Masters of one of the world’s most revered forms of analog craftsmanship take on the smartwatch. ... Swiss watchmaking emerged from a radically different background, one rooted in meticulous manual labor. The industry got its start in the 16th century after John Calvin persuaded the City Council in Geneva to impose sumptuary laws banning jewelry, and the city’s skilled jewelers joined forces with the makers of pocket watches instead. Later, French Catholics chased Protestant Huguenots out of their country; many of these French exiles happened to be watchmakers, and they settled in Switzerland. In the mountains of the Jura region, they encountered local farmers who spent half the year indoors and idle and who turned out to be extremely patient and detail-oriented. The émigrés hired them to spend their winters hand-polishing tiny metal components for the “movements,” the watch’s spring-driven inner workings. ... By the 20th century, Swiss watches had become famous for their reliability and complexity. They are also marvels of energy efficiency, because dozens or even hundreds of components depend on tiny wound springs for power. Each new “complication” — say, a calendar that advances the date with a satisfying snap at midnight — demanded a new set of gears and more energy, thus requiring ever more clever compensations. A mechanical watch is both a dance with and a fight against physics.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch universe. The fair’s organisers claimed 150,000 paying visitors and 1,800 brands spread over 141,000 square metres of exhibition space. Admission cost 60 Swiss francs a day (almost £50) ... The show was a celebration of our mastery of timekeeping, and of the refinement and years of training that go into making objects of beauty and accuracy. But it was also a celebration of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist merely because they can, like animal acts at a circus. ... These days, no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time – or a watch from any country. The time displayed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time displayed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, yet the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the world’s big-money boulevards glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business largely by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them. The export value of the Swiss watch trade fell by 3.3% last year, due primarily to a downfall in demand from the east Asia. But it is up 62.9% compared with six years ago. In 2015 the world bought 28.1m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs. ... the most complicated limited-edition watches sell for £1m or more. These watches have a waiting list, as the world only contains so many squinting master craftsmen who can make them, and even they haven’t found a way to extend the day beyond 24 hours. ... Exclusivity is a key to desirability. ... In 2014, the Swiss exported 29m watches. This was only 1.7% of all watches bought globally, but 58% of their value. ... To classify as Swiss Made, a watch must a) have a Swiss movement (that is, the basic mechanism consisting of cogs and springs that make the watch tick) b) have this movement incorporated in a case that is made within Switzerland and c) be checked and certified in Switzerland.