How Geneva Became the Watchmaking Capital of the World

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When it comes to watches, it’s either Swiss-made or nothing. For centuries, Switzerland has dominated the watchmaking game by creating and crafting the finest timekeeping instruments available. Geneva, specifically, has become the world headquarters for top watch designers. Here’s a brief history of how Geneva, Switzerland became the watchmaking capital of the world.

History of Timekeeping

Antique stone sundial marking the passage of daylight
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Humans have been studying the position of the stars and keeping time for thousands of years. Throughout history, timekeeping was recorded on a daily basis rather than hourly. The earliest calendar dates back 10,000 years. Eventually, people became curious about the time of day and invented sundials. The earliest known sundial, called the gnomon, was first used around 3500 B.C.E. However, it wasn’t very accurate and required substantial mathematics skills to read.

Mechanical Clocks

Internal view of wristwatch showing intricate cogs and gears connected
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Timekeeping didn’t enter the Mechanical Age until thousands of years after the invention of the sundial. In 1283, the first mechanical weight-driven clock was invented in England. The invention of the first clock was driven by the Catholic Church in order to keep track of strict prayer schedules throughout the day. Early clocks separated time into hours, but they weren’t exact enough to keep track of minutes or seconds. During the early 15th century, an unknown inventor discovered that the large, heavy weights in mechanical clocks could be replaced by a small spring. This allowed clocks to change from immovable objects to small, portable timekeeping devices.

John Calvin Arrives in Geneva

Sunset of Chillon Castle at Geneva, Switzerland
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In the mid-16th century, the Huguenots (a group of French protestants) fled religious persecution and made their way to Geneva. They were led by a preacher named John Calvin. From the pulpit of St. Pierre Cathedral, he quickly gained major influence over the small country and began enforcing a strict religious moral code.

Prior to Calvin’s arrival, Geneva was well-known for its jewelry industry. Once his new rules went into place, the wearing of ostentatious jewelry was essentially banned — or at least frowned upon. Instead of wearing pendants, rings, and bracelets, the people of Geneva began to carry morally-permissible watches instead. It wasn’t long until all of the jewelry makers in Geneva switched over to making watches to accommodate the increased demand. In 1601, the first watchmaking guild was established in the city of Geneva.

The Birth of the Watchmaking Industry

Watchmaker with tools and watches opened up on wooden table
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Using their jewelry-making skills, the craftsmen of Geneva began to build beautiful, intricate timepieces that were unrivaled by any other country. People from around the world started to move to Switzerland to study and learn from the Genevan masters and pretty soon, the city was full of watchmakers. Geneva got so good at making watches that in order to prevent forgeries and counterfeits, the Geneva Seal was given legal status in 1886. Only watches of the utmost quality and craftsmanship could earn the seal.

Wristwatches

Man wearing suit and wristwatch holding up arm to check the time
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Until the early 20th century, pocket watches were the most popular form of mobile timekeeping. When World War I began, soldiers needed a fast and easy way to check the time without having to reach into their pockets. They began to strap their pocket watches to their wrists with strips of leather or twine. Watchmakers saw this as an opportunity and started to make wristwatches. Initially, Geneva was in stiff competition with European and American watchmakers. When the world’s manufacturing facilities turned to the war effort, the Swiss continued to produce watches and corner the market.

Since then, the most popular watches have been made in Switzerland. There has been some fierce competition over the years, but through innovation and extraordinary levels of craftsmanship, Switzerland (more specifically, Geneva) has remained top-notch.

Swiss Watch Brands

Multiple watches laying on a wooden table
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Many of the most popular and expensive watch brands in the world have headquarters in Switzerland. Here are just some of the most famous brands:

  • Rolex (Geneva)
  • Patek Philippe (Geneva)
  • Omega
  • Breitling
  • Breguet
  • Jaeger-LeCoultre
  • Zenith

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