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History of the Geneva Seal – Part 2: The Long Stagnation (1918-1990)

Continuing our three-part “History of the Geneva Seal” series. Today we look at the 20th century, when a company named Patek, Philippe & Cie ensured the survival of the Geneva Seal.

By Pierre-Yves Donzé

For the record (see Part 1), the difficulties facing the institution for the first few decades after its founding were due to the very few watches submitted to its scrutiny. During this period, independent watchmakers and not industrial manufacturers mainly submitted watches.

The difficult interwar period

The transition from the pocket watch to the wristwatch, and indeed the cartelization of the Swiss watchmaking industry (birth of the status of "watchmaker") had a significant impact on watchmaking in Geneva. Most of the smaller manufacturers of Geneva who submitted their watch movements for the prestigious Seal subsequently sold them to manufacturers of whole watches established elsewhere in Switzerland, mainly in Bienne or La Chaux-de-Fonds.

However, this practice gradually became prohibited during the 1920s, after which watch assemblers had to obtain their supplies from Ebauches SA. Therefore, except for a few rare manufactures, such as Patek, Philippe & Cie and Vacheron & Constantin SA, the local production of watch movements began to collapse. Given these conditions, the number of candidates for the famous Seal radically declined.

It should also be noted that the administrative committee of the Office of inspection pursued a hardline policy in its definition of watches crafted in Geneva. For example, in May 1921, it rejected movements submitted by the Movement Blank Factory in Le Petit Lancy. Although crafted in the canton of Geneva, the pieces in question did not conform to the provisions relating to certain types of cogs.

Patek Philippe Ref. 1518 in stainless steel

The lifesaving role of Patek Philippe & Cie

The 1930s was a decade in which Patek, Philippe & Cie became the main, and then virtually the sole, client of the Office of inspection, to such a degree that it almost resembled a privatized institution. The company's share in the total number of watches inspected rose from less than 5% before 1924 to 30.8% in 1925, 34.1% in 1930, 48% in 1932, and then over 80% after 1934. It even attained 98.2% in 1940-1945. Patek, Philippe & Cie was, indeed, one of the few manufacturers in the city to not only can develop its own movements but also to bring them into conformity with the technical requirements of the Office of inspection.

The other leading manufacturers in the city, Vacheron & Constantin, rarely contributed to the Office's activities. During the interwar period (1932, 1937 and 1939), it submitted only three watches in total, much to the chagrin of the administrative committee, which was keen to broaden its partner base and collaborate with the two leading manufacturers in Geneva. In October 1924, it was already expressing concern about the lack of interest on the part of Vacheron & Constantin: "We fully understand how they can dispense with the need for the inspection, that their reputation alone suffices, but they should sacrifice their otherwise warranted self-esteem, for the good of the Geneva watchmaking industry." The Committee thus decided to meet with the company's directors "with a view to persuading them to make a patriotic effort," but the meeting proved unfruitful.

After the Second World War

The industrial situation did not change fundamentally between 1945 and 1990, despite the end of the status of "Watchmaker" during the first half of the 1960s. Those companies capable and desirous of adhering to the selection criteria of the Geneva Seal were few and far between. Patek, Philippe & Cie continued to be the primary partner of the institution (accounting for 67.3% of all Seals attributed between 1950 and 1990) until it was its sole contributor following the withdrawal of Vacheron & Constantin. In 1990, Patek Philippe was the only company to pursue its collaboration with the institution, achieving a massive 98.6% of seals.

The collaboration between Patek and the Geneva Seal underwent three main phases. Initially, the period between 1950 and 1970 saw a tremendous surge in submissions, which pointed to an increase in business and a general move to punch (virtually) all of the output. The Geneva Seal became a selling point. In the mid-1960s, the Geneva manufacture launched an advertising campaign in which it claimed to submit all of its movements to the Office of Inspection, that it was the only one to do so and that it could thus lay claim to the title of the most excellent watchmaking manufacture in the world.

The following period from 1972 to1986 saw a sharp drop in seal attributions, not only due to the effects of the crisis but also to the growth of the electronics industry. Patek Philippe had begun to equip some of its models with quartz movements. The sudden decline, then stagnation, in the number of watches acquiring the "Geneva Seal" highlighted this change.

Finally, the late 1980s saw the triumphant return of the mechanical watch, a phenomenon that continued for the next few decades. Although quartz was still in use, mainly in ladies' watches, mechanical watches were gaining in popularity, and Patek Philippe stepped up its collaboration with the Office of inspection.

Patek, Philippe & Cie was joined by its old rival in the mid-1950s. Vacheron & Constantin accounted for around one-third of seal attributions until the mid-1980s. Nonetheless, the financial and industrial difficulties experienced by the company during the 1980s prompted it to abandon its status of manufacture and to order its movements outside the canton, from ETA in particular.

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

By Pierre-Yves DonzéHistorian
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...