If you ask a random person who is not necessarily related to the world of watches where the best watches in the world are made, you are highly likely to hear “Switzerland, Duh!”. There is of course a lot of truth behind that statement, and it is due to the history of the craft. This begs the question though, is that still a fact today? Let’s see!
Why is Switzerland so closely associated with watchmaking?
Glad you asked! Believe it or not, this goes back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The history of Swiss watchmaking is indeed intertwined with the Huguenots and religious wars, which forced many skilled watchmakers, often of Protestant faith, to seek refuge in Switzerland. These European protestants from France and Italy were initially goldsmiths and silversmiths and had developed great fine motor skills, allowing them to work with such precious materials. As protestants, they did not have the reluctance of the Catholics to work and make profit from such fine and precious materials that were intended almost solely for the Clergy, Royalty, and Aristocracy.
The Edict of Nantes was a significant edict issued by King Henry IV of France on April 13, 1598. It played a pivotal role in the religious history and politics of France during the late 16th century. The Edict of Nantes – arguably one of the first ever formal Human Rights document - aimed to promote religious tolerance and put an end to the religious conflicts that had plagued France during the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598). The primary provisions of the edict included:
1. Religious Freedom: It granted religious freedom and civil rights to the Protestant Huguenots. This allowed them to practice their faith openly and without fear of persecution.
2. Security: The edict provided security and protection for Huguenots, allowing them to maintain their own fortified towns and armies for self-defense.
3. Political Rights: Huguenots were given the right to hold public office and participate in the legal and administrative institutions of the country.
4. Religious Tolerance: While Catholicism remained the state religion of France, the Edict of Nantes officially recognized and tolerated Protestantism.
The Edict of Nantes was a landmark in the history of religious freedom, as it marked one of the first instances in Europe where a ruler officially recognized the coexistence of two different religious traditions within a single country. It brought a temporary end to the religious conflicts in France and contributed to a period of relative peace and stability. However, the religious tensions in France continued, and the edict was eventually revoked by King Louis XIV in 1685 with the Edict of Fontainebleau. The revocation led to the persecution and mass exodus of Huguenots from France, which had lasting effects on the country's demographic, economic, and cultural landscape. Around the same period, the horological arts and sciences evolved mostly within that population that was best equipped to develop the required skills. With the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, there was a great exodus of these skilled artisans to Switzerland where they established themselves and remain to this very day.
The Quartz Crisis
In the late 1960’s, the quartz movement was invented in Switzerland. The precision of a watch movement is in direct correlation to its regulator component’s frequency. While a mechanical movement relies on the spring placed inside the balance wheel, the quarts movements rely on a tiny electrical impulse that – when applied to the quartz crystal, makes it vibrate at a specific and highly stable frequency. A mechanical movement, depending on the materials used, the construction, and other similar elements will provide the watch with a vibration ranging from 2.5 to 10 Htz. This means that we are looking at anything between 9,000 vibration per hour (vph) up to 36,000 vph. Quite impressive. A quartz crystal however will vibrate at a whopping frequency of precisely 36,768 Htz, that is over 132 Million vph, making a quartz watch over 10,000 times more accurate than its mechanical counterpart.
Up until that point, the whole Swiss watch industry had built their communication and marketing around the key element of accuracy. Indeed, Swiss watches were known globally to be the most precise watches money could buy, and people paid a premium for that technological superiority. With the invention of quartz movements, and as we were in the era of great technological advancement, Japanese and Chinese manufacturers were very quick to develop highly affordable, highly precise quartz movement, thus killing the argument used for centuries by Swiss watchmakers. The period that followed, throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s certainly was one of the worst in the history of the Swiss watchmaking industry.
The revival of the watch industry, from the mid-1990’s onward started when the Swiss watchmakers started shifting the conversation from precision to tradition and craftsmanship: A Swiss-made timepiece is superior to any other because Swiss brands have been developing the skills and techniques in terms of finishing and decoration for centuries, passing on the tradition of such skills from one generation to the next.
Today, the “Swiss-made” label can sometime be misleading as the assumption of the consumer would be that the entire watch was made in Switzerland. It is – of course – the case of the very premium brands that command very high price points, but it is less and less the case of more “affordable” timepieces that can import several ready- made components from other countries where the cost of labor and manufacturing is substantially lower. The final assembly of course remains in Switzerland. There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with such an approach and the point of this information is simply just that – to inform and put things in perspective.
The non-Swiss brands
Putting aside the non-Swiss brand of important historical heritage such as A. Lange & Soehne from Germany or Gronefeld from the Netherlands who are proper watchmaker’s brands with exceptional hand finishing, there is a plethora of great watch brands that offer a lot of watchmaking for your buck. The last decade or so however so the birth and development of superbly finished, brilliantly designed micro-brands that offer fantastic products at a very competitive prices such as Kurono Tokyo (using mostly Japanese Miyota movements), Grand Seiko (using Seiko movements), etc... Magana – as a brand – is aiming to ultimately become part of this relatively new club of micro-brands offering a great product, of great quality with mechanical movement of high reliability at a competitive price point.