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Anarchists and watchmakers

April 2023

Anarchists and watchmakers

Two recent events - Florian Eitel’s extensively researched publication, Le Vallon horloger et ses anarchistes, and Cyril Schäublin’s film Unrueh (Unrest) - are a reminder of the profound connection that existed between watchmaking and anarchism. This fascinating story unfolds in the late nineteenth century, during the “first globalisation”, in Saint-Imier – the headquarters of Longines since 1832 – and nearby Sonvilier.


Swiss town of five to six thousand inhabitants, located partway between Biel and La Chaux-de-Fonds and the site of an expanding watch industry, is an unlikely location for a major international anarchist congress. Yet the Congress of Saint-Imier of 1872 - attended by delegates from the surrounding Jura region and worldwide, including from Italy, Spain, France and Russia - would be a founding event for the international anarchist movement. The resolutions adopted there made Saint-Imier a “codename” for anarchists the world over. But why Saint-Imier?

As the historian Florian Eitel explains, the valley below Saint-Imier (the Vallon de Saint-Imier) “was a summit in translocal anarchist networks which, after the final rift between Marx and Bakunin, were intent on spreading their libertarian ideas around the world by founding their own International.”

The first anarchist circles formed in Saint-Imier and elsewhere in the valley, in particular Sonvilier, from 1865. In 1866 a group composed mainly of watchmakers established two sections of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), better known as the First International, founded in England in 1864 under Karl Marx. It wouldn’t be long before two opposing tendencies emerged: a centralising and hierarchised communist faction and a decentralised, non-hierarchised, transnational anarchist faction. The valley’s watchmakers would play a central role in this rupture between the two socialist currents. Not to say a decisive one with the Sonvilier Circular.

A year before the Congress of Saint-Imier, in 1871, the Sonvilier section addressed a circular to all the IWA federations that was harshly critical of the International’s general council. These militants protested against the concentration of power in the hands of a few and asserted their complete autonomy. Without naming him, the target of this criticism was Marx himself. The Sonvilier anarchists were the first who dared “shake the throne on which Karl Marx felt safely ensconced,” as Florian Eitel writes. Their “anarchist” reputation was cemented the world over. The circular’s signatories were, almost without exception, workers and artisans employed in watchmaking – not only watchmakers but others such as engravers, assemblers and case-makers.

The établissage system

The inhabitants of the Jura valleys have a deep-rooted reputation for autonomy and independence. In 1758, while living in exile in Môtiers, Val-de-Travers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau professed his admiration for the Montagnons (his name for the populations of the high valleys), “these singular men” in whom he perceived “an astonishing combination of refinement and simplicity that one would believe to be almost incompatible and which can be seen nowhere else… This is why each peasant is also his own artisan: never did Carpenter, Locksmith, Glazier or Turner enter this land; each is everything for himself, no-one is anything for another... They employ the leisure that tillage leaves them to make myriad artefacts with their hands.”

The carefully cultivated “myth”, as Florian Eitel calls it, of Daniel JeanRichard (1665-1741), the humble blacksmith’s son credited as the “founding father of watchmaking in the Swiss Jura”, lends further credence to this image of manual intelligence and independence. It illustrated how anyone could pull themselves up by the bootstraps and reinforced the belief that an individual of peasant stock could become part of the “labour aristocracy”.

Longines postcard. Daniel JeanRichard's myth. Musée de Saint-Imier.
Longines postcard. Daniel JeanRichard’s myth. Musée de Saint-Imier.

Watchmaking came to the Saint-Imier valley, for the most part a farming community, in the early eighteenth century and gradually took hold as a system of établissage. Production was by independent artisans working from home. The établisseur supplied the raw materials, organised production and distributed the finished products. He paid the artisan-entrepreneurs to make, assemble and decorate the watch’s components and dial. Some, having previously worked out of their homes, grouped together in specialised workshops. Little by little, entire villages became known for a particular type of production (a system that gave rise, in the Jura, to the present-day fabric of specialised suppliers to the watch industry).

The établisseurs themselves evolved. Typically, an établisseur “organised production, allocated work and took charge of sales”. Under the établisseur termineur, on the other hand, the watch was finished, adjusted and cased ready for sale not in workers’ homes or in independent workshops, but in the établisseur termineur’s own workshop.

Watchmaker homeworking. Circa 1900. Nouveau Musée Bienne.
Watchmaker homeworking. Circa 1900. Nouveau Musée Bienne.

