Mechanical Watchmaking Was Just Made a Part of UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage List

Ville de La Chaux-de-Fonds, 2015/Courtesy UNESCO

Switzerland and France submitted a joined application in 2019 in order to recognize both countries’ watchmaking tradition. 

While the earliest mention of the technology behind mechanical watches appears in 13th century England, the first examples of timepieces using that technology date back to the beginning of the 16th century when a German locksmith, Peter Henlein, invented the world’s first pocket-size watch (surprisingly enough, the watch still works). Of course, a lot has changed since then but one thing has remained a constant in the fascinating world of watchmaking—the craftsmanship, dedication, and talent it takes to create a mechanical time taking mechanism.

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So it should probably come as no surprise that UNESCO just added “the craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics” to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” after Switzerland and France submitted a joint application in 2019.

“At the crossroads of science, art and technology, the skills related to the craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics are used to create watchmaking objects designed to measure and indicate time (watches, pendulum clocks, clocks, and chronometers), art automata and mechanical androids, sculptures and animated paintings, music boxes and songbirds,” UNESCO said in a press release.

The organization mentions specifically the Jura Arc region in Switzerland, also known as the Watch Valley, where many of the world’s luxury brands such as Patek Philippe, Rolex, Ulysse-Nardin, and Girard-Perregaux manufacture their timepieces.

UNESCO also acknowledges that together with the economic benefits that mechanical watchmaking provides, “the skills have also shaped the architecture, urban landscape and everyday social reality of the regions concerned.”

“The practice conveys many values such as good workmanship, punctuality, perseverance, creativity, dexterity, and patience, and the infinite quest for precision and the intangible aspect of time measurement give the practice a strong philosophical dimension,” the press release states.

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While 2020 has been a challenging year for the watchmaking industry, in 2019 Swiss watch exports were worth about $24.5 billion. Mechanical watches also continue to rise in popularity at auctions setting world record after world record.

"In this high-tech, digital era, where so many products we buy become obsolete within a few short years, mechanical watches will keep on ticking, telling us time for an eternity so long as they are not abused and are taken care of,” said Paul Boutros, head of watches for the Americas at Phillips, one of the world’s leading auction houses. “UNESCO’s validation of mechanical watchmaking’s importance to human culture will, without a doubt, shine a light on its greatness, and help to ensure this craft continues to thrive for generations to come.”