The connection between Swiss luxury watches and anarchism
Background information

The connection between Swiss luxury watches and anarchism

Carolin Teufelberger
Zurich, on 13.04.2021
Translation: Octavia Hurst
Expensive watches represent luxury, status and wealth. Hardly anyone would associate them with the proletariat or even anarchism. But central forces pushing the ruleless ideology were Jura watchmakers.

Currently everything is revolving around luxury watches in Geneva. At «Watch and Wonders», 38 prestigious brands are presenting their latest status symbols, even though I haven’t quite figured out the wonders part of it yet. Information and a space for discussion are offered via panels. It’s about Corona, new materials and blockchain. What isn’t being talked about? Anarchism.

Clockwork anarchists

Some watchmakers are very closely associated with anarchism in Switzerland. For example, there is Longines with the oldest registered watch brand in the world or «TAG Heuer», represented at the fair this year. Both were founded in the canton of Jura. More precisely, in St. Imier, which is still a watchmaking village today. But it’s also a central place in the history of anarchism, which is strongly tied to the watch industry.

It all started – as so often – with the industrialisation and advancing globalisation. Or rather, on the verge of it. The small village of St. Imier in the Canton of Jura saw itself changing from an agricultural settlement into an industrial town. At the beginning of the 18th century, the craft of watchmaking developed in the valley. Specialists – such as Graveure, Régleure and Guillocheure – assembled parts of a watch at home or in small workshops and delivered their constructed pieces to bigger companies. This etablissage system (article in German) resulted in a huge increase in production, compared to finishing every step of the process in one place. While 130,000 watches were manufactured in St. Imier in 1810, the number had risen to 264,572 by 1846.

The Longines manufactory at river Schüss.
The Longines manufactory at river Schüss.

Even with the arrival of factories in the valley, working at home remained an important part of watch production for the time being. In 1866, Ernest Francillon bought two adjacent plots of land on the banks of the river Schüss, commonly known as «Les Longines» – the long meadows. A year later, he built the first manufactory and adopted the site’s name for his company. «Longines» was born.

Poor working conditions

In the second half of the 19th century, the valley of St. Imier was connected to the global transportation and communication network. Inventions such as the rotary press, the railroad and the telegraph accelerated this development. Production was mechanised and work in the factories became increasingly centralised. With these innovations and advancing industrialisation, working conditions deteriorated worldwide. Long days, low wages, child labour and arbitrary employers were standard. The first «Black Friday», a fatal day for the economy, made the situation even worse in 1866. The bankruptcy of the London discount house Overend, Gurney and Co. led to a worldwide financial crisis, resulting in further insolvencies, unemployment and an increase in poverty in St. Imier.

A rapid globalisation, brought about by the industrialisation, made it easier for ideologies to spread and for like-minded people to connect. While the Longines manufactory opened up in St. Imier, the first sectors of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) were founded in Sonvilier. The movement’s goal was the unification and emancipation of workers and is considered an early type of labour union. In the Jura, it was mainly workers in the watchmaking industry who joined forces with the anti-authoritarian ideas to change their predicament.

Marxism against anarchism

These anti-authoritarian tendencies of the sections in Jura were contested within the IWA. The sections and members within followed very different socialist ideologies. While mutualism, i.e. mutual economic support among workers, had long set the tone, collectivist anarchism, coined by Mikhail Bakunin, became the strongest tendency in 1869. Bakunin believed in a ruleless order and a direct abolition of the state and campaigned for this worldwide through revolutionary uprisings. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of the «Communist Manifesto» and leading members of the IWA understood this movement as a personal affront. They wanted a «dictate of the working class» and believed that labourers had to take over state power before a classless society could form. At the 1871 London Conference, they petitioned for several rulings that opposed the anti-authoritarian tendencies.

Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, russian anarchist.
Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, russian anarchist.

After the section in Jura heard of those rulings against them, they held a congress in Sonvilier and decided to found the Jura Federation (article in German), which mainly consisted of watchmakers from Western Switzerland. James Guillaume, son of a watchmaker and editor of the first Swiss anarchist newspaper, wrote the new bylaws. This founding gave birth to what is now considered the guiding principle of anarchism: «The destruction of all political power is the supreme task of the proletariat.»

no information available about this image

These ideological disagreements within the Workingmen’s Association culminated in the dispute between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin at the The Hague Congress in 1872. It ended with Bakunin and Guillaume being thrown out of the IWA and then putting their energy into the Jura Federation, where their anarchist ideas were welcomed with open arms. Other participants of the The Hague Congress also travelled to St. Imier, where they organised a counter-congress. It was here that the «Anarchist St.Imier International» was founded, in which all international anti-authoritarian sections united. For years, the Jura remained the centre of anarchy.

Autonomy in all areas of life

The Jura Federation tried to shape a counter movement for everything bourgeois. They created an anarchist consumer and production cooperative, and even their own health insurance, in which women already had voting rights. At the end of 1873, the spiritual mentor of the movement, Bakunin who by now was seriously ill, withdrew from the anarchist group and left the Jura Federation, believing that he could do nothing more for it. In 1878 James Guillaume relocated to Paris and other active members also moved away. This was partly due to the second great economic crisis, the Panic of 1873, beginning with the stock exchange crashing in Vienna, triggered primarily by industrial overproduction and speculation in the newly emerged stocks. All over Europe people emigrated in search of work.

Back to socialism

Not only the framework, also the orientation of the Jura Federation changed. During a congress in Bern in 1876, a new anarchist strategy was launched: the propaganda of the deed. Anarchist ideas and demands should spread through assassinations and riots. The new violence-approving mindset no longer suited the Jura watchmakers. In 1880, the Jura Federation held its last congress in Belgium and then disappeared. In the same year, the Social Democratic Party, the predecessor of today’s SP, formed and found support in the Jura.

no information available about this image

Life after the Jura Federation wasn’t better for watchmakers. In the US, standardisation of individual parts made it possible to mass-produce watches in the mid-19th century, which drove down the prices. Manual labour in Switzerland couldn’t compete, and the watch industry almost died out. The path taken towards mechanised production was further accelerated. Mass production arrived in the Jura and with it hundreds of unskilled workers, especially women, satisfied with less pay than their male counterparts. Working conditions increasingly deteriorated. Between 1884 and 1914, watch workers organised 193 strikes (article in German) to fight for better conditions.

The «Watch and Wonders» ends today, after ten days of pure capitalism. Even if nothings left of the anarchist and socialist beginnings of the watch industry at the «Watch and Wonders», they’re very much still present in St. Imier. Not far from the Longines factory, still on the banks of the Schüss, is the cultural centre «Espace Noir», founded in 1984, which represents the anarchist ideas of the watchmakers to some extent until now.

64 people like this article


Carolin Teufelberger
Carolin Teufelberger
Editor, Zurich
My life in a nutshell? On a quest to broaden my horizon. I love discovering and learning new skills and I see a chance to experience something new in everything – be it travelling, reading, cooking, movies or DIY.

These articles might also interest you