Early Swiss Watch Making

 
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Early Swiss Watch Making

Early Swiss Watch Making in Geneva and Neuchatel

However, while the watch making industry was developing in France, it gave forth a seed which took root in new soil. In the hill country of eastern France, in the town of Autun, there lived a watchmaker named Charles Cusin. One day, in 1574, for reasons that we do not know, he moved a few miles eastward across the border into Switzerland and there settled in the beautiful lake city of Geneva. He probably had no thought that this personal act of a private citizen would have an effect upon history, but an industry employing thousands of people and making millions of dollars worth of goods can be traced back to the time when he crossed the border.

Remember that this was back in the days of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, while watches were still esteemed jewels and ornaments for the wealthy, and when the improvements which later made them practically useful had not yet been invented. The business side of watch-making was thus growing up at the same time with the inventive and scientific; it was preparing itself for the day when the mechanism should be perfected, and the only remaining task would be to popularize its perfection.

Charles Cusin liked Switzerland and thirteen years later he became a citizen. In the course of time, he was active in founding a watchmaker's guild in Geneva and from that period Geneva watches have been famous. This does not mean that Switzerland had contained no watchmakers before Cusin's appearance, but we are considering the beginnings of a great industry and not mere instances of isolated workmen. The man from Autun seems to have been one of those energetic leaders who see possibilities and know how to organize. It is largely through such men that the world progresses.

You will remember that in an early chapter we touched upon the way in which men first began to exchange the results of their work in order that each man might devote most of his time to the special task for which he was best fitted, such as hunting, or the making of weapons. Through this exchange, everyone was enabled to live better than anyone could have lived by himself. But if it were true that people doing different things could help each other, it also became true, after a while, that people doing the same thing could help each other and could help the general public, by learning to co-operate. They could exchange ideas, improve their work, and bring about better conditions. This was one of the effects of the guilds--they changed crafts into industries.

The guild with which Charles Cusin now had to do--some say he was its sole founder--was a very dignified and important board of master-workmen. It was founded about fifty years earlier than was the Worshipful Clock-makers' Company in England, and its members were no ordinary workmen. Switzerland was, and still is, a thoroughly independent little country and a man skilful enough to make a whole watch with his own hands was apt to be a man who realized his own worth.

The members of this guild were decidedly particular about their dignity and their meetings were serious occasions, as may be seen from Article I of their regulations which read: "Whenever the master workmen shall meet in a body to discuss subjects pertaining to their guild, they shall, before proceeding to such discussion, offer prayer to God beseeching Him that all that they say and do may rebound to His glory and may further the interests of these people."

As a matter of fact this dignity was based upon a correct conception that has been somewhat overlooked in the present busy age. The man who has to do either with the manufacture or sale of timepieces does well to take his position seriously since he is a most important link in our entire civilization. Such a man may well reflect upon the fact that without the timepieces which he produces or sells, the world would drop into hopeless confusion, for human society is able to run smoothly and efficiently only when it is correctly timed. Workmen and dealers engaged in such a vital industry have a great responsibility to their fellowmen.

It is probable that members of this guild who met from time to time in the Swiss city by the lake shores, under the shadows of the snow-topped Alps, realized something of this responsibility. Their timepieces were not yet as accurate as are ours of to-day, and the world was not yet so busy that its affairs required the closest adjustment, but they at least were trying earnestly to keep the human cogs running smoothly by turning out watches as nearly perfect as their skill and knowledge would permit.

This may be seen again in Article V of their regulations; "The functions of the jurors are to enforce the laws of the guild and to provide that there be no infringement of the same. To this end, they shall be required to visit each journeyman at least four times during the year, having power to seize all articles which do not conform to the specifications now in force, to report all delinquents to the worthy governing board, and to punish the offenders in accordance with the gravity of their fault."

It is quite clear that Geneva was out for quality in watches, and, indeed the name of the Swiss city has always been associated with quality. Nevertheless, they were no angels--those old Swiss craftsmen; they were in fact quite preponderatingly human. Thus it was not long before they began to make a tight little monopoly of their business. They restricted the number or workmen who might be admitted to the guild, and they secured special ordinances by means of which all other watchmakers were forbidden to establish themselves within a certain distance of the city. In other words, they did not purpose allowing the new and promising industry to grow beyond their control.

