Think of Switzerland, and one of three things probably come to mind: chocolate, snowy slopes, or watches. These are things with a long, rich Swiss heritage. But what does 'Swiss made' actually mean in the modern world, and should it matter to you?
Let's talk about Swissness—and why you should care
Even a "simple" mechanical watch contains hundreds of tiny parts—and each one of them has a job to do, requiring the utmost in precision and craftsmanship. But a Swiss Made watch is not necessarily made from 100% Swiss materials. Such a watch may actually be cost-prohibitively expensive. Instead, 'Swiss Made' is regarded as a level of quality. By legal definition, a watch earns the coveted 'Swiss Made' mark if its movement—the beating heart of any watch—is assembled, encased, and inspected in Switzerland, and represents 60% of the watch's production cost.
Laws concerning Swissness are challenging to enforce, and there are many loopholes that some brands use to their advantage. Some watch movements are "Swissified"—manufactured outside of the country, shipped to Switzerland, disassembled, re-assembled, inspected, and then called Swiss Made. It might be accurate according to the letter of the law, but indeed not the spirit.
The importance of Swissness in the watch world is a hotly debated topic. Some feel that Swiss watches are the only 'real watches' and must be made a certain way, while others see it just as a label with somewhat nebulous requirements. But either way, you must admit that Swiss timepieces have long been renowned as the finest and most accurate in the world.
Even a "simple" mechanical watches contain hundreds of tiny parts.
The materials make the man (and the watch)
Switzerland has a long, revered history in horology—spanning some 500-plus years. But the industry has evolved immensely in all of that time. Time-keeping devices transformed from large clocks, into smaller, "portable" clocks, to pocket watches, to their current place on the wrist—and the Swiss have hung in there through it all in part because of their innovation in quality materials. For example, the sapphire crystal watch face, now a gold standard in durability, was first pioneered by iconic Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre nearly 100 years ago. A watch with a sapphire crystal is extremely resistant to chipping and scratching, while inexpensive, non-Swiss watches commonly use a softer, cheaper mineral material (sad face).
Swiss watches traditionally use quality metal substrates for its gears, components, and link pins, rather than plastic parts (which are prone to failure). A well-built watch typically features 316L stainless steel, which features extra-low carbon content and resists magnetics as well as corrosion from seawater or acidic liquids. It's hypoallergenic, too, unlike many other common metals.
You can build a luxury watch using a sapphire crystal and 316L stainless steel, but that doesn't necessarily make it Swiss. So why does the 'Swiss Made' label remain cachet? When you buy a Swiss watch, you're also buying a piece of Swiss watchmakers' long legacy. Consider this: Rolex is Swiss, and it's the world's most valuable watch brand. It is also among the top five most valuable luxury brands overall. That's the rich tradition from which Swiss Made watches hail.
Swiss clockmaker Antoine LeCoultre
The rise of Swiss Made
The Swiss Made label is more than just the sum of a watch's parts, though. Swiss watchmakers are partly responsible for the proliferation of the wristwatch in general. There is plenty of debate as to when, exactly, the first wristwatch was created—it really may be as simple as, at some point, someone strapped a pocket watch to a wrist! During World War I—with its air battles and use of radio transmissions both requiring precise synchronization—the need for accurate time-keeping for military personnel arose. Keeping a watch on a wrist, rather than hidden in a pocket, is much more practical, wouldn't you say?
When the war ended, soldiers returned home with wristwatches on their arms—and they didn't go back to pocket watches. Wristwatches outnumbered pocket watches 50 to 1 by 1930, and most of these wristwatches were produced by Swiss companies like Rolex and Omega. The Swiss watchmaking industry only expanded during World War II because their neutrality meant Switzerland could continue building watches for consumers, while other countries had to use their production facilities for military manufacturing. By the end of World War Two, the wristwatch an essential accessory for all—and Swiss watchmakers had 50% of the growing global market.
Wristwatches outnumbered pocket watches 50 to 1 by 1930, and most of these wristwatches were produced by Swiss companies.
The (near) fall of Swiss Made
Swiss dominance in the watchmaking world continued through the 1950s and 60s, but a tiny sliver of a mineral changed everything for the watch industry—and almost put Switzerland out of the game for good after literally hundreds of years of dominance. How? One word: quartz.
Before you can understand the significance of the quartz crisis, you need to know a little bit about how watches work in the first place. All timepieces function with an oscillator—an object that undergoes continuous, unvarying motion. It's easiest to understand oscillators by thinking of a grandfather clock. Its oscillator, of course, is its pendulum, which swings back and forth due to gravitational pull. Mechanical wristwatches operate using a "harmonic oscillator" rather than a physical one, but the concept is the same.
Back to 1969: Japanese watch brand Seiko introduced a watch with an entirely different kind of movement—a battery-powered quartz oscillator. Quartz is piezoelectric—it produces an electrical current when force or a charge is applied to it—meaning that a watch with a quartz movement could run on a battery rather than getting its power from the complex system of gears under the hood of a mechanical/automatic watch. The first quartz movement watch was Seiko's Astron, a flashy gold number that your average (or aspiring) watch-wearer could never afford.
As time—literally—ticked on and production costs decreased, quartz movements redefined the concept of wearing a watch. No longer a status symbol, wristwatches became casual accessories that anyone could afford—and Japan took the lead in the watch world away from Switzerland for the first time. But the Swiss climbed back on top during the 1980s with the creation of the Swatch watch (in direct response to the "quartz crisis"), and there they remain.
The Swatch watch that took the 1980s by storm (and ended the quartz crisis)
Can you go wrong with a Swiss Made watch? Sure, there are those watchmakers who 'Swissify' their products just so they can use the coveted label, but by and large, most watches that bear the Swiss Made mark do justice to the rich history it references.
A similar label, "Swiss Movt" (movement), means that the watch's movement itself is considered Swiss. A Swiss Made watch, by definition, is built with a Swiss movement, though the reverse isn't necessarily true. Remember, the movement is the beating heart of any watch, so both labels are a sign of a well-designed timepiece.
A third Swissness indicator is one you may want to watch out for, and that's "Swiss Parts." This means the watch's movement contains components manufactured in Switzerland but is assembled elsewhere (often so that manufacturers can take advantage of lower worker wages in countries with lax labor laws).
If those labels weren't confusing enough, there's also the matter of "Swiss Design." A midcentury graphic design movement, Swiss Design has more to do with Helvetica than horology. But the phrase gets tossed around to mean a design of any kind that features clean lines and a structured or gridded shape. Swiss Design isn't a formal indicator of Swissness, though.
When you get right down to it, Swissness is so much more than mere semantics. True quality watchmakers understand the gravity of the Swiss watch legacy and source the finest materials for the sake of upholding it—and it's an honor to do so.
LIV Swiss Made watch production
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