Where’s the new centre of the watchmaking industry? If you just answered Switzerland, think again: the traditional home of high-end horology has just been outdone by a new contender – the tech giant Apple.

In the final quarter of 2017, the architects of the iMac, the iPad and the tiny charging cable sold a staggering 8 million watches, dwarfing the 6.8 million sold by Switzerland – historically the timepiece industry’s champagne region, and the birthplace of master manufacturers such as Tag Heuer, Rolex and Breitling.

The surge was prompted by September’s release of the third Apple Watch, and could, observers say, mark a tipping point as buyers begin to favour smartwatches – which can make calls, pinpoint your GPS location and stream music – over time-honoured quartz and steel affairs.

Apple CEO Tim Cook with a line of the company's watches in 2015.
Apple CEO Tim Cook with a line of the company's watches in 2015.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith

But with the Swiss shipping 24 million watches over the whole of 2017, compared with just 18 million for Apple, it would be unwise to write off traditional manufacturers just yet. “There is always a spike in Q4 that cannot be sustained throughout the year,” said Francisco Jeronimo, research director at IDC European Mobile Devices. “[But] other industries made the mistake of ignoring this sort of threat for too long.”

When companies outgrow countries

Strange as it may sound, Apple isn’t the first tech giant to put a country in the shade. In fact, the world’s major business organizations routinely outperform nations in turnover terms. Research from the NGO Global Justice Now suggests that 69 of the world’s top 100 global economic entities are private companies, with the 10 largest making more money than most of the world’s nations put together.

As can be seen from this link, firms including Walmart, Royal Dutch Shell and Volkswagen beat out all but the richest nations in 2016, while Toyota pipped India, BP powered clear of Norway and Russia and all of the UAE’s petrochemical might couldn’t place it above the US Federal National Mortgage Association.

It’s important to add that the chart is based on revenue, not GDP. As an example, the Russian government’s 2016 revenue of $216 billion was dwarfed by Russian GDP of more than $1.3 trillion, which would have placed it comfortably ahead of every major company.