Switzerland, the land that time begot

Mon May 14, 2012 3:46pm EDT
 
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By Caroline Copley

NEUCHATEL, Switzerland (Reuters) - Andrew I-Jen Chen swapped a career crunching numbers at French bank BNP Paribas to take up an apprenticeship at one of Switzerland's most prestigious watchmaking schools.

He is one of a growing number of people attracted to a career in horology as Swiss watch firms vie for staff to meet buoyant Asian demand for high-end timepieces and to fill the hole left when industry heavyweight Swatch decided to cut the volume of mechanical watch parts it sells to others.

"In banking you just sit there working with numbers that don't mean anything," the 29-year-old from Taiwan said as he turned a hand lathe to painstakingly cut the tip of an axle, a component used in the balance wheel, which makes a watch tick.

Legislation to tighten the rules on what can be called a Swiss made product also means that watch companies are ploughing millions into new factories at a time when many Swiss firms are thinking of moving production abroad.

Exports of Swiss timepieces soared 19 percent to a record 19.3 billion Swiss francs ($20.8 billion) last year, rebounding from the 13.2 billion low hit in 2009 in the depths of the financial crisis.

This feat was achieved despite the handbrake of the Swiss franc, which rocketed from one record high to another as investors sought safety from the euro zone's debt troubles, pushing a third of mechanical and electrical engineering firms into the red.

LESSONS FROM THE PAST

At the heart of the watch sector's success is a disciplined approach to innovation, says Maarten Pieters, director of the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (WOSTEP) based in Neuchatel.   Continued...

 
A student works on a watch piece at the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Program (WOSTEP) in Neuchatel April 20, 2012. Picture taken April 20, 2012. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich