In the recently published book ‘The Founding of Luxury’ (French: L’Invention du Luxe), the historian Pierre-Yves Donzé tells two centuries of watchmaking history and illustrates how Geneva became The capital of luxury watchmaking. Part I: Before 1945.
The Founding of Luxury: History of the watchmaking industry in Geneva from 1815 to the present, by Pierre-Yves Donzé, published by Alphil
How did the modern luxury watchmaking industry start in Geneva? In answering this question, Pierre-Yves Donzé unveiled a little-known and surprisingly chaotic history from the 16th century. He noted that “to a large extent, Geneva is still a blind area for historians”, and therefore “want to really shed light on the evolution of luxury watchmaking in this region.” Pierre-Yves Donzé divided his research into The five stages, and cited many sources to support his theory that the founding of luxury watchmaking in Geneva did not originate from the loft artisan tradition of the city, as people usually think, but a relatively new phenomenon.
From the end of the old system (15th to 18th centuries) to 1870
During the old system, Geneva was a thriving city. Especially since the late 1600s, it is precisely because of this long-term and stable development that Geneva has become one of Europe’s leading watchmaking centers. Various industries form a similar company or enterprise structure, collectively referred to as ‘factory’ (la Fabrique). The first chapter of the Geneva watchmaking industry ended with the French Revolution and the prosperous years of the early 19th century. Pierre-Yves Donzé emphasized the difficulties of reorganizing production, dependence on suppliers outside the city, the advent of the mechanized era, and the rise of competing watchmaking centres such as Neuchâtel and Berne Jura.
Proponents of reform and traditional advocates argue endlessly: ‘People in favor of changing existing structures are at odds with supporters of high-quality manual watchmaking.’ Around this fierce debate, the author examines the role played by different institutions, these The agency tried to promote the development of ‘luxury’ watchmaking, but to no avail. Pierre-Yves Donzé states, ‘There is no need to explain the continued growth of Neuchâtel and Bern, and the stagnation in Geneva, because from a regional specialization perspective, Geneva watchmakers have retained their status as luxury watchmakers.’ It is undeniable that Geneva did not benefit from the overall expansion of the Swiss watchmaking industry between 1815 and 1870. Recognizing the need to crack down on competitors, it is natural that the parties will not be able to agree on the best solution.
St. Gervais, Geneva, circa 1825
Challenges of Industrialization (1870-1914)
The Swiss watchmaking industry soon ushered in fierce competition from American manufacturers and the catastrophic consequences of mass production. The Philadelphia Centennial World Expo in 1876 may clearly illustrate this. The Swiss watchmaking industry’s response, namely ‘deep structural adjustments characterized by mechanization and labor integration and reorganization,’ has helped increase competitiveness. However, Geneva is a special case. As Pierre-Yves Donzé points out, ‘Geneva refuses to make any major changes to the manufacturing structure’, which leads to ‘the division of the region from the rest of Switzerland’ is a common misunderstanding. ‘If we want to better understand the transformation of the watchmaking industry in Geneva between 1870 and the outbreak of World War I, we need to go back in time.’
Pierre-Yves Donzé came to the following conclusion: ‘Perhaps the structural adjustments in Geneva are not significant compared to the other regions of Switzerland with great fanfare, but industrialization did occur and the production of simple and affordable watches has increased.’ Support for ‘limited modernization’ Knowing that machines can “improve product quality and make Geneva craftsmen more competitive”, they find themselves in conflict with traditional defenders. According to Pierre-Yves Donzé, the latter’s actions are clearly disconnected from reality, but with the support of some institutions, these actions are ‘basically idealized.’ For this period, the author refuted the argument that “Geneva is a special case and still focuses on luxury watchmaking”.
Restructuring between wars
The years between the two world wars were also a period of turmoil in the watchmaking industry in Geneva, and Pierre-Yves Donzé summarized three points. First, the factory expelled small workshops from the game, and production of ‘standard’ quality watches increased. These developments coincide with the emergence of cartels and the shift from pocket watches to watches. Once again, Geneva follows a slightly different model than the rest of Switzerland. Secondly, Pierre-Yves Donzé wrote: ‘The Geneva Watchmaking School, which was still opposed to the modernization of the industry until the early 20th century, finally adjusted and reorganized’ to meet the needs of industrial enterprises. Even so, conservative elites still voiced resistance to change through publications, exhibitions, and other methods, proclaiming ‘the historical eternity of Geneva’s watchmaking excellence.’ Third, the author points out the development of trade in Geneva, the color of the production center has become lighter, the color of the sales center has become stronger, and many Swiss and non-Swiss manufacturers and distributors do business in Geneva. After World War II, it was its function as a trading center that prompted Geneva to enter a ‘new era of prosperity.’