A brief comparison of watchmaking in different cultures

Timekeeping can be dated back to when ancient civilizations first noticed that astronomical bodies were moving across the heavens.  This is when ancient man also noticed that these movements followed certain patterns that repeated after a clear and discernable period.  Indeed, people from all corners of the globe realized that the passage of time can be studied and collated for the benefit of all.

But even if watchmaking as it is known today is a craft that has been practiced for centuries across many different cultures around the world there are as many differences in the approach, materials used, and designs favored by watchmakers from different regions as there are similarities in the techniques and tools used by watchmakers across different cultures. 

Take the Swiss for example: they have been making watches since the 16th century and Swiss watchmaking is perhaps the most well-known and highly-regarded type of watchmaking in the world.  Indeed, Swiss watchmakers are known for their precision, attention to detail, and high-quality craftsmanship.  They use traditional techniques, often favor classic and timeless designs, still make use of hand tools, and assemble watches mostly by hand.  This has made Switzerland home to many of the most famous and prestigious watch brands in the world.

German watchmaking is also preoccupied by heritage and tradition.  Germans, however, tend to put an emphasis on engineering and precision.  This has resulted in some of the most wildly over-engineered German-made machinery in the world.  For better or for worse (we believe its for the better), this also applies to their watchmaking.  Characterized by innovation and attention to detail, German watchmaking rivals the Swiss when it comes to traditional watchmaking, and is known for its use of high-quality materials, such as German silver, and for its focus on functionality and durability.  This is why German watchmaking tends to fall on both sides of the decorative spectrum.  On one side you have many German watch brands adopting the Bauhaus principle of clean lines with an emphasis on practicality over showiness, and on the other are German brands with some of the most ornately decorated watches the world has ever seen.

Then there’s Japanese watchmaking, which, in a way, is the polar opposite of both the Swiss and the Germans.  And while the Japanese are also preoccupied by heritage and tradition (just like the Swiss and the Germans), the Japanese are also obsessed with technology and innovation.  This is why the Japanese almost toppled the all-mighty Swiss watch industry with the introduction of the quartz movement during the last quarter of the 20th century. 

Becoming increasingly popular in recent years largely due to the success of brands like Seiko and Citizen, Japanese watchmaking is marked by features that span the entire technological spectrum.  Indeed, even if Japanese watchmakers have embraced the many facets of traditional watchmaking, they are also famous for pushing the bounderies of innovation and cutting-edge technology. 

And while Japanese watchmakers make making some of the most distinctly beautiful mechanical wristwatches in the world, they also make the most accurate quartz movements in the world, and also incorporate features like GPS, solar power, and radio-controlled timekeeping into their watches.

Last but not least are the Americans.  That’s right, not many are aware of this but America has a long and storied history with watchmaking, with brands like Hamilton and Bulova tracing their roots back to the early 20th century.  In fact, American watchmaking pioneered the use of automated machines to mass produce high quality pocket watches for the general public way before the Swiss eventually caught on.  American watchmaking is also indelibly tied to the birth and subsequent popularity of the wristwatch with American watchmakers supplying simple, accurate, and waterproof wristwatches to U.S. Servicemen during World War II. 

Today, American watchmaking is often marked by a rugged and masculine aesthetic that can be traced back to the field watches created during the war.  These brands may no longer be entirely American owned, but are still known for their use of innovative materials such as polycarbonate and carbon fiber, as well as for their focus on sport and adventure watches.

In the end, while there are certainly some differences in the approach to watchmaking across different cultures, there is also a shared appreciation for craftsmanship, precision, and design that transcends borders.  Whether the classic elegance of a Swiss watch is to your preference, or the cutting-edge technology of a Japanese timepiece, there is something for everyone in the world of watchmaking.