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History of the Geneva Seal – Part 1: The Early Years (1886-1918)

We celebrate the Geneva Seal with a three part series, a major institution in the Swiss luxury watchmaking industry, was founded in the mid-1880s. We flashback to a little-known story in three parts.

By Pierre-Yves Donzé

The Geneva Seal is a prestigious mark guaranteeing the quality and provenance of timepieces produced in the canton of Geneva. It contributes to the renown of brands established in Switzerland's beautiful lakeside city.

A mark of quality or provenance?

In the early 1880s, the Geneva watchmaking industry was undergoing significant changes. Alongside the independent watchmaking workshops, who were struggling to survive, large industrial companies sprang up, as well as a whole host of tradespeople dealing in watches of all kinds. Furthermore, the competition was very lively in the cantons of Berne and Neuchâtel, where big manufacturers such as Longines, Omega, and Zenith were experiencing phenomenal growth.

Against this backdrop, Geneva's watchmaking microcosm was a-stir. Some local figures sought to keep factory employment within the canton. Such was the case of the radical politician, Georges Favon, who announced to the Council of State in October 1885 that “the mark of certification needed to exist not for the quality of the watch, but to establish the fact that the watch was manufactured in Geneva by Geneva's craftsmen.” Others, meanwhile, wanted to ensure that local production met high-quality standards. These latter were represented by Charles Chalumeau, also a radical politician and partner of the silversmith, Dolive. The latter, supported by the Geneva Society of Watchmakers, at the same debate requested the introduction of certification aimed at "establishing the fact that a watch indeed possessed all the properties of a timepiece created in the tradition of Geneva craftsmanship."

The birth of the Geneva Seal

The law governing the voluntary control of watches passed during the sitting held on 6 November 1886 was a compromise measure. It enabled manufacturers, who so wished, to submit their watches to an "Official office for the voluntary inspection of watches from Geneva," set up on the premises of the Watchmaking School. The latter tested the quality of the watches, checked specific technical criteria defined by the administrative committee of said Office, and ascertained the fact that the piece was indeed made in Geneva. Those watches having successfully passed the tests were then awarded the official seal of the Canton. The voluntary nature of the inspection also enabled watch manufacturers and dealers established in the canton to carry on their sales and production activities freely.

The 13-strong administrative committee appointed by the Council of State in 1887 included not only politicians of various tendencies but also representatives of the watchmaking environment, such as Edouard Sordet, director of the Watchmaking School. The issue of the definition of a "watch from Geneva," a matter which the Council of State had failed to resolve successfully, was hotly debated during these first sittings. Representatives of the Workers' Party harped on the issue of employment. However, the quality criterion was considered of prime importance by the vast majority: a "watch from Geneva" was not just a watch manufactured in the canton, but first and foremost a watch that met a certain number of technical criteria, which determined it to be a top-quality product.

An order from the commission of the Official office for the voluntary inspection of watches from Geneva  specified that "mechanical movements of watches constructed in accordance with the best practices of the watch industry and whose construction is in conformity with the directions given to the inspector by the commission are punched" and that "the work, at a minimum done on commission by workmen living in the canton of Geneva, concerns the following watchmaking parts and processes: escapements, uprighting, jewelling, assembling, adjusting.” Likewise, the commission adopted an implementing regulation, which laid down the technical requirements for the performance of these various operations.

This restrictive definition of a "watch from Geneva" nevertheless posed a certain number of implementation problems, mainly because some manufacturers in the canton had their watches rejected, despite having been produced in the region, since they were deemed too simple. One of the finest examples is that of the watchmaking manufacture, Voland & Cie, established in the city of Geneva, which complained to the commission in 1910 that its watches had been refused the seal. A member of the commission, following an inspection of the pieces in question, declared itself to be "in agreement that because of their ordinary quality they should not undergo inspection."

A little-used institution

A statistical analysis of the watch movements submitted to the Voluntary inspection office since it opened in 1887 and until 1918 provides us with a gauge of this institution's importance. It highlights perfectly the virtually negligible role played by the office within the local watchmaking industry. On average, just 475 watches are submitted every year. This is an extremely low, virtually negligible, proportion of the entire output of Geneva. The Geneva Seal does not meet a manufacturer's need.

What's more, only a tiny number of companies call on the services of this institution. In 1900, although the total count is thirty submissions, these are mainly made up of individuals and not workshops. Among them, 21 submitted fewer than ten watches, and only two presented more than 25 pieces: watchmaker, Louis Bachmann (31 watches) and watchmaking company, Haas & Neveux (198 watches). This would indicate that a small number of individuals, or artisans, use the services of the Inspection office.

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