BOOKREVIEW: Donze - History of the Swiss Watch Industry

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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

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Sep 23, 2001

To understand the History of the Swiss Watch you need to understand the History of the Swiss Watch INDUSTRY

History of the Swiss Watch Industry, From Jacques David to Nicholas Hayek, by Pierre-Yves Donzé. Translated from the French original by the author and Richard Watkins. Published 2011 by Paul Lang, Bern (Switzerland) 2011. ISBN 978-3-0343-1021-5. Paperback; 23 cm x 16cm, vii & 161 pages; numerous tables and graphs; 301 foot-notes, exhaustive bibliography. Available from the publisher at for ca. 50US$ plus shipping, or at

Most broadly interested students of horological history have –in the course of the years- read a significant number of books on the history of the Swiss watch. Most of these books fall in one of two categories. Either they are histories of the technology and innovation , or they are historical descriptive narratives regarding an individual or a brand. The book under review follows neither path, and thereby covers much ground hardly covered in any other publication.

The author is a young Swiss academic who obtained his PhD in history at the University of Neuchâtel in 2005, and currently teaches at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan. His book is proof that in order to truly understand the history of any trade or industry it does not suffice to know the history of its technology, and the history of the key players (both individuals and corporations). Unless one studies the structure of an industry and how the different actors relate to each other, and how these relationships and structures change over time, it is impossible to comprehend an industry.

Donzé structures his history into four distinct periods: The first (covered on pages 5 – 26) is the pre-industrial era (1800-1870), before there were watch factories in Switzerland, which was characterized by the “établissage” system where the “etablisseur” ordered parts from countless independent workshops, and had them assembled by other subcontractors into watches. The result was an extreme fragmentation. In the town of La Chaux-de-Fonds alone there were in the year 1870 over 1300 independent enterprises (mostly family workshops), spread over 67 distinct specialities, but on average employing under 10 people each. Separate enterprises each made one component: balance spring makers, escapement makers, hand makers, gilders, case hinge makers, case polishers, enamel dial fitters, etc, to name just a few. The contrast to the USA, where Waltham had started mass producing machine made watches in the 1850s was dramatic. Rather than in a ‘factory’, Swiss watches were made in what Donzé calls a local “industrial district” .

The second period (1870-1918, pages 27-74) is characterized by the gradual industrialization of the watch industry. The Swiss horological industry reacted to the ‘American challenge’ by shifting production from mainly manual workshops, to mechanized factories. Just as important was the change from custom fitting each part to fit the others to part-making to specified dimensions and tolerances, a change pioneered by Jacques David, the young Technical Director of Longines, who – after experiencing the power of mass production at the Waltham booth at the 1876 Philadelphia exhibition –initiated and led a technology revolution throughout the industry. But there still was very little vertical integration. Separate enterprises continued to make cases, escapements, dials, wheels. Even if they were increasingly machine, driven they remained relatively small enterprises (the average factory in the horological industry in 1901 employed 37 people).

The third period (1920- 1960, pages 75-114) covers the era of the Swiss watchmaking ‘cartel’, during which a government mandated and enforced set of rules prevented most forms of competition within the Swiss watch industry. Fixed minimum prices helped the survival of most elements of the industry. Labor unions agreed to never go on strike, factories agreed to never lock out labor. Increasing the capacity of a facility was contingent on government approval. This setup succeeded to a large extent in preventing Swiss parts being exported for assembly abroad. A key step was the creation of ASUAG, a kind of super-holding company that legally was the owner of most factories making ebauches, hairsprings and escapements, even if in practice the former owners still ran most of those factories.
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That cozy arrangement came to an end around 1960 as new watchmaking nations started to engage in the worldwide market. Japanese manufacturers pushed first into Asia, later into the rest of the world. USA firms like Bulova and Timex became global brands (and Russia – mainly with second hand American machinery bought from bankrupt US producers -dominated in the communist part of the world). The fourth period, liberalization and globalization (1960-2010, pages 115-152), was also caused by a technological revolution: the rapid rise of the quartz timekeeper. A wave of mergers in the late 1960s led to the formation of several multibrand groups, of which SSIH (Omega, Tissot and others) was by far the largest, and ASUAG dominated the ebauches field. In the 1970s both SSIH and ASUAG found their traditional world markets collapsing under global competition, and a consortium of banks rescued them temporarily. The key player of the next stage was Nicolas Hayek, a former management consultant, hired by the banks to restructure their holdings. Hayek in 1983 proposed merging SSIH and ASUAG and by 1985 he had become the controlling shareholder and CEO of the new entity, which became the Swatch group. Hayek transformed this grouping of watch factories into a unified watch manufacturing giant, but one where the real power and the important decisions were made by the brand units and the marketing people, rather than being dominated by production and technology.

In addition to Swatch, two other, newly formed groupings emerged (LVMH and Richemont) that chose a similarly marketing focused, multi-brand strategy, based on a unified supply chain. Both had roots outside of Switzerland and outside the watch industry, and both bought existing and founded new watch brands.

The book also briefly covers the recent history of the niche segments of Swiss watchmaking, the unique and fiercely independent Rolex enterprise, and the relatively small volume Geneva luxury brands, including Patek Philippe.
The book is easy to read, and the English translation is very well done. The authors decision to entrust the translation to a native English speaker who is primarily a watch historian rather than a professional translator was a wise one, and this reviewer greatly appreciates the all to rare practice of often adding the original French terminology in parentheses whenever highly industry specific specialized vocabulary is used.

Many students of the history of watchmaking seem to have unconsciously chosen an arbitrary point in time when they assume “history” ends and “the present era” starts, which somehow is less deserving of scholarly inquiry. Such thinking is of course a fallacy because the present all to soon will be history. Donzé’s book deserves praise and attention for systematically documenting and analyzing a quite recent part of our horological heritage.
When reading his book this reviewer was struck with how fascinating even the most recent events are if analyzed with insight and intellectual rigor.

To truly understand the history of horology it is necessary to not only study the horological artifacts of the past and the horologists of the past, but to also study the horological ‘sociatal’ aspects of the past, such as political, economic and industrial structure, systems and practice. Let us hope that more authors will follow Donzé’s path, and teach us horological history beyond just the history of objects, or the history of enterprises and individuals.

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex New Jersey – November 2011
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