The pattern of high demand, over-production, and collapse is common in all industries, but especially in the history of Swiss watchmaking. We see it repeated throughout the 20th century, from ebauches to complete watches, but all of these efforts trace their roots to a crisis focused on the humble balance spring. Surprisingly, this very first attempt to create a cartel was also the most successful and disruptive! This is the story of Société des Fabriques de Spiraux Rèunies, which cornered the market for balance springs in 1895. The FSR was the template for Ebauches SA, ASUAG, and the Swatch Group, and we would be wise to study the lessons of this “cartel crisis”!
Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, died on March 24, 2023. Although many touching tributes are currently being published to this titan of the technology industry, most overlook what Moore himself called his greatest mistake: Intel’s attempt to corner the digital watch business. Intel bought Microma, a hot Silicon Valley startup, in 1972 but gave up the business just six years later. Moore continued to wear his “$15 million watch” for decades as a reminder of this failure – and to stay out of consumer products!
Longines isn’t just the name of the biggest watchmaker in Saint-Imier today, it represents a factory and a critical shift in the industry to industrial-scale mass production. Ernest Francillon and Jacques David were critical to the development of the horology industry in the 19th century, abandoning the etablissage system and industrializing watchmaking, and becoming champions for the integration of manufacturing in the 20th century.
What was the first automatic watch? English inventor John Harwood certainly deserves credit, and his unusual design was produced in some volume by A. Schild, Fortis, and Blancpain starting in 1926. And Leon Leroy produced a few “perpetual” watches a few years earlier. But one watch that stands out among the many self-winding watches released following the expiration of Harwood’s patent in 1931: Eugène Meylan’s automatic winding module, produced in volume by Glycine and Pretto, was the first practical and widely-produced automatic winding mechanism. And the man behind it has a fascinating story of invention, entrepreneurialism, and dedication with a truly heartbreaking ending.
On January 12, 1979, the Swiss watch industry announced the thinnest watch ever made: The Delirium, developed by Ebauches SA for Concord, Eterna, IWC, and Longines, measured just 1.98 mm thick. It wasn’t a big seller, but was a PR exercise to show the world that the Swiss were innovating like the Japanese. And the novel design paved the way for another announcement four years later, the Swatch.