Watch industry: Retro-engineering and re-innovation

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August 2011

In China, a goal has been officially declared, and it is ‘re-innovation’. To attain this goal, the tools are furnished by ‘retro-engineering’. This ‘re-innovation’ passes by a series of phases that detail the very official PRC medium to long-term plan, 2006 – 2020 of China’s Minister of Science*: “importation, absorption, assimilation, and re-innovation of foreign savoir-faire.” To put it plainly, this is an institutionalized plan to gradually acquire foreign know-how, not only to copy it as was currently practiced at the beginning of the great Chinese resurgence, but quite simply to also absorb and assimilate it in order to improve upon this know-how and then to reinvent it.

Using the techniques of retro-engineering, the functioning of such and such an object can be understood in detail. It can then be analyzed in depth, so that a new one with either the same or more advanced, if possible, functionalities can be created. This predatory process may come as the result of industrial espionage, ‘technology poaching’, student networks, or researchers who have been ‘converted to spies’. But, it can also come from perfectly legal means—technology transfers that have been duly approved and that do not violate any patents.

According to a Western diplomat posted in Beijing*, the illegal espionage methods used to obtain information account for only “a small part of the ways information is captured, since nearly eighty per cent of technological savoir-faire is transferred by legal means—solici-tations for offers, cooperation, partnerships”. In terms of industrial espionage, the Western nations are no saints either. In the same article*, Jacques Follorou writes that the DGSE (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure de la France) “has placed at the disposition of large French firms, in a secured location in its headquarters in Paris, confidential commercial documents, including Chinese, that were surreptitiously obtained using satellite technology”.

So, who exactly is spying on whom? The question has become more complex than ever. Today, globalization and industrial espionage resemble a hall of mirrors where everyone spies on everyone else (under the overall surveillance of the Americans who undoubtedly have the world’s most sophisticated network for ‘capturing’ information).

When reading the article by Jean-Luc Adam, our correspondent in China, in this issue, in which he talks about the very discreet Beijing Watch Factory, we discover—admittedly with some amazement—the double tourbillon, the minute repeater tourbillon, and the orbital tourbillon, which this brand has created. It is a programme of ‘retro-engineering’, initiated in 1996 by the Chinese master watchmaker, Xu Yaonan, the designer of the first tourbillon made in continental China. It was introduced in 2003 under the victorious name ‘Hong Jin’, which means ‘red gold’. (In passing, we would like to pay homage to the pioneer, Xiu Tai Yu, who unfortunately had to stop his watch activities due to health concerns, and to whom we owe the first ‘Mystery Tourbillon’, made in Hong Kong ten years earlier, in 1993.)

It would be wrong to unilaterally protest this demonstration of retro-engineering prowess. History teaches us, and it must never be forgotten, that the watchmakers of Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel practiced retro-engineering, which let them assimilate and then improve upon—thus ‘re-inventing’—the great timekeeping of France and Britain.

Retro-engineering is as old as the hills. In 260 BC, the Romans, after having seized an enemy ship, copied the standardization processes employed by the Carthaginians in the construction of their warships, and then made a few technical improvements (such as gangplanks). They succeeded in only forty days to construct a flotilla of eighty ships, allowing them to set up the base of their domination of Mediterranean waters.

Also, in regards to what we here could call ‘re-innovation’, we need only to cite the recent example (anonymous to avoid offending anyone) of a young consumer who complained to me that he was incensed that a famous brand had ‘copied’ the model of another famous brand. In reality, it was exactly the opposite and the ‘copy’—much more visible than the ‘original’—that had become the reference. Clearly, one is always the retro-engineer of the other.

* Source: Le Monde, ‘L’oeil de Pékin’ (The Eye of Beijing), Jacques Follorou, June 14, 2011.

Source: Europa Star August - September 2011 Magazine Issue