“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view it is more like a big ball of wibbily wobbly timey wimey … stuff.” – The Tenth Doctor, Doctor Who
The modern watchmaking landscape is in a state of flux on many levels, and yet, the basic structure of watchmaking has remained, at least over the last decade or so, relatively stable. The Quartz Crisis came and went, and the mechanical renaissance ushered in an era of Swiss dominance, as the success of the Swatch regenerated the industry and set the stage for the global rejuvenation of fine watchmaking.
But if you look a bit into the history of watchmaking in Switzerland, watchmaking in general, and some of the major brands which now dominate the horological landscape, it’s hard not to wonder if the current situation and present conditions might not look very different if history had been changed in some respects. It has been said that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly may eventually engender a hurricane (or as Homer Simpson once put it when marooned in the days of the dinosaurs by a time-traveling toaster, “That was just one little insignificant mosquito, that can’t change the future … right?”), and what might alterations in even greater historical events in the past engender in the present in terms of drastic differences to the horological landscape? Let’s jump into an imaginary time machine, fiddle with the past, and see what happens.
You Talk Louis XIV Into Not Revoking The Edict Of Nantes
A key event, although certainly not the only defining one, in bringing watchmaking to Geneva was the revocation of the Edict Of Nantes, which had given French Protestants considerable freedom and autonomy and which marked the end of the French wars of religion when it was signed by King Henry IV in 1598. The wars had led many French Protestants to seek refuge in other countries, including Switzerland, and many left well before the Edict Of Fontainbleu was signed by Louis XIV, which stripped French Protestants of their rights and made their persecution a matter of official policy. This was something the Sun King undertook in order to cement his reputation as an absolute monarch, and the result was the almost total expulsion of Protestants from France.
The exodus had already begun in the 1500s, but the Edict Of Fontainbleu made it abundantly clear that remaining on French soil was a non-starter, and the Protestants fled in droves to England, Germany, and Switzerland. Particularly in Geneva, the combination of an influx of skilled clock and watchmakers along with the passing of sumptuary laws which forbade jewelry-making – historically a key Genevan industry – combined to make watchmaking take a firm root, first in Geneva, and then in the Jura mountains, in cities like La-Chaux-de-Fonds and Neuchâtel.
Now, suppose you were to hop in your time machine and appear in a blinding flash of light in the Sun King’s bedchamber, on the night of October 21, 1685 – the night before the Edict Of Fontainbleu is signed. Wasting no time, you convince the terrified monarch that you are a divine presence and tell him that far from ensuring the consolidation of his power, the revocation of the Edict Of Nantes will result in economic hardships that will set the stage for the downfall of the monarchy itself in just one hundred or so years. Convinced and shaken, Louis XIV refuses to sign the Edict Of Fontainbleu. The Protestant diaspora never happens and without it, Geneva – which still passes its sumptuary laws – never becomes a watchmaking capitol. On a small scale, watchmaking still happens, but there is a great reliance on components sourced from over the border in France, and Besançon, rather than Geneva, becomes the great European watchmaking center. The fashion for thin watches, which begins in the early 1800s, maintains the ascendancy of French watchmaking and Geneva gradually fades into horological obscurity.
By the time you get back to the 21st century, the city is still known for many things – you haven’t stopped Mary Shelley from summering at the Villa Dodati and writing Frankenstein – but it’s a town almost entirely devoted to banking, international diplomacy, the making of expensive chocolates, and an incredibly competitive and fetishistic pizza culture. On the other hand, you read that the 102nd Grand Salon Internationale Des Horlogers will be taking place in Paris and that the press and retailers are already complaining about shameless price gouging from everyone from the Ritz Hotel on down …
Hans Wilsdorf Stays In London
After a few days to get used to the shocking idea that Swiss watchmaking is not a thing, you gradually accommodate yourself to the notion and accept the fact that there are a whole host of names that you once thought of as established, which simply never had a chance to come into existence. The French watchmaker Lip, on the other hand, is now an international powerhouse, but you also notice that one very notable name is still around. Almost the first thing you do is see how your meddling with the past has affected Rolex and to your amazement, it has affected the company very little – although it’s now based in Besançon, along with the Rolex Foundation, which supports, among other things, the sprawling campus of the French National School Of Watchmaking. You consider in your mind the staggering effects which you have already had on watchmaking history (and you are such a watchmaking fanatic that you scarcely notice other little things either, such as the fact that the French Revolution never happened and the United States is still part of the British Commonwealth) and think you really ought to leave well enough alone, but the urge to tinker finally overcomes you and you pop into your Wayback Machine for a little visit to a gentleman just starting out in business in London named Hans Wilsdorf.
You have nothing more sinister in mind than seeing what happens if he sets up Rolex in London instead of Switzerland – after all, watchmaking would be immeasurably enriched by two giants of watchmaking rather than one, and you have a sentimental fondness for English watchmaking as well – but you are about to find out the truth of that adage about the best-laid plans of mice and men.
