In the course of the 19th century, the Zurich silk industry became one of the most successful branches of the Swiss economy. Raw silk was imported, at first from Europe, after 1866 also from East Asia, above all Japan. While Swiss trading houses facilitated the integration of Japan into the world economy, around Lake Zurich tens of thousands of people were involved in processing silk. Fashion-oriented businesses seasonally created new textile collections destined for export, designers taking into account both global trends and local predilections. Sales agents from New York to St. Petersburg brought luxurious Swiss silks to customers around the globe. From the 1870s onwards, in order to circumvent tariff barriers and to be closer to customers and markets, Zurich silk manufacturers began to establish subsidiaries in Europe and in the US.
With an annual production of over 50 million meters by 1900, Zurich was, together with Krefeld, Como and Lyon, one of the leading centres of the European silk industry. In and around Zurich a locally rooted and globally interconnected industrial cluster had come into being including raw material exchanges, educational establishments as well as large-scale manufacturing enterprises. While the Zurich silk industry continued to be highly profitable during the First World War some companies growing to become large international corporations, the Great Depression of the 1930s brought heavy losses. Thanks to restructuring programmes some of the long-standing companies were able to survive. They kept up production until the late 20th century concentrating on specialised products such as dress, tie or interior textiles. From the 1990s onwards, globalisation and deindustrialisation lead to the closure of Zurich’s last silk mills. Textile and trade service providers as well as other specialists remain in business until today.
At Lucerne University a research group of historians analyses the rise, fall and heritage of the Zurich silk industry for the first time using written, visual and material sources. Over a dozen newly accessible corporate archives are the empirical basis of this project. While the Zurich State Archives take over and professionally process the written sources, the Swiss National Museum does the same with the textile archives of the Zurich silk industry. The Lucerne research group employs methodologies of economic, social and cultural history and complements archival documents with oral history interviews. It also uses insights and synergies deriving from the applied research project “Silk Memory”. The goal is a comprehensive book on the history of the Zurich silk industry since 1800. The Zurich Lottery Fund and the Zurich Silk Association provide funding for this project.