Few nations can claim monopolies or near-monopolies on anything. True, certain rare minerals are only available from specific territories, and you can't beat Australia for kangaroos, but the UK is doing its best to ensure that Americans are no longer the fattest people on earth. Italians still rule the world of supercars, but that can be contested by Porsche, Aston-Martin, Bugatti and a few others. French wine no longer reigns supreme. But the watches of Switzerland? The Swiss own the mechanical watch market.
If a mechanical Swiss movement is both de rigueur for the high-end purchaser and imparts credibility on watches all the way down the price scale to the 100$ needed for Swatch's new Sistem51, then the sheer might of Japan (and China) in the electric watch sector has no relevance here. They are
Regardless, the Swiss have performed a miracle by salvaging an entire industry that should have disappeared like the typewriter, analogue TV sets and the VCR due to technological advances. There is no argument that quartz watches tell time with far greater accuracy than mechanical watches, but that misses the point that the Swiss exploited. The best analogy is the continued ascent of the once near-dead vinyl LP in the face of compact discs and other digital music forms: connoisseurs prefer LPs.
So, too, do those who cherish watches favour the mechanical, and almost by default, they buy Swiss watches. When quartz arrived, the Swiss watch industry was decimated. The Japanese mastered low-cost production in the way the Americans destroyed the British watch industry a century earlier, by mastering
With the latter situation, the Swiss learned from the Americans. This enabled Switzerland to dominate watch manufacturing for three-quarters of the 20th century when the British and the Americans let their indigenous watch industries die through a mix of malaise, arrogance and idiocy.
By the time quartz arrived, the American watch industry was dead, its greatest names either vanished or - like Hamilton - bought by the Swiss. But quartz caught the Swiss napping, and it would take the sheer genius of the original Swatch to secure a slice of the battery-powered watch market.
There is no reason to think that affordable quartz Swatch alone saved the mechanical watch, as opposed to it saving the entire Swiss watch industry per se. But the funky, plastic Swatch's phenomenal success certainly helped to finance the Swatch Group, which -until recently - provided the vast majority of smaller, independent brands with mechanical movements. The sheer expertise contained within the extended family of the Swatch group, with all of its myriad subdivisions, dwarfs any other country's horological capabilities.
Above all, the Swiss as a nation are clever,
Having recovered mightily and majestically from the aftermath of quartz, the Swiss regrouped. They salvaged extant brands and revived others. They encouraged the young to enter watchmaking and enabled those watchmakers who still loved mechanical movements in the "lost" years. They're now the 50- and 60-somethings with eponymous brands like F.P. Journe (another ex-pat Frenchman) and Franck Muller.
To elevate the prestige of watches, the
Challengers? On a tiny scale, there are fine mechanical watches being produced in the USA, Denmark, Finland, the Isle of Man, Ireland and Russia. Grand Seikos, the company's prestige models, are fabulous timepieces. Of late, German independents have been making mechanical watches at both truly affordable and scarily elevated price points. There isn't a watch aficionado alive who would contest the belief that Germany's A. Lange & Söhne and Glashütte Original as categorically two of the finest watch brands on the planet.