Even those who know little about watches have heard that Swiss watch manufacturers create the most precise, high-quality wristwatches on the market. In fact, many of the world’s most prestigious watch brands are based in Switzerland.
What is it about Swiss watches that give them so much prestige and has led to the high retail prices found for models from Rolex, Patek Philippe, and co.?
Swiss Watch Manufacturers – A Long History in Horology
Over the years, Switzerland has established itself as the home of high-quality luxury watches. In contrast to the rest of the world, the highest concentration of prestigious watch brands has their home in a comparatively small country. Among these high-class names are manufacturers like:
- Patek Philippe
- Audemars Piguet
- Vacheron Constantin
- TAG Heuer
- Jaeger LeCoultre
- and more
Their products are internationally known to have the most luxurious designs, complex machinations, modern technologies, and top-of-the-line functionality. These Swiss watches dominate the luxury watch market and have become dream watches for many who want to own these prestigious items as a signifier of their success, wealth, and status.
But what was first? Did high-quality watches and their manufacturers start in Switzerland, or has the country attracted the best watchmakers after it became known for its high-quality watches?
What Lead to the High Concentration of Prestigious Watchmakers in Switzerland?
Watchmaking did not have its origins in Switzerland. The first dominant watchmaking nations were Germany, France, and England, after the first watch in history was built in Germany in the 16th century.
It was political and religious decisions that kick-started the luxury watch manufacturers in Switzerland:
- First, in 1541, Protestant Reformist John Calvin enacted his puritanical vision on the city of Geneva. He banned the wearing of jewelry.
In turn, many skilled jewelers found themselves without income. Their ingenious idea was to create watches instead. They bypassed the ban by creating decorative timepieces, which functioned as jewelry, but had a practical purpose as well. This loophole led to the focus on highly decorative and intricate watches made in Switzerland.
- Additionally, in 1685, Louis XIV declared Protestantism illegal in France. In turn, many of the skilled watchmakers that were French Huguenots fled to Switzerland and took their skills with them.
They found footholds in the Watch Makers Guild in Geneva, which was founded in 1601 after the new craft of combining watches with jewelry characteristics was spawned.
Strategies, like including winter-idle farmers in the area into their supply chain by making them build watch parts in the cold months, lead to the development of the “Watch Valley”. This industry hot spot runs from Geneva to Basel and still homes many of the prestigious watchmakers and their long traditions.
Innovations that Set the Swiss Watch Manufacturers Apart Internationally
Over the years, the skillful watchmakers created many innovations that proved their superiority time and time again. They include:
- 1764: the Lépine caliber was invented, enabling thinner watches
- 1795: the balance spring was created by Abraham-Louis Breguet, which led to higher precision
- 1868: the first wristwatch, as recognized by the Guinness World Records, created by Patek Philippe for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary
- 1887: TAG Heuer invents the oscillating pinion, leading to mechanical stopwatches and precision timekeeping
- 1915: the first independent chronograph push piece was invented by Breitling
- 1962: Rolex creates the first dust and waterproof wristwatch, the Rolex Oyster
- 1932: Omega creates the first diver’s watch
- 1967: The Centre for Electronic Watches in Neuchâtel develops the first quartz watch
- 1969: The Omega Speedmaster is the first watch to be used on the moon, since they have been used in every one of NASA’s piloted missions since March 1965
- and many more
What Makes Swiss Watches so Special Today?
Especially today, where smartphones have made the functional use of a watch obsolete, and they have turned into a lifestyle item, the most popular wristwatches are luxury models. Their prestige has become a much bigger selling factor than their ability to tell time alone. Developments like these led to the market superiority of the high-priced luxury watches from Switzerland.
Factors, that make them so expensive, are:
- Innovation & Expertise – Swiss manufacturers have been a driving factor behind creating new watch movements. Because of this, they have the needed expertise to create especially complex and precise timepieces.
- Production Time – This high level of complexity often requests hand manufacturing processes. This means the production times for a high-quality Swiss watch are long and their numbers are limited. This rarity is part of the reason for the high cost.
- High-Quality Components – As a driving factor behind many technological advantages, many of the modern materials and components used in watches were researched and invented by Swiss manufacturers. They have some of the most durable, light, and thin materials that lead to the best quality.
- Luxury Image & Tradition – We pay extra for the prestigious name of the brands and their long line of watchmakers. Similarly to spending more money for a famous artist’s painting than the materials would cost alone, we also pay for the long history that led to the high expertise of Swiss watch manufacturers. This makes people willing to pay more for watches of this origin compared to others.
Additionally, when we buy a Swiss-made watch, we pay for the guarantee of high quality. Only watches, that:
- have a Swiss-made movement
- were made in Switzerland
- are cased up in Switzerland
- have at least 60 % of their manufacturing costs based in Switzerland
- and had their final inspection in Switzerland
will receive the title Swiss Watch or Swiss Made.
When we buy Swiss watches, we pay extra for the high level of expertise that has led to the Swiss manufacturers’ high prestige. They have established themselves as innovators and creators of especially delicate and complex designs, while using only the best materials, leading to the highest quality of watches on the market.