I wrote this for r/travel but thought it might be of some use or interest here. Though I imagine many users on here know far more than me.
I wonder if some of the things might tread on a few toes here, but is meant in good spirit or at least as tongue-in-cheek.
Having lived in Switzerland for a few years and owning everything Swiss but a watch (Army Knife, Aromat, Swiss Pass, Fondue caquelon, Raclette grill….), I decided to get one before they kicked me out for failing to integrate.
I moved here knowing next to nothing about watches beyond a few obvious brand names (I had to google what Breitling was because I saw their fancy building in Grenchen so often). Wanting to get something nice without paying too much I decided to do my homework on the matter. As I tend to do I then got rather too involved and came out the other side knowing far too much. So here is what I learned going from idiot to a state somewhere between liking watches and wondering how people spend so much money on things.
Plenty of good watches are made elsewhere but the association with Switzerland really sticks in the popular mindset.
The whole watchmaking history gets a little over romanticised. It seems that the Swiss golden-age was only really for 20-30 years between WW2 and the Quartz Crisis. Before WW1 whilst they did produce some very good work there were also other high quality industries in England and the USA amongst others, indeed it seems the Swiss were mass producers of poor quality watches too like the China of the time. See this article for a more indept version. I am sure there is plenty of room to argue over this, but that seems to be the general gist.
In any case the image and association has certainly stuck and the watch companies market hard and do everything possible to push watches on you. As soon as you enter the country there are adverts everywhere at the airport. Geneva airport especially feels like a giant watch shop/advert. At major sites like Grindelwald First and Glacier 3000 you can do free platform walks sponsored by Tissot, likewise most cable car stations double as ugly high-altitude billboards.
You will never be short of a chance to buy a watch (or chocolate, or an Army Knife). Every tourist shop sells at least a Swatch, watchshops/jewelers are everywhere, you can even buy watches in Jungfraujoch at 3446m.
The extent to which people take buying a watch whilst visiting here is often a little crazy. I once took the train from St Moritz to Chur sitting near to a group of American tourists who spent the whole trip, passing through stunning mountain landscapes, staring at their phones deciding which watch to buy in duty-free at Zürich airport.
One side point is that Cuckoo Clocks are not Swiss in origin. They come from just over the German border in the Black Forest. But Swiss tourist shops often have a wall full of them and will very happily sell you a Cuckoo Clock with a Swiss flag on it.
What exactly is Swiss made
Swiss Made doesn’t have to mean that every bit of work was done in Switzerland.
From 2017 the requirements have been tightened up, so that most of the cost of the movement should come from Switzerland, the movement should be made in Switzerland, the watch should be put together in Switzerland, and the watch should be quality tested in Switzerland.
Previously it was something like 60% of the cost must be generated in Switzerland rule meaning quite a bit of the work could be done in China.
Choosing a brand / watch
This probably depends quite a bit on whether you just want something pretty that says Swiss Made on it and tells the time, or if you want something with a fancy movement or deeper meaning to you.
If you are planning to buy one on a visit it is probably worth doing some research beforehand to have a good idea of what is what and to have things narrowed down.
The world of watches goes as deep as your interest (and pockets). Price means quality up until a point, after which price often means gaudy designs and sparkly stones. There are vast amounts of horrifically expensive watches that I would not pay 5CHF to wear myself.
You kind of need a mentality of something practical vs a piece of engineered artwork. It is insane that someone would spend 1millionCHF or more on a small object that tells the time less accurately than a 10CHF casio, but it is far more insane that someone would pay 2.5million for a soiled bed that any student could produce (which in comparison makes the million CHF watch look like rather good value).
The actual list of Swiss brands is pretty long long and is something over 200, ranging from mass produced plastic+quartz down to several places that make only a small number of units (most of which sell for more than a house).
A major part of my motivation and interest was finding brands that are made, or were at least founded, close to where I live. The end result is that I now have a mini collection: an automatic Oris (independent and less than 40km away) Artelier [01 733 7721 4051-07 5 21 64FC] dress for office and fancy occasions, a quartz Certina (founded in the city next to me) DS-1 diver Chronograph [C014417] for everyday and light sports, and a quartz Swiss Military by Chrono AG (family business less than 2km away) Chronograph [SM34015.06] for any sports and unimportant situations. Obviously most visitors won’t have this connection, and won’t be going to any of the watch making areas either.
r/watches has a quite a bit of info and advice. Though their frontpage tends to be so full of Omega, Rolex and other high price watches that you quickly start to get paranoid that you are doing something wrong in life to not be so rich or have your parents gift you one for seemingly every life event (and also wonder how many years of travel each of those is worth).
