Our founder, Albert Favre Zanuti (né. Alberto Zanuti), was one of the first European watchmakers to expand his business internationally, travelling from Europe to North America & Asia, and settling in Japan under the prestigious program known as the ‘O-yatoi Gaikokujin’.
Zanuti’s journey can be traced all the way back to the early stages of Union Horlogère Suisse in La Chaux-de-Fonds (Switzerland), and is remembered today as one of the pioneers of mechanical watchmaking in Japan. (Swipe to find out more)
Albert Zanuti began his watchmaking career by serving an apprenticeship to the art of watchmaking, as well as a Cabinotier watchmaker, during the decades of 1850 and 1860.
During this time, he would specialize in the creation of Ébauche movements, to be sold to established brands, known as Etablisseurs.
It was also in the 1860’s when A.F. Zanuti began exporting his first orders internationally, selling Swiss watches to jewelers across Europe and South America, mostly by leveraging his family’s network in Italy and Brazil.
Early records registered his first transaction as 8 watches sold to historical company Gondolo & Labouriau.
By 1853, the Swiss watchmaking industry reached a critical point, as its exports had been stagnant for years, while other European countries with established watchmaking industries such as France, the UK and Germany were revamping their manufacturing processes, matching Swiss technology and manufacturing scale.
In the USA, major factories exclusively dedicated to watchmaking were also growing at a high pace (in particular the Waltham Watch Co. in Massachusetts) which would eventually result in a 75% decline of all Swiss watch exports to North America by the end of the 1850s.
Urgently looking for new markets to promote their products, several founders of some of the most prestigious Swiss brands would personally embrace the challenge to travel overseas in order to establish their businesses internationally.
Famous examples include:
Antoni Patek (founder of Patek Philippe, 1839) who travelled to the USA and would establish small trading operations throughout North America.
Louis Brandt (founder of Omega, 1848) travelled to all corners of Europe, from Switzerland to Scandinavia, England and Italy, establishing one of the worlds biggest brands to this day.
Charles-Emile Tissot (founder of Tissot, 1853) who took on a journey across Europe, all the way to Moscow, famously selling his watches to the Russian Empire.
To address the ongoing crisis facing the Swiss watchmaking industry, over 50 of the biggest ’Manufactures’ of that time decided to join forces and form Union Horlogère Suisse in La Chaux-de-Fonds (Neuchâtel Canton) on February 25th of 1858.
Their mission was clear: “To promote and subsidize the exports of Swiss watchmakers into Asian markets”.
Indeed, Asia had become the single most attractive market opportunity in decades, as countries like Japan were starting to open its borders for the first time.
Anticipating the opportunity, the USA quickly signed a Trade Agreement with Japan (depicted in the painting from 1853), officially opening up the Japanese market to foreign companies and leading countries like the Netherlands, Russia, England and France to quickly follow suit and sign similar Agreements with the Japanese Government in 1858.
On April 28th, of 1859, Commissioned by the President of the Union Horlogère - Aimé Humbert-Droz, a Swiss delegation lead by Rudolf Lindau travelled to Japan for the first time.
On board of the first delegation was a famous Swiss watchmaker by the name of François Perregaux who would immediately set up shop in Yokohama, Japan (circled in the map) becoming the first watchmaker to be officially established in the land of the rising sun.
F. Perregaux (known today by the world famous Girard-Perregaux brand) would initiate trade and officially establish Perregaux & Co. in Japan, focusing on horology imports, setting and repairs.
From 1858 to 1864, dozens of delegations from Switzerland, Netherlands, England and France, travelled to Japan to establish official trading posts.
Several Swiss members with diplomatic credentials participated in these first delegations including Aimé Humbert-Droz, then appointed as "Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the Swiss Confederation” by the Federal Council.
Other notable Swiss members in these first diplomatic delegations were James Favre-Brandt (who would be crucial in the establishment of Zanuti et Cie. several years later), Rudolf Lindau, Kaspar Brennwald, John Bringolf, Charles E.V. Bavier and Iwan Kaiser.
On February 6th of 1864, bilateral relations between Switzerland and Japan were officially established with the signing of the first trade agreement between the two nations.
Aimé Humbert-Droz (leading the Swiss diplomatic mission) and Takemoto Kai-no-Kami (Minister of foreign affairs of Japan), signed the first “Treaty of Commerce” between the states.
The friendship between Switzerland and Japan was born and business opportunities followed suit.
Trading companies such as Favre-Brandt, Sieber-Hegner and Liebermann-Wälchli successfully settled in Yokohama, leading mass imports of Swiss watches and precision instruments which would soon flourish not just in Yokohama but all over Japan.
To this day, Switzerland remains the only European country to joy a free trade agreement with Japan.
May 3rd of 1868 marked the end of a civil war period in Japan, which would further solidify the influence of western culture and technology from European companies (particularly the Swiss) in the country.
This period (Meiji Restoration) dictated the end of the feudal military rule in Japan and gave birth to a tremendous modernization in the nation led by the Imperial Court, which remains in power today.
During the civil war, Swiss companies had supported the Imperial Court by supplying western firearms, watches and other precision instruments that would enable a much better coordination of their troops and easily dictate the victory in the war.
A new era was born in Japan and Swiss companies (now closer than ever to the new Japanese ruling elite) found themselves in a privileged position to take advantage of the new-found prosperity and major economic growth.
Another critical event for the success of Swiss watchmakers in Japan was the new Calendar Reform implemented in 1872.
Amongst many reforms, the new government would introduce a western fixed time system, based on detailed divisions of the hour and minute.