Wilsdorf is not going to be swayed by appeals to the preservation of a monarchy; instead, you’ll have to persuade him by appealing equally to his desire to make a name for himself and to his acumen as a businessman. You materialize in front of the offices of Wilsdorf & Davis in London in 1907 and notice, much to your surprise, that the phlegmatic Londoners going about their business don’t seem to notice your time machine popping into existence at all – it is as if it is so improbable that it simply cannot be allowed, and therefore, they just ignore it completely.
Striding into the office, you confront Hans Wilsdorf at his desk, show him your Rolex Submariner, and point out the fact that it says “Swiss Made” on it. Convinced by this of the truth of your assertion that you come from an alternate universe, Wilsdorf listens raptly as you paint a picture of a possible future in which the incredible commercial success of Rolex single-handedly revives the moribund British watchmaking industry, and moreover, gives British industry in general a point of pride and a rallying cry which helps preserve British industrial might in the 20th century. Awed by the possibilities, Wilsdorf strikes his desk with his fist and says that he will never allow a French (or Swiss, though in this timeline it is highly unlikely) mechanism to tick inside his watches, and he thanks you for giving him the name “Rolex” for his new independent watch company. You go outside to return to your time machine to find a policeman who tells you menacingly to “move this ‘ere motor o’ yours, which it’s blockin’ the street, eh?” and you return to the 21st century.
Alas, you find that changing history is, as you should have known from the first outing, replete with unexpected consequences. Rolex does extraordinarily well at first, and Wilsdorf makes millions supplying watches and clocks to the Allies during the First World War. However, he finds things beginning to lag during the 1930s, and there is no doubt that after the Second World War, the company is struggling. The biggest problem, as it turns out, is the American market – American watchmaking returns with a vengeance once the war is over, and with the French never quite developing the brand for precision watchmaking that the Swiss enjoyed (before you started scrambling timelines), the American watch industry, led by Elgin, Hamilton, and Waltham, becomes the byword for precision watchmaking. By the 1970s, hammered by the quartz crisis, the company is a shadow of its former self, and by the time you return in the 21st century, you read sadly that the firm is in dire straits, having committed the blunder of claiming that a movement in one of its new watches, which was largely manufactured by an American supplier, is “in-house.” Also, Hamilton Submariners are commanding wacky prices at auction, especially with sun-kissed “cappuccino” dials.
Abraham Louis Breguet, Inventor Of … Existentialism
Chastened by the far-reaching effects of your travels through time, and staggered by the failure of your attempt to reproduce the success Rolex enjoyed in Switzerland in the original timeline in the UK, you decide to try something on a bit smaller scale. This time, you bethink yourself of one of fine watchmaking’s most important and essential inventions: the tourbillon. Attempting to alter history, you decide, is for greater minds than yours, but nobody could blame you for wanting to meet one of horology’s greatest minds – what could possibly go wrong?
The tourbillon, you recall, was invented by Abraham Louis Breguet, and in the (badly altered) timeline you now inhabit, he is still its inventor, although the circumstances of its invention are obscure. Though the French Revolution never occurred, there was still considerable unrest in France in the late 1700s, and Breguet still goes back to Switzerland in 1793 (after having still become a little too chummy with Marat) and still goes from there to England. You recall that Breguet has, by 1795, certainly invented the tourbillon, and you decide to visit London while Breguet is there visiting his friend and counterpart, the great English watchmaker John Arnold. Arnold and Breguet were very close, and Arnold’s son apprenticed with Breguet, and you look forward to meeting the two gentlemen with great excitement.
Materializing with your characteristic flash and bang in front of the premises of Arnold & Son in 1794, on a chilly fall evening, you find to your great delight that the two men are sharing a glass of excellent port under a portrait of George III by candlelight, and that open before them are a couple of drawings upon which you can see diagrams of what looks like Breguet’s most important invention: the tourbillon. Bursting in on the two unsuspecting horologists, you wring them both by the hand (knocking over the port) and stammer out a salutation, expressing what enormous pleasure it gives you to make their acquaintance in person.
Excitedly, you show them both your Breguet tourbillon wristwatch (the reference 5367, extra-plat, bien sûr) and relate to Breguet what fame its invention will bring him. Breguet, amazed and intrigued, says that it brings him an infinite degree of pride to know that his invention will become so widespread and contribute so immeasurably to the pursuit of high precision in horology. You laugh and remark that, in fact, the tourbillon in the future will become known not so much for its contributions to accuracy, but rather, for its use as a kind of expensive visual amusement for connoisseurs who want a more visually dazzling wristwatch. Breguet, crushed at the news, begins to start hitting the port pretty hard, and despite Arnold’s attempts to assure him that the tourbillon is still a remarkable invention, the Master refuses to be consoled. Seeing nothing for it but to join them, you proceed in making a significant dent in the firkin of port in a storage room behind the office, but by the time you leave, Arnold is snoring gently in his seat, and Breguet is looking with eyes of contemplative and infinite sadness at his drawings. You slip out the door, but not before Breguet glances up at you and murmurs, “Sic transit gloria mundi, eh, monsieur?”