“This system triumphed in the Vallon in the nineteenth century. Watch production went from 130,000 units in 1846 to 580,000 in 1873, for a value of 30 million francs,” writes Florian Eitel. This growth “led to the division of labour in the production line and gave rise to professions that were easier to learn, bringing workers from other branches into watchmaking.”

The triumph of mechanisation

The first veritable watch factory, Longines, opened in Saint-Imier in 1867. Originally only forty workers were directly employed there, but the business grew rapidly, expanding its workforce and extending its premises. Under Ernest Francillon, Longines introduced to the Vallon what would become the dominant model: that of the “établisseur fabricant”.

This development was made possible by the transformation of artisanal workshops into a mechanised factory, on the heels of the American watchmaker Waltham Company.

Waltham’s highly mechanised methods sent production off the scale. “In 1874-1875, Longines, the main Swiss manufacturer, was producing 15,000 watches a year whereas Waltham was producing 80,000. During the American Civil War, the Union’s order for a soldier’s watch - the “Ellery” which sold for $14 - forced American manufacturers to rationalise, simplify, standardise, centralise and mechanise the production line. Between 1861 and 1862, production increased by 600%. Thanks to heavy investment in machinery, Waltham reduced the time required to produce a watch from 21 days in 1854 to three days in 1862, then one and a half days in 1905.”

Les Longines factory in 1866, 1878 and 1881. Archives Compagnie des Montres Longines Francillon SA, Saint-Imier.
Les Longines factory in 1866, 1878 and 1881. Archives Compagnie des Montres Longines Francillon SA, Saint-Imier.

In 1876 an engineer at Longines, Jacques David, travelled to Philadelphia to visit the Centennial International Exhibition and was astounded by what he saw. Switzerland had sent 54 “time measuring instruments” whereas Waltham was exhibiting its watches “at every stage in production” and its impressive fleet of machines was the talk of the fair. “We cannot deny that in many ways we have allowed ourselves to be overtaken by our rivals in the New World,” wrote a Swiss envoy, clearly alarmed.

Back in Saint-Imier, Longines was first to have learned the lesson and set about systematically mechanising production, using hydraulic and steam power.

The social divide

This transition from artisanal production to industrial production – foreshadowed by the specialised workshops – could not take place without challenging the établissage model, and consequently without transforming attitudes towards work, and the division and organisation of labour.

Already, the image of an “aristocracy” of independent workers employed from their homes, at their own speed and according to their own rules, was outdated. In reality, most artisan-workers were heavily reliant on orders from the établisseurs, with husband and wife working full-time, at home or in workshops, to meet deadlines. They were also dependent on the unpredictable global markets where the établisseur sold their production.

Exit of the Longines staff, before 1889. Anonymous drawing. Archives Compagnie des Montres Longines Francillon SA, Saint-Imier.
Exit of the Longines staff, before 1889. Anonymous drawing. Archives Compagnie des Montres Longines Francillon SA, Saint-Imier.

While some watch workers did manage to climb the economic ladder, the vast majority were in a fragile position: more proletariat than the much vaunted labour aristocracy. One consequence of this was pauperisation. The nascent watch industry drew a workforce of individuals, some from a distance away, with few or no qualifications who were capable of performing repetitive tasks.

The social divide (a familiar theme today) deepened. Local archives, which Florian Eitel has consulted in considerable depth, show that the biggest tax-payers were all prominent établisseurs trading on the domestic and international markets. The right to vote on important issues was reserved for a handful of citizens. Women were not entitled to vote at all. Socially and politically, geographically and historically, the context was ripe for the anarchist movement to take root and grow in the Vallon de Saint-Imier.

The anarchists’ ideal society

The birth and rise of the anarchist movement in Saint-Imier coincided with the emergence of specialised workshops, and after that the establishment of the Longines factory. Mikhail Bakunin - who at that time was travelling in Europe, where industrialisation continued apace, lending his support to fledgling revolutionary movements - gave lectures in the region in 1869, returned in 1871 and attended the Congress of Saint-Imier in 1872.

In exactly the same way a company such as Longines was a de facto globalised business that shipped, distributed and sold its products on all five continents, the Saint-Imier anarchists were part of a global network and maintained contact with anarchist sections in countries both near – France, Italy, England and Spain – and far, including the United States and South America. Their location, a small town in a Swiss valley, mattered little; they were “globalised” in their own way. Their representatives travelled, took part in international congresses and talked extensively with their counterparts from other countries.