There were, however, other independent people in those days who hadn't the slightest intention of being bound by such restrictions. Here and there, a watchmaker left Geneva to carry on his work in some foreign city, as, for example, in Besancon, France. Thus began a competition which grew and spread as time went on.

This competition developed some interesting features. For example, the guild in Geneva obtained the passage of laws forbidding anyone from bringing into the city, in a finished state, a watch constructed within a certain distance. "Schemes" for watches and certain parts might be made at will, but only members of the citizen guild were permitted to complete these schemes.

Such restrictions naturally did not tend toward low-priced watches; but all watches in those days were necessarily high-priced, and a man wealthy enough to afford one was apt to seek the best that could be bought. Geneva's strictness gave it so great a reputation that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries foreign watchmakers flocked to the Swiss city very much as art students later journeyed to Paris, and it became the acknowledged center of the European industry. As time went on the demand for time-pieces became more widespread and many Genevans moved to other cities where they became dealers in Geneva watches. It is said that, in 1725, the city of Constantinople contained as many as eighty-eight mercantile agents who had become established in this way.

One hundred years after the founding of the guild, Geneva was producing five thousand watches a year, having one hundred masters of the guild and three hundred journeymen. Now five thousand watches is no small output when it is considered that each one must be constructed entirely by hand and occupied a matter of weeks in the making; yet, by 1799, the city contained nearly six thousand watchmakers and jewelers and was producing fifty thousand timepieces a year.

Not many miles to the northward from Geneva is another mountain city--that of Neuchatel. Neuchatel also contained an enterprising and skilful population, for the Swiss people seem to have been naturally ingenious and skilful in the use of tools. Doubtless the mountainous character of the country has had something to do with this fact; farming and fruit-raising are slow, hard work in their rocky soil and severe climate and the making of bulky articles is not desirable where transportation must be had over mountain trails.

The Swiss with their clever fingers had long been famous for their wood-carving; now, when they had a chance at an industry which called for delicate and skilful hand-work and which produced goods of small size and high value, it exactly suited them.

Geneva "saw it first," but kept it so closely to herself that it was several generations later before watches were known in the Neuchatel district not far away, yet, this district is another great center of the industry.

It is said that in 1680, more than one hundred years after Charles Cusin moved to Geneva, a horse-dealer from the little town of La Sagne, came home from his travels and brought with him an English watch. Great was the wonder that it excited among the simple people of his native place. They passed from hand to hand the little ticking mechanism which had the strange power to tell time, and then one day the ticking ceased, which perhaps is not surprising, in view of the freedom with which the watch had been handled.

The horse-dealer knew nothing of the mechanism but was very anxious to have the works set right. It chanced that there was a young locksmith in La Sagne, a lad of only fifteen, named Daniel Jean Richard, who was so skilful and ingenious that he had already made repairs in the tower clock of the village. "Show the watch to Daniel Jean Richard" said everybody.

The delighted lad began to take the delicate mechanism apart, studying carefully each wheel and spring and lever until he felt that he understood exactly how it should work. Then, when he had succeeded in reassembling the parts and in making the watch tick bravely once more, he was seized with a great ambition to build another one all by himself.

After many experiments with his crude locksmith tools, he did produce a watch which would run and which would tell time after a fashion--the first watch ever made in the Neuchatel district--but it did not satisfy his artist's soul and he realized that he must have better tools.

Somebody told him that there was in Geneva a machine for cutting wheels, and he set out to see it for himself, only to come back sadly disappointed. Wherever he asked to see the machine, the canny Geneva craftsmen shook their heads. This eager lad from another town had far too intelligent a face to be allowed to learn the precious secrets. The most that they would do was to let him have a few of the wheels made by the machine.

Then he began to work out for himself a machine to cut the wheels, and at last succeeded in the task, so that before long he was well on the way to becoming a watch manufacturer. Richard, however, was generous with his ideas; he instructed a number of the young men of his district, so that watchmaking soon began to flourish in his town and in those about it.

We have now seen how the watchmaking industry became established in two great centers--in Geneva, where the highest quality was maintained, but under the rule of the guild, which did not encourage quantity of output, and in the Neuchatel region where no guild system existed. In the course of time this latter region overtook and passed in quantity of output that of Geneva. By 1818, the Neuchatel district of the Jura was turning out watches at the rate of 130,000 a year.

The solid old Geneva watchmakers criticized their rivals as being less exacting in quality and less careful as to the standard of gold used in their cases, but the Neuchatel people had no difficulty in finding customers; we read that one hundred and forty of their merchants went twice a year to the Leipsig fair, where they sometimes sold watches to the value of four million francs ($800,000) in a year.

