. Though remaining in Bienne, Swatch and Omega updated and rebuilt their headquarters and factories, to meet the growing demand of their watches, and in 2019 the Swatch Group opened its new headquarters, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.

Schaffhausen, Switzerland

Apart from the major towns, there are also manufactures and watchmakers sparsely populated throughout Switzerland. Worthy mentions such as H. Moser & Cie and IWC in Schaffhausen, Parmigiani Fleurier and Kari Voutilainen in Fleurier are some of the more recognisable examples, with others scattered around other cantons in Switzerland, which can be seen in detail on the map we have created.

We hope the above information will give a clearer picture of the geographical spread and some interesting history behind the significant locations of Swiss watchmaking. If you would be interested in watch manufactures and watchmakers in the rest of the world, please stay tuned for the next article.