Saturday, March 7, 2009

Introduction: A selective and opinionated history of the wristwatch industry.

During the 19th Century, American pocket watches were the finest in the world. The Swiss even faked them. Any gentleman of means carried one, and the bigger the better. A gold case and chain also helped. Ladies carried small pocket watches or occasionally a jewelry-like wristwatch. During WWI men began to strap small pocket watches on their wrists out of necessity. Even after the war, the only men to wear wristwatches were veterans and busy middle-class men. As for the rich and idle, wearing one was gauche, as it indicated that a man was "overly concerned with time."

During WWII, many soldiers got their first ever wristwatch, from the supply sergeant. By the war's end wristwatches had become universally adopted. The style for men was a tiny watch, especially in the U.S.. Until the 1960's, men's watches were between 30 and 32mm. It was almost as if men were still embarrassed to be wearing them.

After the war, as servicemen returned from occupied Europe with souvenir wristwatches, Swiss brands became prestigious. Eventually, by the 1960's, the Swiss watch industry had out-competed the U.S. domestic watch industry, mostly through greater investment in new equipment, and snob appeal. U.S. companies moved operations overseas (Bulova) or were just liquidated (Waltham & Elgin).

This Golden Age of Swiss mechanical watches only lasted about 20 years, from 1950-1970. During this time demand was huge, and thousands of brands produced hundreds of thousands of models of watches. (In 1951 there were 2,800 watch companies in Switzerland). Many have become classics, or even icons. Most watches were put together from stock parts by companies who have by now faded into oblivion. Many of these watch models only existed in production runs of a few hundred. Still, the creativity and stylistic variation was astonishing.

In the 1970's, the world changed with the introduction of the quartz watch. By the 1980's the Swiss watch world had collapsed under the weight of very cheap Asian quartz watches. Swiss companies sold their machinery for scrap. Warehouses full of parts were auctioned off for centimes on the Franc. (Of the 1,618 Swiss watch companies in 1970, only 624 were active by 1984.) Everyone in the world seemed content to wear a wristwatch that ran on a battery and that cost less than a meal at a restaurant.

However, in the 1990s something happened. Men of taste began to realize that they would rather wear a pocket protector than these wrist calculators that were masquerading as timepieces. In a world full of increasingly disposable pieces of electronic crap, wearing a precision mechanical instrument had great appeal. Also, gold chains went out of style, so all men had left were their wristwatches.

At first, a couple of the surviving Swiss marques rode this wave, fulfilling the demand for prestigious mechanical watches. Later in the decade, savvy entrepreneurs bought the trademarks of some of the past greats (Blancpain, Ulysse Nardin, Panerai, Heuer, to name a few), reinventing these brands into prestige labels. At the same time, there was a consolidation in the industry, with three corporate Goliaths dominating virtually the entire Swiss watch industry: LVMH (TAG Heuer), Richemont (Panerai) and the Swatch Group (Omega). Rolex, largely owned by a non-profit charitable trust, has been immune to this trend.

Perhaps because of the concentration of design talent in Northern Europe and the mediocrity of corporate decision making, Swiss watches in the new millennium have tended to look the same: Pseudo-avant-garde and with a faint reek of Euro-trash. Techno-bling rules the day.

However, starting around 2002, a strange thing happened. Small "boutique" watch companies started popping up. Operating outside of the regular retail channels, these upstarts relied instead on the Internet for sales and marketing. What made these companies different most of all was that they were created and supported by watch enthusiasts. These enthusiasts resisted the monopolization of the industry through passion and CAD programs, in partnership with small European companies willing to do small production runs.

Like the thousands of watch companies in the 1950s that pursued a multiplicity of creative visions, today's small independent companies are helping to create a second golden age of mechanical watches.


  1. A very enlightening and entertaining story. Long live Corvus!

  2. Nice article about the history,ups & down and heritage of Swiss & American watch industries.

  3. Great blog post (the first?), as it explains to non-otaku ;) why some of us eschew some of the current crop of "high street brands." Because ... they're not the originals that the marque is renown for. Example: Breitling. :P It would be like getting a black and gray striped NATO and calling it a "Bond strap."

    I'm far more interested in the "little guys" who have survived, most lately Ollech & Wajs. And it's still possible to get a vintage Swiss watch, well maintained, and in "wabi" shape, providing enduring value for a fraction (sometimes large) of the cost of a new Rolex.