The Terroir of Time: Schaffhausen, Switzerland
In our ongoing series about the terroir of timepieces, Watchonista visits the home of H. Moser & Cie. and IWC to learn how the region’s unique geography flavors their watches.
Previously in our Terroir of Time series, we talked about how the isolated landscape of the Ore Mountains has made Glashütte, Germany, a watchmaking Mecca. Almost 700 kilometers away in Switzerland, water drives the production of the timepieces from Schaffhausen.
By harnessing the power of the region’s Rhine Falls to turn enormous energy-generating turbines, Heinrich Moser, the founder of H. Moser & Cie., brought the machine age to Switzerland. This, in turn, attracted American Florentine Ariosto Jones and his manufacture, International Watch Company (IWC), to the region.
Born out of the geographic quirks of the region, both companies shook up traditional Swiss watchmaking in the 1800s and continue to make noise in the 21st century.
We tend to picture the origins of traditional Swiss watchmaking as communities of clockmakers living in remote valleys, painstakingly crafting timepieces by hand and candlelight during the slow winter months. The past, however, is always less romantic and much messier.
In fact, the story of how Schaffhausen became a Swiss watchmaking hub could give shows like “Succession” and “The Crown” a run for their money.
Age of Industry
It all begins with Heinrich Moser. In the olden days, each town had one government-appointed watchmaker, and this person maintained the municipal clocks and serviced the locals’ personal timepieces.
Moser came from a family of watchmakers in Schaffhausen and, in 1824, dutifully went to Le Locle, Switzerland, to apprentice and later build a successful Le Locle parts-making factory. However, following a dispute with the local guilds, he moved to Saint Petersburg, Russia. Then in 1848, Moser, by now a wealthy merchant and internationally renowned watch manufacturer, triumphantly returned to nearby Neuhausen am Rheinfall, where he built the magnificent Villa Charlottenfels estate for his family.
Most importantly, Moser’s mechanically inclined brain formulated a plan that used the force of the Rhine Falls (located just outside of Schaffhausen) as a source of power for manufacturing and to make the town a model for the Industrial Age.
Not to diminish the importance of generations of craftspeople, but there is no denying that the ability to mass-produce parts led to vastly improved reliability and precision.
Moser’s use of an 80-horsepower water-powered turbine to run his manufacture also led to the adoption of things like vertical integration and quick servicing (in the very old days, wealthy clients would order two watches as a backup in case one needed repair because manufactures would have to hand tool replacements). And it was these unheard-of performance standards that were vital to H. Moser & Cie.’s and IWC’s success, even today.
Now open to the public as a museum, I visited Villa Charlottenfels a few years ago. It’s a must-see for watch enthusiasts, with plenty of examples of Moser watches, from ornate pocket watches made for the Russian Imperial Court to the more modest timekeepers produced until the Meylan family-owned MELB Holding took over in 2012.
The Villa sits high on a promontory overlooking the town and the rushing waters of the Rhine. You can almost envision Moser after his triumphant return, surveying his domain like Logan Roy watching over his empire from his Manhattan offices.
However, while successful in industry, Heinrich Moser’s family life was chaotic because, unlike the shenanigans of “Succession,” none of his children (who preferred exploring and parapsychology) nor his widow (who was 43 years his junior) were interested in running the family business. As a result, after his death in 1874, the H. Moser & Cie. assets were sold off, and the business moved to Le Locle.
Still, all was not lost because the intellectual heir to the movement Heinrich Moser started was the American engineer Florentine Ariosto Jones, the founder of IWC.
Born in 1841, Florentine Ariosto Jones came to Switzerland in 1868, attracted by Swiss horological excellence. First, Jones went to Le Locle, but the locals offered little encouragement. Then, after a meeting with Heinrich Moser and learning of the promise of Moser’s hydroelectric plant, the Boston-born Jones was convinced that Schaffhausen was the place to build his business.
