The Swiss watch industry today

Switzerland’s third largest exporter after chemicals and machines, the watch industry has only one market: the world. Indeed Swiss made watches can be found in all countries, at prices to suit virtually all budgets: from quartz fashion watches costing several tens of dollars to mechanical masterpieces with complications, adorned with gold and precious stones, worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is this variety and worldwide vocation which, together, have ensured the lasting success of the industry.

A high quality workforce and industrial fabric

Historically, the Swiss watch industry developed according to a specialised horizontal structure in which suppliers and subcontractors delivered movements and external parts to assemblers, called “établisseurs”, who then put together and sold the final product.

Swiss watchmaking has also followed the model of a vertical structure, integrated to varying degrees, whereby the timepiece is produced in its entirety by the same company, called the manufacture.

In the 1970s and 1980s, economic crises and technological upheavals due to the appearance of the quartz watch resulted in a major reduction in the size of the industry: from around 90,000 employees in 1970, the workforce fell to just over 30,000 in 1984. The structural change within the industry and the comeback staged by the mechanical watch in the following decades saw the sector return to centre stage and manpower start to increase again, to a level of 57,300 employees in 2013. Meanwhile the number of companies has fallen from 1,600 in 1970 to 572 today.

A very wide range of products

One of the main strengths of Swiss watchmaking, by comparison with its foreign competitors, is the ability to offer the consumer a fully comprehensive range of products: sports watches, fashion watches, elegant and classic timepieces, mechanical or quartz multi-function chronometers, miniature clocks with striking mechanisms, gold watches with grand complications, high-tech ceramic designer watches, etc. The range offered by brands is almost limitless and includes a constant stream of new products.

Markets and competition

While the Swiss watch industry is present on all five continents and exports 95% of its production, the geographical distribution of sales is not uniform.

Asia absorbs 53% of Swiss watch exports by value, Europe 31% and America 14%. Africa and Oceania each account for around 1%. The top fifteen markets alone account for more than 80% of exports.

Hong Kong, the United States and China are the Swiss watch industry’s top three markets.

In summary

In the mid 1970s the Swiss watch industry was considered moribund, having missed out on the quartz revolution and been brought to its knees by economic crises. Forty years later, it is clear that it successfully managed its structural reconversion to become a key pillar of the Swiss economy, and that its products without doubt set the standard by which all others are measured.
Better still, for many years it has been one of the country’s most efficient industries, surpassing its own export records year after year and recording total export sales of 21.8 billion francs in 2013.