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Why the best Watchmakers of the world are from Switzerland?

30th September 2019

Actually, they aren’t and they weren’t. They came to Switzerland from somewhere else.

Just to tell you something, the two founders of the best known Swiss Maison, Patek Philippe, were a Pole and a French. And before Philippe, the company was founded by ‎Antoni Patek‎ and ‎Franciszek Czapek‎ (who was Czech).

The majority of the watchmakers who have revolutionized the watchmaking industry were foreign immigrants who found in Switzerland the right place to live and work.

The first influx of them happened during the religious persecutions of 1500 and 1600. Lots of Huguenots came into Switzerland because of this, and settled in the French part of Switzerland, like Pierre LeCoultre. His son built a church, and a village grew around the building - the village of Le Sentier, where the company is headquartered even today.

The same happened with people coming from the region around Alsace and Lorraine. If you happen to make a cursory search about the history of the Swiss brands, you would find lots of surnames like Ditesheim and similar, which reveal this ancestry.

Also, a large group of them had Jewish roots - and Switzerland was a sort of a safe haven for them all - and came from all around Europe, especially the East.

As for innovations, lots of technical innovations in horology came from outside Switzerland, and precisely from England and France. The English watchmakers were far superior to Swiss back then - watches coming from Switzerland were considered as second or third choice, technically. Thomas Mudge invented the lever escapement (what later became known as the Swiss lever, ironically). Just look at the innovations British watchmakers brought into horology:

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And think about France. Remember names like Lepine first and Breguet, after. They were French. And Roskopf, the inventor of the Proletarian Watch, who contributed immensely to the diffusion of watches worldwide came from Alsace.

What was peculiar is the sort of welcoming environment Switzerland provided to watchmakers.

Being fiercely independent and equalitarian, Switzerland became the place to be. And innovative technicians, who were seen as suspicious in other countries, flocked there to conduct their lives and work on their chosen fields. So, the Swiss horology grew bit by bit, as people set up small labs to manufacture watch parts, and in time, these labs grew and became workshops, and then small industries.

And despite what has happened in the Seventies with the quartz crisis, the Swiss industry has recovered and attracts - because of this longstanding network and tradition - the best talents worldwide.

And they flock to Switzerland because it is the place to be, both for the status and the easiness of doing their work.

Kari Voutilainen is Finnish. The talented Rexhep Rexhepi is Albanian. Giulio Papi, of Renaud & Papi, is Italian. The McGonigle brothers are Irish, Stephen Forsey and Peter Speake-Marin are British.

The grandfather of Swiss watch design, Gerald Genta himself, came from an Italian family.

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You can see Gerald above, with three of the watches he has designed - the Nautilus, the Royal Oak and the Polerouter.

So, despite everything, good watchmaking comes from Switzerland, but good watchmakers go to Switzerland. Which seems ironical, but it is the truth.

The Swiss watchmaking industry has a fascinating history, which tells us that it would be almost nothing without the creativity of the people who came there. And it had a couple of remarkable strokes of luck during its centuries-old history. If things had played a bit differently, the UK would have been the center of the horological world of today.