Friday, May 26, 2017

Swiss Watches

Geneva is in the easternmost corner of Switzerland, surround by France to the north, east and south. From Geneva the Swiss-French border runs about 100 miles, as the crow flies, to Basel, where the Swiss, French and German borders all meet. The area along this Swiss-French border between Geneva and Basel is quite mountainous, and was somewhat isolated before the invention of the railroad. In the early 18th century, most of the Swiss people living along this border were farmers. But snow prevented them from growing anything for about 6 months of the year. So they began to make parts for watches, to earn a little extra money. Many of them soon found out that they could make more money making these watch parts than buy farming, and began to make watches all year round, and their descendants have been watchmakers ever since. That's why so many big Swiss watchmakers are headquartered in tiny little Swiss mountain villages.

At first, Swiss watchmakers mostly concentrated on making inexpensive products. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the US was known as the place where the best watches were made. But by the mid-20th century, Swiss watches considered the best, and many of them had become quite expensive. Swiss watchmakers prided themselves in making their watches more and more accurate and precise.

Then quartz watches appeared. In the early 1970's, quartz watches made all over the world were more accurate than the finest spring-driven Swiss watches at a fraction of the price. In Switzerland, this time is called the Quartz Crisis.

Some Swiss watchmakers responded by making their own quartz watches. Many went out of business. Some of the oldest makers of fine watches were bought up by the Swatch Group, named after Swatches, the cheap, colorful, mostly quartz-driven watches which were a popular fad in the 1970's. As of 2002, Breguet, Blancpain, Leon Hatot, Jacques Droz, Glashiette, Omega, Longines, Rado, Tissot, Calvin Klein Watches, Union, Certina, Mido, Hamilton and Flik Flak belonged to the Swatch Group, along with Swatch itself, which is still around and still makes watches, mostly quartz but also some mechanical ones. How good are Swatch watches? I have no idea.

ETA is a Swiss company which mostly makes watch movements. A movement is the motor of a watch. ETA makes both quartz and mechanical movements. Many watchmakers both in Switzerland and in other parts of the world use ETA movements in some or all of their watches.

Some Swiss watchmakers have remained proudly independent, not being bought by the Swatch Group or any other corporate conglomerate, and making most or all of the movements for their own watches. (Watch afficienados and watch snobs have long and heated arguments about just how important it is for watchmakers to use movements they have made themselves -- also referred to as "in-house movements.") Three such companies, held in such high esteem that many people referred to them as the "Holy Trinity," are Patek Philippe (established in 1851), Vacheron Constantine (est 1755) and Audemars Piguet (est 1875). Although, these days, some would say that Jaeger-Lecoultre (est 1833) has become better than any of them. One thing's for sure: all 4 of those companies make very high-quality watches, at prices ranging from 4 to 7 figures per watch.

And new watch companies are springing up all the time, in Switzerland and elsewhere, some making cheap crap and others making very good watches, and some in between.

But not very many new pocket watches, which makes me sad. And most of the new pocket watches seem made for nostalgia, imitating old ones instead of trying to embrace being new, and that makes me sadder. As an extreme example: the new Omega pocket watches actually ARE old to a great degree: their movements were made in the 1930's. Recently someone found these 80-year-old watch movements in a warehouse, and Omega decided to refurbish them to make expensive nostalgic pocket watches. Make new watches which are proud of being new, I say, and don't insist that we wear all of them on our wrists! I can't be the only guy in the world who feels this way, although maybe I am.

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