What The World’s Watchmakers Think of the SwissBy Felix Scholz
Yesterday, we ran a story on the history and the significance of those two simple words ‘Swiss Made’. Today we take a virtual tour of the world’s watchmakers, established and emerging, and ask them what ‘Swiss Made’ means to them.
The United States of America, Chase Fancher, Founder of Oak & Oscar
Since 2015, Chase Fancher has been the driving force behind Chicago-based Oak & Oscar, an accessibly priced brand making utilitarian, casual and well-made watches with a local touch. For Fancher, this means numerous trips to Switzerland, and a unique perspective on the global watch industry.
“Working outside of Switzerland has been a fun challenge for me. Learning more about the culture and how they operate while also building a brand has been exciting. And while there is a lot of reverence for Swiss watchmaking (deservedly so), I’ve also learned that they can be somewhat stuck in their more traditional ways. While we rely on good, sound horological principles, Oak & Oscar is a young brand doing things our way, with great attention to detail and design. On occasion, we’ve had to push them past their comfort zone, and they’ve always risen to the challenge.” And while there are challenges, for Fancher, the benefits of being based in the States make up for them. “There’s a great culture of entrepreneurship supporting those who dare to dream. Not only that, we’ve got an absolutely amazing group of watch lovers here in the States. They appreciate Oak & Oscar and love that I took the crazy leap to pursue this crazy passion of mine. We also have a huge variety of amazing skills and talents here in the US. Not just in the watchmaking world, but other ancillary trades like leatherwork, soft goods manufacturing, and designers. It’s been remarkably fun finding and working with folks who are absolutely passionate about what they do.” Of course, Fancher is quick to recognize the significance of Switzerland.
“Switzerland serves as a modern-day hub for watchmaking. Whenever I’m visiting, especially in the Watch Valley, it feels like everyone I meet has something to do with watchmaking. You walk around these little towns and see watchmaking benches in half the windows, CNC machines designed for micro-mechanics and references to historic brands everywhere. But we’re lucky to be in an age where other countries are doing really amazing things in the world of horology. I mean, look at Germany, Japan, England, China and even the US. They each have their own horological skill set and are bringing some amazing pieces to market. While Switzerland may be the most well-known, they’re certainly not the only place making watches. Many brands rely on the marketing buzz of ‘Swiss Made’ and don’t offer much else. We, on the other hand, have specifically chosen to not put ‘Swiss Made’ on our watches because we’re an American company. We want to make great, high-quality watches based on our own reputation, not the reputation of the Swiss.”
Finland, Stepan Sarpaneva, Founder of Sarpaneva Watches
Stepan Sarpaneva is proud of the fact that his watches are not for everyone. After a stint working for some of the best Swiss names in the business, Sarpaneva moved home to Finland and set up shop in Helsinki in 2003. Since then, he has refined his own unmistakable aesthetic. But still, Switzerland is unavoidable.
“Switzerland is still the ‘mother’ of watchmaking,” Sarpaneva explains, “To be able to build something big, a higher-end brand with big production, you will still need something from Switzerland. But as we have seen, even the Swiss ‘high-end’ brands now use parts from outside of Switzerland. But let’s see what the situation is in 20 years.” According to Sarpaneva, working outside of the Swiss mainstream has allowed him to develop his own style, as well as freedom as an independent brand. But the best thing about being a Finnish watchmaker? “Less bullshit,” he says.
France, Pascal Coyon, Watchmaker
In 2012, Pascal Coyon, a watch and clock repairer based in Bayonne, in the southwest of France, started developing his own chronometer, made in the classical style. The calibers, based off the Unitas 6498 but so extensively and beautifully reworked as to be unrecognizable, have been tested at France’s Besançon Observatory. And while France has a rich tradition of watchmaking, Coyon is quick to note that the past does not reflect the current reality.
“There are only a few traditional watchmakers in France — perhaps around a dozen. Do not forget that almost all competent French watchmakers advance Swiss watchmaking. Talking about Franco-French tradition is no longer linked to today’s world of watchmaking. Living in the southwest of France, the distance from Switzerland is always a problem, and I am not talking about French taxation, but the climate and the quality of life in my region are enough to make me stay in France.”