This calendar reform helped limiting confusion in daily business trade and events, while popularizing gold-cased pocket watches as a status symbol among the wealthy and government officials.
Wall and table clocks were also installed in public institutions such as schools, governmental offices, police stations, postal offices and stores.
By 1877, European influence in Japan was substantial and Swiss imports had grown exponentially over the past two decades.
The newly introduced calendar reform and its “fixed time system’ eventually took root throughout all of Japan when a timetable was established for the national school education system.
The demand for Swiss watches was further strengthened by the growth of student and white-collar populations, as well as the development of a middle class which had blossomed from the new-found economic growth.
At this point, pocket watches had become not just a necessity to coordinate time, but also an important status symbol.
By the early 1880s Albert Zanuti had became one of the main suppliers of pocket watches to brands such as C & J Favre-Brandt (founded by his business partner James Favre Brandt) and Siber & Brennwald (established by his acquaintance Kaspar Brennwald, whom he had known since the early days of Union Horlogère Suisse in La Chaux-de-Fonds).
As a consequence of the trade agreement between Switzerland and Japan in 1864, both companies were now established in Yokohama, relying on their Swiss based partners to guarantee supply not just of watches but also spare parts and machinery.
These initial exports of Swiss watches to Japan would be critical in establishing the Japanese watchmaking industry and the birth of the first generation of Japanese watchmakers including Seijiro Sakurai and Kintaro Hattori (who began his career selling Swiss watches to local Japanese customers and would later found the globally renowned brand Seiko).
With the exponential demand for watches and clocks all over Japan, local businessmen quickly realized the tremendous opportunity ahead, resulting in a widespread development of factories and craftsmen dedicated exclusively to watchmaking in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagoya and Osaka.
During this decade, several Japanese delegations would also travel to Europe and North America, not just to study and learn the craft, but also to replicate the manufacturing processes behind the mass production technologies being developed in Switzerland and USA.
Also during the year of 1881, Kintaro Hattori would established Seiko in Tokyo, importing European watches through Swiss trading firms based in Yokohama and retailing them in local shops all over Japan.
By 1883, the watchmaking industry was flourishing all over Asia and Swiss timepieces quickly became the most sought-after commodity in Japan.
Looking to establish its own watchmaking industry, the Japanese Government and its municipalities would hire hundreds of qualified western professionals (called O-yatoi gaikokujin) to assist in the modernization of Japanese manufacturing as well as the education and training of their staff (a concept known as ‘transfer of Technology’).
Within a few years, thousands of western professionals with unique skills and specialized knowledge were brought to Japan, not just at a governmental level but to private firms as well, bringing invaluable advancements in technology and science to all corners of Japanese society.
Following on the footsteps of all major watchmakers and Swiss brands of that era, including the likes of Antoni Patek (founder of Patek Philipp) and Jean-Marc Vacheron (founder of brand Vacheron Constantin), Albert F. Zanuti travelled to the USA during the ‘Gilded Age’, looking to grow his exports and capitalize on the booming economy driven by the recent ‘Gold rush’ and ever expanding Industrial revolution.
This journey, however, was marked by big challenges as Albert Zanuti lacked an established brand (only officially incorporated a couple of years later in 1887) and the financial backing required to compete with the existing filled brands of that time.
In fact, during those days, American made watches had matched and even surpassed the manufacturing scale of their Swiss counterparts, resulting in substantially lower prices and accounting for over 90% of all domestic sales of watches in the United States and Canada.
These challenges ultimately dictated the end of Albert F. Zanuti’s journey in North America, opening the door to a new opportunity in Asia in the following year of 1886.
As a consequence of the tremendous success of the ‘O-yatoi Gaikokujin’ and their crucial role in modernizing Japan, thousands of highly skilled Westerners would also travel to the country during the last few years of the 19th century, working as ‘Foreign Advisors’ to the government and local private firms.
During 1886, Viscount Aoki Shuzo (a Japanese diplomat and Foreign Minister) would extend these invitations to engineers and watchmakers all over Europe and North America, hoping to implement their expertise and technology into the newly developed Japanese factories.
By the recommendation of Swiss watchmaker James Favre-Brandt (based in Japan since 1859), Albert Favre Zanuti would be one of the professional watchmakers invited to work in Japan and assist in its modernization reform.
Driven by the desire to provide for his growing family and motivated by the birth of his 3rd child (Gianni Zanuti, 1886), Albert Zanuti left the USA in 1886 embarking from the port of Seattle (King County, Washington) to Yokohama (Japan) aboard the Oceanliner from the American Pacific Mail Steamship Co.
Along with Albert F. Zanuti, several other illustrious European names were invited in the same list of 1886, including: William K. Burton, Ottmar V. Mohl, Wilhelm Böckmann, Henry Spencer Palmer, Ludwig Riess, Rudolf Dittrich and Hermann Ende.
As a result of this opportunity, Zanuti & Cie. would be immediately established (1887) and its first registered transaction - a large batch of Swiss watches, watchmaking machinery and tools - arrived at Japanese shores less than 5 months later.
The first official Trademark was also issued during the same year and registered with the "United States Patent and Trademark Office". (A shortened version of the official US Trademark Certificate is displayed above)
What happened during the following decades turned out to be one of the most unthinkable transformations in the history of horology. The Japanese watchmaking industry would flourish during the turn of the century and its growth was so remarkable that within just a few decades, Japan achieved the unimaginable, surpassing Switzerland to become the worlds largest watch manufacturer.