Friday, 16 November 2007

A brief history of watchmaking - Swiss bliss

Watchmaking requires careful craftsmanship and remained for a very long time just a commodity for the very rich. Poor Swiss farmers who worked in France picked up the principles of watchmaking there and took the ideas back to the valleys of Jura, labouring through slack winter months on their mechanics.

They developed uniform methods for watch production and brought out the first cheap watches, knocking the bottom out of the market for other watchmakers. Their skilful precision developed to such a point that other nations turned nowhere else for timepieces. Soon they made timepieces not only for ordinary civilians and military, but for the crowned heads of the world, creating individual, bejewelled mechanical masterpieces.

Many great Swiss watchmaking companies were established from the 18th century up to the early 20th century - Blancpain, Omega, Patek Philippe, Baume et Mercier, Tissot, Vacheron et Constantin, Rolex, Rotary, and Longines. Two-and-a-half centuries ago, Geneva alone boasted 800 master-watchmakers, employing 4,000 journeymen and apprentices. They remained healthily competitive amongst themselves. Innovation followed innovation.

The Vacheron Constantin watch of 1830 remains one of the thinnest mechanical watches ever made and has an elaborately engraved visible movement. Rolex proved that a wristwatch could be as accurate as a pocketwatch, thus giving them credibility as timepieces. With its world famous Rolex Oyster, the firm created the first waterproof watch, which made headlines when it crossed the Channel on the arm of a swimmer in 1927. Omega, known for its durable products, was the first to put a watch on the moon.

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