History of the Geneva Seal (III): the renaissance (after 1990)

History of the Geneva Seal – Part 3: The Renaissance (1990 and Beyond)

The repositioning of Swiss watchmaking towards tradition and the luxury segment has rekindled interest in the Seal among Geneva manufacturers. The involvement of the Richemont group has led to a genuine revival of the institution.

By Pierre-Yves Donzé

In 1990, Patek Philippe was the only company to submit its watches for Geneva Seal approval. The latter accounted for over 98% of the total inspections made. Until then (please see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series) and before the rebirth of mechanical watchmaking, the 1886-founded institution had not been as successful as was hoped.

A new upswing

The revival of the Geneva Seal during the 1990s is noticeable from a perusal of the watch inspection statistics, which indicate a general upwards trend in the total number of certifications. The latter rose from 7,004 in 1990 to an absolute record of 32,997 in 2001. The Timelab foundation, the governing body that has been inspecting watches and awarding certifications since 2010, does not release figures after 2002. However, according to statements made to the press, the number of seals has continued to rise, numbering around 30,000 in 2009 and 26,500 in 2011.

At the same time, the criteria governing the attribution of the seal, which had remained unchanged since 1955, were revised in 2008 and 2012 respectively. The organizational rules of 2012 stipulated two measures:

- Firstly, actions concerning the aesthetic and technical standards relating to the movement and finishing (prohibited use of polymer, polished chamfers on every plate, milling and countersinking performed without traces of tooling, etc.)

- Second, a certain number of operations must be completed in the canton of Geneva: assembly of movement, adjustment, and casing.

Moreover, only those companies entered in the trade and companies register of the canton of Geneva may submit their watches for inspection. Thus, the pieces may be produced outside the canton, so long as they are assembled within the canton. This is what makes it possible for some companies, such as Vacheron Constantin, to produce pieces in their workshops in the Joux Valley and to assemble them in Geneva.

The role of Patek Philippe

Nonetheless, the apparent resurgence of an institution existing for the defense of Geneva watchmaking excellence concealed some important issues prompting the repositioning of companies towards the luxury segment and the growing rivalry between two groups. The revival of the Geneva Seal was a two-part process.

Initially, until the mid-1990s, the new resurgence in interest was mainly down to Patek Philippe. The manufacture belonging to the Stern family, which certified most of its watches at that time, benefited from the rise in world demand for luxury mechanical watchmaking, and this took its toll on the Geneva Seal. During the period between 1990 and 1996, Patek Philippe accounted for 95.7% of seals attributed, in other words, a similar amount to that posted in the 1950s and the 1985 to 1990 period.

A proliferation of partner companies

It was during the latter half of the 1990s that the Seal entered a new phase of its existence with the steady arrival of new companies. First, there was Vacheron Constantin, which had submitted large numbers of its watches to the scrutiny of the Seal in previous years, and which resumed this practice in the mid-1990s. The approach was a part of the strategy adopted by CEO Claude-Daniel Proellochs to boost its positioning in the watchmaking tradition and luxury goods segment. With an average of 6.5% of total punches between 1997 and 2001, Vacheron Constantin followed behind Patek Philippe with 87%.

It is also important to mention, however, the contribution made by newcomers who had no watchmaking tradition to speak of, but whose adherence to the Seal's criteria brought them great recognition. 1996 saw the arrival of Roger Dubuis and Chopard, with hundreds of pieces submitted every year until 2001. The designer Gérald Genta also appeared, albeit intermittently, after 1983, with smaller volumes (49 watches on average between 1990 and 2001). The Seal was also attributed, in 2016, to the Louis Vuitton brand, who had launched its first watch only in 2002 and invested heavily in the construction of a new manufacture in the canton of Geneva after 2010.

The alliance with Richemont

But, more generally, in the early 21st century, the Geneva Seal became an essential asset for the Richemont group, for whom the insistence upon tradition and the Geneva territory were strategic objectives. In 2015, Roger Dubuis, acquired by Richemont seven years earlier, claimed that it certified its entire output, just as CEO of Vacheron Constantin, Juan Carlos Torres, spoke of his intention to have his company's entire production punched by the famous Seal. Finally, it is crucial to note Richemont's acquisition of Roger Dubuis, which allowed Cartier to obtain supplies of the movements it required for the certification of some of its watches bearing the celebrated Seal.

It was no doubt the growing alliance between Richemont and the Geneva Seal, which led Patek Philippe, in 2009, to abandon the certification for its watches and to adopt its quality criteria, which it claimed: "went further than the Geneva Seal."

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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...