The Swatch group dominates and covers everything from 50CHF Swatch to 200,000CHF plus high end. It is composed of: Swatch, ETA SA, Flick Flak, Breuget, Harry Winston, Blancpain, Glashütte Original, Omega, Longines, Rado, Union Glashütte, Tissot, CK Watches, Certina, Mido, and Hamilton (and maybe a few others too). They sort of work around the method that ETA make movements, then the other companies do the aesthetics on the case them and market them.
Some of the most common brands in the 50 – 500CHF price range are:
Swatch is the default cheap option that is everywhere. Cheap quartz watches basically saved the Swiss watch industry. Swatch do the whacky colourful plastic watches aimed at teens that sell you something like life experience. They also do some much more serious looking and better constructed watches. Flick Flak is Swatch for little kids.
Jowissa is basically a Swatch clone. Another common sight in tourist shops.
Tissot are essentially the default choice for most people for anything fancier than a Swatch. They are the lower-mid price range option that look quite nice and are literally everywhere. Tissot also seems to have one of the biggest marketing budgets and it is often hard to go for long without seeing their name plastered on something in Switzerland.
Certina is in the same range as Tissot and generally well regarded, if rather less well known outside of Switzerland/Europe and severely lacking in marketing money compared to Tissot.
Victorinox is a recognisable name to go with the Swiss Army knife from the same maker (they do of course sell fancy boxes with a pen and a knife). Seen as being durable and generally good quality. They now own the similar knife/watch company Wenger (meaning all Swiss Army knives now come from the one company).
Swiss Military. No single company makes these as the name isn’t protected. So you get “Swiss Military by Buren”, “Swiss Military by Chrono”, “Swiss Military by Hanowa”, and “Swiss Military by Wenger”. All of them seem to very prominently have a big red advertising sign saying they are “official licensed products of the Swiss confederation”, I presume this is to try and make it sound similar to the Army Knife or like they are used by the actual military – however as far as I know there is no official watch that is given out by, or required by the actual Swiss Army.
There are a number of fashion brands like Fossil that are cheap and have the Swiss Made label. But tend to be seen more as overpriced fashion statement for what you actually get.
Mondaine are less common but interesting for their SBB train watches. The stop2go even replicates the 2 second pause movement of the SBB clocks. Not something I would ever wear in Switzerland, but if I leave for another country I will certainly get one.
After these brands the price jumps up to the next stage and from about 750CHF and upwards you start to get your get your Oris, Rado, Tag Heuer, Longines and other slightly fancier brands.
If you are reading this because you don’t know any better then you probably shouldn’t worry about anything beyond these. At least not without reading any further.
Though if you have a million+ CHF spare then I reckon Greubel Forsey would be a good option.
Where to buy one
Generally it is never problem to find somewhere to sell your a watch. Anywhere touristy is going to have more watchshops than bakeries. Places like Grendelstrasse in Luzern are just watchshop after watchshop offering literally everything from 50CHF Swatch to a 100,000CHF diamond studded Rolex…..
Most standard souvenir shops will sell Swatch, Jowissa, Swiss military or Victorinox and maybe something nicer like Tissot. If you want anything over 100CHF you are probably better off going to a more proper store, or (and especially if you are really serious) a jewelers or watchmaker. English is unlikely to be a problem at a watchshop in a touristy area – many of the shops in places like Luzern are staffed by Asians to help sell to tourists.
To get an idea for prices in the reasonable price range you can check out the websites for the department store Manor or the jewelers Christ. Though they don’t do English as a language option so you may learn some German or French words along the way.
Or if you have more brass than sense, check out Gübelin, or Les Ambassadeurs.
What to be aware of
The Swiss Watch Federation website covers some of these points.
How the watch is powered is probably the main point:
Quartz. Cheap, easy and virtually worry free. They can look as good as any mechanical watch for a much lower price, and surprisingly are much more accurate than most mechanical watches. Accuracy is something like a 10 seconds off per month. Visually the only flaw is that due to the way quartz works the second hand jumps rather than smoothly flowing like with mechanical watches. The battery will need to be replaced every 3-5 years.
Automatic – Purely mechanical with no electronics. Winds itself up from your wrist movement. Will be something like – 5 to + 20 seconds off per day. You are looking at 300CHF plus for these.
Mechanical – Purely mechanical with no electronics. Needs to be manually wound every few days. Generally the most expensive option (think minimum in the 1000s). Will be something like – 5 to + 20 seconds off per day.
Relating to the way it is powered is the Movement – ie: the way the watch moves inside. This varys in design and quality. Totally unimportant to most people so long as the watch is accurate enough.
The transparent front of the watch can be made of Acrylic, mineral glass, or Sapphire glass. Each being more scratch resistant than the last.
Chronometer – means it is more accurate than standard.
