SAVOIR FAIRE A Colourful History of Watchmaking in Switzerland

5 min

How a sausage instigated the beginning of a second revolution in Switzerland – one that led to the country being renowned for its skill in watchmaking.

One could say that watchmaking in Switzerland began with the fateful (and timely) eating of a sausage. A pastor in Zurich named Ulrich Zwingli was dedicated to the Reformation ideology of Martin Luther. During the Lenten fast of 1522, he was present during the eating of sausages at the house of Christoph Froschauer, a printer in the city who later published Zwingli’s translation of the Bible. Because the eating of meat during Lent was prohibited, the event caused public outcry and led to Froschauer being arrested.

Though he himself did not eat the sausages, Zwingli was quick to defend Froschauer from allegations of heresy. In a sermon titled Von Erkiesen und Freiheit der Speisen (Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods), Zwingli argued that fasting should be entirely voluntary, not mandatory.  With his pro-sausage stance, Zwingli dramatically advanced the Reformation position that Lent was subject to individual rule, rather than the discipline which was upheld at the time by the Catholic Church.

The ‘Affair of the Sausages’ was interpreted as a demonstration of Christian liberty and is considered to be of similar importance for Switzerland as Martin Luther’s 95 theses for the German Reformation. So how did a mere sausage instigate the beginning of a second revolution in Switzerland – one that has led to the country being renowned for its skill in watchmaking to this day?

The Reformation in Europe impacted all aspects of society and economics, with the watchmaking industry as no exception. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church; the increasingly personal or ‘Lutheran’ interpretation of religious dogma, and the resulting Protestant Reformation, ignited a series of intense, violent religious revolutions and wars, with Germany initially at the epicenter.

The subsequent uncertainty put a damper on many industries, including German watchmaking. The same could be said of France, who at the time were second only to Germany when it came to innovation and craftsmanship in watchmaking during the Renaissance. The French Wars of Religion, which started in the mid 16th c., meant that many French Protestants (called Huguenots) were persecuted.

As a result, many of the French Huguenot watchmakers fled the violence in their home country and settled in Switzerland, where society and industry remained somewhat stable. Most moved to the city of Geneva, and the influx of skilled watchmakers from France transformed the Swiss watchmaking industry.

The Swiss watch and clock industry appeared in Geneva in the middle of the 16th century. 

Many positive changes also took place during the (Calvinist) revolution in Geneva, making the town an ideal location for the clock and watchmaking industry that was quickly gaining steam with the help of the French immigrants and native Swiss watchmakers.

A century later, the city had “too many” watchmakers; many started leaving the Geneva region to set up business in the Jura mountains.

The reformer John Calvin was a strong advocate for austerity and piousness, especially when it came to outward appearances. At the time, Geneva was renowned for its robust jewellery-making and goldsmithing industry. But in 1541, Calvinism banned its citizens from wearing jewellery, ornamental objects, or other superficial ‘embellishments’.

Goldsmiths, enamelers, and other jewellers saw their businesses devastated by this harsh decree. Instead of leaving the city, they turned toward watchmaking. Both the enamelers and goldsmiths were skilled in creating beautiful, intricate designs that paired well with watch and clock making. Functional pieces, like portable clocks, were exempt from the jewellery laws.

The Swiss jewellers, along with the guidance and partnership of the French watchmakers, reinvented themselves. By pairing beauty with precision, the world-renowned Swiss watchmaking industry was born from the ashes of austerity. By the end of the century, Geneva had already acquired a reputation for excellence and in 1601 the Watchmakers Guild of Geneva was established, the first of its kind in the world.

The harsh rules governing jewellery-wearing in Geneva were relaxed in the late 1600s, and watch and clock designs became more elaborate and opulent; Swiss watches were soon known for their exquisite beauty, along with their craftsmanship.

From the 17th century onwards, watchmaking found its niche in the Swiss Jura mountains. La Chaux-de-Fonds was the world capital of the industry for over a century, and is arguably where Swiss watchmaking became the world standard.

It wasn’t just the watches’ quality and innovation that were significant, but also the way they were produced. Much of the innovation in the Jura mountains came from La Chaux-de-Fonds-based goldsmith Daniel Jeanrichard (1665-1741), who cultivated watchmaking as a local cottage industry.  With a division of labour known as “établissage” (independent workshops producing separate components), he was responsible for the increase in efficiency, standardisation, production volume and quality.

Établissage made the Swiss watchmakers more agile, and fostered a sense of enhanced creativity within the industry. Watch parts were made in different locations, and assembled by manufacturers. The manufacturers who assembled the watches were ultimately responsible for producing the final product. With a decentralised manufacturing process, the Swiss watchmakers could produce excellent watches at a faster pace than their European neighbours, and soon dominated the industry.

In addition, cold winters in the Jura forced many farmers indoors, where they found work creating and assembling components for Geneva-based watchmakers. Formerly, in the ‘off-season’, these farmers had found work making lace for the textile industry.  Fine motor skills perfected in lace-making meant their handiwork was relatively easily transposed to the watchmaking workshops, further increasing efficiency and quality.

Many inventions and developments followed over the centuries. For example in 1770, Abraham-Louis Perrelet created the “perpetual” watch (in French “montre à secousses”), considered by many to be the forerunner of the modern self-winding watch. In 1816, Louis Moinet made the first chronograph, called “compteur de tierces”. In 1842, Adrien Philippe, one of the founders of the prestigious Patek Philippe manufacture, invented the pendant winding watch. At the same period, the production of complicated timepieces (such as chronographs) and the introduction of functions such as the fly-back hand and the perpetual calendar, began to flourish. And, in 1869, Edouard Heuer revolutionised the world of watchmaking with his first patent for a keyless ‘self-winding’ system, operated by a crown. An incredibly significant innovation that would become enormously popular, this new winding crown made the separate keys previously needed to wind watches unnecessary.

In 1869, Edouard Heuer changed the course of watchmaking with his first patent, covering a crown-operated, keyless winding system.

Ultimately, in 1887, Heuer filed a patent improving the “oscillating pinion”. This development allows the chronograph to start and stop instantly, with the action of a push button. By simplifying the design of the movement, the oscillating pinion facilitates the assembly and maintenance of the chronograph. Edouard Heuer described this innovation, still used in fine watchmaking to this day, as a “perfected chronograph”.

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. Its 38 stages form a pilgrimage to the most famous watch manufacturers and specialised museums, where watchmaking secrets are revealed and unique masterpieces are on display. Paradoxically, the area is an idyllic setting where one easily loses track of time; lakes, mountains, vineyards and picturesque villages all invite a sense of timeless wonder.

TAG Heuer’s continuation of the tradition of innovation and excellence, first established by Edouard Heuer, includes many ‘firsts’ – from developments in timing devices for air travel, ultra-precision timing with the mikrograph and microsplit stopwatches, the first automatic chronographs, and many other advances in the world of motorsports and athletics.  To this day, we proudly uphold the reputation of Swiss craftsmanship for excellence and innovation.