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Pandemics and horology

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March 2020


Pandemics and horology

In 1918, at the end of World War One, the Spanish flu pandemic strikes. It will go on to cause 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide. To save Swiss watchmaking, it must go upmarket, asserted the Journal Suisse d’Horlogerie at the time. But what about today? Should it do just the opposite: go downmarket instead?

1918: SPANISH FLU

“The most obvious effect of the current crisis is that the sale of quality and luxury watches has become extremely difficult. Our watchmaking trade today consists largely in selling cheap watches. The result has been a damaging fall in the average value of watches, while the price of the raw materials has risen in unprecedented fashion.”

“Some of the watches were of very poor quality. Certain factories sought only to deliver. They supplied rubbish, timepieces made with poor-quality raw materials, others poorly finished. The stones, for example (rubies or garnets), were often replaced by a drop of enamel or paint.”
Dr F. Seheurer, professor at the University of Neuchâtel, in 1921

“We know from experience that a fall in prices easily leads to one in quality and engenders fraud. On the one hand, it is a non-utilisation of our artistic and technical heritage, which is our strength and which ensures our supremacy on the world market; on the other, it is discredit that lies in wait for us if we are not wary. Is it necessary to state once again that the pricing policy of the watchmaking industry must be a policy of quality?” – Thus wrote Dr Marius Fallet in the JSH (Journal Suisse d’Horlogerie) in June 1918.

Saving watchmaking by “artistic typification”

To save Swiss watchmaking in the long term from the threat of discredit due to mediocrity, the writer suggests developing its artistic and stylistic aspects to render it unique. His basic premise is astonishing. According to him, “we have transformed, simplified, standardised even our calibres; perfected our escapements, balance springs, mainsprings, etc. in every way; our settings have a degree of precision which makes them the admiration of juries and connoisseurs. Our technical specialisation of the manufacturing genres has been pushed to the limit of what is possible.”

Fallet thus believed there was scant scope for improvement in mechanical watchmaking and that, consequently, everything rested on decoration and what he called “typification”. He writes: “Why not create the farmer’s watch, the artisan’s, labourer’s, the ecclesiastical watch, the watch of the artist, doctor, lawyer, teacher, etc.? Civil servants, postmen, railway workers, for example, abound. Let us create varieties of watch for them.”

Pandemics and horology

This ambition would be swept away by the Spanish flu, which lasted until 1920, and by vast social and geopolitical upheaval, with the defeat of Germany (which dropped from first place in the client rankings in 1913 to 13th place by 1920), the Russian Revolution, the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1920, the first and second most important markets were the United States and Britain. But there was also the advent of the wristwatch, which relegated the pocket watch to the bottom drawer. Whatever the case, the dreams and prophesies of Marius Fallet in 1918 were finally fulfilled, but in a different way, with the apotheosis of the instrument watch dedicated to the different professions, travel, sports. And only decades later.

2020: CORONAVIRUS

In what state is watchmaking at this time of mandatory self-isolation, in what state will it be afterwards, and what will become of it? A vast question. We could do with a Marius Fallet to guide us. But one thing is certain: a huge difference separates the watch sector from 1918. In 2020, the Swiss watch industry is producing fewer and fewer timepieces, but they are more and more expensive. It produces only “artistic” quality, as Fallet would describe it.

Certainly, he was mistaken when he said that nothing more was to be learned in mechanical watchmaking: the opposite was true. It has been seized by almost consummate madness and taken on a life of its own. Fallet viewed the soul – the movement – as separate from the skin. Today, the watch mechanism is a skin in itself. We could even say that hubris has taken hold of watchmaking (average price at the last GPHG: CHF 340,000).

Unlike in 1918, today it is “style”, as Fallet always referred to it, the high end of the market, that predominates the entire landscape.

Pandemics and horology

After the battle

How will the hubris-gripped watchmaking sector fare once the battle of this pandemic is fought? Will it progressively regain strength during the semesters of recovery which, whatever else happens, are going to be necessary; or will it give way to a more affordable, more democratic watch sector, one with a soul and cured of its excesses? In other words, will the mid-range – as it is so deprecatingly called – regain ground?

That, you might say, is to assume that the players who do survive are strong enough to make it. What may help them is a redistribution of priorities, lessons learned from the disaster. A change in mentality, a new awareness of the fragility of things, of the world. That is the best we can hope for.

In the meantime, let us take care.

Containment zone in a barracks in San Francisco. Beds are equipped with “anti-sneeze” walls. 1918.
Containment zone in a barracks in San Francisco. Beds are equipped with “anti-sneeze” walls. 1918.

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