Probably against the odds, Switzerland has carved a national identity, synonymous with punctuality, quality and reliability, from a rugged Alpine terrain, writes Diccon Bewes
Switzerland has survived despite geographic, political and linguistic divisions that would have ripped other countries apart. And it has prospered without an abundance of natural resources. Its citizens have chosen to create a stable, secure environment where technology is as vital as tradition and community as important as individuality.
That collective mentality is summed up by the unofficial national motto inscribed beneath the dome of the federal parliament in Bern: Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno, or One for all, all for one. But with the 21st century approaching, that felt outdated: Switzerland needed a new slogan, something trendy that everyone could understand. English was the new Latin, so a suitably English-sounding word was made up by the Swiss to describe the essence of their country.
“Swissness” isn’t in most English dictionaries, but its meaning is instantly clear. It is holey cheese and cow-strewn meadows, snowy peaks and punctual trains. Beyond those (fairly accurate) clichés, Swissness perfectly encapsulates the land of milk and money, a place where attention to detail is a national pastime. And that is Switzerland in a nutshell, preferably one coated in chocolate.
Switzerland is a marketing campaign on a national scale. Every national stereotype, from precision and efficiency to banks and fondue, helps to create an image that is bigger than the sum of its parts. And in the case of Swissness, a word is worth a thousand pictures.
It began with a man on a mission. Believing that people should work, rest and pray, John Calvin turned 16th-century Geneva into the Iran of its day, a theocracy ruled by the God squad. He banned anything fun, including dancing, drinking and even wearing jewellery. No longer able to fashion fancy brooches, the city’s goldsmiths had to adapt to survive. So they made watches instead, forming the world’s first watchmakers’ guild, and creating timepieces renowned for accuracy and beauty.
For every milk chocolate bar or Swiss Army knife, there are stock cubes or strips of Velcro, electric toothbrushes and cellophane
Buying a new watch became one of the highlights of a visit to Switzerland. When Thomas Cook brought the first British tour group over in 1863, their last stop was a watch shop in Neuchâtel. Watches were the first, and ultimate, Swiss souvenir and remain the epitome of Swiss precision. But there were other niche products too, such as embroidered textiles and silk ribbons, which were also a triumph of quality over quantity and the result of the challenging landscape.
Switzerland is a landlocked country with few natural resources, other than wood and water, and had no colonies to fill the gap. It has cows, but no coal, and a harsh terrain that forced its inhabitants to plan ahead and find innovative solutions. The Swiss survived by importing raw materials, making something unique, then selling it at a high price to cover the crippling transport costs and labour-intensive work. Sitting at the crossroads of Europe helped make this import-export business a success, but Swiss inventiveness and adaptability were also crucial.
This resourcefulness was once largely concentrated into local mini-economies, separated by geography and politics. Outside the main cities, poverty ruled in the isolated regions while for centuries no one really governed Switzerland at all: it was a loose confederation of states, known as cantons, with minimal national identity. That changed with a new federal constitution in 1848. Switzerland as we know it was created, along with a new national flag that quickly became pictorial shorthand for the Alpine republic.
What followed was nothing short of an economic miracle. The tourist boom of the late-19th century fuelled an explosion of construction and development. Railways, initially planned with British expertise, but eventually built with Swiss efficiency, united Switzerland economically and psychologically, creating a single market for the first time. This revolution reached every corner of the country and was governed by three words: punctuality, quality, reliability. It was almost as if a nation of mild-mannered perfectionists had finally been given the tools to create their utopia.
In the wake of watches and mountain railways came other innovations, many still not famous for being Swiss. For every milk chocolate bar or Swiss Army knife, there are stock cubes or strips of Velcro; all Swiss inventions, along with electric toothbrushes and cellophane. It’s typically Swiss to calmly find a practical solution to a problem and then not boast about it. Modesty in all things, except the pursuit of perfection and material gain.
Buy something stamped with “Made in Switzerland” and you know that its quality is as high as the price. This is a penknife that will last a lifetime or a watch that will always get you there on time. The added value of being Swiss-made is far greater than the higher cost, so much so that everyone wants to mimic it. From a fake Rolex to own-brand Toblerone, ersatz copies can be found all over the world, but there’s only one place that produces the real deal.