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The Swiss Diaspora in America

Let's play a word association game, watch idiot savant style. I'll offer a word and try to anticipate your response. Bern? I'm guessing Switzerland, or Rolex, comes to mind. Geneva? Maybe you're thinking about the stripes on a movement, or the seal that's a hallmark of quality in watchmaking. Moser? I'm betting you might pull up the Instagram account of H. Moser or recall some of their vanta black dials. Baumgartner? Maybe this won't prompt any particular response, but for aficionados of the Urwerk brand it's almost guaranteed that Felix Baumgartner comes to mind. He's the watchmaker, and co-founder, of the manufacturer.

I'm even more confident that, in response to any of these prompts, almost no watch enthusiast would think of the state of Indiana (located in midwest farmland of the United States).
The Star Press, Feb 3, 1936.
But what about this newspaper clip dated February 3, 1936 from The Star Press out of Muncie, Indiana? It features a photo of the "Berne Singers" who were described as "Swiss singers." They performed at Indiana's Purdue University. They counted among their membership one H. Moser (Harold) and an Elmer Baumgartner. A column printed alongside this picture reports community events in Geneva, Indiana.

What's going on here? This many connections can't be mere coincidence, and they're not. They're actually the product of religious persecution and a diaspora of the Swiss in the United States. It's a part of history I'd been unaware of, despite having majored in History in a midwestern college. I'll explain what I've learned.

During a recent episode of the Indepedent Thinking podcast on Fifth Wrist Radio, co-host Adam (IG @mediumwatch) asked independent watchmaker Roland Murphy if his craft was influenced at all by the Amish community in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Murphy's business is located in that region, so it was a natural question to ask, but he indicated that there hadn't been any particular influence. I didn't think anything more of it. But just a few days later, I coincidentally watched an Amazon Prime documentary entitled: "The Amish and the Reformation." The film begins, as expected, in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Very quickly, though, the narrator is in Switzerland and engaging in a discussion of religious history with a few Swiss clerics.

It is at this moment that I learnt of the connection between Switzerland and the Amish community in the United States.
Jakob Ammann's home in Switzerland (the man pictured is not Ammann).
The Amish are named after Jakob Ammann, who was born on February 12, 1644 in Erlenbach im Simmental (Canton of Bern), Switzerland. Ammann became a traveling preacher of the Anabaptist faith. In contrast to the precepts of some other Protestant religions, Anabaptists believe in baptism of adults rather than infants. Regrettably, Ammmann and his fellow believers faced persecution. As noted by Paul Connor, a Reference Specialist in the U. S. Library of Congress, "From the beginning of the Anabaptist movement in the sixteenth century, the doctrine that only adult believers should be baptized was attacked as heresy. Adult baptism was punishable by death in Bavaria, southern Germany, and Switzerland. In 1637, the Swiss city of Zurich banished Anabaptists. In 1690, children of Anabaptist marriages in Bern were denied their inheritance. In 1720, Bern began branding Anabaptists."

There is a sad irony in the fact that some government organizations in Switzerland engaged in religious persecution in the 17th and 18th centuries. In a series of well-documented posts entitled "Un Histoire Du Temps," the well-known Patek Philippe collectors behind the Instagram account @horology_ancienne explained that watchmaking arrived in Switzerland in large part due to another episode of religious persecution. In 1572, conflict between Catholics and Huguenots (Reformed Protestants) in France reached a tipping point resulting in significant Huguenot emigration from France to Switzerland. Expatriate Huguenots counted highly skilled watchmakers among their membership, watchmakers who would help form the basis for an industry which continues to thrive more than four centuries later.

It is remarkable that religious tolerance of Huguenots in Switzerland somehow morphed into persecution of Anabaptists.
An Amish horse drawn buggy shares the road with a pickup truck in Lancaster County, PA.
Ultimately, the Amish began to leave Europe, much as the Huguenots left France. Many settled in America in the early-to-mid 1700s.

The question I'm now asking is: did the Amish bring clockmaking or watchmaking skills to America and did this spur innovation? It is a question I'm just beginning to resesarch, but there are tentative signs that some transfer of watchmaking skill from Switzerland to America did take place. Documents published online by the Lancaster Historical Society in Pennsylvania (part of "Amish country") document that in the early 1800s "Samuel Staufer, the clockmaker, was a Swiss Mennonite ... [he] was the maker of quite a number of clocks, and seems to have been very proficient in his business and paid minute attention to the finish and appearance of them." Relatedly, the same document notes that "Abraham Leroy, a Swiss, was an expert clock and watchmaker and repairman and was in business as such in Lancaster at a very early period. In 1757 to 1765 he was the man who kept the Court House clock in order, for which he received compensation at the rate of four pounds per year." The timing of Staufer's career seems proximate to the Amish departure from Switzerland.

Let's return to the discussion of Indiana, a documented area of settlement for Swiss Amish. There, we can also find evidence of a 19th century watchmaking tradition. The obituary of Emerson C. “Mose” Moser reads as follows: "He was born August 13, 1921 in Berne, Indiana. He was a Jeweler and Watchmaker for more than 50 years, formerly owning Moser Jewelers in Elwood. He purchased Smith’s Jewelers in Elwood in 1970, and changed the name of the business to Moser Jewelers, which remains today. He was a 1939 graduate of Berne High School, and served in the U.S. Army in Europe during WWII. He attended the Kansas City School of Watchmaking from 1947 to 1948 and was certified as a Jeweler and Watchmaker."

In the case of watchmaking, it appears history repeated itself. Religious persecution, followed by an exodus, brought refugees and watchmaking to Switzerland. The evidence I've presented here is certainly preliminary. It suggests, though, that in the case of the Amish, at least some watchmaking talent relocated to the United States subsequent to religious persescution in Switzerland. Perhaps a more complete picture will emerge with additional research.


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