When cities not previously known as banking and financier centers become such, they usually adopt something from the incumbent financial centers of the era. New banking cities mimic the old and often import talent from them. In the 14th century, Bruges became the first banking center in the north of Europe to match the scale of those in Italy. At the time, many of the banks and bankers in Bruges were Italian. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Geneva became a more significant financial center, gaining this position by sheltering bankers fleeing France for reasons of religious intolerance.


           To bring peace between Protestants and Catholics in France, the Edict of Nantes granted rights to French Calvinists, the Huguenots, in 1598. Protestants in France were given equality and permitted to enter all professions. However, the edict was revoked in 1685, by which point there were between 1.5 and 2 million Protestants in France, about 10% of the country’s population. With opportunities for social advancement in politics, the army, or other official posts withdrawn, French Protestants were drawn to industry and trade. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes also led to the emigration of 200,000 French Protestants. Some went to Holland or England, some of North America, and some to Geneva.

           Who were the Huguenots? They were a Calvinist minority in France, disproportionately found in certain occupations where they found particular success, often the product of possessing a more circumscribed set of opportunities. 

           In Lyon, many of these Calvinists were foreigners from Geneva, the adopted city of John Calvin himself, who had been born in France before making his home in Switzerland. In Lyon, the Huguenots were involved in finance, competing with Italian bankers there. Calvin lived most of his life in commercial centers where lending at interest was common practice. Thus, he possessed less phobia for the concept than other theologians, including many of his fellow Protestants. This may help explain why many Calvinists became bankers, or why many bankers became Calvinists.

           In France generally, many Huguenots were involved in banking and, outside Lyon, would have had no past connection to Switzerland. Huguenots were also commonly found in the merchant community, a disproportionate fraction of which was Protestant. From this work, they would have had greater knowledge of the world beyond France. Huguenot merchants would commonly send their sons to Geneva, England, or Holland for training and education. They would then import into France techniques and technologies learned abroad. This translated into success in various trades, especially in the textile industry but also in glass manufacturing, sugar refining, metalworking, and clock and watch making.

           Noting the dominant position of Protestant merchants there, a port administrator in the vicinity of Bordeaux remarked in 1688 that “”it would be very unfortunate for trade, considering its present state, if several of these merchants leave because it is they who have the most money and who are responsible for the greatest part of Bordeaux’s commerce.” Unfortunately, many had left or would soon be on their way out of France.


           Some sixty thousand Huguenot refugees left France for Switzerland between 1682 and 1720. This reached a pace of over a thousand a week for a few weeks in second half of 1687, when the emigration reached a peak. Though many went on to other destinations in Europe, some twenty-five thousand remained in Switzerland. Some three or four thousand of these settled in Geneva.

Vue du Lac, et de la Montagne de Gex. prise depuis le haut de la Ville de Geneve (c1774)

           This may not seem like many in the context of the total emigration but Swiss cities were not particularly large then. These few thousand Huguenots thus made up one-fourth of Geneva’s population. French emigres also made up very large minorities in other Swiss cities from Vevey to Lausanne to Bern.


           As elsewhere, many Huguenot emigres in Switzerland carried on as merchants. They also established themselves in the watch and clock industry. Huguenots had been well established in the clockmaking trade in France in the 17th century. As for Geneva, it was in the years preceding the tolerant Edict of Nantes that an earlier wave of French emigration to Geneva led to the creation of a timepiece industry there. The wave of emigration triggered by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes took place a century later, but the arrival of new emigres caused growth in the number of watch and clock makers in Geneva.

           It turned out that making clocks and watches, an activity that consumes minimal raw materials relative to the value produced, was relatively easy to relocate to wherever its skilled labor went. Watchmaking would be a very well-established industry in Geneva by the time of the French Revolution. That said, it would not completely die off in France. In the 18th century, Huguenots in Paris, many of whom had returned from exile in Switzerland, were to be found in a few particular industries, among them clockmaking.

