Most of the world’s best known brands, from Tag Heuer and Rolex to Omega and Patek Philippe, hail from Switzerland. But in a world where a Chinese watch can cost a fraction of the price, how does the Swiss watch industry not only survive, but thrive? Here, to unpack the secret to Switzerland’s success, we’ve created a timeline of the factors and brands that ensured its reputation as the “capital of time”. Just a stone’s throw from your hotel room in Geneva, discover the flagship shops of these illustrious watch brands when you stay with us at Hotel d’Angleterre.
Wrist watches become popular in WWI.
Several well-known Swiss watch companies have a head-start (thanks to a tradition of watchmaking that stretches back to 16th century Geneva) and capitalise on rocketing demand. This allows firms such as Longines, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin to aggressively court American consumers.
Winning big contracts to provide pilots in both the RAF and Luftwaffe with watches, Swiss timepieces are considered superior to others and that status sticks after the war. Switzerland also builds up a reputation for technological brilliance, maintaining several records, from the first watertight wristwatch to the priciest watch available to buy.
Quartz watches flood the market – mainly via Japanese companies – in the early 1970s and almost eliminate the traditional Swiss competition thanks to superior precision. Most Swiss brands stick by mechanical pieces, believing demand will remain strong.
Swatch is founded in 1983 by Nicolas Hayek as a response to the “Quartz Crisis”. Merging two weak companies, it soon leads the industry by producing quirky, modern designs that sit in a competitive price range. It also starts to sell watch parts to companies that do not produce them for themselves. Later, Swatch purchases companies that had flopped in previous decades and yet still possessed terrific heritage stories, such as Tissot.
These heritage brands advertise as watches for those in-the-know; the timepieces of the connoisseur, who sees a picture that’s bigger than chronological precision. The main principle is that hand-crafted watches assure users of superior reliability, shock-resistance and wear-and-tear.
After huge investment, these heritage brands soar. Customer knowledge of the production processes increases. This means many now appreciate the fact that original equipment is often used in effects from guillochage (the process that creates decorative patterns) to making dials. Watches feel more personalised and unique, allowing prices to increase and heritage brands to stay afloat.
If you’d like to see some Swiss timepieces in person, take a stroll around the horological heartland of Geneva or spend some time gazing over the Jet d’Eau, where the nearby Hotel D’Angleterre can also be found.