You wake up the next morning with a vicious hangover and stagger to your computer to discover that, once again, history has been upset. Breguet never invents the tourbillon, and instead, he throws himself into making large numbers of simple but sturdy watches which can be worn anywhere and tolerate much abuse. The trauma of your visit also induces him to invent Existentialism a hundred years early, and he is as famous for authoring the incomprehensible Being And Nothingness And Marketing as he is for watchmaking. Also, it seems that early Breguet Submariners are very collectible and command high prices at auction, especially with sun-bleached “mochaccino” dials.
Nicolas G. Hayek Sends You Back To The Future
Taking everything into consideration, you decide that perhaps you would be better off getting out of the time travel business, and you set about resetting the timeline. This turns out to be a relatively simple matter, as all you have to do is go back and meet with your past self just after you invent the time machine, but before you start using it to play god with susceptible monarchs and honest horologists. Wracked with guilt, you manage to persuade past you to forego any meddling and to confine time travel to minor indiscretions like starting investment accounts for a pittance and collecting handsomely on the payoffs a hundred years later, and you find that the timeline, on the whole, is back to normal (and that your extensive vintage Rolex collection is valuable again). With the proceeds of your ill-gotten wealth, you travel the world to find spirituality, devote yourself to meditation, and give up all your horological activities, selling your collection or donating it to impecunious enthusiasts anonymously, to avoid the taint of ego-gratification. You keep, for old time’s sake, just one watch: a colorful robin’s-egg blue quartz Swatch, with bright orange hands.
Then, one day, in the fullness of time, you find the itch to travel coming upon you once again, and you dust off the old time machine for one last go before shuffling off this mortal coil. You decide that you’d like to see Geneva, but as it was when you were a young man, fresh from University and with your life ahead of you – 1984 or so. Setting the dials on the Wayback Machine, you dematerialize from your remote, austere retreat in – oh, let’s say, the Canadian Rockies – and with the usual flash and faint bang of several cubic meters of air being abruptly displaced, reappear in Geneva.
You have arrived at dusk on a quiet Sunday in August, and a cool breeze coming off the lake soothes and refreshes. Alas, not all is to remain peaceful – your arrival has been observed by an astonished looking gentleman with sharp eyes and a large cigar, taking his evening stroll. He hurries over to you, and you, in no mood to dissemble, and with a firm belief he will not believe you anyway, tell him you have come from the future. To your surprise, he takes you at your word and invites you to his pied-a-tèrre, just a few steps off the Quai du Montblanc, for a little nip of eau-de-vie de gentiane or so. The hour passes convivially, and the host, who has discretely avoided asking difficult questions, asks you about your Swatch. “Oh this old thing,” you laugh, and in rough outline, you sketch the history of the Swatch and its dramatic effect on the fortunes of watchmaking in Switzerland. When you finish, your host erupts in laughter. “Well,” he says, “that is quite a story. I wonder what the press would think if they got ahold of it. Well, I must not detain you,” he goes on, and he sees you back to your machine. Just before you press the lever for the return home, you feel as if you ought to recognize the fellow but have no idea why. It is not until you wake up the next morning (with a crippling eau-de-vie de gentiane headache and a feeling that you have been pouring furniture varnish over your tongue) that you realize who it is you were talking to.
A quick hunt on the Internet confirms your suspicion, and you shake your head in astonishment at the amazing coincidence. Then you remember your Swatch – still on your wrist. You look up at the article you have found – a somewhat random one from Neue Zürcher Zeitung in which the Chairman of the Swatch Group discusses many things. He talks about the state of the industry, the state of the Swiss economy; he rails at the meretriciousness of bankers. Then, towards the end of the interview, he is asked wherever he got the idea for the Swatch. “After all,” the interviewer says, “it was by no means a given that you would revitalize the Swiss watch industry – when SSIH and ASUAG failed in the early 1980s, it seemed that the only logical choice would be to dissolve the companies to pay off their creditors, from which you could have profited handsomely. The Swatch wristwatch seems a most unlikely concept under the circumstances, and you could have easily simply gone ahead and presided over the selling off of their assets, rather than take on the quixotic task of revitalizing Swiss fine watchmaking. In such a case, watchmaking would probably have continued in Switzerland to some degree but greatly diminished and with an irrecoverable emphasis on inexpensive quartz. Wherever did you get the idea?”
Hayek chuckles, leans in a confidential way toward the interviewer, and says, coyly, “Why, it just came to me. You might say it just appeared out of thin air.”