EUROPEAN WATCHMAKING HISTORY

Watchmaking refers to portable timepieces (“clock-watches”), first appeared in Germany in the early 16th century, based on the table clock technology of that period. In the 17th century, the trend of waistcoat set the need for smaller pocket watches, and consequent new developments for the pioneering European industries of Germany, France, Great Britain, Holland and Switzerland. With the first and the last one deserving an individual presentation, this article deals with the rest countries in Europe, with the exception of Soviet Union being a very particular case.

GREAT BRITAIN

Entering the scene in 1575, British watchmaking comes first historically thriving for 200 years, from the late 17th to the late 19th century, thanks to the great number of brilliant scientists and technicians like Robert Hooke (anchor escapement & balance spring conception), Thomas Tompion (“Father” of English watchmaking), George Graham (escapement improvement), Thomas Mudge (Lever escapement), John Harrison (temperature compensation), among others. The last one is credited with the presentation of the first marine chronometer in 1761, an achievement that greatly influenced navigation and sea transportation in the coming centuries. It is noted that in 1800, The British were producing approximately 200,000 pocket watches annually, the same volume with the Swiss, and the same volume with the rest of Europeans including the French and the Dutch watchmakers (European population around 200 million people). Their unwillingness to abandon their labor intensive system and to mechanize their production process during the 19th century, resulted in their marginalization, with a limited annual production volume of less than 100,000 watches in 1900, in a global market with an output of several million timepieces per year, for a global population of 1.6 billion people.

In practice, there was a dual paradox in this industry. First, although from the 18th century there was an extensive labor division, with special craftsmen for the various parts, primarily the case and the mechanism, the technician watchmaker responsible for the final assembling should treat and finish all the “rough” supplied parts, for accomplishing a proper assembling of a very good quality watch. Profoundly, this meant low productivity and high cost. Second, the real watchmakers were coming second to the demanding traditional retailers (most English dials mark the retailer not the actual watchmaker) who naturally were operating on high margins. English watches were of better quality than the rest, but eventually they were too expensive. The downfall during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was unavoidable. After WWII and till the end of the century, the only two worth mentioning brands were SMITHS, active from the early 1950s to the late 1970s, and CWC that keeps being specialized in military style watches, assembled in Switzerland since 1972.

The degradation of the British watchmaking industry in the 20th century was somehow counterbalanced by the accomplishments of one legendary watchmaker. Dr. George Daniels (1926-2011) had been a talented watchmaker from an early age devoted in improving all critical aspects of the existing technology for mechanical watches. His best contribution is the invention and development of the co-axial escapement since 1974, and with the help of his close friend Derek Pratt (1938-2009), another renowned British watchmaker, he tried to introduce it to the Swiss industry, till the final use of the patent from Omega in the 1990s. During his long career, he crafted entirely by hand 27 masterpiece watches, and through his books has inspired many contemporary watchmakers to perpetuate his legacy, among them his only apprentice Roger W. Smith who continues the work of his mentor, in the same place, the Isle of Man. Overall, he is considered the greatest horologist of the 20th century and the founder of independent watchmaking like it has emerged in our times since the 1980s.

The resurrection of the British watch industry in the 21st century is not a surprise, but an anticipated action from several entrepreneurs who respect their history and tradition. During the last 20 years, several brands have been re-established, and new ones have appeared. In the early 2020s, there are more than 25 British brands, and most of them belong to the middle and high range whereas around one third is involved in domestic assembling of their products.

FRANCE

The French watch industry took over from the German, excelled in the middle 17th century, and proved to be a firm competitor to the British and the Swiss in between the 18th and 19th century. The most significant contribution is the invention of the thinner Lepine caliber in 1765, built on one plate with separate bridges, along with the replacement of the fusee plain barrel by a modern form mainspring barrel that allowed for smaller and more practical pocket watches (with open face) to the contemporary sizes. This innovation is credited to Jean-Antoine Lepine, apprentice to Andre-Charles Caron (presented the first skeleton mechanism in 1760) and teacher of Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) who is regarded as the best watchmaker of all times. The latter’s exploits cover almost all known aspects and complications in watchmaking, and include the first “perpetuelle” reliable self-winding watch (1780), the introduction of the contemporary gong spring in the repeater mechanism (1783), the introduction of guilloche dial decoration (1786), the introduction of constant force escapement (1789), the invention of “pare-chute” anti-shock device (1790), the introduction of the overcoil balance spring (1795), the invention of tourbillon regulator (1795). Moreover, thanks to the contribution of Breguet, Pierre Le Roy and Ferdinand Berthoud (both working in France) developed a notable heritage on marine chronometers, and Louis Moinet is credited with the presentation of the first pocket chronograph in 1816.

