Swiss Watch Snob Or Horology Enthusiast?

What comes to your mind when asked to describe Switzerland? A plethora of examples, I bet. Swiss Alps, Swiss neutrality, Swiss bank, Swiss chocolate, Swiss Army knife, Swiss cheese, and of course, the famous Swiss watch. So much so that people have come to equate Swiss watches with being the “best” that money can buy… except… Is it?… I mean, really?

Landscape view of the majestic Swiss Alps with snow capped mountains. Foreground of a mountain trek, safely guarded by wooden handrail, and the Swiss flag flying majestically.
The breathtaking view of the Swiss Alps. The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Switzerland is the striking red Swiss flag against the white snow of the mountains.
Image by Andi of Pixabay

How Switzerland Became Synonymous With Horology

First things first, this is not a comprehensive history lesson on horology nor Switzerland. This is a very brief summary, just to bring you up to date only. With that out of the way, let’s dive in.

Switzerland didn’t invent timekeeping. Depending on who you ask, you’d probably get a myriad of origins. It can range from I-Hsing (water clock) in 723 AD, to Christiaan Huygens (pendulum clock) in 1656 AD. But if you throw sundials into the mix, it probably goes further back in history. However, our interest lies around the golden age of horology, 17th to 18th century Europe. Clockmaking was booming then, and Britain led the race, followed closely by Germany and France. Switzerland, with barely any raw material of her own, wasn’t even in the race. So instead of actually making watches, they started to contract manufacture watches for the larger foreign companies.

Close up view of a watch movement, encased in a watch, which is clamped down on a watch clamp, on a watchmaker's table.
Watchmaking is intricate and time consuming. It takes a patient person to be able to excel in the teeny-tiny mechanical gears, springs and levers. This is exactly what a Swiss watch is famous for.
Image by Русский of Pixabay

Centuries of watchmaking experience later, coupled with favourable government incentives, Switzerland quickly became the watchmaking capital of the world. Soon thereafter, native Swiss watch companies started to establish a foothold in a largely foreign dominated OEM manufacturing market.

Holy Trinity Of Watches

Amongst all the early Swiss watchmakers to emerge from this are three houses, the quintessential Swiss watch houses. [I bet Rolex is one of these three – Wrong].

The Holy Trinity of Swiss horology houses, a.k.a. “The Big Three” are Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. Soon many more Swiss watch houses started making a name for themselves too, mostly occupying the luxury segment. [Rolex must be among these pioneers – Wrong again]. The native Swiss houses are IWC, Blancpain, Piaget, Ulysse Nardin, Baume et Mercier, Girard-Perregaux, Fortis, just to name a few.

Macro view of the lower quarter of a Rolex dial, emphasising on the words "Swiss Made". This is the typical indication of a Swiss watch.
The highly coveted “Swiss Made” printed on the dial of almost all Swiss watches. This one is printed at 6 o’clock position, just outside the minute track.
Image by Author

Before long, the term “Swiss watch” became synonymous with “quality” or “luxury” timepieces. Even non-native Swiss horology houses wanted to have “Swiss made” printed on their watches too. French Breguet, Italian Panerai, American Hamilton, are some examples of horology houses who have since moved their operations to Switzerland. A move that legally allows them to call their timepieces “Swiss made”, or simply called “Swiss watch”. [But wait… What about Rolex?… Rolex is a Swiss watch too, right?].

House Of Rolex: The Classic Swiss Watch

Rolex as a brand is pretty much a mixed bag. Rolex founder, German born, Hans Wilsdorf infatuated with the English culture, moved to England in 1903. He then co-founded Wilsdorf & Davis in London in 1905 with Alfred Davis, to provide quality timepieces at affordable prices. They registered the name “Rolex” by Wilsdorf & Davis in Switzerland in 1908.

Profile photo of Hans Wilsdorf, the co-founder of Wilsdorf & Davis, which subsequently became the House of Rolex. He's also the creator of the Rolex watch.
Hans Wilsdorf, a German born businessman who is based in London, England. Co-founded Wilsdorf & Davis, and eventually registered the brand name “Rolex” in Switzerland. Little did he know that Rolex will eventually be the best known Swiss watch in the decades to follow.
Image from Wikipedia, under public domain in Switzerland

When The Great War broke out, anything remotely German was greatly frown upon in England. To make their company appear “less Germanic”, they decided to change the name. So in 1914 they changed the company name from Wilsdorf & Davis to The Rolex Watch Company Ltd. Being a German and living in England was already tough. To help finance the war, the British government introduced an increased customs duty in 1915. This prompted them to move their headquarters from London to Bienne, Switzerland. Shortly thereafter in 1919, to Geneva, Switzerland, where they remain to this day.

Rolex: The Modern Classic Swiss Watch?

Two modern Rolex watches on a highly reflective table, with a background of a blurred cityscape skyline.
Two of the most popular modern Rolex models. The Submariner with the “Kermit” bezel (left) and the GMT Master II with the “Root Beer” bezel.
Image by Maurício Souza Mau of Pixabay

So what’s Rolex’s identity actually? Founded in England, by a German, and is now based in Switzerland. Yes, it’s still very much a Swiss watch, legally at least. But if you really look into its history, it exhibits a very English heritage. The English culture intrigued Hans Wilsdorf, which was why he moved to London in the first place. I have no doubt that’s why Ian Flemming chose the Rolex as the watch for James Bond in his novels. Not bad for a new kid on the block. Rolex is barely over a hundred years old, whilst most contemporary Swiss horology houses are more than twice as old.

