As more watchmakers retire every year, the numbers aren't there to make up for the coming deficit. At the same time, new watchmakers coming out of school are not up to the most demanding tasks of high watchmaking. Sure, they might be able to regulate and service simple watches, but the most complicated movements are often beyond their abilities. It can take up to ten years for a watchmaking school graduate to develop into a master watchmaker.
Surprisingly, in the watch industry, time isn't a luxury many companies have when it comes to the critical situation regarding watchmakers.
The generation ‘gap’
When the quartz watch revolutionized the watch industry in the 1970s, many old school watchmakers hung up their tools and watchmaking became a dead occupation. Sure, there were some companies still operating, but from the height of the industry, the fall off in numbers of watchmakers was dramatic.
Then, in the 1990s, mechanical watches got hot again and are hotter than ever today. More watchmakers are being trained, but what kept the Swiss watch industry on the top of the world was the apprentice system, which suffered by the ‘gap’ when watchmaking was not in vogue.
Another challenge is the impact the computer has had on the watch industry. Today's sophisticated computer modelling and design programmes make anything seem possible and quality problems can result from too much dependence on computer simulation. Problems that would easily have been spotted when a design is put through the rigorous process of prototyping and testing can be overlooked or ignored when computer modelling and simulating testing is depended on too heavily.
"There is already a huge problem," says one master watchmaker who preferred to remain anonymous. "It's evident that if it doesn't get fixed, the watch industry may be ruined. There are many companies today selling watches that are not fit for sale. The watches are not controlled enough, so it has already started. The numbers of returns are astronomical. What worries me is why do the final customers accept it? There are people in the industry who want to do things the right way and there are people who just want to make money to the degradation of watchmaking.
"In 1970 - 1980, about 5% of all watches sold were returned for service," he continues. "Today, it's 30 - 40%. The backers all want an immediate profit. They work on a profit basis, not on a long-term quality basis. There is not enough time to test the product properly. Economically, it's ridiculous. Who wins at the end of the day?"
Today's market is hungry for the next great complication and some companies, in a hurry to capitalize on a market that is super hot right now, just might be putting watches into the supply stream that already have technical issues or will have service problems down the road.
Add to this the fact that when these hyper complicated watches need service, there aren't enough qualified watchmakers to perform that service in a timely fashion.
"We need young people coming into the watch industry," admits Rolando Braga, President, Armand Nicolet. "Finding qualified people is a big problem and it will be worse in the future. There is a big difference between a watchmaker and a watch repair person. The problem is the real watchmakers. It's a recipe for disaster."
Evolution of companies and staff numbers in Swiss watch industry from 1949 to 2005
Timely after-sales service is a huge issue. If a customer has to wait four to six months for his watch to be sent back to Switzerland, he may think twice about buying something else from a Swiss company.
"The question of service is a critical one and that's why Zenith has opened service centres in every country where we sell watches," explains Thierry Nataf, President and CEO, Zenith. "We don't allow anyone else but Zenith authorized service centres to service our watches. To have the top watchmakers, we have to train our own here. We export Swiss watchmakers to the US because we can't find enough qualified watchmakers there. Service is so important - the bottom line is that the watch has to work."
In reality, after-sales service is an opportunity for a company to stand out, because in general, service is pretty poor when it comes to mechanical watches.
"If the watches can't be serviced in a timely fashion, it will kill the watch industry," Nataf adds. "The companies who provide good service will survive and thrive, those that do not will have a huge problem."
Thomas Morf, President and CEO, Carl F. Bucherer, agrees that this is a looming issue that has to be resolved. "Since the watch industry is breaking new records every year, servicing is becoming an imminent problem," he says. "Lots of watchmakers are going to be retiring soon. The dearth of watchmaking needs to be paid more attention to by the government - the watch industry is the second or third biggest industry in Switzerland. The politicians should incentivize watchmaking, because it's a good job. We need to attract more people into watchmaking.
"There are more and more mechanical watches, more complicated watches, and who is going to service these watches?" Morf continues. "Many brands neglect the service part of it. They don't factor service into the equation when they are designing the watches, because they are marketing guys. Service often becomes a stepchild."
Mechanical watches need to be serviced and the service has to be personal. "When you have mechanical watches, the character of each wearer is different," explains Vartan Sirmakes, president, Franck Muller. "If you are active, your watch needs some special adjustment and if you are sedentary, it needs to be adjusted in a different way.
"There is always a problem to find good watchmakers," Sirmakes continues. "It's the responsibility of watch companies to make a system of apprenticeship, education. We have an apprenticeship program here. It's not classical, we have many young people, they want to go forward and we give them a chance."
Some retailers have their own in-house watchmakers, which is a great asset to have so that repairs can be turned around quickly. It will get harder and harder to find qualified watchmakers to work in retailers around the world, as well. And in-house watchmakers probably are not capable of servicing the most complicated watches from the various brands.
Just look at the number of tourbillons on the market right now. As these watches need service, who is going to service them?
The future is, like the watches that need to be serviced, complicated. Some brands are putting on the best face they can and saying that they have everything covered, but the bottom line is that if this problem isn't addressed and steps taken to vigorously solve it, conditions could reach a critical stage in the next few years. As more mechanical watches are sold around the world, and these watches come back to be repaired and serviced, the watch industry has to be able to do a good job servicing them quickly and competently.
And to do that, the industry needs watchmakers and watch masters.
"This can be a time bomb if the industry doesn't take the necessary action," Carl F. Bucherer's Morf concludes. "We need more top watch-makers. We need watchmakers who can fix the more complicated watches. These watches have such tight tolerances, so there are not many people who can work on them."
Many watch brands talk a good game about being ready when the huge numbers of mechanical watches being sold need servicing. They better be ready to back that up by having the right people in the right places.
Franck Muller's Sirmakes feels confident that the major Swiss brands are planning many years into the future. "When watches are produced by Swiss companies, they feel responsible for them and they will make sure to do things properly," he says. "They are thinking about what is happening in the future, many years down the road. This is part of the Swiss culture."
Source: Europa Star August-September 2006 Magazine Issue
Who is going to service these watches?
There is no doubt that the mechanical watch industry is healthy, perhaps healthier than ever before. Watch brands are producing more mechanical watches each year, from simple, entry-level watches to the most complicated ever seen. New watch and movement manufacturers are popping up all the time, brands revived after years of dormancy and new brands, while the names we all know and respect continue to churn out mechanical watches.Lost in this rush to fulfil the worldwide demand for more and more mechanical product is a glaring and potentially disastrous problem looming on the horizon. The lack of quality watchmakers to make sure these watches are in good running order before they leave the factories and to repair and service the watches in the future.
Europa Star WorldWatchWeb, 15 August 2006
Keith W. Strandberg