Advances in technology facilitated these exchanges. Installation of the telegraph in Saint-Imier in 1854 made it possible to send and receive news faster than ever before. The arrival of the train in 1874 opened up the valley to the rest of the country and significantly reduced journey times. From its isolated position, Saint-Imier was now connected to all of Europe.

Commemorative postcard edited for the opening of the railway line from Biel to La Chaux-de-Fonds, in 1874. Archives de l'État de Berne.
Commemorative postcard edited for the opening of the railway line from Biel to La Chaux-de-Fonds, in 1874. Archives de l’État de Berne.

Thanks to their networks and these new means of communication, in many respects the anarchists were better informed than most on the state of the world, as one comical scene from Unrueh (“balance wheel” in Swiss German) illustrates. A man, surprised to see a young bourgeois politician reading the anarchist newspaper, is told, “They know a lot more than our local newspapers about what’s going on in the world!” The size and strength of this network also explains in large part how the Sonvilier Circular of 1871 was able to reach anarchists in countries worldwide.

But what exactly did they hope to achieve with their International? Although they might support them, the anarchists didn’t engage in action in favour of one or other sector of the economy. Nor did they vote. They campaigned for a radical transformation of society; a revolution in the proper sense. One that comes not from above but from the people. Antiauthoritarian and antistatist, they advocated liberty, equality, autonomy and freedom of choice.

Their aim was to be autonomous in every sense, and master of their time. In other words, they fought for sovereignty over their own life, space and time.

The rule of time

Beyond its wider implications, to be “master of one’s time” in the Saint-Imier of the 1870s meant not one but the four different times that governed daily life: church time sounded by the bells called parishioners to prayer; official civil time was transmitted by telegraph from the Neuchâtel Chronometric Observatory (founded in 1858), kept by the town’s regulator watch and shown by four clocks facing north, south, east and west on the four corners of a tower, just above the church, where everyone could see it; trains ran to railway time which could differ from civil time; and Longines time was five minutes ahead of civil time…

Why five minutes ahead? No doubt a means for Ernest Francillon to symbolically impress on his workers that factory time took precedence over all the other times, as well as instil a discipline that was spelled out in the factory regulations and which demanded punctuality, both arriving at the factory and throughout production, each stage of which was timed so as to achieve maximum productivity.

Workers were at their benches for eleven to twelve hours a day (compared with nine hours in England, where unions were strong), six days a week. Sunday was their one day of rest. As independent artisans, they might have granted themselves an additional day off – Saint Monday or “Blue Monday” as it was called in the Jura – to sleep off the excesses of the day before, but at Longines this practice was strictly forbidden. The watch worker, already dependent on the établisseur and his demands, was now tied to factory hours, working to a pace set by machines, losing all autonomy.

The anarchists’ appeal

How was anarchism able to spread through the Vallon and beyond? What was the attraction? To answer these questions, we need to put ourselves in the context of that time. Most of the anarchists were young, in their thirties and forties. They were the social-media users of the day who, unlike their parents and ancestors, were in direct contact with the rest of the world. They were educated, knew how to use modern communication tools and were very much a part of the ongoing globalisation process. They had a much broader worldview than most.

They embraced modern technologies, communicating by telegraph and making good use of the first rotary presses to print bulletins, brochures, books, communiqués and pamphlets which they circulated through the fast-expanding railway network. They took photographs which they distributed in the form of the inexpensive “calling cards” that were all the rage in Europe from 1854 – a craze that is nicely depicted in Unrueh.

It was almost certainly Sylvain Clément, the first photographer to set up shop in Saint-Imier, who photographed Bakunin at the Congress of Saint-Imier. Copies of his portrait were sold and diffused throughout Europe.

Michel Bakunin photographed in Saint-Imier by Sylvain Clément, 1871 or 1872. Archives de l'État de Neuchâtel, fonds James Guillaume.
Michel Bakunin photographed in Saint-Imier by Sylvain Clément, 1871 or 1872. Archives de l’État de Neuchâtel, fonds James Guillaume.

Joining the circle of anarchists was an attractive proposition. Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a lively, driven group of young people with their fetes, cultural outings, even brass bands? Women, who were otherwise relegated to the sidelines of civic, economic and social life, were given their rightful place. After visiting the valley, the internationalist anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin wrote, “When I left these mountains, having spent a few days among the watchmakers, there was no doubting my views on socialism. I was an anarchist.”