           Given their small numbers, Protestants were a minority in almost all trades in France, and economic life in Paris was no different. Clockmaking would be one exception and finance another. Like clockmaking, the survival of a banking industry in France would rely on the return of Huguenots from their emigration to Geneva.


           When wealthy Huguenots left for Switzerland with their money, many either became merchants or financiers themselves or placed this wealth with them. Back in France, Huguenot financiers commonly ran private banks since they were blocked from holding official roles, like that of tax farmer. With their capital and expertise, Geneva’s foreign trade and foreign lending increased. In deploying deposited funds internationally, Huguenot bankers could leverage their connections with other French Protestant emigres abroad.

           In addition to the assets of their fellow refugees, Huguenot bankers mobilized the wealth earned from Swiss mercenaries fighting abroad. They lent to King Louis XIV who often hired Swiss mercenaries to fight his wars; Switzerland was enriched by the money received from France which was often rerouted back to France in the form of loans. The result of this system was that Geneva became a European financial center by 1710.

           Recall that during the time when the Edict of Nantes was in effect, Lyon had a Calvinist population that was often of Swiss origin. Many of the Swiss bankers there remained in Lyon after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. As foreigners, they may have been subject to less harassment than native French Protestants. In the 18th century, descendants of Huguenot refugees returning to France would comprise many of the principal bankers in Paris. These French-Swiss bankers retained access to foreign markets like Geneva, and Huguenots abroad, and other Protestants, favored banks managed by their co-religionists in Paris.

           The result was that these Paris-based Huguenot bankers were very successful. They provided capital to the very French monarchy that had mistreated them and did so even more liberally than Catholic bankers in the city. The French-Swiss bankers in Paris benefited from the fact there was no religious barrier to becoming a banker, in contrast to professions that required membership in a guild. Though Protestant, the French state was also less suspicious of Swiss bankers than those with Dutch or English connections, nations that had become far more adversarial than the Swiss cantons.

           Clearly, neither the revocation of the Edict of Nantes nor the emigration caused the complete withdrawal of French Protestants from banking. One effect however was to link the financial markets of Paris and Geneva. In the 18th century, the Paris banking elite was essentially the same as that of Geneva and largely comprised of Huguenots of French ancestry. The Mallet banking family had fled from Rouen to Geneva and another banking family, the Tronchin, had come to Paris from Lyon, also by way of Geneva. When the French government would default on its debts, as during the French Revolution, they would take down financiers in both countries.


           While it’s natural to instinctively associate Switzerland and banking, Switzerland was not a particular old banking center, at least not compared to the likes of Florence or Bruges. It was the revocation of the Edict of Nantes that launched Geneva into the nexus of finance in Europe. It was also essential to the continuity of French banking. Geneva served as a temporary home to French bankers, allowing continuity between the 17th and 18th centuries in French finance. Had Geneva not hosted these financiers, as it had emigres with other skills like clockmaking, France might have turned into a financial backwater, never to recover.

More from the Tontine Coffee-House

           If the Huguenots were disproportionately represented in French banking then the Quakers were their equivalent in Britain. Read about how bank secrecy helped Swiss banks grow in the early 20th century. Consider subscribing to this blog’s newsletter here

Further Reading

1.      Bauer, Hans, and Warren J. Blackman. Swiss Banking: An Analytical History. Palgrave, 2001.

2.     Garrioch, David. The Huguenots of Paris and the Coming of Religious Freedom, 1685-1789. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

3.     Kindleberger, Charles P. A Financial History of Western Europe. George Allen and Unwin, 1993.

4.     Scoville, Warren C. “The Huguenots and the Diffusion of Technology. II.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 60, no. 5, Oct. 1952, pp. 392–411.

5.     Scoville, Warren C. “The Huguenots in the French Economy, 1650-1750.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 67, no. 3, Aug. 1953, pp. 423–444.

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