swiss watchmaking

Honouring the watchmaking legacy

Baselworld is back on the 2022 events calendar. Why? Because it’s an industry tradition that the watchmaking community refuses to relinquish. With the world on a pandemic-induced pause last year, the MCH Group took the time to rethink the world’s oldest watch, jewellery and gemstones fair, and reshape it in a “modern and exciting” way.  

The brand represents more than a century of the watch industry in Switzerland,” says Michel Loris-Melikoff, Managing Director – Baselworld. The show will go on. 

“The brand represents more than a century of the watch industry in Switzerland”

Michel Loris-Melikoff

Tradition is one of the key pillars of the watchmaking industry, guiding the growth of the oldest brands and providing inspiration not only for young watchmakers but for the next generation of watch enthusiasts. Jaeger-LeCoultre CEO Catherine Renier says of the Grande Maison’s plans to celebrate the Reverso this year: “Since it was born in 1931, we have celebrated the iconic Reverso with several impressive timepieces – always getting better with age, but always staying true to tradition.” 

Similarly, the Cartier style has always been about timeless, original design and exceptional craftsmanship. It’s the reason that popularity for a line such as the Tank endures today, with the Tank Must featuring among this year’s launches. Based on the Tank Louis Cartier of 1922, the piece is the epitome of the House’s “faith in originality, an understanding of the subtle balance between taking inspiration from the old and relentlessly innovating for the future: ‘Never copy, only create.’” Francesca Cartier Brickell, great-granddaughter to the dynasty’s founder, highlights the philosophy in her book, The Cartiers.  

Luxury groups Richemont (Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC), Swatch Group (Omega and Longines) and LVMH (Hublot, Zenith and TAG Heuer) lead the Swiss watch industry together with a number of well-known independents such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Breitling and Chopard. The Deloitte Swiss Watch Industry Study 2020 adds a number of smaller independent brands such as MB&F, Richard Mille or FP Journe, which are differentiating themselves from a crowd of over 400 Swiss watch brands, to the list.  

Switzerland is regarded as the watchmaking capital of the world with La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle being inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2009. “The two towns bear witness to the exceptional uninterrupted continuation of a living and world-renowned watchmaking tradition, which has succeeded in coping with the socio-technical and economic crises of the contemporary world,” writes the World Heritage Committee. “La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle constitute a unique urban and architectural ensemble, wholly dedicated to watchmaking from the 18th century until the present day.” 

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In 2020 UNESCO added the demonstration of refined techniques, exceptional artistry, and know-how passed down through generations to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage for France and Switzerland. The list identifies crafts, skills and cultural traditions in member states that require “urgent measures to keep them alive” or that “help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance.”  

Greubel Forsey chief executive Antonio Calce was one of the motivators for the listing, which was intended to affirm the value of mechanical watchmaking and the people practicing the rare art of traditional hand craftsmanship. The need to protect skills and pass on the savoir-faire shared by industry artisans places the focus on apprenticeship schemes and intergenerational transmission. 

Champions of the watchmaking tradition invariably share a passion for art and culture, a fascination for technical complications and a love of beautiful things. This was supported by online shopping trends during the pandemic, with watch enthusiasts investing time and energy into adding to their collections. A mechanical watch is a beautiful thing, and it brings joy to the wearer.  

Leading brands and their suppliers entered the COVID-19 crisis with stronger balance sheets and, despite seeing a decrease in activity, were least affected by the pandemic,” according to the Deloitte study. By way of example, independent manufacturer H. Moser & Cie grew by 12% in 2020 with their first quarter results more than double last year’s record. What’s more, boutique owner Danny Goldsmith of Goldsmith & Complications in Florida, USA, says he could have sold watches 24/7 at the height of the pandemic.  

The Heritage Perpetual Calendar Midnight Blue Enamel is another example of how watchmakers forge links between past and present, traditional and contemporary. The limited edition of 20 pieces is inspired by vintage timepieces conceived by Heinrich Moser, who founded H. Moser & Cie in 1828. The Grand Feu enamel dial is brought to life by Roman numerals and swallow-tail hands, with fine lugs and a railroad minute track enhancing its traditional character. However, because “tradition at H. Moser & Cie never means dull or fusty” the design adopts an emphatically irreverent aesthetic with a striking midnight-blue fumé dial. 

Uniqueness provides a counterpoint to tradition in the watchmaking context. Anthony de Haas, director of product development at A. Lange & Söhne, writes in a column for Plaza Watch magazine: “A distinctive style, high recognition value and a consistent design concept are the key success factors on the aesthetic side of a fine watch brand. It sounds simple, but from my own experience I know that it is one of the greatest challenges. For it is not enough to create an unmistakable face with a few special hallmarks. Every one of them has to reflect the mechanical ingenuity of the timepiece and as a whole they should live up to the spiritual legacy of a brand that was created [176 years] ago to build the world’s best watches.”  

For enthusiasts, these are some of the qualities that set watches and watchmakers apart. Baselworld hosts the brands that showcase inspired designs, traditional craftsmanship and innovation. As François Thiébaud, former president of the Swiss Exhibitors Committee said: “We have always had time, but today we choose to dress up time, to decorate it using the tools, savoir faire, creativity, and craftsmanship that go back centuries.” 

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