After the 1872 Congress of Saint-Imier, which marked the final rupture with Marx and the communists, Florian Eitel tells how, “exchanges between the Jura anarchists and their counterparts in other countries further developed. The Vallon was a summit in translocal anarchist networks which were intent on opening up to the world.”

One participant at the Congress, the Neapolitan Errico Malatesta, would play a particularly important role in “conveying anarchist ideas”, as he did in Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Cuba, England, the Netherlands, Romania, Bosnia, Greece, Malta, Tunisia and Egypt. One of the most-wanted anarchists, he died in 1932 under house arrest, under Mussolini.

Anthropometric photography of Enrico Malatesta, Paris 1880 (with the passport under the name of Fritz Robert).Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Anthropometric photography of Enrico Malatesta, Paris 1880 (with the passport under the name of Fritz Robert).Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The anarchists’ expanding influence and mobilisation not only coincided with the increase in watch production, a consequence of continued mechanisation and technological advances; it would not have been possible otherwise, as Florian Eitel affirms.

Watch production was rationalised and centralised, all the better to compete in an international market that pitted nations one against the other. Patriotic commitment and the desire to serve the common good were advocated in Switzerland and throughout Europe, where nationalistic sentiment was on the rise. Another International, one could say. Not one but two Internationals, staring at each other across a divide.

Swiss tolerance

Until 1878 Switzerland was tolerant of anarchist circles. “The democratic and liberal authorities in power set great store by the freedom of the press,” notes Florian Eitel. This wasn’t the case in neighbouring countries, certain of which, France and Italy in particular, pressed Switzerland to take more drastic measures. After all, was not Switzerland “a haven of peace in an unstable world, which is where the future authors of insurrections, attacks and attempted revolution meet”? However, none of these reproaches could be addressed directly to the Vallon’s anarchists and their publications continued to circulate, uncensored.

Then, in 1878, the Confederation banned the printing and distribution by post of L’Avant-Garde, an anarchist newspaper, judging that “revolutionary activities represent little danger for order within the country but can harm foreign relations.” Madrid, Berlin, Rome and Paris - all of which had taken steps against the International from 1867, clamping down even more firmly after the fall of the Paris Commune of 1871 - urged Switzerland to keep a closer watch on anarchist circles - possibly already infiltrated by the French.

Ernest Francillon, at the head of Longines and its ongoing mechanisation, was one of the first employers to exclude anarchists from his factory, as early as December 1868. “I believe I must announce that henceforth, anyone belonging to the International Workingmen’s Association will no longer be admitted to my workshops,” he wrote. He accused them of following outside orders, of seeking to undermine “the worker’s individual freedom” and considered that “such a way of life is incompatible with the harmony and trust that must reign between employers and workers.”

Born in 1834, Ernest Francillon was by now a powerful man who had transformed his uncle Auguste Agassiz’s modest factory. He too, in his own way, was a staunch believer in autonomy. He sought to make Longines as independent as possible of outside suppliers, developed new movements and even went as far as to make his own glues and oils. He took an active role in the local economy, was at the head of several economic and patriotic societies, and was closely involved with the construction of the railway.

He also led an important political career, as illustrated by the list of offices he held: “Member of the Grand Council of Bern (1878-1882), Radical member of the National Council (1881-1890) and first President of the General Council of Saint-Imier (1887). President of the Administrative Council of Jura-Bern-Lucerne (1871-1888) and Vice-President of Jura-Simplon (1890-1898). Specialist in Customs matters for the National Council. Contributed to the drafting of foreign trade agreements. Lieutenant-colonel. Freemason.”

This is not the place to go into the intricacies and subtle balances of Swiss politics, at that time dominated by the radicals and the liberals. Florian Eitel does this in considerable detail in his book Le Vallon horloger et ses anarchistes. But the outcome was inevitable: a political confrontation between two entirely contradictory views of this first “modern globalisation”. Florian Eitel sums this up neatly: on the one hand, the liberals want to build “a strong national community, a national economic policy to protect the watch industry”; on the other, the anarchists advocate “abolition of the State and a federalist system in which the producers decide for themselves.” Two incompatible views.

