archives


Can watchmaking avoid another tragic loss of heritage?

KNOW-HOW

Español Français
September 2020


Can watchmaking avoid another tragic loss of heritage?

Forty years ago, the quartz crisis caused havoc in the Swiss watch industry, leading to the destruction of many valuable documents in the ensuing economic debacle. Now that the sector is once again in deep turmoil, many fear that another loss of heritage is on the horizon. Fortunately, technology has made a quantum leap forward in terms of preserving knowledge. The case of Arkhênum, a company that is currently digitising the archives of the League of Nations in Geneva (15 million pages), illustrates this.

I

n watchmaking perhaps even more than in any other industry, intangible heritage has a very tangible value. Countless watch models have been reissued, and the last few years have been one big exercise in horological archaeology, speleology even… excavating the treasures of the past. Today’s bestsellers are models from the 1960s and 1970s. Few other industries operate in this way.

During the quartz crisis, many precious documents were lost or thrown away. They became collateral damage, victims of the assumption that the mechanical watch was dead (the story of Charles Vermot, the “saviour” of Zenith’s El Primero plans, is a case in point). As the pandemic crisis batters the sector today, who can guarantee that history will not repeat itself, and that with bankruptcies or closures, more treasures will not be lost?

Countless watch models have been reissued, and the last few years have been one big exercise in horological archaeology, speleology even… excavating the treasures of the past.

In this context, preservation is an urgent imperative. Oblivion is a genuine “business threat” for a sector that extracts value from its historical heritage. The current bid to add watchmaking to UNESCO’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which is supported by Switzerland and France, is very good news in this respect.

An advertisement for El Primero de Zenith in Europa Star in 1970. In the midst of the crisis in the watch industry, Charles Vermot saved precious technical documents that would later allow the rebirth of this legendary calibre. This emblematic case illustrates the risk of loss of know-how, particularly acute in times of economic difficulty.
An advertisement for El Primero de Zenith in Europa Star in 1970. In the midst of the crisis in the watch industry, Charles Vermot saved precious technical documents that would later allow the rebirth of this legendary calibre. This emblematic case illustrates the risk of loss of know-how, particularly acute in times of economic difficulty.

Digitising for the past – and above all for the future

We at Europa Star have seen for ourselves how digitisation can give new life to archives that once lay dormant on shelves (so far we have made accessible over 100,000 pages going back to 1950, about a third of our total archive dating back to 1927). In the course of our century-long history, we have also had to deal with one fire and two floods of our premises, which resulted in the loss of some documents. Any company with a history runs this risk.

The Arkhênum digitisation workshop at the UN in Geneva
The Arkhênum digitisation workshop at the UN in Geneva

Since 1999, Arkhênum has specialised in the digitisation of documents. Born at the beginning of the digital era in Bordeaux, France, the company is now a multinational specialising in safeguarding cultural and industrial heritage. In 2018, in Switzerland, it began the most ambitious project in its history: the digitisation of all the archives of the League of Nations in Geneva, i.e. 15 million pages covering the existence of the institution from 1919 to 1946. This project sets an example for watchmaking.

The digitisation of all the archives of the League of Nations in Geneva (15 million pages covering the existence of the institution from 1919 to 1946) sets an example for watchmaking.

Laurent Onaïnty, Managing Director of Arkhênum
Laurent Onaïnty, Managing Director of Arkhênum

“The UN has entrusted us with this mission, which will last until 2022,” says Laurent Onaïnty, director general of Arkhênum. “We have set up a dedicated digitisation workshop on site with six people, and deployed a tailor-made chain for data processing, control and delivery. The best machines, the best algorithms and the best storage media were selected for this multilingual and international project.” Part of the archives are already available through the website created by Arkhênum.

La plateforme mise en place dans le cadre du Total Digital Access Project de l'ONU
La plateforme mise en place dans le cadre du Total Digital Access Project de l’ONU

A starting point for multiple applications

It’s important to point out that digitisation itself is only a starting point, a first step leading to the enhancement and sharing of historical sources. There are many applications: open archives for state entities, sources of inspiration for research and development, physical and virtual museums, promotion of brand image, or access to archives in the context of teleworking, as demonstrated during the recent period of lockdown.

“In the beginning, our clients commissioned us mainly to create paper reproductions of old archives,” underlines Laurent Onaïnty. “Our first mandate, twenty years ago, was to create a paper facsimile of the Essais de Montaigne in English. But since then, the concept of digital display has come a long way. It has been further accelerated by the pandemic in recent months, which has led to a forced digitisation.”

Since the beginning of the year, Arkhênum, which has 70 employees and was acquired in 2016 by Mobilitas, an international company specialising in mobility and document management, has recorded an increase in demand for digitisation, spurred by the urgency of the pandemic crisis. The manager explains it as follows: “In recent months, the priority for many companies has been to reproduce the physical experience online, and also to preserve and share documents through digitisation.”

As a result of the pandemic, the demand for digitisation has increased to facilitate teleworking.
As a result of the pandemic, the demand for digitisation has increased to facilitate teleworking.

The watch industry faces an immense risk

On average, Arkhênum manually processes more than 18 million pages per year, which represents more than 200 million pages scanned since its foundation. The structure of its customer base has evolved considerably: while public institutions (ministries, departmental and municipal authorities, state archives, museums and libraries) still accounted for 95% of its customers in 2016, the demands of the private sector have led Arkhênum to diversify its activities and services.

This diversification is also geographical, since the company has established offices in Switzerland and Germany, and operates worldwide thanks to its “in-situ” workshops. At the same time, technological advances in artificial intelligence and Big Data have made it easier to organise documents, while 3D digitisation has opened up a new field of activity.

Technological advances in artificial intelligence and Big Data have made it easier to organise documents.

“For private companies, seniority has a strategic value: the best way to prove its legitimacy on a market is to refer to its archives and heritage,” says Laurent Onaïnty. “Many clients in the luxury, cosmetics, fashion or automotive industries, whether multinationals or SMEs, have already successfully completed such projects. It is also a unifying element internally.” The exercise is all the more valuable if it can be carried out as part of “a global and coherent approach, and not on the basis of a specific request from a single department.”

In watchmaking, brands such as Longines (read here), Patek Philippe (read here), Audemars Piguet or Rolex have already done a huge amount of work in digitising and systematically promoting the value of their heritage, which can be seen in the consistency of their output. One might even be tempted to posit a correlation between this efficient management of their heritage and their financial success... Another interesting case is that of Breitling, which, under the leadership of Georges Kern, is currently working hard on the strategic development of its archives and heritage. Or that of Doxa, which is making a strong comeback thanks to its heritage.

“For private companies, seniority has a strategic value: the best way to prove its legitimacy on a market is to refer to its archives and heritage.”

The theme of digitisation, driven by the pandemic crisis-led lockdown, will certainly increasingly dominate the horological agenda in the coming months. As demonstrated by the immense task undertaken by Arkhênum for the League of Nations’ archives, ever-changing technologies bring new opportunities, and contemporary examples of how the resulting archives can be exploited are convincing. However, many documents remain threatened by the current economic fragility of the Swiss watchmaking industry. If no action is taken, we may yet see history repeat itself, in the form of an incalculable loss of knowledge. The countdown has begun.

It is now possible to scan objects in 3D or 360° for online use.
It is now possible to scan objects in 3D or 360° for online use.
ACCESS ALL EUROPA STAR EDITIONS SINCE 1950
Our data base contains over 100,000 pages and 70 years of fully searchable issues, up to the most recent publication. A treasure trove for all knowledgeable professionals and aficionados.