Complications – anything beyond telling the time. At reasonable prices you have simple things like the date, day and/or a stopwatch. On the higher end you can have moon phases, an entire star map, or a calendar that will be accurate for the next 600 years purely based on mechanical workings (the sort of stuff your smart-phone can do for a fraction of the price). You can have a toubellin – a spinny thing which is meant to counter the distorting effects of gravity – which looks pretty but might not actually add anything beyond a heavy price increase. Basically it enters the realm of how much you are prepared to pay for the privilege of something complex and mechanical for the sake of it being complex and mechanical.
Chronograph – Basically a stopwatch. One thing to be aware of is there are a few variations, most common are short (30 mins) or long (12 hrs) versions. The 12 hr version is more complex so is less common and typically more expensive. 60 minute ones exist but it may be hard to tell exactly how
You should also be aware of the cost and cleaning/checks after 4-5 years. Depending on the model, age and any problems this can be expensive. For cheaper automatics it might make more sense to just replace them.
Visiting watchmaking places
The main watch making towns are generally industrial cities and not the prettiest places (granted I would take any of them over Slough). But they are at least small towns either at the feet of, or in, the Jura mountains. There are also a number of factories scattered around in tiny villages.
I really love the Jura: it is a very beautiful region that (unsurprisingly) gets somewhat overshadowed by the Alps. Though often the buildings in villages have a much more harsh and minimalist look to them compared to the intricate wooden designs in the Berner Oberland or painted stone in Graübunden.
You have to be an obsessive watch-enthusiast or live in the area to have visited all these places. I am very much the later (I had to look up what a number of the companies were because I kept seeing the buildings).
Most watch production sites are not visitor friendly. Typically they are modern metal and tinted glass cubes with a fence situated so far back from the actual building that the empty ground seems to deliver some unspoken threat. Some companies have museums like IWC in Schaffhausen, Omega in Biel, or Philip Patek in Geneva.
In Switzerland a city is a settlement with more than 10,000 inhabitants, so not a very high bar.
Grenchen. The only fully German watchmaking city. Having grown from a small village to an industrial city in the last 100 years (and especially in the 1950s) it It is a stronger contender for the “most boring place in Switzerland” award. It does have some good hiking and biking around Grenchenberg in the Jura above the town at least.
The very pretty city of Solothurn has Mondaine (train watches) and Chrono AG (Swiss Military), though for the most part the watch industry isn’t really a thing there. Visit it anyway because it is very nice.
Biel with the Tissot sponsored stadium and giant Rolex signs everywhere is the biggest watchmaking city. It does have a pleasant (if rather small and quiet) old-town hidden away and it is next to lake Biel which has some nice wine producing villages along it. Biel also has the distinction of being the only truly bilingual town in Switzerland, so you get German and French adverts side by side which is about as exciting as Biel gets from the point of view of a tourist really.
Neuchâtel was a watchmaking city, though most of that has now left. It does however have a very pretty oldtown by a lake and is a lovely place to spend a few hours. The observatory there hosted watch chronometer accuracy competitions before electronic clocks appeared. The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire there is home to the Jaquet-Droz automata which were some early watch related mechanical figures.
St Imier in the valley climbing from Biel to La Chaux-de-fonds has a variety of watch factories scattered around it. The funicular to Mont-Soleil offers some easy access to the high Jura. They valley is also home to Ragusa chocolate, my Swiss chocolate of choice.
La Chaux-de-fonds. A UNESCO world heritage site. It burned down and was rebuilt with the mentality of being suited to industrial production. The result is kind of odd, it is sort of charming in its own strange way. It doesn’t have heavy industry, it isn’t very big (you can walk 30 mins and be in the wooded Jura mountains), and there is enough effort put into the appearance to make sort of attractive in a harsh way. It feels like how a Soviet workers city would have ended up in a more perfect world. It is mostly notable for being the only place in Switzerland with a proper grid pattern for the streets which contributes toward the strange feeling. There is the Musée international d’horlogerie, which is a mix of nice design and horrific concrete, which took me about an hour before everything blended into the same thing (if you really love watches it could take you all day). The 15CHF covered an audioguide and also entry to the art and history museums there too. This giant painting of the naked Greek god Chrono attacking a Swiss watchmaker was my highlight of the day.
Le Locle. A tiny “city” with a vast number of companies based here. The city is in some beautiful countryside and next to the impressive gorge on the river Doub by the French border. Though Le Locle itself is rather lacking in charm. There is a museum](http://www.mhl-monts.ch/en/), though after getting bored of endless watches in the La Chaux-de-fonds museum I did not bother going there.
The train ride between La Chaux-de-fonds and Le Locle is rather surreal. Rural wooded mountains of the Jura but dotted with brash modern factories producing luxury watches.
Val de Joux A valley dominated by the Lac de Joux. The lake and caves at Vallorbe are the things to see there.
Geneva. The watch making industry started here but has almost all moved up into the Jura now, or are in the Plan-les-Ouates on the outskirts. Not a big fan of Geneva myself.
There are other producers spread over the country like IWC in Schaffhausen.