The Swiss are well-known for a few things: cheese, chocolate, a neutral foreign policy and — of course — watches. You’ve probably recognized a “Swiss-made” stamp on a watch as a mark of distinction — one that is held in high regard by expert watchmakers and general watch-wearers alike. And if you’ve ever shopped for a watch, you’ve probably also come across the term “Swiss movement” at some point or another. But what exactly is a Swiss movement, and how does it differ from a Japanese movement, another term that often comes up in watch shopping? Read on to learn more.
First things first: What is a watch movement?
A watch’s “movement” refers to the part of the device that drives the hands on a watch face to make it tick. It’s often described as the “heart” of a watch, but perhaps “brain” would be more accurate — in addition to tracking the time of day, a watch’s movement powers features such as its calendar and chronograph.
What is a Swiss movement?
Even non-aficionados recognize that Switzerland sets the standard by which all other watches are judged. Excellence in craftsmanship and watchmaking are large components of the Swiss national identity, and why you see product descriptions that include names like “Swiss quartz movement” or “Swiss movement.”
Interestingly, the Swiss weren’t the first to make clocks small enough to carry around; the Germans actually did it first. The first tiny clocks that were made to be portable were created somewhere between 1509 and 1530, with the earliest officially documented watch created in 1530 by Peter Henlein in Nuremberg, Germany. During this period, the watches were over 3 inches long — a little too big to fit in a pocket. Because the timepieces were rare and expensive, few but nobility could afford to own them.
During the 16th century, the Swiss watch industry slowly gained traction as Western European — specifically French Huguenot — refugees entered Switzerland to escape religious persecution. When they settled into Geneva, they brought their clock- and watchmaking skills with them. Fast-forward about a century, and Geneva had earned a reputation for high-quality watchmaking. By the end of the 18th century, Geneva was exporting more than 60,000 watches annually! There were many innovations during that period, including those of Abraham-Louis Perrelet, who in 1770 created the “perpetual” watch — the basis for the modern self-winding watch.
Unlike with the Germans or Swiss, for the Japanese, the watch industry is more of a 20th century phenomenon, and has grown exponentially in recent years. Prior to the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry had a claim on 50% of the world watch market. That is, they did until Seiko, a Japanese watch company, introduced the world’s first quartz wristwatch and called it “the Astron.”
In the years following that reveal, this technology became increasingly popular and sought-after — so popular, in fact, there was a “quartz crisis” in the Swiss watchmaking industry. Because the Swiss didn’t adapt to the changes initially, it caused economic upheaval and massive job losses — but for watch companies in Japan and the United States, it stirred a “quartz revolution.”
The quartz technology had caused upheaval in the industry, and a battle was fought over the next several decades to provide the best, thinnest and highest-value watches of the highest quality. Eventually, Switzerland was able to redeem its reputation (and the nation’s third-largest export industry) in the early 1980s with a few key innovations and financial rescue packages. As quartz technology has continued to develop, solar-, light- and motion-powered watches have all entered the playing field. And still, Swiss is the standard of quality that watchmakers look toward today.
What’s the difference between a Swiss movement and a Japanese movement?
When it comes to Swiss vs. Japanese movement watches, there are typically two schools of thought. And generally, the battle loosely boils down to one between practicality and luxury. From a technical standpoint, there aren’t huge differences between the two, but the way in which they are crafted and what features receive the most emphasis by the watchmaker do vary. Overall, functionality is the number one focus for Japanese movements, while Swiss movements are more focused on the craftsmanship.
One major difference between the two types of movements is that the Japanese movement is mostly assembled by an animated robotics line. This process means less of a margin for human error, but it also results in a less detailed, more “raw” look. The whole Japanese approach revolves around efficiency and functionality. These watches are built with precision and effectiveness at the forefront, with aesthetics as a more secondary thought.
While the Japanese movements can offer lower prices, the Swiss-made watches have centuries of heritage to back them up. As mentioned above, the Swiss have been creating clocks and timepieces with some semblance of the same technology since the 16th century, whereas the Japanese movement didn’t gain traction until the 20th century. Despite their relatively short time in the watchmaking space, the Japanese have found a solution for lower-priced luxury. However, Swiss-made watches are still considered to be the highest standard of quality. From the cut of the metal to the color of the mechanisms, every detail is considered by a Swiss watchmaker. Aesthetics are paramount throughout the design and construction processes, and for the most part, hand assembly is still a part of the watchmaking process — something that the Japanese almost always automate with robotics. All of the intricate décor and hours of labor affect the price of a Swiss-made movement.
Which is better: Swiss or Japanese movement?
Of course, as they proved in the late 1970s, the Japanese watchmakers do know how to create a working product that people will buy. Their watches are not as well-known for their reliability or quality as those of their Swiss counterparts, but they are usually precise and, typically, are significantly less expensive than watches with Swiss-made movements.
As mentioned above, Japanese movements are considered very practical, with more emphasis on precision and a cost-effective build, and less on looks. These movements are created on automated assembly lines, which helps keep costs down for manufacturers.
On the other hand, Swiss movements are the original automatic movements, and they set the standard for both precision and quality. Swiss movements must adhere to certain laws that ensure excellence and accuracy, and are also most often hand-assembled — a detail which usually impacts the overall quality (and price) of the watch.
Although it certainly depends on your particular priorities and needs, a watch with a Swiss movement is generally considered the watch you’d want for the long haul — one that could be passed from one generation to the next.
Conclusion: Swiss vs. Japanese movement
Both get the job done, and both are used by watchmakers all over the world. All Hook+Gaff movements come from ETA, the largest, most highly sought-after manufacturer of movements in Switzerland and a premier example of the skills the country has to offer.
Hook+Gaff creates watches with custom Swiss quartz movements that achieve a high standard of quality and are also durable enough to stand up to your outdoor lifestyle. Peruse different dial colors and strap selections here, and upgrade your watch today!