Swiss Watch Vs The Rest Of The World

Most horology houses hail from around Europe. That’s an established fact. But identifying yourself as Swiss made raises you up to a whole different level altogether. A Swiss watch is the epitome of horology, the so-called cradle of watchmaking. And the main reason is the existence of Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC), the Official Chronometer Testing Institute. This institute tests and certifies the accuracy of watches and watch movements. To earn an exclusive COSC certification, a watch must meet its stringent standards.

This is how the much sought after COSC certification in the horology world lost its respect. After 1969, the Swiss watch marque didn’t hold up with the same esteemed identity as it did prior.

Up until 1968, COSC accepted international entrants for its exclusive chronometer competition. And up until then, Seiko was the underdog who slowly crept up the list of being the “most accurate” watch. It’s not surprising that shortly thereafter, they changed the rules…

Swiss Watch Loses Its Crown

It wasn’t long before many other countries started to develop their own watchmaking industry too. The fastest growing watchmaker country outside Europe was Japan, followed closely by China. Unfortunately, Japanese products in the 1970s, and Chinese products in the 2000s suffered a negative stigma. People simply assume Japanese (1970s) and Chinese (2000s) produce cheap equivalent of superior European models. To a certain extent, this isn’t completely false. These two economic powerhouses really did start off this way. But then again, so did the Swiss back in the 17th and 18th centuries. Swiss watchmakers too contracted manufacturing from the more established British, German and French horology houses.

Macro view of the lower quarter of a Seiko dial. The type of movement is indicated as "7S26", but nothing is mentioned about the country of origin.
Not all Japanese watchmakers even bother to label their watches with “Japanese Made”. This Seiko example only mentions “7S26”, which is the movement used in this watch.
Image by Author

Today, there’s no real difference when we compare the absolute accuracy between Swiss watch brands against all the others. There’s only one tangible difference that I can think of between Swiss watch brands and their Japanese or Chinese counterparts. Most Swiss watch brands tend to offer models in a narrow price range, usually luxury level. Japanese brands cover a pretty wide range, from entry level models all the way up to luxury models. And these models are comparable to the contemporary Swiss brands. Chinese brands tend to favour the mid to lower end price range. By no means does that indicate Chinese brands are inferior in features and quality when compared to their Swiss counterparts.

Does “Swiss Made” Still Signify “Quality”?

Don’t get me wrong. The mystical aura of a Swiss watch still remains a highly sought after identity. However, they’re no longer the epitome of horology. That doesn’t mean the features and quality of Swiss watches have deteriorated, far from it. What it really means is that the rest of the world has finally caught up with Switzerland. You no longer have to pay the ludicrous asking price from a Swiss marque for a top quality timepiece. You can get an equivalent quality at half the price from a reputable Japanese house. Or a quarter of the price for an equivalent Chinese model.

Macro view of the lower quarter of a Sea-Gull dial, emphasising on the words "China Made". This is the atypical indication that the watch is NOT a Swiss watch.
Chinese made, and proud of it… This Sea-Gull watch proudly prints “China Made” on a similar position as most Swiss watches. Is this the absolute anti-snob statement? To thumb one’s nose towards the proud Swiss?
Image by Author

Regardless which route you choose, wearing a watch still says a lot about your brand identity than you might think. As mentioned in the previous article, wearing a timepiece reflects your relationship with time. A person who explicitly wears a watch tells the world that he/she respects time, both yours and his/hers. So don’t obsess over quality of your timepiece. Instead, obsess over the quality of your personal brand that you project. But if you need any help to curate a personal brand, feel free to reach out to Solarex Imaging. I promise not to bite…

So What’s Next On Your List Of Watch To Purchase?

With all these in mind, there’s only one real question to ask yourself. Would you pay a premium to have the words “Swiss Made” printed on the dial of your watch? Making an heirloom purchase today is more of an emotional purchase than a logical one. Kinda like buying a car, don’t you think?… So what’s your opinion? Do you still prefer a Swiss watch over a Japanese one?… Or (gasp!) a Chinese one?… Let us know in the poll below which camp you identify yourself with.

Is "Swiss made" a criterion when you purchase a watch?
24 votes · 24 answers

About CHOW Wei Ming

Brand consultant, photographer, creative director, storyteller, and a true believer of the power of visual communications. Outwardly expresses a friendly disposition, but hides a perfectionist nature deep inside him.

6 Replies to “Swiss Watch Snob Or Horology Enthusiast?”

  1. Thanks for sharing such precious knowledge. I bet many of us don’t really know the term “horology” at all (including myself). Looking forward to read more articles like this.

    • Thank you Jhon for leaving your comments here. 😊 I’m also looking forward to writing more about horology too. It’ll be even more exciting if there are watch manufacturers, brand owners, or watch retailers, who’d like to feature their models here. 😁

    • Yes indeed, Certina is another reputable Swiss watch brand. And Seiko is the brand that most horology enthusiasts start their watch collection with. You can’t go wrong with either of these brands.

  2. I collect watches since 25 years and subscribe to your classification of brands, although I would slightly adapt it. Breguet belongs in my opinion to the holy four.

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Peter. Breguet is indeed one of the pioneers in horology, and one with many horological inventions to their names that are still in use today, e.g. self-winding mechanism, tourbillion, and even the world’s first ever wristwatch.

      Although just an academic definition, the Holy Trinity of Watches refer to native Swiss brands. Breguet is, by definition, a French company, and wasn’t until 1999, when they were absorbed into the Swatch Group, which officially made them Swiss. However one looks at it, Breguet is a coveted horological brand indeed.

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