Swiss Luxury Watches History
Watchmaking in Switzerland first appeared in the mid-16th Century, initially as a response by goldsmiths to Calvinist reforms which prohibited the wearing of jewellery.
Unlike the English watch industry, which in the 18th and 19th centuries was driven by the demands of maritime exploration and trade, in Switzerland improvements to watch design were driven largely by fashion and taste. This placed the Swiss industry in a commanding position as watches became more affordable, and through the adoption of mass production technologies at the beginning of the 1900s Switzerland established its domination of the world watch market.
This domination continued until the 1970s, when the introduction of quartz technology, combined with integrated circuitry, decimated the Swiss industry. Competitors from the U.S., Japan, and Hong Kong were able to produce watches which were simultaneously much cheaper but also far more accurate, and in ten years Swiss exports fell from 40% of the world market to only 10%.
Factories were forced to close, and many brands consolidated or were bought out. Throughout the 1980s and to the present day, the Swiss watch industry underwent a remarkable transformation, on two fronts. Firstly, SMHi (one of the conglomerates formed by the merging of previously independent companies) introduced Swatch, a precision-engineered quartz analogue watch, which once again signalled Swiss dominance of the low-cost fashion market.
Partly on the back of this success (Swatch Group owns the Breguet, Blancpain, and Omega brands, amongst others), Swiss watchmaking then aggressively marketed itself as the epitome of “fine timekeeping.” The notion of Swiss-made luxury was carefully managed and assiduously protected: in order to claim “Swiss Made” at least 60% of components by value must be Swiss, and assembly and inspection must take place in Switzerland. The success of this strategy is demonstrated by the statistic that in 2011, Switzerland manufactured only 2.6% of the world’s watches by volume, yet accounted for 54% of the market by value
Whilst it does not have the public recognition of brands such as Rolex or Patek Philippe, amongst watch connoisseurs and collectors Ulysse Nardin is regarded as one of the most innovative, having been awarded more patents than any other watchmaking company. Established in 1846, the company initially made marine chronometers before expanding to manufacture pocket and wristwatches.
Patents and prizes awarded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries attest to Ulysse Nardin’s reputation as the leading pocket chronometer maker, but after World War 2 the brand’s reputation diminished and it existed only as a minor player among the Swiss manufacturers.
This changed in 1983 when the company was acquired by Rolf Schnyder. In 1985 it unveiled the Astrolabium Galileo Galilei, which entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the most complex watch ever made, thus presenting the brand’s vision of itself once again as a leading Swiss watchmaker.
Nowadays the company is known for other innovations, particularly its perpetual calendars and jaquemarts, its “Freak” carousel tourbillon, and the use of synthetic materials such as silicium and polycrystalline diamond within its watch movements.
Bell & Ross
Bell and Ross was founded in 1993 by Bruno Belamich and Carlos Rosillo. Initially working in partnership with German watch manufacturer Sinn, the brand is known for large, legible displays intended to replicate aircraft instrumentation.
One of the youngest of the Swiss watch brands, Bell and Ross is now part-owned by Chanel and headquartered in Paris, though manufacture and assembly is based in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland. Unlike many other brands, including newer entrants to the market such as Urwerk and MB&F, Bell and Ross has not attempted to make a name for itself through the design of new complications.
Instead it has sought to establish its reputation through association with organisations such as Recherche Assiance Intervention Dissuasion (RAID), the French counterterrorism unit, and Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie National, the French hostage rescue unit (Hahn, 2012). In this way the company has become known as a maker of tough, reliable, and overtly masculine watches.
The “Ebauche” Tradition
The high number of Swiss luxury watch brands also disguises another aspect of the industry, namely the production of mechanical watch movements by what is known as the “ebauche” tradition.
Luxury watch brands pride themselves on their production of movements, and almost all incorporate complications manufactured in-house in their high-end and signature pieces. However, the majority of brands also use original equipment manufacturer (OEM) suppliers of movements in their lower price models, both to reduce costs and to concentrate on those aspects which bring most value to the brand, i.e., the design of the visible exterior of the watch.
In addition, the provisions of Swiss law require that a brand which claims its product is “Swiss Made” must use a Swiss movement. This has led to a situation in which only five manufacturers (ETA, Frederic Piguet, Sellita, TechnoTime and Zenith) supply movements to the whole of the Swiss industry.ii Thus, at least at the lower end of the market, many brands share the same internal movements, despite their dissimilar outward appearances.
The ebauche tradition is therefore an instrumental part of the production of artificial rarity, in that it allows the continuation of small, distinct brands which would otherwise be unable to manufacture highly sophisticated movements (Baker, 2000). However, it also plays a further role in the perception of exclusivity, in that it provides brands with platforms on which to create many variants of the same product.
The supply of movements by an OEM demands that brands incorporate a modular (rather than integrated) architecture within their designs, one in which, simplistically, the movement can be ‘dropped in’ to the watch case. This in turn allows brands to create small production runs of watches whose internal configuration, parts and assembly are identical. The power of a system in which multiple designs can be created using the same internal movement is illustrated.
In parallel to the strategy of small production runs, the Swiss watch industry also uses limited editions to artificially induce exclusivity. Limited editions may incorporate a new design, such as the Ulysse Nardin Tellurium J. Kepler, limited to 99 pieces, but are more typically variants of standard designs, incorporating new material or colour combinations such as the Ulysse Nardin Acqua Perpetual, limited to 500 pieces.
In both cases, production is limited to a predetermined number of pieces even if customer demand suggests that more units should be manufactured. This not only generates publicity (brands will often announce limited editions at major trade fairs such as Baselworld), it also ensures a second-hand market amongst collectors in which prices are kept high, further adding to the reputation of the brand.