Last updated on October 29, 2022
The name “Swiss made” is one of the most iconic and revered brands in the world. Everyone equates the term with high-quality luxury watches. The Swiss have jealously protected this venerated brand name. However, despite a long history of watchmaking the Swiss were not always known for their high-end timepieces. In this post, we will explore the history behind the Swiss made brand and delve into the origin of the “Swiss made” brand name.
Switzerland has a long history of watchmaking and it has also remained a refuge during times of trouble. During the Reformation in Europe during the 16th century, many people were forced to flee their homelands. Included amongst these refugees were French Huguenot watchmakers who fled the violence in their home country. They chose to resettle in Switzerland, where society and industry remained relatively stable. Many of them moved to the city of Geneva. This sudden influx of skilled watchmakers from France transformed the local watchmaking industry.
However, Switzerland was not totally free of the effects of the Reformation. John Calvin was a religious reformer, well known for both his controversial views and austere standards of living. In Geneva, Calvin placed restrictions on ordinary citizens that forbid them from wearing jewellery. The gold and silversmiths faced financial ruin with no way of doing business. However, watches were still permitted to be worn. As a result, the smiths turned their attention to the art of watchmaking for which there was still a demand.
The Swiss smiths worked in partnership with the French Huguenot watchmakers. Together, they reinvented the watchmaking process and a new industry was born. By merging their skills they were able to combine aesthetics and precision. The restrictions were finally relaxed in Geneva in the late 16th century. Before the change in the rules, watchmaking in Switzerland had a reputation for being refined, skilled, and high-quality. When the laws were relaxed, watch designs became even more elaborate and luxurious.
Daniel Jeanrichard, (1665 – 1741), the goldsmith, revolutionised the watchmaking industry in the Jura mountains, Switzerland. He introduced the division of labour to the industry, a system known as établissage. JeanRichard taught the local Jura farmers to make individual watch components. Each farmer was a specialist in producing a single part, for example, a mainspring. Their skillsets and tools were limited to the single component they specialised in. However, this meant they could produce high volumes of components with consistent standards. The components would be collected with the final assembly by master watchmakers. The Jura farmers turned quickly to watchmaking, which provided a welcome additional income during the long, cold winters.
The new system, which was an early form of subcontracting, spread rapidly throughout the region. By the time of JeanRichard’s death in 1741, there were hundreds of watchmakers in the mountain towns of Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds and the surrounding villages. Later, établissage spread further throughout the country, the system allowed the Swiss to dominate the global market in terms of volume. By the middle of the 19th century, the Swiss with their établissage watchmaking industry were out producing the British made watches by 10 to 1. When the Americans introduced a mechanised production system in the 1850s, the Swiss were soon to follow.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the Swiss continued to focus on volume, swamping the American and British markets with cheap watches. Often these watches were known as “Swiss fakes”. These watches were often presented in such a way that there was nothing to distinguish them from locally made watches. For example, most watches sold in Britain at the time had the retailer’s name on the dial. Thus, “John Smith, London” suggests to the unsuspecting public that the watch was probably made in Britain. The retailer certainly wouldn’t dispute this as they were promoting themselves as the watchmaker.
The British watchmakers were concerned that these “Swiss fakes” were damaging their reputations. This was happening elsewhere in the British economy. Foreign manufacturers had been importing inferior goods with the marks of British companies and selling them as locally made goods. This was brought to a halt by the British Merchandise Marks Act of 1887.
The act forced manufacturers of foreign goods to identify the country of origin. This included watches. However, “Made in Switzerland” was a little too cumbersome to fit on a watch dial, so “Swiss made” was adopted. Typically, the mark appears on the dial, on either side of the 6-marker, and the movement. The Swiss now had a national brand to protect, that was gifted to them by the British parliament. I am not saying that they stopped producing low-quality watches immediately. However, it did give them pause for thought about how they would now protect their reputation since their “brand” was now prominently displayed. Following the Merchandise Marks Act, the Swiss slowly turned their focus to quality over volume.
By the early twentieth century, the Swiss were concentrating on mid to high-quality timepieces, slowly building their reputation as the preeminent watchmaking industry in the world. During the First World War, Switzerland remained neutral. This gave the Swiss watchmakers a distinct advantage over their English counterparts. They were able to continue producing watches and refine their production methods. The English watchmakers on the other hand were often forced to turn their attention to manufacturing other goods for the war effort.
Even the most simple of mechanical watches will consist of more than 100 parts. Each of these components requires specialised equipment and expertise to construct. The cost of producing these components can be prohibitively expensive, especially in a country like Switzerland where the cost of labour is high. Other countries can produce identical components at a much reduced cost. However, to prevent the brand from being diluted the Swiss have put controls in place
Swiss Federal Act
According to the Swiss Federal Act on the Protection of Trade Marks and Indications of Source, a good or service may only be designated “Swiss made” if it meets the following criteria:
- Food products: 80% of the weight of the raw materials and the essential processing must take place in Switzerland.
- Industrial products: 60% of the manufacturing costs and the essential manufacturing step must occur in Switzerland. This includes watches.
- Services: the company headquarters and administration must be located in Switzerland. This could include watch sales, service and repair.
The term “Swiss made” is most often associated with watches made in Switzerland. Swiss law considers a watch to be Swiss made if its movement is Swiss. Plus the movement has been assembled in Switzerland. And if its final inspection occurred in Switzerland. And finally, if at least 60% of manufacturing costs are incurred in Switzerland.
Merchandise Marks Act 1887, 149 pages.
Wikipedia – Swiss made