The Rauschenbachs, an industrialist family from Schaffhausen, took the reins at IWC when Jones eventually returned to the States. The brand stuck with its entrepreneurial spirit, first producing pocket watches with the now iconic digital “Pallweber” display and then being an early adopter of wristwatches for women and men.
The arrival of the American Jones and his new company, IWC, in 1868 brought a new energy to the town near the German border. Like H. Moser & Cie., IWC wanted a global reach. So, after just one year, the Schaffhausen factory produced 10,000 watches for the American market alone.
Most notably, IWC’s brashness resulted in developing timepieces for the modern age.
When IWC started making watches, the airplane had yet to be invented. But when human flight took off, the manufacture was ready with its legendary Pilot’s Watches. And as traveling across borders and continents became more feasible, IWC came up with complications meant to help the new global citizen navigate the world.
So, what exactly is the Schaffhausen signature? Even today, H. Moser & Cie. and IWC share a resilience that can be attributed to their border location and the ground-breaking use of water power. Moreover, as companies founded on international concerns, they could also weather the storm a bit better when massive geopolitical changes came their way during the 20th century.
Both IWC and H. Moser have proven their resilience by being able to partner with outsiders. Notably, when the quartz crisis hit, IWC leaned into mechanical inventions such as the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar designed by Kurt Klaus. Then, to mark its 125th anniversary in 1993, IWC unveiled (what was then) the world’s most complicated mechanical wristwatch: Il Destriero Scafusia.
The ability to improvise and innovate is also integral to present-day Moser. A family-owned investment company called MELB Holdings bought Moser & Cie. in 2012. Created by Georges-Henri Meylan, MELB (an acronym of Georges-Henri’s three children, Meylan-Edouard-Léonore-Bertrand) also runs Precision Engineering AG in Neuhausen am Rheinfall, which not only manufactures H. Moser’s in-house mechanisms but also sells calibres to other watchmakers.
We took a tour of the facility in 2022 with H. Moser & Cie.’s CEO Ed Meylan and International Sales Director Nicholas Hofmann. The manufacture employs the most cutting-edge machinery that are just as revolutionary as what Heinrich Moser’s production methods must have felt like in their day. But, despite the technology, human hands remain involved in every step of the manufacturing process. Every element is carefully tested, retested, and vetted by trained artisans, and all the finishing is hand done.
Style-wise, H. Moser and IWC also stand out for their enthusiastic embrace of materials. H. Moser’s dials are unequaled in their expert execution (I have two words for you – Vanta Black). IWC was an early adopter of non-gold, silver, and steel case materials, making the first chronograph featuring a titanium case (and designed by F.A. Porsche, no less).
In the last year, both houses have continued to lead the way with bold, beautiful watches.
In keeping with its pioneering spirit, H. Moser & Cie. used the final days of 2022 to launch its Genesis Endeavour Project – a hybrid of a physical watch and a holistic, immersive digital realm. Then, only a few weeks into 2023, the brand released the mesmerizingly beautiful Endeavour Perpetual Calendar Tantalum Blue Enamel with a case made from tantalum – the rarest stable element in the solar system.
IWC, on the other hand, expanded its TOP GUN collection using Ceratanium – a proprietary material combining titanium’s lightweight and shatterproof qualities with ceramic’s non-wearing properties to create a new visual signature with a range of distinctive colors.
I didn’t visit IWC’s operations when I was last in Schaffhausen. However, thanks to Dr. Seyffer, I have seen many of the objects from the IWC Museum, which sits on the banks of the Rhine (apologies if we sound like a shill for the Schaffhausen tourist board). It’s a true destination for any watch lover, and I need to see more!
If you do make the journey, you’ll also observe that both brands are also cannily ahead of the curve. Unlike most industrialists of the day, they eschewed coal-fueled plants and were proponents of clean energy. They traded on the reputation of Swiss watchmaking but also looked beyond its borders to innovate to build brands that would stand the test of time.