Eventually, they proved slightly more adaptive than the British, and managed to survive in the long run. Established in the 19th century, AURICOSTE (1854), DODANE (1857), LIP (1867) are the three brands that bridge the glorious past with the promising present of the French watchmaking. Apart from the three brands mentioned above, plus CARTIER that presented its first watch in 1904 (SANTOS model), in the early 2020s there are more than 20 active brands established in France, with approximately half of them assembling their models domestically.

BENELUX

Taking advantage of their expertise in clocks, the Dutch tradition in watchmaking holds from the very beginning of the 17th century, and the local industry kept being active throughout the 19th century. The historical highlight is the invention of the spiral spring balance by Christiaan Huygens in 1675 despite his fame of being closer to the English than his fellow Dutch horologists. This is perhaps the most important innovation in history since it improved substantially the accuracy of watches, and facilitated the addition of a second hand counting the minutes. Especially during the 17th and 18th century, the Dutch remained a “silent” competitor to the French and the British, with all of them eventually affected by the more efficient Swiss production process. In the early 2020s, there are more than 20 established brands coming from Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg.

SCANDINAVIA

All five Scandinavian countries have left their own imprint in the watchmaking industry, with Denmark holding the scepters, primarily due to the legacy of URBAN JURGENSEN (UJ) brand. Among the rest countries, the Swede and in particular HALDA started producing pocket watches domestically since the late 19th century, from 1887 till the end of WWI, and the Finn are distinguished primarily for SUUNTO technology in special diving and compass wristwatches, launched in the late 1990s.

Focusing on the story of JURGENSEN name, it was founded initially as a commercial entity in 1773 by Jurgen Jurgensen in Copenhagen, and it initiated domestic production of pocket watches in 1781. It excelled under the management of Urban Jurgensen (2nd generation) who was a renowned watchmaker himself, and established his own brand in 1811 focusing on the production of marine chronometers. In 1834, Jules Jurgensen (3rd generation) established a second assembling facility in Switzerland reinforcing the brand’s diachronic Swiss-Danish roots. The brand remained under family management till 1912 when the last descendant (4th generation) of the family died, and the brand name survived in split entities and through various owners ever since. Especially the “Jules Jurgensen” logo had been used on the Swiss made models for 145 years, till 1979. Three years later in 1982, the resurrected Urban Jurgensen & Sonner (UJS) under the ownership of watchmaker Peter Baumburger and the auction specialist Dr. Helmut Grott, along the technical administration of the English watchmaker Derek Pratt, presented a new collection of top quality Swiss watches produced in limited quantities of 50-300 pcs per year, till the late 2000s. In the 20th century, the brand has collaborated with the master watchmakers Kari Voutilainen and Jean Francois Mojon (Chronode SA) with the final scope of developing its own exclusive movement, something that was materialized in the early 2010s with the introduction of the innovative caliber UJSP8, the first ever with a pivoted detent escapement (derived from marine chronometers) used in a wristwatch. Today the production remains in Switzerland, but since 2014 the ownership has returned to Danish hands, with Soren Jenry Petersen leading a group of shareholders. Eventually, this historic Danish-Swiss company has revived as one of the best hyper luxury brands in the market.

Examining all Scandinavian countries, in the early 2020s, there are more than 25 established local brands covering all four common ranges. Especially In the basic range, there are several brands appearing since the 1980s, with most of them adopting the Danish Design concept (Functionalistic design that derives from the Bauhaus school). On the opposite high-end segment, most of the domestic brands have their watches assembled “in house”, equipped with Swiss mechanisms.

ITALY

The first steps of the Italian watchmaking are related with purpose built utility watches. On the one hand PERSEO, established in 1923, affiliated with CORTEBERT and associated with the Italian railways since 1927, on the other hand PANERAI, active since the 1930s in Florence, affiliated with ROLEX and associated with the Italian navy and the first military diving watches. Needless to say, Italian brands have been always focusing on the design in par with the tradition of a prominent fashion industry. In the early 2020s, there are at least 20 active domestic brands, but very few have their watches assembled in their premises.

The rest European countries

Watchmaking originated in Europe and naturally has spread in the entire continent, even in countries with insignificant tradition. Established brands or small workshops restoring vintages and assembling anonymous watches are all part of the same picture, that of enthusiasts and connoisseurs who express their creativity in the field of horology. In total, there are more than 25 brands coming from the rest European countries, with approximately half of them having their watches assembled locally. Excluding the Germans and the Swiss, there are approximately 150 established watch brands in Europe proving the respect of natives towards the continent tradition in horology. GS