Women in the history of watchmaking
Watchmaking has always been a men's world. Once reserved for the elite, watches were a symbol of wealth, education and membership of a higher social class. In addition, the watchmaking profession has always been the domain of men.
And, above all, as men were in charge, very few women wore such a precious and delicate object on their dainty wrists. Those who did were assumed to have been given them by their husband or father.
In this article we're going to see how, despite male dominance, women have played a role in the history of watchmaking. We'll also see how today, more and more women are taking control of watch companies in Switzerland, and finally, we'll talk about changing mentalities and the evolution of the concept of a women's watch.
Two female watch enthusiasts
Two women in particular left their mark on the history of watchmaking: Marie-Antoinette of Austria, the wife of Louis XVI, and Caroline Murat, the younger sister of Napoleon and queen of Naples.
Queen Marie-Antoinette of France had a real, dedicated passion for watches. Always on the lookout for novelty, she fell under the spell of creations that were as ingenious as they were splendid, the work of a young master watchmaker, Abraham-Louis Breguet. The queen played a decisive role in his career, promoting his work to the royal court and to her foreign guests.
As for Caroline Murat, she had a real appreciation for fine watchmaking. Her passion was such that between 1805 and 1814, she bought no less than 34 watches from a large watchmaking house. What's more, she allegedly ordered the first ever wrist watch in 1810. A real revolution for the era!
From Italian workers to female leaders
Until 1785, watchmaking was a forbidden field for women in France and England. In Switzerland, on the other hand, women were able to join the ranks of master watchmakers as early as 1690, with precision roles like manufacturing fusee chains or finishing screws, hands and hinges. In 1843, the city of Geneva established the first watchmaking school for young girls, while other countries followed suit much later, in 1910. Since 1920, there have been as many women as men in Swiss watchmaking factories (source).
Did you know that the Swiss watchmaking sector owes its reputation in part to female Italian migrant workers? From the end of the 1950s, Swiss manufacturers called on the services of Italian workers in order to remain competitive. This cheap, unqualified work force contributed to the modernization of production methods through their work on the assembly lines, in which the local workers showed no interest.
It was the only way for the sector to continue developing in the face of the strong growth of international competition.
Ever since, women have been present at all levels of the industry, even if they remain largely under-represented in management positions. According to the 2018 census of workers and companies in the Swiss watchmaking and micro-technology industries, undertaken by the Employers' Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, 44.2% of the sector were women, 1.2% of whom held management positions. Incidentally, Switzerland has only 6.7% female managers, while the international average rises to 9%. So the watchmaking sector is no exception.
Nevertheless, mentalities do change, and it's clear that female representation in the world of watchmaking is slowly but surely on the rise. Today, more and more women hold the top jobs in watchmaking houses, which seemed improbable just a few years ago.
Female heirs, daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters of the founder are now taking over big Swiss institutions in the sector. Others have patiently climbed the ladder to eventually reach the position of CEO, and finally, more and more women are creating their own watch brands.
The arrival of women at the head of large watchmaking houses, as well as the collaboration of certain brands with female stylists (like Doo.Ri and Piaget in 2007) has brought about a change in the conception and design of women's watches.
The evolution of mentalities
For a long time, women's watches were simply modeled on men's models. Simple copies with smaller dials and straps, sprinkled with precious gems and diamonds.
In her article "Women and watchmaking, a topical question", published in the FHH journal on October 12, 2017, Roberta Naas stated that "Complex watches have become a new interest for women, who, by the way, buy their own watches." The time of men buying watches for their women is over. According to the journalist, this is why women's models have evolved, going from pale imitations of men's models to a completely separate concept.
Gone now are the superficial floral and butterfly designs, with women taking more interest in the mechanism and useful functions like calendars, chronographs, alarms, etc. To attract women, a watch must be both contemporary and classic, and combine functionality and esthetics.
While watchmaking has always been and remains a resolutely male world, women have had a strong background influence, as we showed with queen Marie-Antoinette and Caroline Murat, both watch enthusiasts.
Little by little, the representation of women in the work force has risen since the opening of the first watchmaking school for young girls in Geneva in 1843, and the appeal to female Italian migrant workers at the end of the 1950s. And today we can see more and more female creators, or heads of large Swiss watch houses.
And yet, even if mentalities are changing and improvements appearing, the sector still seems to revolve strongly around fairly old and outdated models, which are out of step with modern society.
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