LONDON — Counterfeiting is a persistent problem in the world of haute horlogerie: Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, estimates that the organization destroys about a million counterfeit watches every year.
But even as the 21st-century Swiss watch industry continues to wrestle with the problem, new research suggests it was 18th-century Swiss watchmakers who created the first mass-produced counterfeits.
Rebecca Struthers, 31, a horologist and researcher, focused on the early fakes in her work on the doctorate in horology she received in May from Birmingham City University in England, a degree the university says is the first of its kind in Britain. She is also a founding director of Struthers London, the bespoke watchmaking studio she runs with her husband, Craig.
The timepiece, made around 1760, was identified as made in London — but looked nothing like the London watches that she knew from the era. During the 1700s, London was home to the world’s most famous watchmakers, and watches made in the city commanded a premium.
“The watch immediately struck me as being comparatively low-quality for a watch signed as being made in London,” she said. “The metals were very thin, the decorative detail in the engraving and piercing was more haphazard.”
She did some research on John Wilter, the maker’s name on the watch. “It soon emerged that the watch in front of me was something referred to in the trade as a ‘Dutch forgery,’ ” Ms. Struthers said, “with no evidence to support Wilter ever even existed as a real person, let alone a real watchmaker.”
In her research, Ms. Struthers examined the components of 50 watches identified as London made — many of which are part of the British Museum’s watch collection. She eventually learned that a few factories along the Swiss-French border, many in towns and cities still home to prestigious brands today, were responsible for creating large numbers of counterfeits using various pseudonyms for the watchmakers.
A network of Dutch merchants provided the financial backing and handled sales and distribution, she said.
The counterfeiting was a large-scale operation, and sets the date of the first mass production of watches back by almost a century, she said.
“Before my research, the U.S.A. had been credited with being the first to mass-manufacture watches,” she said, adding that the fakes she studied “emerged long before the U.S.A. became a force in the global watch industry and at a time when England was home to the only industry capable of creating watches on any real scale.”
In 1796, Goldsmiths’ Hall, an assay office and headquarters of London’s goldsmiths’ guild, officially hallmarked more than 190,000 watch cases made of precious metals. In contrast, Ms. Struthers estimated that a single manufacturing site in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, produced more than 40,000 watches in 1793.
“This dwarfs the production of even the most successful London maker at that time,” she said.
The entrepreneurial manufacturers created a fledgling mass-production line, called an établissage system, so watches could be assembled quickly under one roof to greatly improve production capacity dramatically and reduce prices.
It was hugely successful, Ms. Struthers said — the artisanal nature of the London industry simply could not keep pace with the industrializing Swiss.
After the Napoleonic wars, when England was in an extreme financial depression, the very cheapest London-made silver watch cost around 1,300 pounds ($1,700) in modern money, Ms. Struthers said. By comparison, the average watch from the Continent cost about 30 percent less.
“For the first time, London makers had serious competition from the Continent,” she said. “This, combined with the economic recession, signaled the start of the demise of the British watch industry,” which has begun to recover some of its former status only in the last few decades.
Ms. Struthers is scheduled to present her thesis to the Horological Society of New York on Oct. 2 and at the University of Birmingham in Britain on Oct. 5.
Research into this area of watch history is “virtually untrodden territory” said Ms. Struthers, adding that she hopes her thesis will be the first of many in horology.
“The watch industry suffers from being incredibly commercial in the 21st century, meaning it is rarely taken seriously as an academic subject,” she added. “To me, the watch represents the first access humankind had to accurate time measurement. The impact this had on the development of our society through advances in transport, trade and even our everyday working lives cannot be overlooked.”