Coyon is also confident that the Swiss hegemony on the watch industry isn’t being shaken up any time soon. “The skills and the machine tools of the Swiss are unique in the world. I do not see other countries competing in the high-end watch in the near future. Japan creates fantastic watches, it should not be forgotten, but from a different and therefore complementary culture. For Switzerland, I would be more worried about changes in mid-end watch purchases: connected watches, etc. The Swiss watchmaking economic fabric can only survive on high-end watches.”
Australia, Reuben Schoots, Watchmaker
Australia is very low on the list of watchmaking countries, but that hasn’t stopped Reuben Schoots from following in the footsteps of George Daniels and making his own tourbillon- powered pocket watch, completely by hand. As anyone familiar with the concept of the tyranny of distance can imagine, it’s a task with unique challenges.
“Historically speaking, there has never been a watchmaking industry in Australia, which means that there are no schools that can teach the theoretical or complex practical sides of watchmaking. This also means that apprenticeship opportunities here in Australia are scarce. I can only speak from personal experience and, for me, it was these factors that forced me to self-author my own learning and to spend a large portion of my time learning tool and machine making. But overcoming these challenges have provided me with an enormous amount of meaning and purpose. I have been free to explore, create and learn, in my own way.” Fundamentally, nothing has changed too much for Schoots over the last generation or so. “There are essentially no differences between how I make watches and how one would have made watches 20 years ago. The majority of my learning has come from reading old books, inspecting antique horological mechanisms and through the process of trial and error.”
Schoots recognizes the importance of Switzerland over the last century, particularly when it comes to sustained research and development. In terms of its dominance, he looks through a wide historical lens. “The center of watchmaking has moved through various countries throughout watchmaking’s rich 500-year (or so) history. Switzerland is certainly the current epicenter of watchmaking. However, we are already in a time where high-end watchmaking has distributed itself throughout the world. There are incredible timepieces coming out of all corners of the globe. Think Roger Smith in Britain, Konstantin Chaykin in Russia, Kilian Leschnik in Germany and Joshua Shapiro in the United States.”
The Netherlands, Bart Grönefeld, Creator of Grönefeld: The Horological Brothers
Brothers Bart and Tim Grönefeld are third-generation watchmakers who have put the Netherlands on the horological map. The talented brothers spent their time in Switzerland, notably at Renaud et Papi, where they mastered the skills that would come to define their own watches, before returning home to found first a workshop and later, in 2008, their eponymous brand. But Switzerland, as Bart Grönefeld explains, will always be special.
“Switzerland is our second home. Without our education at WOSTEP and our careers at Renaud et Papi, we would not have the expertise, knowledge and contacts with suppliers that we have now.” Even so, the Grönefelds were taking a risk setting up shop in the Netherlands.
“We knew as we didn’t have the Swiss Made ‘stamp’ on our dials we would be at a disadvantage. At the Baselworld fairs in 2010–2011, many customers asked if our watches were Swiss Made. If we said, ‘No sir, we are a brand located in the Netherlands,’ they just kept on walking to the next booth. We put a lot of effort into finding an aesthetic movement style when designing our second timepiece, the One Hertz. That style was well accepted by the collector community and we made it our own.”
But as time moved on, the Grönefelds’ operation evolved, and the brothers have started seeing benefits from their unusual location: “Now our customers find it interesting to buy a watch that does not come from Switzerland. Our first watches had no provenance whatsoever printed on the dial. After a while, we started with ‘handcrafted,’ and now we feel confident enough to print ‘Netherlands’ on the dial and Oldenzaal on the case.” And while the future for the Grönefelds and other artisanal makers looks bright, Bart doesn’t see things changing for the Swiss any time soon. “Sure, there will be more small independent brands worldwide, but the numbers that they produce are tiny compared to the large Swiss watchmaking industry. We believe that Switzerland will always be central for high-end luxury watches.”