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History of the Swiss Watch Industry

From Jacques David to Nicolas Hayek- Third edition

Pierre-Yves Donzé

This book tackles the history of the Swiss watch industry in a global perspective: it gives particular attention to rival nations such as the United Kingdom, the USA and Japan. The author demonstrates how Swiss watchmakers succeeded in facing various challenges: the industrialization of production at the end of the 19 th century, the delocalization of production in the interwar years and globalization since the 1960’s. These challenges helped Switzerland to maintain and strengthen its position as a leader on the world market. This study shows how innovation and new technologies, the industrial policy of the Swiss authorities, the industrial district organization and the relations with trade unions explain the worldwide success of the Swiss watch industry.

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Introduction 1

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1Introduction For nearly two centuries, Swiss watches have exerted an insolent domina- tion over the world market. Moreover, despite several crises, this suprem- acy has never been successfully challenged. The success story of the Swiss watch industry has been and still is largely explained as the result of a long tradition of manufacturing precision instruments, a widely shared techni- cal culture, and an industrial organization1 as a fl exible production system which enabled it to answer all the needs of customers. However, this tra- ditional account, currently kept alive by the marketing strategies of watch companies and highlighting a kind of a timeless “Swiss genius”, has to be reconsidered in the light of economic history. Watchmaking is certainly one of the oldest and most representative industries of Switzerland. A quick glance at the evolution of the foreign trade statistics of the country between 1840 and 2000 makes this impor- tance evident (Table 1). During these two centuries of history, watch- making is indeed one of the four main Swiss export industries. Together with textiles, machines and chemicals, it largely contributed to making Switzerland one of the richest countries of the world. The structure of foreign trade shows that watchmaking is, after tex- tiles, the second largest export industry of Switzerland between 1840 and 1937, and even the fi rst in 1953. Moreover, its importance tends to strengthen during these years, with the percentage of exports growing from 8.2% to 21.1%. In the second part of the 20th century, watchmaking is third, below...

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