Recently, I have been captured by the History Channel mini-series “The Men Who Built America” and the affect its main protagonists had on the America we know today. Focusing in on the “building” of America, the program identifies tycoons from the late 19th century who literally built many of the United States’ landmarks and corporations from the ground up.
They were businessmen who shared a drive for capitalist success and wealth, and forged empires that have had resounding effects on the modern world. They were Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan along with the inventors Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.
These legendary Americans give us pride in our homeland and a defining idea of what to expect from anyone or thing that calls itself “America” and I dare say that among nationalities US citizens seem persecute misappropriations of the label “Made in America” more than most. The Swiss have the same sense of expecting exceptional quality from the luxuries Switzerland has made a name for itself from. Switzerland even lays claim to the royalties and rights to produce the indigenous drink Absinthe, expanding the umbrella of luxury products from Switzerland while cutting out the competition to keep the “Swiss” label pure.
Arguably the absolute best quality in the world, Swiss made watches represent 500 year of refinement and tradition that make the time pieces exceedingly beautiful and also expensive. For comparison, watch maker Vacheron Constantin’s watches sell for between $50,000 and $3 million USD and was founded in Geneva in 1755, when the states were just colonies. There’s a lot of incentive for the Swiss to protect such an immense legacy as well their brand’s marketable perfection
“Nobody can deny there is something special about Switzerland. Just ask the Swiss,” wrote English columnist for Time magazine, Andrew Marshall. In 2009, the Swiss government passed laws on watches given the “Made in Switzerland” seal of approval that dictated 60% (up from 50%) of the fabrication costs of the watch had to be incurred in Switzerland. The aim was to make sure any watch claiming the quality of the Swiss watch masters couldn’t acquire the same status with only half the DNA of a true Swiss watches.
The New York Times reports however, that since 2008, North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking (IOSW) in Fort Worth, Texas has been transferring the age old knowledge of fine watch making to a new generation of skilled engineers. When quartz powered watches and digital interfaces took over in the 1980s as a cheap alternative to gears and springs, the enrollment numbers at Swiss watch making schools plummeted and the Swiss market was decimated.
In order to keep the Swiss horological tradition alive, the Institute of Swiss Watchmaking, which has satellite schools in Shanghai and Hong Kong, is taking in new kinds of students from all kinds of education and work backgrounds provided they pass a rigorous dexterity exam.
A dilution of Swiss watch making traditions could spell the end of Switzerland’s reign as the land of exceptional luxury. The instructors and requirement for students at IOSW are determined to make the process of hand made watches constructed by the rest of the world worthy of the name “Swiss” label: the six students who were successfully weeded from an applicant class of 700 complete at least 3,000 hours of training.
“The traditional technical and artistic crafts that come along with watchmaking have been passed down from generation through generation,” said Hugues de Pins, president of Vacheron Constantin North America. This “intelligence of the hand,” as he calls it, takes years to master. “This itself is a challenge: the transmission of technical know-how. It’s a complete, 100 percent human process to make a watch.”
It is now up to the Swiss to determine if they will continue to abide the use of their namesake for fine luxuries made elsewhere, regardless of what the market considers to be more important to quality: the brand name or the trained master.