A difference of opinion

L’Avant-Garde was banned in 1878 and its director removed following an article in support of “propaganda by the deed”. This form of insurrectionary anarchism was favoured by Italian militants. Despite ending in a rousting, news of their attempt, in 1877, to spark an uprising in Benevento, Campania, spread quickly to anarchist circles.

The Vallon’s anarchist watchmakers took a different line. Rather than insurrection and “propaganda by the deed”, they preferred “propaganda by work” as a way to convince their fellow workers. One of their foremost militants, Adhémar Schwitzguébel, would, like others, gradually turn to reformist unionism and later founded the Federation of Watch Industry Workers (FOH). We all too frequently associate anarchism with bombs and violence, but this is to overlook a major anarchist current for which “daily union activity in the workplace” paved the way for future society. They believed a successful revolution must be “prepared individually and collectively, ethically and strategically, technically and administratively.” All of which takes time.

This opposition between “propaganda by the deed” and “propaganda by work” caused the threads of the anarchist International to unravel.

Anarchism disappeared from the Vallon de Saint-Imier, whose peace had never once been shattered by a bomb or a popular uprising. Tolerance came to an end in 1877. In the eyes of the radical bourgeoisie, “anarchist ideas and practices [were] incompatible with traditional culture.” Ironically, notes Florian Eitel, the anarchist movement began its decline, or its members broke away, at the same time as “it succeeded in mobilising more workers than ever in the region.” On the other side of the valley, the Longines factory continued to expand. And take on new workers.

A mirror for our times?

We would be wrong to think this slice of history left little trace. As Florian Eitel’s remarkable historical research and Cyril Schäublin’s excellent film show, the circumstances in which this anarchist current took hold in the Vallon and beyond in many ways echo our own story; we who have reached the apogee of the “second” globalisation. New technologies, infinitely more sophisticated than before, play the same role as in 1872. They accelerate time and shrink distances. Instantaneous social media has replaced the telegraph and is propaganda’s new tool. Concentration has reached its peak. The social divide deepens. Nationalism is making a comeback...

This does not mean the legacy of anarchism is dead. “Some anarchistic ideas such as self-management, decentralisation and civil disobedience have entered the political mainstream. Movements such as Occupy refer back to anarchism. Anarchy is now a global movement which still has thousands of militants, but is no longer specifically a workers’ movement. We shouldn’t underestimate the contribution anarchist thinking has made to the political debate since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” comments Florian Eitel in an interview with Swiss daily Le Temps.

The flame isn’t dead; in Saint-Imier, it has even been rekindled. Barely three dozen people turned out for the one-hundredth anniversary of the antiauthoritarian Congress of Saint-Imier in 1972. Forty years later, in 2012, four thousand men and women gathered for the 140th anniversary of the libertarian International. Commemorations for the 150th anniversary were postponed to 2023 (because of covid) but several thousands still came to Saint-Imier for a “libertarian weekend” in 2022. Because to quote the libertarian singer and poet George Brassens, “anarchy begins as refusal!”. And “refusal” never dies.

Coincidence? Walter von Känel, 81, for decades Longines’ emblematic CEO, a colonel of the Swiss army, a military history buff, known to many as “The Boss”, was made an Honorary Citizen of Saint-Imier on September 15, 2022 – one hundred and fifty years to the day after the foundation, in the same street, of the antiauthoritarian International, on September 15, 1872. There’s no escaping History.

NOTE Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from Florian Eitel’s book and have been translated from the French. Mr Eitel was also the historical consultant for Unrueh.

Further reading: Le Vallon horloger et ses anarchistes, Florian Eitel. Published in Intervalles, No 123, Autumn 2022. Free to download in French and German at

UNRUEH (Unrest) Cyril Schäublin

Unrueh is the second film from Swiss director Cyril Schäublin. Many of the women in Schäublin’s family, including his grandmother, were employed in the watch industry. The film he wrote and directed is a tribute to them. Unrueh is about “their work and the time they spent in factories.” It is also the story of “the watchmakers’ union, of anarchist allegiance, in the nineteenth century.”

A film of great formal beauty – Schäublin has a very personal sense of framing and pace – the film describes with empathy the life of watch workers and anarchist circles in the 1870s and narrates the encounter between Joséphine Gräbli, a young worker who assembles balance wheels, and Pyotr Kropotkin, a Russian writer, philosopher, traveller and cartographer who is converted to anarchist thinking during his stay in the valley and Saint-Imier.

Unrueh won the Best Director award in the Encounters section at the 2022 Berlin Film.

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