Watchmaking – on the cutting edge of time.

For centuries, Switzerland has been world-renowned for its watches. This was not always the case: When mechanical timekeeping started back in the 14th century, Switzerland lagged far behind the times.

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Watchmaking only began in Switzerland after the Huguenot refugees brought the manufacture of portable timepieces to Geneva in the second half of the 16th century. At that time, Geneva, the city of Calvin, was a veritable boom town.

Alternative to jewellery

One of the main driving forces behind the city’s economic prosperity were the city’s goldsmiths. Under the strict rule of Calvin, who rejected any display of wealth, the wearing of jewellery was banned thus forcing these craftsmen to find new outlets for their creative talents – and so they discovered watchmaking. This created a new skill, and watches were then exported to the Orient and the American colonies.

Spread throughout Switzerland

In the beginning, watchmaking innovation and production were mainly concentrated in Geneva. This soon spread over the Jura mountains to other regions. 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 cantons of Solothurn and Bern. 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.

Switzerland becomes a watchmaking nation

The Swiss watch industry continued to flourish during the 19th century. By the middle of the century the Swiss had overtaken the English to become the world’s most important watch manufacturers. The first true competitor to the Swiss emerged in the second half of the 19th century, when the American watch manufacturing industry started to mass produce watch components. These were so accurate that they were used for a variety of models. The consequences for the Swiss watch industry was devastating: In 10 years, the export of Swiss watches to the U.S. fell by 75%. This was a hard blow for Swiss watch manufacturers, who responded to the changing market with the manufacture of industrial, precision mechanical components.


In the early 20th century Swiss watchmakers added additional features to their watches such as calendars and stop watch functions with the aim of restoring the competitiveness of the Swiss products. In the 1920s, Rolex made its first waterproof watch, while in 1926 in Grenchen in Canton Solothurn the first automatic watch was made. These remarkable innovations in the field of mechanics and production gave a boost to Switzerland’s domestic watch industry. The Swiss watchmakers were back and for the next few decades occupied the top spot in the world watch market.

Missed opportunity

The 20th century’s greatest revolution in the watch industry passed Switzerland by. Although the first quartz watch was developed at the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH – Centre for Electronic Watches) in Neuchâtel in 1967, the Swiss companies missed this opportunity to make money out of this innovation. The ongoing developments were left to others to do, and the Japanese and Americans made great strides forward while the Swiss limited their afforts to the development and improvement of mechanical watches. The development of quartz watches led to a drop in demand for traditional watches and, by the mid 1970’s, it seemed as if the bell was tolling for the Swiss watch industry.

Swatch and the recovery

The Swiss watch industry did make a return to the leading position in the global watch market – and this was by an unlikely source: An economic adviser re-invented the watch – and the watch was reborn as a fashion accessory. The Swatch, the analogue quartz watch, which combines high quality with a low price, was first presented to the public in 1983 and since then it has been copied a million times. Without a doubt, the Swatch saved the Swiss watch market and helped boost the Swiss watch industry. 30 years after the crisis, the conversion of Swiss watch production has been a success and the watchmaking industry is once again one of the most prosperous economic sectors in the country.

Watch Valley

For more than a century, 90% of Swiss watch production was concentrated in the Jura Arc. This region has fostered its common identity as Watch Valley – the Land of Precision. The approx. 200 km Watchmaking Route heritage trail was launched at the start of the 21st century. The 38 stages of this route form a pilgrimage to the most famous watch manufacturers and specialised museums, where watchmaking secrets are revealed and unique masterpieces are on display. There is something for everyone here – watches, clocks, pocket watches, table clocks and chimes. Watchmaking is the central theme of this journey but this tradition-rich, cultural region also boasts scenic beauty. Paradoxically, this is an idyllic setting where one loses track of time. Lakes, mountains, vineyards and picturesque villages invite you to linger.

Machine tools

Not only watchmaking, but a number of machine-tool factories have also provided work in Watch Valley – and still do. Some of these factories are world leaders in the production of specialised niche products. Vallorbe in Canton Vaud prides itself on being the world capital for precision files, while Moutier in Canton Jura has been renowned since 1880 for making automatic lathes with adjustable spindle heads – an invention which has revolutionised watchmaking.

Music boxes and music machines

The history of watchmaking is closely linked to the development of mechanical musical instruments. The knowledge of how to construct complex timepieces was applied to mankind’s dream of being able to make machines as automatic helpers. Thus, for example, the Jaquet-Droz brothers and their helpers constructed three androids in 1770, which were presented to the public in 1774. The success must have been incredible. A contemporary account stated that people were making pilgrimages there and that the gardens and squares were full of coaches. For more than a century, the androids toured Europe and could be seen for an entrance fee. At the beginning of 1796 the Geneva watchmaker Antoine Favre of the Geneva Société des Arts presented his music box: a new style of musical device which "plays two tunes and imitates the sound of the mandolin, incorporated in the lower part of a normal size cigarette case". Favre's invention was based on a rotating roller with pins that plucked thin steel plates. The music box factories in Geneva and the Vallée de Joux developed from the Geneva watchmaking and jewellery industry into an independent sector in which the appearance of the music box grew in importance. They developed complex housings, veneers, inlays and carvings in order to give the music box a noble character. In the second half of the 19th century, the music box industry in Geneva, the Vallée de Joux, Sainte-Croix and the entire Jura reached its climax. Music box manufacturers rapidly became successful and became major employers in the region. The music box evolved into a speciality and became an export success for the Swiss economy in the second half of the 19th century and shaped the image of a modern and technically innovative Switzerland.
©F. Bertin ©F. Bertin

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