Small Switzerland's gigantic icons


Longevity, accuracy, luxury, and superiority are expressions commonly associated with Swiss products of all kinds. The famous and unique nine letters “Swiss made” – unlike the practice in most other countries practice where the phrase “Made in (insert appropriate country name here)” is used – have become an assurance of quality over the centuries.

Swiss watches

Switzerland’s most renowned products are its watches. Swiss watch making’s history dates back to the middle of the 16th century: in 1541, the reforms implemented by John Calvin as well as new laws against wearing jewelry forced goldsmiths and jewelers in Geneva to turn to a whole new craft. By the end of the century, Genevan watches were already well known for their high quality. The Watchmakers’ Guild of Geneva, created in 1601, was the first such organization to be established anywhere in the world.

The following centuries brought new inventions and special features, such as the perpetual calendar, the flyback hand, and chronographs. Increases in productivity, the interchangeability of parts, and standardization progressively led the Swiss watch industry to mass production – and eventually to world supremacy by the early 20th century. However, its now most popular product, the wristwatch, wasn’t introduced until the end of WW I.

It was a Swiss company, Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH) in Neuchâtel, which developed the world’s first quartz wristwatch in 1967 – the famous Beta 21. But the appearance of quartz technologies and the economic crises of the ’70s and ’80s led to a serious contraction of the sector: the number of employees fell from some 90,000 in 1970 to a little over 30,000 in 1984.

Nowadays, the Swiss watch industry is stronger than ever: it was the leading exporter of clock 
and watch products in 2011, with a share of more than 50% around the world and a revenue of CHF 19.3 billion.

Over the centuries, Swiss watch making became a state-of-the-art industry possessing many world titles: the first wristwatch, the first quartz watch, the first water-resistant wristwatch, the thinnest wristwatch in the world, the smallest and the most expensive watch in the world, and so on, and so on.

Swiss army knife

Not too surprisingly, the Swiss army knife was originally neither more nor less that its name indicates: a standard piece of equipment for Swiss soldiers. Gaining international reputation after WW II, dozens of different types of Swiss army knives are now on sale in more than 100 countries, and the brand is one of the country’s most renowned.

During the 1880s, the Swiss Army decided to purchase a new knife, one that was suitable for opening canned food and for disassembling the Swiss service rifle, which required a screwdriver for assembly. In 1891, Karl Elsener, then owner of a small company in Ibach, set out to manufacture the knives, but Elsener was not satisfied with its first incarnation. In 1896, Elsener succeeded in attaching tools on both sides of the handle using a special spring mechanism. This invention was quite outstanding at the time, allowing Elsener to attach a second, smaller cutting edge and an indispensable corkscrew, and led the Swiss army knife to fame and glory.

He named his company Victorinox, after His mother Victoria and inox, a synonym for stainless steel. From 1893, another Swiss company, later known as Wenger after its owner, started manufacturing a similar product and subsequently also won military orders. For more than 100 years, these two companies supplied the Swiss Army and the world with knives, but in 2005 Victorinox bought Wenger to become, once again, the sole supplier of Swiss army knives. However, both companies’ products remain on the assembly line, which produces about 34,000 Swiss Army knives, 38,000 multi–tools and 30,000 household and kitchen knives each workday.

Some of the Swiss army knives of the 21st century include features like laser pointers, USB storage drives, and fingerprint scanners with data encryption built in. But the system is still the same old 100-year old mechanism: all the implements, from blades to data drives, are foldable or set on springs to disappear when not in use.

In recognition of the fact that the Swiss army knife is not just an everyday tool but also a fine piece of functional industrial art, the Champion, Victorinox’s flagship model prior to the introduction of the SwissChamp in 1986, is on display in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s Permanent Design Collection. The knives are used by many armies around a world, and have been to the top of Mt. Everest countless times, but the popularity of the Swiss army knife has already expanded beyond our planet, as it is also standard equipment for all NASA astronauts.

Swiss chocolate

Christopher Columbus brought the first cocoa bean to Europe in the beginning of the 16th century, but it took several hundred years before the first chocolate bar was produced. Chocolate, the secrets of which were learned by Spanish conquistadors from the Mayans and Aztecs, first conquered Europe’s royal households in the form of a drink mixed with honey and herbs.

Knowledge of chocolate reached Switzerland only in 1697, after the mayor of Zurich, Heinrich Escher, visited Brussels. There he drank chocolate and returned home with news of the new sweet drink.

Even so, chocolate manufacture did not begin in Switzerland for more than another 100 years. In the 18th century, Italy became a center of confectionery and chocolate making, drawing 
practitioners from around Europe. Many chocolatiers from the Ticino (Val Blenio) and the Grisons who had learnt their crafts in Turin, Milan and Venice left home to work abroad in the 19th century, founding family-oriented manufacturing businesses in the main cultural centers in Europe such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, London and St. Petersburg. Their know-how flowed back to Switzerland’s chocolate pioneers.

It was an “apprentice” from Italy, Francois–Louis Cailler, who opened the first Swiss chocolate factory in a former mill near Vevey in 1819. Decades later in 1876, M. Daniel Peter added milk to chocolate to produce a smoother tasting substance. After eight years of experiments to perfect the chocolate, he took his product to Henry Nestlé, the maker of evaporated milk. As Nestlé had perfected the manufacturing process of condensed milk, he and Peter hit upon the idea of mixing sweetened condensed milk with chocolate.

Thanks to Nestlé and Peter and the invention of conching (a process of refining) by Rodolphe Lindt, the Swiss chocolate industry became one of the greatest in Europe. In 2011, 176,332 tonnes of chocolate was produced, of which 60.7% was sold abroad. The quality of Swiss milk chocolate needs no better advertizing than the fact that with its average per-capita chocolate consumption of 11.9 kg, Switzerland tops the global leader board.

Swiss pharmaceuticals

The origins of the pharmaceutical industry can be traced back to chemical industries in the upper Rhine Valley of Switzerland. One of the pioneers was Johann Rudolf Geigy-Gemuseus, who began trading in 1758 in “materials, chemicals, dyes and drugs of all kinds” in Basel. Like many other industries in the region, Geigy was producing dyestuffs. When dyestuffs were found to have antiseptic properties in the late 19th century, a number of these industries turned into pharmaceutical industries as well.

The unregulated nature of medicines during this period meant that there was a far less rigid distinction between the “pharmaceutical” and “chemical” industries than nowadays. Companies around the world focused as much on insecticides, toothpaste, citric acid for soft drinks, and hair gel as on medicines. Pharmaceutical and chemical functions fit well under the same roof: Giegy introduced its first major pharmaceutical product, the anti-rheumatic Butazolidin, just a year after its researcher received the Nobel Prize for discovering the effectiveness of DDT as an insecticide for malaria-spreading bugs.

Even if pharmaceuticals have a long history in Switzerland, a small domestic market and the lack of chemical raw materials induced a focus on the production and world-wide marketing of specialized chemicals and pharmaceuticals with high added value, so it should come as no surprise that Switzerland is at the forefront of R&D. Two of Switzerland’s biggest pharmaceutical firms, Roche and Novartis (created in 1996 from the merger of the Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz Laboratories), along with the universities of Basel and Zurich and ETHZ, are backing a network to coordinate Swiss research and education in the field. Research and development for new products being the lifeblood of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, expenditures on this field is permanently funded by today’s income. As a result, in 2011 the top 10 pharmaceutical companies’ sales exceeded CHF 146 billion, or 80% of Greece’s entire GDP.

Krisztián Kummer

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