Humans have been fascinated with keeping track of time for as long as recorded history can tell us. Cave paintings track the passage of time through day and night, or seasonal changes. The earliest known sundials date back some 3,500 years. Mechanical clocks were first invented in the 13th century. Today, we have sophisticated timekeeping systems in satellites that can account for general relativity.
Through this incredible history of technological achievement and advancement, one mark of quality has stood out across the sands of time — “Swiss made”.
No matter where you are in the world, no matter how much or little you know about timekeeping, you probably know that a Swiss-made watch is one of the highest quality. Those two words denote quality and precision above all others. It is why Switzerland has become known as the birthplace of modern horology and it is where almost all of the prestigious brands of the world originated from.
How did this happen? Why and when did Switzerland earn such prestige for its watchmaking? And does that seemingly timeless label still hold the same value today?
The Rise of Swiss Timekeeping
Switzerland began watchmaking in the 16th century. They quickly gained a reputation as producing quality timepieces for both clocks and watches, which was accelerated by the world wars.
The wristwatch itself wouldn’t be (officially) invented until the 20th century, in the bloody sands of WWI. Wristwatches were at first almost exclusively marketed towards women, while men used pocket watches. That was until soldiers needed accurate, easily-accessible timepieces to coordinate strikes and attacks. Strapping an existing pocket watch on your wrist seemed like a simple solution.
Between world wars, returning soldiers kept wearing their wristwatches with their civilian clothing and quickly popularised the notion of wearing a watch on your wrist for men. By 1930, wristwatches greatly outnumbered their pocket-housed counterparts — by about 50 to 1.
And who was making most of these wristwatches?
Rolex and Omega were the leading brands for reliable, precision, quality mechanical wristwatches. After the onset of World War II, Switzerland’s neutrality allowed them to continue focusing on manufacturing their watches for the allied forces. Where other countries needed to divert resources to the war effort, the Swiss were able to solidify their position and the wristwatch masters. By the time the world ended, Swiss watchmakers held 50% of the world market.
From the 1930s through to the 1960s, Switzerland built an indelible impression on the global stage as the absolute authority in quality wristwatches. “Swiss made” as a matter of provenance was born.
The Slow Fall of Swiss Made Watches
Until 1969, watches were made with mechanical movements. Incredibly precise parts were carefully constructed to convert energy from a spring into a device capable of telling time. The level of mastery and craftsmanship necessary to produce these watches was considerable. Prices for mechanical watches rose to levels where the average man could not afford to own one.
Then, in 1969, Japan changed everything when Seiko introduced the first quartz watch. By passing a small charge into a sliver of quartz, these watches were able to keep time more accurately, for longer, and at a significantly lower price. The popularity of quartz watches took off as they could be produced faster and at lower prices. The “Quartz Crisis” threatened to destroy the Swiss watchmaking industry.
Switzerland responded by introducing the Swatch watch in the 1980s, clawing back some market share and keeping the Swiss watchmaking industry alive. But the damage was done — today, the overwhelming majority of watches on the market are quartz. The mechanical watch and self-winding watch are now largely relegated to statement pieces, for those who still appreciate the craftsmanship and skill involved in making a mechanical watch.
However, despite the market being disrupted by this new technology, the Swiss Made label endured. Even today, it’s still considered the ultimate mark of quality in a watch.
While this was certainly true 60, 70 years ago — what does ‘Swiss Made’ really mean today?
What Does Swiss Made Mean — Really?
There was a time this was a very simple question with a very simple answer: In the same way that Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, a Swiss Made watch had to be made in Switzerland. It meant that the watch movement, the beating heart of the timepiece, was made, inspected, and tested in Switzerland, by Swiss master craftspeople.
Over time, especially with the globalisation of consumer markets and the quartz crisis it became harder and harder for Swiss manufacturers to offer watches at competitive prices. Their production costs were just too high. Swiss brands started outsourcing parts and manufacturing to other countries in order to lower production costs.
The label became harder and harder to maintain and Swiss made no longer meant that all of the watch was produced in Switzerland. Swiss law was even adjusted to allow Swiss companies to do so. For a while, by Swiss law, it meant that 50% of production cost of a watch had to be made in Switzerland, allowing companies some wiggle room to outsource part of their production to lower cost countries.
Today, the legal definition of “Swiss Made” is that 60% of the production cost of the watch must be spent in Switzerland.
For this reason, many have come to believe the Swiss Made label is diluted — and it’s not hard to see why. 60% of the production cost is a fairly vague criteria, rife for exploitation. This has lead to the concept of “Swissifying” a watch: designing and manufacturing in one country, typically in Asia, and performing just enough of the work in Switzerland to qualify.
Many watch brands, for example, will simply do assembly or quality control in Switzerland. Some will even have Swiss shell companies that they pay 60% of the production cost to, thereby completely avoiding the need to do any work in the country itself. Despite the fact this is by no means 60% of the watch itself is Swiss, so long as it represents 60% of the cost, it’s completely legal.
Business practices exploiting loopholes in Swiss law such as this has lead some watch brands with proud histories in Swiss made mechanical watches to abandon the Swiss made label all together. One such company is H.Moser & Cie who denounced current regulations as being “too lenient, providing no guarantee, creating confusion and encouraging abuses.”
Is It Still Worth It To Buy Swiss?
The short answer is yes. Swiss craftsmanship is still synonymous with high quality watchmaking, however there are a couple things to look out for when purchasing a Swiss made watch. You will need to look a little further than a “Swiss Made” logo.
Two other criteria you can look for on their website or in their FAQ are:
What does ‘Swiss Parts’ mean?
This means that some parts used to make the watch are Swiss designed and/or manufactured. It does not ensure that the watch’s movement is manufactured in Switzerland and it often means that the watch was assembled in a different country than Switzerland. It is simply stating that some parts of the watch used for the production were sourced from Switzerland.
What does ‘Swiss Movement’ mean?
This refers to the mechanical movement inside the watch, and shows that the movement is Swiss in origin. The movement is the most essential part of any watch and it is what ensures a high precision of timekeeping, durability and true craftsmanship quality.
Brands will often list the manufacturer and caliber number, or at least the origin of the movement on their website. If the brand is not being transparent about the movement or its origin you should be suspicious, as this is not something a brand would hide if they’re using a high quality movement.
The overall message is that you should see whether or not brands are transparent about where they produce their watches and the origin of the movements inside of them. “Swiss made” may not mean what it used to on the surface, but the parts of a watch that were manufactured in Switzerland are still to be considered of the highest quality one can find.
Where are pOrtahl watches manufactured?
At pOrthal, we believe that the crucial element of any mechanical watch is the movement itself. The movement is the part of the watch where true craftsmanship makes all the difference in the quality and precision of a timepiece. For this reason, we chose to use the Swiss made STP1-11 as our movement of choice for pOrtahl’s Peacemaker watch. The STP1-11 is a fully Swiss made movement designed and manufactured in Switzerland.
The assembly of our watches is done in Asia with a manufacturing partner that specializes in high-end watches and has over 13 years of experience working for many well known European brands. This construction allows us to ensure we’re providing the best aspects of Swiss made craftsmanship and the confidence that we’re manufacturing watches we can stand by, without creating a product that is prohibitively expensive to you, the customer.