The two principal centers of Swiss watchmaking have been mentioned although, of course, watches were made in other districts as well. It is easy to see that many generations ago it had already become a very large industry, and so we need not be surprised to learn that even to-day the tiny inland country produces a larger annual export value of watches than even our vast United States. Watchmaking has been so large a source of wealth that the Swiss government has aided it in every way, including the establishment of schools and courses for training skilled workmen. More than sixty thousand Swiss people are directly employed in the Swiss watch industry and over three hundred thousand, or one-twelfth of the entire population, are indirectly connected with it. The Swiss have also made many inventions and improvements so that they have had much to do with the development of the watch itself as well as with the industry.

As we have already seen, it was a Swiss who invented the fusee, another who introduced the use of jewels for reducing friction and the stemwind is also of Swiss origin. It was the Swiss, too, who, early in the nineteenth century, did away with the solid upper plate which covered the works and used, instead, a system of bridges. The bridge form of movement allows each part to be repaired or adjusted separately and to-day it is to be found in all watches of the higher grades.

The Swiss invention of the fusee, described in Chapter VIII, played an important part for several hundred years, but at last it was replaced by something simpler and still more effective. Made to equalize the difference in the pressure exerted by a stiff mainspring when first wound up and when partly run down, it worked beautifully but was rather clumsy; and it required comparatively heavier parts which naturally necessitated the use of greater power. Thus friction and, consequently, wear were increased. But the Swiss by making watch-parts that were very light but yet strong, and by reducing friction principally through the introduction of jewels into the mechanism, succeeded at last in getting a movement that could be run with very little power. So they now could use a weak and slender mainspring, made so long that only its middle part ever was wound and unwound, and thus the pressure remained equal, and the use of the fusee was no longer necessary. This principle, called the "going barrel" construction, reduced friction, and made the thin modern watch a possibility. The American makers, as we shall presently see, adopted the "going barrel" construction practically from the first. They had no traditional prejudices, and they knew a good mechanical idea when they saw it.

But the British would have none of it. Their national bulldog quality set its teeth on the old idea that had given them their heavy, substantial, accurate watches, and hung on grimly. The Swiss watches might be lighter and more graceful but they questioned their lasting qualities. The Swiss could make watches more beautifully, but the English were suspicious of cheapness and declined to adopt the new development.

Thus the English, who up to about 1840, had led the world in the manufacture and sale of watches, began to fall behind. The American watch industry was then in its infancy, and the French industry had never been of any great size. The Swiss gradually drew ahead until they practically gained control of the world's market for watches. Switzerland became known as the place from which watches came, and, very much as "Havana" stands for a fine cigar, so a fine watch was apt to be called a "Geneva."

This, then, was the situation at about the middle of the nineteenth century when watchmaking in America was beginning to grow into a large industry. The French had always made good watches and very beautiful and elaborate ones too, but they never made very many. The English were falling behind so far that it was said, in 1870, that half the watchmakers' tools in England were in pawn. The Swiss were in control of the business, making both the best and the worst watches in the world and by far the greatest number. Everywhere a good watch was still too costly to be owned by anyone of moderate means, while cheap watches were little more than toys which could not be depended upon either to wear well or to keep good time.

In spite of all developments, therefore, there still remained the need both for a high-grade watch at a reasonable price and for a cheap watch that would be accurate under rough usage. These things were genuinely necessary, for the world was growing steadily away from the theory of special privilege, and the requirements of the average man were becoming more insistent.

From those early days, when the astrologers in Mesopotamia had kept their knowledge a secret for themselves, down through more than forty centuries, only a few had possessed the means of accurately telling time; but now had come the railroad, the telegraph, the modern factory, the newspaper and many other developments which speeded up the movements of humanity in the rush and whirl of modern life until it had become absolutely necessary that the means of measuring and performing those movements in an economical manner should be within the reach of every man.

It remains to be shown how American watchmaking discovered this need and organized to meet it; how it found and filled the gap that had been left in foreign watchmaking, between high-priced watches that were good, and low-priced watches that were not good; how it developed a cheaper good watch and a better low-priced one than the world had so far known; and how, in so doing, the American industry has grown within the memory of living men to such an extent as to take second place, and, in many respects, first place in watchmaking throughout the world.

 


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