From Asia to Europe, America, and other places in the world, watchmaking continues to prevail. Whether a watch is made in England, France, Switzerland, Germany, America, Russia, Japan, Hong Kong, China, or some other place, though, may have an impact on the watch’s design and movement. For instance, the difference between Swiss and Japanese movements is that generally, more of the average- and lower-priced quartz-powered watches come from the Far East, while the truly intricate and complex mechanical watches generally emanate from Switzerland.
Switzerland has long been known as the luxury watch capital of the world. That is because it has a centuries-long history of creating the most elaborate and beautiful hand-made mechanical movements and finished watches. Even today, aided by CNC and other machines for cutting, the finest Swiss watch brands still hand—finish and hand-assemble their mechanical calibers. Some Swiss brands also utilize automated processes.
Typically, in Japan, high-tech machinery and high-precision quartz movements allow for the automated building of timepieces. Here, too, though, certain high-end brands in Asia build mechanical movements that are finished and assembled by hand. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on Swiss watches vs. Japanese watches, and then we will give a little insight into German watches, as well.
History of Watchmaking in Germany, Switzerland, and Japan
Switzerland, today the leader in luxury watchmaking, has roots dating back five hundred years, as do Germany and France. A small history lesson here will help to put things into context. In the early 16th century, German and French watchmakers were already building travel clocks and even large-sized pocket watches. In the latter half of the 16th and early 17th century, Huguenot refugees escaping persecution in France moved to Geneva and brought their watchmaking skills with them. Swiss watchmaking sprung up took hold and flourished century after century.
Unfortunately, in the 20th century, Germany’s growth in watchmaking was stunted by World War II. Watchmaking factories suffered terrible destruction due to bombings and after the War, during the communist rule in East Germany, most watch companies in Glashütte- the main watchmaking region – were nationalized and almost obliterated from history. It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, that brands such as A. Lange & Sohne and Tutima were able to re-establish themselves in the Saxony region.
Converse to the Swiss and German history, the Japanese watchmaking trade has roots only dating back to the later 19th century, with the majority of the growth coming in the 20th century. Japan, always a technology leader, was always focused on producing high-precision functional timepieces. From the moment automated robots were unveiled, the country’s watch brand turned to those processes to enable a smaller degree of error than hand-made watches and to offer larger supplies. From Seiko to Citizen, Casio, and Orient, the goal is always to provide the best timepiece at affordable rates. That may be why the country was the first to create and produce quartz-powered watches in 1969.
Differences Between German, Swiss, and Japanese watches
German watch brands tend to most resemble Swiss watch brands in terms of the actual process of watchmaking. Where they differ, though, is in design. From A. Lange & Sohne to Glashütte Original, Tutima, Nomos, and others, the watches built in Germany typically have a somewhat Bauhaus design style. Like all things German, the watch brands there are sticklers for detail and believe that form follows function. This creed shows in the timepieces, as most are clean and sophisticated without being overly ornate or decorated. They tend to be direct in design as compared to the Swiss who often create whimsical and flowery designs.
Perhaps the only other significant factor is that the German brands use “German silver” instead of rhodium-plated brass for their main plates and other components. German silver is a nickel and copper alloy that has a warmer tone than brass. However, as mentioned, most of the German watch brands rely heavily on hand craftsmanship.
Swiss watches, especially the Holy Grail brands like Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Audemars Piguet are all about the hand craftsmanship. They can spend hundreds of hours decorating movement parts that no one will ever see. They spend inordinate amounts of time creating watches with hundreds, sometimes a thousand, tiny pieces that are perfectly aligned to orchestrate exceptional timekeeping. Swiss watch brands focus on form, function, and incomparable beauty from the inside out. Many spend hundreds of hours meticulously decorating their most coveted watches, whether it is gem-setting the cases, hand panting and enameling dials or even turning to marquetry to create something beautiful and unique. While mechanical watches are the specialty of top Swiss brands, many companies also utilize quartz movements in order to offer exceptional precision. Swiss-made watches can range from a few hundred dollars to millions depending on the watch.
Japanese watch brands, as mentioned, were fast to hone their skills in technology and automation. As such, they tend to turn our watches in larger quantities. Those bigger production runs thwart the chances of having a timepiece recognized for its exclusivity, something top Swiss and German brands can enjoy. Additionally, Japanese watches, for the most part, are all about form and clean design. It is rare to see an ornate Japanese watch. The exception to this would be Grand Seiko, which has become its own brand apart from Seiko, and which beliefs in hand craftsmanship, mechanical movements, and incredible dials.
Essentially, these three big players in the world watch market each have their own watchmaking process and their own style and nuances that generate subtle and not-so-subtle differences between them.
About the Author
Roberta Naas is a veteran watch and jewelry journalist who began her career in the early 1980’s, and was the first female watch journalist in the United States. She is the editor and founder of the authoritative watch blog, ATimelyPerspective, has written six books on watches, writes for numerous consumer publications (including Forbes and Elite Traveler) – and always brings forth in her work the essence of what makes watches tick. She tirelessly travels the world in search of watch news and stories that she turns into compelling and enlightening articles.