The Pictets - Edouard Pictet

Edouard Pictet (1813-1878)

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The Pictets: banking and finance activities of a patrician family of Geneva (1707-1926)

Edouard Pictet

Geneva bourgeoisie and private banking

In 1841, when Edouard Pictet-Prevost1 became a partner in the bank of De Candolle, Turrettini & Cie, which had been established in 18052, the name of Pictet was added to the company name of the business and has remained part of it to this day. The bank was set up while Geneva was annexed by France, being founded in the midst of the restructuring of the Geneva financial sector following major bankruptcies at the end of the eighteenth century caused by the economic consequences of the French Revolution.

The first signature of Edouard Pictet as a partner of the bank that soon would bear his name also.

Throughout the nineteenth century the Pictet partners often succeeded each other from father to son on the board of partners, setting their stamp on the firm: a certain rigour that is said to be a legacy of Calvinism3, along with prudent, discreet management of their affairs, and a considerable openness to the world as regards financial investments.

This type of management, however, is not only found at Pictet: it is part of a tradition common to Geneva private banking. Although the latter is currently undergoing a period of profound transformation, it has experienced surprising continuity in terms of legal forms, types of activity and rules of behaviour over the centuries.

It was in the second half of the seventeenth century that the Genevans started to make money out of trade, foreign exchange and shrewd investments: it was the era of the “merchant bankers”. This trend accelerated in the eighteenth century when Geneva became an important centre for foreign exchange; over time, this led to the creation of what became known as “la haute banque”, or a select group of family-run private banks. From that time onward, these bankers were described as “private” because they acted on their own account, alone or with partners who were nearly always close relatives, via limited partnerships4. In essence merchants, they increasingly came to specialise in capital investment transactions: buying, selling and looking after clients’ securities, and advising people who wanted to put their wealth to work5. Right from the start, they placed themselves at the service of a restricted, dependable clientèle. Their business relationships constituted a vast, complex network largely based on the international Huguenot community, which was created and fed by French Huguenots fleeing to other countries in a movement known as the “Refuge”. The historian Herbert Lüthy defined the Geneva banking system of the eighteenth century as “Huguenot banking par excellence”6.

View of Geneva around 1800

The Pictets belong to the small number of Geneva families known as “primordial”, meaning that they acquired the droit de bourgeoisie [official status of members of the bourgeoisie] before the Reformation7; along with the French and Italian families descended from Protestant refugees, they form what is commonly known as the patrician class of Geneva8. Up until the radical revolution of 1846, this bourgeois elite constituted a veritable republican aristocracy, which initially wielded political rather than economic power, and which exercised moral authority over the city after the Reformation by carrying out academic and pastoral duties alongside a variety of legal offices. Indeed, in the Geneva of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, steeped as it was in Calvinist ideals and still enjoying only modest fortunes, “wealth [was] much less regarded than name”9. It would become progressively more difficult for new families to join the patrician class, which acted as an oligarchy, feeding the political tensions within the small Republic. From the eighteenth century onwards, it was this bourgeois elite which launched itself into the banking and financial enterprises that were to bring it great economic prosperity as well as a few setbacks. Although the patrician class lost some of its political power in the revolution of 1846 led by James Fazy (which was not the case for the Pictets), its financial power remained more or less intact10.

The old town of Geneva where the bank was founded.

Naturally, each individual and each family had a special destiny from which it is not possible to draw systematic generalisations. From many historical, sociological and religious points of view, however, the Pictets may be considered representative of the patrician class which had such a marked influence on the political and economic history of Geneva. In this respect it is interesting to consider the economic vocations of its members. In this article we shall therefore examine the Pictet family’s involvement in certain commercial and banking enterprises, and later in the development of the Pictet bank in the nineteenth century11. In order to present the family in greater detail, we shall first make a rapid survey of its history, historiography and genealogy. We shall then look at its merchants and bankers of the eighteenth century, while attempting to situate them in their historical context. This section is based principally on Lüthy’s work on Protestant banking12. After that, we shall consider the period from 1841 to 1926, during which the bank was managed almost exclusively by members of the family. Following the years of crisis and war at the beginning of the twentieth century, the growing size of the business called for an increasingly collegial approach that minimised the family-run and individual side of its management13. For these sections, we reviewed the Pictet Group archives relating to the nineteenth century and complemented our research by looking at the family archives where this seemed relevant. 

A family committed to the city

Jean-Daniel Candaux begins his Histoire de la famille Pictet [History of the Pictet Family], published in 1974, with the following sentence:

“The history of the Pictet family deserved to be written because it is an integral part of the history of Geneva, even to the point of sometimes merging with it.14

Indeed, while the name of Pictet today seems to relate mainly to members of the eponymous banking group, the link between Geneva and the Pictets was originally a political one. From the election of Ami Pictet in 1575 up to the Geneva revolution of 1792, apart from two short intervals (1607-1616 and 1768-1775), the Little Council15 of the former Republic would always include at least one member of the family16.

