Why Do We Care That Watches Are Made In Switzerland?
Why do we care about Swiss Watches? A look over the history of watches will bring most people to realize that the vast majority of watch innovations did not originate in Switzerland. This is especially true for the evolution of the timekeeping mechanical gear train and later the quartz movement. Yet Switzerland is the top watchmaking country by reputation and value of watches sold. Most, if not all, the most revered watchmaking brands are Swiss, with many of them sporting a history of over 200 years. Why is that?
Country of Origin Labels – Nothing New
Country of origin labels date back to ancient times. It was common for the name and location of the producer to be inscribed on the product. This detailed information served as crucial indicators so that consumers could make educated decisions about product quality.
Amphorae (ancient vessel form used as a storage jar) used in Mediterranean trade between 1500 and 500 BC were inscribed with various shapes and markings that provided information to buyers. The systematic use of stamps and labels dates back to the fourth century BC.
Archaeological evidence suggests that branding and labeling became widespread during this period. It appears that the Romans preferred to buy specific goods depending on the origin of the particular goods. These place-based preferences stimulated trade throughout Europe and the Middle East. Market towns selling specific goods began to spring up throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. As the number of market towns increased, competition between them intensified. In response to these competitive pressures, towns began to invest in developing a reputation for quality products, efficient market regulation, and good amenities for visitors.
Designations of Origin Now Just For Customs Duties?
Towards the end of the 19th century, European countries introduced legislation on labeling the country of origin. The 20th century ushered in global markets as trade barriers fell. Consumers now had access to an almost infinite range of goods from virtually every corner of the world. The country of origin designation became an even more critical factor for making purchasing decisions.
The impact of country of origin labeling on a consumer’s purchasing decisions has been studied in some detail. Research shows that consumers’ general perception of a country, including its national characteristics, economic and political background, history, traditions, and representative products, leads to an overall image or stereotype associated with that country’s products.
Swiss Made Watches
It was not until 1971 that the Swiss watch industry banded together and promulgated rules for using Swiss, Swiss Made, Suisse, and similar designations. Thirty-six years later, in 2007, a process to define more stringently the concept of Swissness for Swiss watches was initiated and required an update of the 1971 Ordinance. Since 2017, the new Ordinance that details the “Swissness” of a Swiss watch has been in force and regulates the conditions under which the designation “Swiss Made” can be used in the watch industry.
Why Is “Swiss Made” So Difficult?
Whether we like it or not, the world is a global marketplace. Price pressures, technical skills, industrial developments are only some aspects that have driven some regions or even countries to have extreme specializations. The result is that finished products are manufactured in one country from components sourced worldwide. When the components arrive from various countries, how should the country of origin be determined?
The Swiss watch industry wanted to set a threshold that would determine whether a watch is Swiss-made. The fact is that a watch with “Swiss Made” on it does not mean that every component is made in Switzerland or each work process takes place in Switzerland.
Until January 2017, the Swiss Made regulation stipulated that for a watch to be Swiss-Made, it must, as a minimum, meet the following criterion.
- The watch movement must be assembled in Switzerland.
- The watch movement also has to have 50% of its components, by value, manufactured in Switzerland and all quality control performed in Switzerland.
- The watch had to be assembled in Switzerland.
- The final testing and quality control of the watch have to be performed in Switzerland.
Switzerland is unusual in that they have a specific regulation to determine the origin designation for watches. The general legislation to stipulate the country of origin for most products globally is very lax by comparison. The Swiss watch regulation is materially more restrictive but still provides a lot of flexibility in the definition of Swiss Made. This flexibility was deliberate and intended to serve the lower and middle priced watches, particularly quartz watches.
Even though Swiss quartz movements cost more than quartz movements made in Japan or China, the absolute price of the movements is low compared to mechanical movements. Therefore, even if the Swiss quartz movement was double or triple a Japanese movement, it could still be sold at a reasonable price when combined with low-priced components from abroad.
The problem was that these relatively relaxed rules for the Swiss Made designation did not do justice to technically challenging mechanical watches.
Going It Alone
To overcome these shortcomings, some watch brands launched their designations. “Invenit et Fecit” (invented and made) was established by F.P.Journe. Others launched “Manufacturé en Suisse” and “Genève / Made in Geneva.” These designations promised a higher level of Swiss involvement than just compliance with the existing rules of origin.
The established brands of the Haute Horlogerie faced fewer problems with the conflict of values presented by the origin label. All these brands traded on their name. It was their name that inferred the product quality, and they reinforced the message through market communication. They had created their own, higher standard of trust, which left the origin of the components out of the equation. This resulted in the perplexing situation where you can find watches from top-tier Swiss brands with no country of origin designation on the dial or only the designation “Swiss.”
The Pressure To Tighten The Rules
These contradictions in the market created pressure for a new, more restrictive regulation to govern the Swiss Made moniker. The pressure was predominantly from the lower end of the luxury segment.
But what is it that determines product quality? Is it simply that the majority of the work should be performed in Switzerland? But what is the work? Is that the design and engineering, or is it just the physical manufacture and assembly of the finished article?
