ernst thomke

Prix Gaïa 2013 – Ernst Thomke. Entrepreneurship category

By awarding the Prix Gaïa in this category, the jury wished to honour a visionary, a man who contributed directly to the implementation of a revolutionary project that would turn around the Swiss watchmaking industry.

Ernst Thomke made his mark initially by pursuing an atypical career path. After graduating in medicine, he went on to study marketing and management, joining the pharmaceutical research department for Beecham before becoming the group's marketing director for Europe. He was then called to the rescue of ETA SA in 1978. In 1982, he became managing director of Ébauches SA and was elected to the board of directors of ASUAG, the holding company of ETA SA. He was subsequently appointed managing director of the SMH between 1984 and 1991. Since his departure from the SMH, he has been active on the boards of many other companies in various industrial sectors. 

His career with the ETA and SMH

Ernst Thomke is one of the best known entrepreneurs in Switzerland, being famous primarily as a pioneer in "restructuring businesses". From the end of the 70s to the start of the 90s, he was managing director in the watchmaking industry, firstly at ETA, then at SMH. In 1978, in the midst of the watchmaking crisis, Ernst Thomke was called upon to join ETA SA, which had merged with its old rival, A. Schild SA. Ernst Thomke thus worked towards concentrating production with a view to achieving streamlined production automation. Wherever possible, he integrated the administrative and production facilities of other blank factories forming part of Ébauches SA.

He was also the brain behind the creation of the Delirium, the first successful bid to counter Japanese competition during the crisis years. The Swiss watch still holds the world record for slimness at less than 2 mm in total.

But he is perhaps best known as the father and innovator of the Swatch. The idea, first launched in 1980, was to manufacture a cheap, revolutionary electronic watch with an attractive design, capable of rivalling the Japanese, despite the ongoing crisis. Nicolas Hayek agreed to finance the adventure. Upon its release in 1983, the Swatch established itself as a go-to brand, and the watch became a genuine fashion item. Ernst Thomke, together with Jacques Müller, filed an application on 06.07.1984 for patent number EP0131858, for a "Watch whose case forms the plate". 

The Swatch adventure

It is thanks to Ernst Thomke that the Swatch adventure took off. He enabled his engineers, Jacques Mueller and Elmar Mock, to complete a project that involved radical changes to the production of the watch as it had been hitherto conducted. However, even once the product was finished, a laborious amount of work was still required to turn it into a "must". Everyone remembers the long queues outside the boutiques selling Swatch chronometers! Customers had to sign up to receive one. But the Swatch also revolutionised the way in which watches were worn and it could now be seen on the wrists of university professors, elegant women and businessmen, all of whom were proud to exhibit their Swatch.

The Swatch not only revolutionised watch production and introduced democratic prices, it also brought about a change in society. But this required a great deal of publicity and the organisation of events all around the world.

Once again, this was all down to Ernst Thomke as the original initiator. 

  • Franckfort, giant Swatch, 1984
  • Paris, Swatch Street painting, 1984

And the following collections, appearing almost simultaneously:

  • Swatch by Keith Haring, 1986
  • Swatch collection «Vienna Decor», 1987
  • Swatchetables by Alfred Hofkunst, 1991
  • Swatch Watch collection, automne 1984
  • Swatch Special «Sir Limelight», 1985

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