The peculiar feature of Swiss industry as a whole is its almost complete decentralization. There are less than a dozen factories in the whole country employing more than 2500 hands. Basle may be noted for its chemicals, pharmaceuticals and dyestuffs; Winterthur, Baden and Zurich for `the big machines’; St Gallen and several other centres for textiles; and the Bernese Jura for the famous Swiss watches and the robot machines that turn out the hundreds of tiny parts which miraculously, as in a trick-film, assemble themselves into a wrist-watch; but all this is apt to be misleading.
For lack of raw materials, watchmaking is the only mass-production industry in Switzerland. All in all, it comprises some 2800 factories employing 70,000 people and turning out a total (1959) of around 38,500,000 watches. 97 per cent of this output is exported; in 1959 its value totalled some 1,125,000,000 Swiss francs (over £93,000,000). And though the watchmaking industry as such has grown up organically in certain definite areas, there are only sixty factories that can claim to possess facilities for producing a complete watch, from A to Z, under their own roof. Making the cases is one job, making the dials another; then there are the mainsprings and hairsprings, the little wheels or pinions, the glasses (called crystals in the trade), the jewels (piercing these with thousandthof-a-millimetre accuracy to bear the shafts is an additional process), to say nothing of the screws (three thousand to the thimbleful), the hands, the accurately stamped and drilled side-plates to hold the lot together. And so it goes on. . . .
Most Swiss watches, even some of the most famous makes, are the products of a score of manufacturers of ‘bits and pieces’—the so-called décolletage (precision machining) industry, which is spread far and wide.
Now, the accuracy of the product of any automatic machine, whether it be a pinion, a screw or a platen, is no better than that of the machine itself. This means that these machines must be made to the same rigorous tolerances by yet other machines which, in their turn . . . etc.
On top of this comes the craftsmanship of the assemblers, juggling with microscopic bits and pieces which only become identifiable under a magnifying glass. And behind the scenes are the engineers, who worry about new selfwinding and calendar mechanisms, and—in the backmost rooms—the fashion artists who design new models and stylings with a flair equalled only in the Parisian haute couture. All in all, a most intricate and ramified business.
But the Swiss precision industry does not end with watchmaking. To see it in its entirety one has to explore the backwoods. There is hardly a village in the country without its ‘local industry’, generally a small but modern factory tucked away behind the tidy manure-heaps and cosy inns that make up the main street frontage. The stranger, oblivious, drives through on his way to St Moritz or Lugano; the visitor in the trade with an appointment turns off and looks for a trim little factory whose products are a household word all over the globe in one particular, highly specialized and, often, abstrusely technical field.
If, for instance, you are interested in the fastest, most efficient ribbon-weaving looms in the world, you will find them in the outskirts of Paris, just a half-hour drive from your Paris apartment; if you want a balance that can weigh specks of dust—or, by remote control, radio-active infinitesimals —stop at the village of Stafa, a short ride from your bed and breakfast London, where today half the world’s requirements of micro-balances are produced. Sir Winston Churchill has bought his oil-paints since the war (his consumption, I regret to say, is negligible nowadays) from a small family factory in the Swiss village of Urdorf. The first time he tried them out he was so delighted that he exclaimed: `I want to meet the man who made these paints and shake him by the hand!’ And he did. In fact, the two of them became firm friends.