The manufacture of these micromechanical marvels demands extreme manufacturing precision. This skill can only be perfected through years of study and experience. The training goes far beyond mere compliance with instructions and requires artisanal skills that can only be developed through years of practice. This is where knowledge, skill, and location all come together. The experience and skills of each manufacturer, some accumulated over generations of artisans and engineers, are required to create a high-quality product.
But the challenge is, how can this skill and knowledge be translated into a legal regulation to govern the origin requirements?
Swiss Made Today
The new Swiss regulation came into force on 1 January 2017.
The most significant change was the introduction of a minimum value criterion for the entire watch. For any watch to be labeled Swiss Made, it must have at least 60% of its value created in Switzerland.
The previous requirements, including using a Swiss movement, assembling the watch, and having the final inspection in Switzerland, remain in place. However, the definition of a Swiss movement has changed, so a minimum of 60% by value must be manufactured in Switzerland.
New aspects of developing a watch, such as research, development, and certification costs, are now included in calculating the Swiss value.
Not Everyone Was Happy
This new regulation came under significant criticism from those brands that would be most affected. The new rules were particularly problematic for those brands in the quartz segment. Critics were forecasting that the Swiss watch industry would completely lose the mid-price segment (watches in the CHF 200 – 800 price range). The regulation received further criticism because watch quality would not increase as a result of the new regulation. Critics argued that there was a danger that manufacturers would buy other watch components at even lower prices to compensate for the higher-priced Swiss-made parts, resulting in a decline in overall quality.
Different Perspectives For Quartz and Mechanical Watches
The fact is that the new regulation for quartz watches requires a higher proportion of Swiss-made components. For a simple quartz watch, the movement price represents about 20% of the manufacturing cost. This ratio can be even less for watches with unique watch cases used in combination with standard movements. Swiss quartz watches, therefore, tend to be more expensive and/or equipped with more specialized movements.
The movement represents around 60% of the manufacturing cost for a straightforward mechanical watch with a standard movement. This proportion can decrease depending, in particular, on the value of the watch case. Nevertheless, the new regulation of Swiss origin is easy to implement for mechanical watches. This is one of the reasons why there are still ongoing discussions about changing the Swiss production share to 80% for mechanical watches.
Diversity Is Not A Bad Thing
So what happened to the Swiss watch industry after the introduction of the new Swiss Made regulation? Were the prophets of doom proven correct? Was the industry strengthened or weakened? Did the middle and lower price segment of Swiss watches completely disappear?
The prediction came true that watches from other countries experienced a renaissance. Watches “Made in France,” “Made in Germany,” “…in the UK”, “in the USA” are all experiencing an exciting upswing. It is a gift to the diversity of the watch industry that countries with history in the watch industry are regaining importance. Unfortunately, two trends are driving the renaissance in other watch origins. The first is the extensive production of watches in the respective country, including the costly and time-consuming development of production facilities and the required knowledge. But also the simple, non-consequential use of the designation of origin that takes advantage of the lax regulation of the country of origin designation in other countries.
To counter the abuse of the country of origin designation, a trend developed towards “Total Transparency.” The idea is that the country of origin of each component and work step are detailed. However, when the Swiss regulation for the country of origin is met, then “Swiss” would still be printed in one way or the other on the dial or engraved on the case-back. In this regard, the “Transparency” label is degenerating into a PR campaign, whereas perhaps full transparency should be the standard nowadays anyway?
I find the diverse range of new mechanical movements from various countries exciting. Miyota and Seiko are becoming dominant (again) in the middle price segment of non-Swiss mechanical watches. The Chinese are coming to dominate the lower-priced segment of the market.
Collateral Damage Or Desastrous Strategy
Back to Swiss watches, more precisely to the export figures for the years 2000 to 2020. What was the influence of the strengthening of the Swiss Made regulations? Can we see any impact as forecast by the critics?
As we know, trends do not emerge because of just one influencing factor, but I find it beneficial to look at the following data with these key events in mind.
- 2008 – Global Financial Crisis
- 2013 – China’s crackdown on luxury gifts
- 2015 – Launch of the 1st Apple Smart Watch
- 2020 – Covid-19 plandemic and the overall increasing online sales of luxury watches that influenced the average prices in the export figures.
It is interesting to note that data so far in 2021 indicates that 2021 industry sales will be back at the 2019 level or perhaps even higher.
It is clear that China’s policy changes and the launch of Smartwatches did impact exports after 2014/2015. How or why did the market recover from losing around 10% of its value between 2015 and 2016? Perhaps people became bored with smartwatches?
Quantities Are Falling
One thing is sure, the overall quantity of watches leaving Switzerland did not increase.
The number of watches leaving Switzerland continued to decrease.
Yet, the export value of watches leaving Switzerland continues to increase. This is driven by mechanical watches and has been a well-established trend since 2000.
Mechanical watch exports increased in value fourfold between 2000 and 2015. With declining numbers, the average value per mechanical watch must have increased.
By comparison, the quartz watches’ value and unit export figures show a somewhat synchronized decrease, implying that the price did not change much, but there was a significant loss of market share.
What does appear evident on the charts above is that the decrease in sales of Swiss quartz watches has accelerated since 2017. Perhaps the critics were correct.
What do you think? What is the necessary ingredient, in your opinion, for a watch to be a Swiss watch? Do let us know below.