The watchmaking seismograph

Español 中文
August 2012

These days, a strange ambiance reigns in the Swiss watch industry. Following its spectacular and rapid recovery after the 2009 post-crisis dive, it again spurted upwards. Export figures shot through the roof and brands are investing heavily in their production capabilities. Everywhere we are seeing new buildings under construction and extension projects, while others are redeploying and restructuring. At the same time, groups and large brands have been frenetically buying up sub-contractors. In this sector it’s still hunting season, even if the prey is becoming more and more scarce.

But behind these voracious appetites and major manoeuvring, we can feel the weight of muted fear… no, perhaps this is too strong, let’s say it is more like a palpable anxiety. There seems to be a small pause now in growth and already the bean counters are beginning to panic. What if China really is slowing down? What if Europe is unable to lift itself out of its crisis? What if the euro explodes? And, what if protectionism once again becomes the norm?

The watchmaking seismograph

These questions, you might well say, don’t just relate to the watch market, which is a small drop of water in the global economic ocean. