The rise and fall of the Swiss watch

Antique Swiss Watch We can thank Jean Calvin for the Swiss watch. In 1541, he restricted the wearing of jewelry—a worldly vanity. This forced the goldsmiths and other jewellers to turn into a new, independent craft : watchmaking. By the end of the century, Genevan watches were reputed for their high quality.

For centuries the Swiss have been the world’s leading watchmakers. They invented the minute hand and the second hand. They continually improved the design and functioning of self-winding watches. In 1968, they had a 65 percent share of the world watch market.

Yet by 1980 their market share had collapsed to less than 10 percent. Between 1979 and 1981, 50,000 of Switzerland’s 62,000 watchmakers lost their jobs. Japan, which had less than one percent of the world watch market in 1968, was in the midst of developing world-class electronic technology. By the early 1980s the Japanese had 33 percent of the world’s watch market.

The Swiss were the world’s best at making self-winding watches with their gears, bearings and mainsprings. Those skills were now irrelevant. Mechanical watches were being replaced by electronic ones. The Swiss watch makers’ success and expertise had blinded them to a fundamental shift in the world around them.

Ironically, it was the Swiss who invented the electronic quartz watch! When Swiss researchers presented this revolutionary new idea to Swiss manufacturers in 1967, they rejected it. They saw no future for the concept. Confident it would fail, they allowed their researchers to display it as a novelty at the World Watch Congress that year. Seiko took one look and the rest is history.

See: “Future Edge: Discovering the New Paradigms of Success” (Joel A. Barker), 15-17.

Movement insight: Those with the greatest investment in the way things are have the most to lose when it comes to the need for change. Expect the breakthroughs to come from people who don't have an investment in the way things are.