Swiss Watch Industry Overview

Omega advertisement during the WWI period from its retailer ‘Kirby, Beard & Co, Ld.’ in Paris. The tag line translates to ‘Omega bracelets for the city, for the front line, all forms – all sizes’. Picture credit: (4)

The Swiss watch industry has passed many different reorganisation phases. Although global watch market leader since the late 1800s, a relative boost in Swiss watch sales can be observed during the period of WWI. Being the first war using modern technology and machinery including tanks, planes and motorcycles, officers and soldiers were in need of timing possibilities which gave rise to the extended use of wristlet watches. As most industrialised countries were engaged in the war with subsequent lack of manpower and raw materials, the Swiss, as a neutral country, had the possibility of filling the hiatus and taking over this market, by creating and exporting good quality and relatively cheap complete timepieces or single watch movements. However, during WWI, many watch parts manufacturers turned to the production of armaments and ammunition. This provided much-needed employment and financial resources and allowed many to grow (1). Despite Swiss federal laws protecting the watch manufacturers and their know-how, after WWI the demand for wrist watches declined and slowly competition was forming, especially in the USA (3). Additionally dealing with the great depression of 1929 and continuing to compete on international level, most of the Swiss watch and parts manufacturers were already more or less forced to merge to bigger conglomerates such as ASUAG and SSIH and to form targeted collaborations with the addition of companies well through and after WWII.

The merger of Omega, Tissot and Lemania to SSIH in 1930 ensured a well functioning cooperation, the holding selectively adding manufacturers and being listed as the third largest watch company in the world by 1968 (5). ASUAG, a similarly organised holding as SSIH was created in 1931 and comprised mostly watch parts manufacturers.

Due to delayed adaptation to the evolving watch market, erroneous decisions concerning production strategies, the still geographically scattered and mostly family owned manufacturers and the fast rising, well organised and centralised Japanese watch industry during the financially turmoiled 1970s and early 1980s, the survival of the entire Swiss watch industry was at stake and to be able to surmount this difficult time, many manufacturers agreed to enter negotiations with the major Swiss banks UBS and SBS (now merged as UBS). One of the facts which illustrates the imminent danger for the Swiss watch industry was the plan of some SBS executives to sell Omega to Asian industrials (2). The final result of these negotiations was the merger of ASUAG and SSIH in 1983, which was streamlined, reorganised and renamed SMH in 1985. The simplified path towards these mergers can be seen below.

Simplified representation of the evolution of the core of the Swiss Watch industry. ASUAG: Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG; SSIH: Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA; SMH: Société de Microélectronique et d’Horlogerie SA. Information taken from (1)

For the sake of better overview, not all members of the respective groups are represented in the chart above, only the firms relevant to the presentation of watches and pieces on this site are shown. The collaborations among watch and parts manufacturers has fluctuated over time, with the addition of new members, the leaving of members and changing trade cooperations within and between the bigger organisations. More detailed information about certain periods within the chart relative to certain prototypes can be found in the respective dedicated sections. The details of the different phases and the complete list of the members can be seen here.

The early mergers of watch and watch part manufacturers to ASUAG and SSIH respectively, then the later merger of ASUAG and SSIH in 1983 ensured that gradually most leading component manufacturers were combined underneath one roof in order to allow the most versatile use of those components within the associated watch manufacturers. In our context the knowledge about the members of ASUAG, SSIH, SMH and the Swatch Group is important to understand the creation and evolution of certain prototypes.

Components in prototypes of such ‘merger’ periods sometimes lack the manufacturer identification details and show the attribution or style of another manufacturer within ASUAG, SSIH, SMH or the Swatch Group, depending on the period the prototype was built. Such mismatch among the components is usually found in ‘Frankenwatches’ which are pieced together using different compatible components to form unique pieces sometimes wrongly described as prototypes. Latter watches are cobbled together using finalised and marketed components and not unfinished or preproduction components. As explained in other sections, advanced research is needed to identify genuine prototypes and to distinguish them from forgeries.

Ref.:

  1. Watch Wiki, ASUAG
  2. Wegelin J., Mister Swatch : Nicolas Hayek and the secret of his success; London, Free Association, 2010
  3. Vintage Watch Straps
  4. Pinterest
  5. Watch Wiki, SSIH