Rewriting Horological History: London Watchmaking, Swiss Forgeries and the Advent of Mass Production

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In December last year, Jean-Daniel Pasche, the Chairman of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, talked about how his organization seizes and destroys around one million counterfeit watches each year.  He explained how, in 2016 alone, the Federation had seized nearly 130,000 fakes in Turkey, 70,000 in Dubai and another 9,000 in Russia.

The Swiss take counterfeits and counterfeiters very seriously indeed.

Yet, it was Swiss fakes of English watches that helped bring down the British watchmaking industry in the eighteenth century. Horologist and researcher, Dr. Rebecca Struthers has spent the last eight years unearthing their story and it’s one that involves forgery, smuggling and even the English parliament.

She describes how she first picked up the trail that would lead her from Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter to the Swiss border. “It all started when I was working at an auction house in the Jewellery Quarter (Fellows & Sons) whilst studying my MA History of Art and Design at Birmingham City University’s School of Art back in 2008. Whilst cataloguing some antique watches I came across one made in around 1760 that, despite being signed as London-made, looked completely unlike the London watches I was familiar with.”

Thomas Tompion Pocket Wtch mid 1600s
Thomas Tompion Pocket Watch, mid 1600s

When Dr. Struthers began following the trail, though, it quickly went cold.

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“When I looked up the name of the maker, “John Wilter,” the reference book simply listed him as ‘perhaps a fictitious name.’  I did a bit more research and it soon transpired that this was pretty much all we knew about the most prolific type of watch forgery in the eighteenth-century.”

The scale of forging was hard to imagine. It was, quite literally, of industrial magnitude. The Swiss forgeries uncovered by Dr. Struthers were flooding into the UK market at around 40,000 a year.

“Whilst cataloguing some antique watches I came across one made in around 1760 that, despite being signed as London-made, looked completely unlike the London watches I was familiar with.”

To put that in context, in the 1760s the London Assay Office–responsible for ensuring the quality of precious metals sold to the public–hallmarked around 80,000 watch cases. The average British workshop would turn out about 2,000 finished watches a year.

These were painstakingly assembled from a network of (usually) local suppliers. Cases might come from Hatton Garden, dials and hands from Clerkenwell and movements from the watchmaker’s own bench.

The Swiss business model–and it was most certainly a business–was far more industrialized. The workshops were based along the French-Swiss border. Appropriately, in the same towns in which modern Swiss makers are now paragons of respectability.

Using the ‘établissage’ system of assembling a large number of watches under one roof, the Swiss were able to turn out enough finished watches to flood and then sink the English market.

Dr. Struthers started digging deeper. “I studied a group of 30 of these watches that survived in the collection at the British Museum and studied them in forensic detail, following them back through time and across Europe to find out who was really making them and where they were being made.”

Dr. Rebecca Struthers

Dr. Struthers believes a network of Dutch merchants may have provided financial backing and some distribution to the Swiss makers. So this was one of the first industrialized and merchant-led markets. A modern business model in embryo.

She explains, “My research brings the commonly accepted date for the birth of mass production of watches forwards by nearly 100 years, and will change the way many people view the watch industry as it stands today.”

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Roger Smith

This was no formal, legalized import/export agreement between Britain and Switzerland. The Swiss watches circumnavigated the rather loose borders of the time in the holds of smugglers’ ships, landing in the dark in remote bays. From there, a network of distributors (or, more appropriately “fences”) would move them on to large towns and cities where they were sold. Sometimes they would be on open sale. Other times would see them passed surreptitiously from under the counter by watchmakers themselves.

It was, for the Swiss makers, hugely successful. Their watches sold in the tens of thousands. And they toppled the English watch industry in just a few years. At the time, England and London in particular was the center of the watchmaking world. Harrison, Tompion, Mudge, Arnold–the makers who had innovated, improved and created so much in the horological world–had all made in London.

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HARRISON-AND-THE-H4_SLIDER
John Harrison

The Swiss watches were quite inferior–in technology and materials–to the English watches they sought to ape. Still running old-fashioned verge escapements, they used poorer quality silver, less gold ornamentation and weaker alloys. But they had two, powerful advantages over their English counterparts. They were cheap and they looked the part. The new middle class, keen to appear respectable and prosperous, bought them eagerly. And for a fraction of the price of an English-made watch, not least because the smugglers paid no import duty.

“My research brings the commonly accepted date for the birth of mass production of watches forwards by nearly 100 years, and will change the way many people view the watch industry as it stands today.”

The English makers fought back as best they could. Borders in the eighteenth century were best described as “permeable” with customs and excise unable to cover them adequately. Sure, they intercepted a few shipments but a lot of watches got through. The watchmakers even petitioned Parliament and the Corporation of London but it was too little action, too late. And, in any case, with the smugglers having almost free rein, there was little the authorities could do. So the Swiss quietly buried the English watchmaking industry under a huge pile of industrialized fakes.

Forgery London Watch
Watch studied in forgery research

It’s a story remarkable in its previous lack of telling.  Dr. Struthers–appropriately the first watchmaker to earn a PhD in horology for her work–has assembled elements from economics, industrial practice, watchmaking, forensics, metallurgy and even social history to make it.

Perhaps fittingly, given the vagaries of Watchworld, these eighteenth century Swiss fakes are now drawing collectors’ eyes. In fact, some are even beginning to fetch more than their craftsman-made English counterparts.

Today, it seems the scales are beginning to tip back in favor of England’s watchmakers. Watchmakers like Dr. Struthers herself are doing what their eighteenth century counterparts struggled to do–they’re socking it back to the Swiss rather successfully. It’s good when what goes around comes around, isn’t it?

For more on Rebecca Struthers and her work, check out Struthers-London.

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Mark developed a passion for watches at a young age. At 9, he was gifted an Omega Time Computer manual from a local watch maker and he finagled Rolex brochures from a local dealer. Today, residing in the Oxfordshire village of Bampton, Mark brings his technical expertise and robust watch knowledge to worn&wound.
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  • Porter Hudson

    What a fantastic article!

    • Mark McArthur-Christie

      Thanks so much – it’s a fascinating subject to research!

  • R Khalifa

    Makes me think of the Mark Twain quote about things that become respectable with age…

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