Geneva, the centre of the world?

Geneva, the city that we know as the citadel of watchmaking, was not so originally. It was a series of sociological and political changes which catapulted Geneva into the watch world...

By: William Devine, Owner, Devine Intervention

Posted on: September 10, 2010

Geneva city lakeIf there is one place in the world that has played an important part in the history of watchmaking, it has to be my home town of Geneva (even though I must confess I may be just a wee bit biased). Nonetheless, the city of Geneva is associated today with prestigious watchmaking as illustrated by the numerous brands that have placed the name of “Genève” on their dials. How has Geneva being able to carve out for itself a significant role in the watchmaking industry since the second part of the 16th century?

As we will have the opportunity to understand in more detail in later columns, the watchmaking world was dominated by the English and the French in the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet, in the background, Geneva was an integral part of the development of this burgeoning industry. To better understand this amazing turn of events, one needs to take a closer look at the political and sociological upheavals of the 16th century, and more precisely, at the split of the Christian Church and the Reformation Movement.

Geneva is a small place, even by today’s standards. In the middle of the 16th century, it was even more so with a population of a little more than 12,000 people that doubled to 25,000 two hundred years later. Paris, as a point of comparison, counted more than 500,000 people and London 700,000. Another distinguishing feature of medieval Geneva was the fact that it was a tiny Republic in a world of monarchies and principalities. However, despite these unique features, Geneva was to become probably the most productive and creative city of its times.

watchmaker making watch old photoThe persecution of the Protestant faith at the end of the 16th century with the famous Revocation of the Edict of Nantes created a massive exodus of Protestant refuges from France to Geneva where one of the Protestants most fervent leaders, Jean Calvin, had settled. Amongst these refugees who tended to be highly educated were a large number of French watchmakers who constituted the élite of their trade. Despite Calvin’s reluctance to promote the ostentatious display of wealth and ornaments, the jewellery trade hitherto prominent in Geneva was quickly replaced by the watchmaking trade which was favoured by the puritanical regime. The measurement of time was seen as beneficial and in line with the strict interpretation of the religious codes of the times.

The Huguenot refugees brought with them the skills and secrets of the watchmaking trade which soon flourished in Geneva so much so that the numerous watchmakers of the trade were able to create the watchmakers guild in 1601. The concept of division of labour, which would be dear to Adam Smith more than a hundred years later, was very much present in the watchmaking trade of Geneva as illustrated by the creation of so-called “Fabriques” or Manufactories. The workers of the Fabriques were known as “Cabotiers” in reference to their working place, their ‘cabinet’ or little workshops, which were usually situated in the attics of the closely packed neighbourhood of St. Gervais. In the midst of these Fabriques, the related craftsmen of jewellery, watch and enamel trades worked closely together, thus allowing Geneva to create and develop a steady flow of elegant and complicated watches that were soon to be exported all throughout Europe. Geneva became known for its ‘form’ watches where the cases were designed to look like animals or flowers or even skulls (to remind the owner about their mere mortality).

King Louis XIV portraitThe extraordinary expansion of the Genevan watch trade in the 17th century was further helped by the human infrastructure of Geneva and its surrounding neighbourhoods, starting with the small town of Carouge just beyond the city walls, going all the way to the rural countryside of the Duchy of Savoy, to the South and South East, and alongside the Jura mountains to the North and North West. These rural areas provided Geneva with much needed labour that depended primarily on livestock as opposed to cultivation to survive. During the winter months, when snow lay heavy on the ground, these workers had the advantage of literally having time on their hands, hands which, by the way, were capable of skilled labour as opposed to the more calloused hands of the ploughman and digger. This qualified, but relatively cheap labour provided the city of Geneva with a steady supply of rough movements or “ébauches” which were then completed or ‘finished’ in the city.
An unusual set of circumstances set in motion by King Louis XIV on October 18, 1685 had far reaching consequences on a small quiet city on the shores of what was to become known as Lake Geneva hundreds of miles away from Versailles....

william devine portrait luxury watch expertWilliam Devine, a Swiss national of Scottish descent, has held senior positions in leading watch companies like Universal Geneve and de Grisogono. He has also functioned as the Director of BaselWorld Watch & Jewellery Show. He was the CEO of Bedat & Co before starting his own boutique consultancy named Devine Intervention.

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