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Time for Everyone english.gif (1081 Byte)
Ingrid Hielle/ Krupp VDM GmbH

People have been trying to measure time for thousands of years.

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From expensive luxury to the Swatch miracle

The first and simplest solution was the sundial, which had the advantages of being cheap and easy to make and use. Later came other simple time-measurement devices such as water clocks, sand clocks and candles marked with hour-long segments. Whereas these came to Europe mainly from Asia or the Arab world, the much more precise mechanical clock is seen as an entirely European invention. This kind of clock hinged on the invention of what was known as the foliot - a crown escapement with a balance arm driven by weights. Today's experts and historians basically agree that this invention became widely known at the end of the 13th or the start of the 14th century. It came about thanks to two factors, improved methods of metalworking and the growth of towns, whose inhabitants no longer wanted to set their time solely by the sunrise and sunset, which varied according to the season.

The first European precision instrument exported to Asia was a clock

The first mechanical clocks were mostly made by blacksmiths, locksmiths or cannon-makers, who had the necessary experience in working with metal. These artisans were mainly to be found in the Netherlands, Italy and France. It is therefore no surprise that the first precision instrument exported to Asia from Europe was a clock. It was recorded as early as 1338 in the freight documents of a Venetian ship bound for Delhi.

Luxury for a select few from a single craftsman

In those days, and throughout the years until early this century, a clock was usually the achievement of a single individual. During the 17th century, metalworkers specialized in clock manufacturing organized themselves into guilds. This gave rise to clock-making centers in Augsburg, Nuremberg, the French towns of Blois and Lyon and, later on, Paris, London and Geneva. At first they produced large-scale public clocks such as the one at Cluny Monastery or the famous astronomical clock at Strasbourg Cathedral. Later on came the spring-driven, more transportable clocks invented in the 15th century, followed by the first precision pendulum clocks dating from around 1660. But these could only be afforded by the nobility, rich middle classes or clergy. The same was true of the expensive early pocket watches, whose invention is ascribed to the Nuremberg master craftsman Peter Henlein in 1554 - though other historians believe that pocket watches already existed in the early 16th century. As a result, it was the demand from royal courts, nobility and prosperous burghers that determined where clocks and watches were produced.

Guilds allowed innovation and new production methods

During the second half of the 16th century, political unrest and religious conflict interrupted the development of the emerging watchmaking industry. This was compounded by the restrictive rules set by the guilds of the time. Their decrees and quality controls were intended to promote competition, but they soon proved to be an obstacle to innovation. In many cases, master craftsmen were not allowed to employ more than two apprentices, and the use of new techniques was frowned upon. New product development was hampered by the guilds' strict rules of conduct. This applied to makers of both clocks and watches.

With the decline of the guilds in the 18th and 19th centuries, things became more relaxed. The new-style guilds which emerged in the second half of the 19th century continued to insist on strict quality, but they were tolerant of innovation and new production methods.

Nevertheless, until well into the second half of the 20th century, clocks were still an expensive luxury: The more perfect and reliable the mechanism, the more they cost. One example is the famous 'confirmation clock'. This would be presented to a young adult or school-leaver, with an injunction to take good care of it, because it was intended to outlive its owner and be passed to his or her heirs.

Japan launches first mass-produced quartz clocks

There were few changes until the invention of the quartz clock, which became a model for Japanese manufacturing strategy during the post-war period. Products made elsewhere were taken apart and analyzed with a view to marketing mass-produced items at low prices. Quartz clocks were also made in Switzerland, but each factory made all the required parts - some 150 to 180 of them - themselves, right down to screws and gear wheels. As a result, it was only possible to produce short runs. The decline of the Swiss watchmaking industry, the only sector of the old mediaeval industry which still had international importance, was a foregone conclusion.

The Swatch miracle

At the beginning of the 1980s, malicious tongues in Switzerland said that the creditor banks of the loss-making ASUAG and SSIH watchmaking companies, which had swallowed countless top brands, had taken on the business consultant Nicolas Hayek as a 'hatchet man'. They said his job was to wind up the business as smoothly as pos-sible. Instead, the Lebanese-born son of an American dentist brought off a minor miracle. He helped Ernst Thomke - who was responsible for the movement blank division at the ASUAG-SSIH subsidiary Eta - to realize his idea of a 'watch for everyone'. This product later became famous under the brand name Swatch.Today, Swatch stands for several things: Innovation, simplicity, cooperation, design, marketing and modernity.

Through cooperation to watches for everyone

Thomke and Hayek made sure that all the ASUAG-SSIH company's efforts were directed towards realizing the new concept. The firm was soon renamed SMH, and has been operating as The Swatch AG since 1998. Instead of 90 to 150 different parts, a Swatch consists of only 54, which are supplied by various departments within the company. The fully automatic production and low production costs (between $5 and $6) also made it possible to manufacture limited series profitably. In cooperation with international artists, a Milan-based design studio sees to it that a new collection of brightly-colored watches is brought to the market twice a year. And they're much more than simply timepieces - they're a lifestyle statement, a fashion accessory (costing from $40), or even a covetable collector's item, often fetching top prices.

Ingrid Hielle

Further reading:
“Gezählte Zeit. Wie die mechanische Uhr das Leben veränderte.”
Carlo M. Cipolla, Klaus Wagenbach Verlag, Berlin, 1997
 “Die Uhr - Geschichte Technik Stil”,
Gerhard König, Koehler & Amelang Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Berlin, 1991
 “Das Museum der Zeitmessung Beyer, Zürich”, Verlag Georg D. W. Callway, München, 1990

Published with kind permission from

Krupp VDM GmbH


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