The revolutions did not prevent the Pictets from taking up this function. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they were to run for political office at municipal, cantonal and federal level.

This commitment to the public affairs of the city was exemplified by Charles Pictet de Rochemont (1755-1824), who negotiated the expansion of the Geneva territory at the Congresses of Paris, Vienna and Turin with a view to admitting Geneva to the Swiss Confederation, and who drew up the declaration by the powers gathered at the Second Congress of Paris (1815) recognising Switzerland’s permanent neutrality17. This political streak, which had been so pronounced since the sixteenth century, seems however to have petered out today.

This text is an extract from the article The Pictets: banking and finance activities of a patrician family of Geneva (1707-1926) by Laurent Christeller, archivist of the Pictet Group, published in the Revue vaudoise de généalogie in 2017.


1 As was customary in Geneva, the spouse’s family name was added to the surname.
2 The bank was founded in 1805 under the name De Candolle, Mallet & Cie.
3 The historian André-Emile Sayous writes of a “rigour originally imposed for the general interest, then transformed into a taste for economy, influenced mainly by personal interest. It is this rigorous frame of mind that enabled the formation of savings, which have played so important a role in the history of Geneva.” SAYOUS, André-Emile, “Calvinisme et capitalisme : L’expérience genevoise”, Annales d’histoire sociale, no. 33, 1935, p. 243. 
4 The legal form of a limited partnership is particularly suitable for small enterprises owned by individuals. Differing types of liability (general partners have joint and unlimited liability, limited partners have limited liability) mean that external investors may also be involved. However, this tradition ended in 2014 for the Pictet Group when its Swiss bank Pictet & Cie became a limited company under the name Banque Pictet & Cie SA, even though the institution is not listed on the stock exchange and remains in the ownership of the partners. The partners manage a partnership limited by shares: Pictet & Cie Group SCA.
5 SAYOUS, André-Emile, “Les principales phases de l’histoire de la banque à Genève pendant le XVIIIe siècle”, Annales d’histoire sociale (1939-1941), 1939, p. 137.
6 Herbert Lüthy uses the term “spider's web” to describe the lattice of the Protestant financial network in the eighteenth century. LÜTHY, Herbert, La banque protestante en France : de la Révocation de l’Edit de Nantes à la Révolution, Paris: Editions de l’EHESS, 1988, (3rd ed.), vol. 1, p. 33. 
7 CHOISY, Albert, Généalogies genevoise : Familles admises à la Bourgeoisie avant la réformation, Geneva: Imprimerie Albert Kundig, 1947. Only six of these families survive: Gallatin, Gautier, Lullin, Naville, Pictet and Rilliet.
8 Unlike that of the bourgeoisie, this concept had no legal reality in the Geneva of the Ancien Régime.
9 SAYOUS, André-Emile, “La haute bourgeoisie de Genève entre le début du XVIIe et le milieu du XIXe siècle”, Revue Historique, no. 1, January 1937, p. 35. (The historian quotes the 1829 edition of GALIFFE, J.-A., Notices généalogiques sur les familles genevoises, depuis les premiers temps jusqu’à nos jours, pt. I, p. XXVI.)
10 PERROUX, Olivier, Tradition, vocation et progrès : les élites bourgeoises de Genève (1814-1914), doctoral thesis: Univ. of Geneva, 2003, p. 430.
11 Today, we speak of the Pictet Group in reference to its international dimension and the institution’s legal and organisational segmentation into several distinct companies.
12 LÜTHY, Herbert, op. cit., 3 vols.
13 In 1926, the bank changed its name to Pictet & Cie, which it retained until 2014. During this period, the legal structure of the partnership required there to be always at least one Pictet partner in order to preserve the company name.
14 CANDAUX, Jean-Daniel, Histoire de la famille Pictet 1474-1974, Geneva: Braillard, 1974, vol. 1, p. IX.
15 The equivalent of the current Council of State, the executive power, in the Geneva institutions of the Ancien Régime. It consisted of twenty-five members and two secretaries of state. It generally included four syndics.
16 Twelve syndics, four lieutenants, five general treasurers under the Republic.
17 PICTET, François Charles, 1815-2015: Notice sur Charles Pictet de Rochemont (1755-1824), négociateur des frontières du canton de Genève, artisan de la reconnaissance par l'Europe de la neutralité permanente de la Suisse, Geneva: Pictet Family Archives Foundation, 2015.  

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