Mechanical Watchmaking Case Study of an Immobile Evolution

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    Swiss watchmaking is said to be very attached to its heritage, its know-how and tradition. All these values, often put forward in communications from institutional brands, suggest, at times, that time itself has stopped turning in the Jura valleys and other Geneva workshops.

    It would be wrong to believe watches subject to profound changes in their construction. Some national specificities separate English pieces from French ones in the most beautiful years of the 18th century. However, the watch manufacturing technique was the same on Place Dauphine in Paris as in Cecil Street in London or even in La Chaux-de-Fonds where Daniel Jean Richard had shone, a man said to be capable of reproducing hand a watchmaking instrument of an english horse seller.
    This city, like others in Switzerland, held its place in the world of watchmaking by making simple or complicated quality products at low prices and in the style of the French or English according to market demand. Logic under these conditions that watchmakers from the countries concerned complained of the poor quality of these works.
    Pure rhetoric, because in truth, many of the mechanical wonders of the end of the Enlightenment from the Jura valleys were largely as well made as those made in European capitals and did not differ in anything physically.
    The reason for this talent? The good level of knowledge of the inhabitants, including in the countryside, the taste for work and a low cost of labor made the difference. We know that the average salary of a peasant worker in the Franches-Montagnes was, on average, almost two to three times lower than that of a Parisian laborer. It was then tempting to have some of these pieces produced in a country where the production, with equal qualifications, was much less expensive … The result which it entailed at the time should justify a deep reflection, because l history has this strange ability to repeat itself often.
    If the sponsors had a few hundred calibers executed at low prices, they could not, distance helping (it took more than ten days of carriage to get to LaChaux-de-Fonds from Paris), the proliferation of servile copies. The height of cynicism, they regularly bore the counterfeit signature of the masters who, moreover, were often Swiss.

    For a long time, we forget, the factories, the first of which was that of Frederic Japy (born in 1749 and active from 1777), produced in large quantities watch movements considered by renowned watchmakers as frankly mediocre. However, these flooded the country market. Itinerant hawkers were keen to sell them to peasants at cattle fairs.

    This trade did not prevent the masters of all countries from living very well with these reflections of proto-industry. They were developing mechanical compositions based on so-called “Lépine” calibers, the design of which allowed them to work in finesse, the symbol par excellence of ultimate luxury, in opposition to popular onions.

    The technical marvels also differed in their mode of regulation from those of the people. When the fine references of the beginning of the 19th century were cylinder escapements, products intended for the people retained a mode of regulation inherited from the 18th century.
    Thus, the most elaborate pieces, and at times indecent in price, were aimed primarily at the wealthiest. However, with the acceleration of the industrial revolution in continental Europe and the emergence of a more educated population with “an honest standard of living”, the factories began to envisage a powerful reconversion.

    Everything was going to play out in the second half of the 19th century.
    In 1850, in Switzerland, no watch had interchangeable parts.
    The entrepreneurs were left with a broken parts manufacturing, in other words, each brand still appealed to the small manufacturers who supplied the requested spare parts. Next came the assembly and adjustment by rolling of the components. The manual part was considerable, but the low wages allowed this practice. Only, the Americans arrived and the volume of their production could harm Swiss factories.
    Waltham’s Riverside at the end of the 19th century had nothing to envy of the Zenith or Omega calibers, not even their often lower prices.
    After the Universal Exhibition of Philadelphia in 1876, The children of Louis Brandt, but also most of the serious setters of Switzerland realized that their manufacturing method was completely obsolete and that it was going to be laminated by the new arrivals who would not delay to invade the market with very high quality products at good prices.

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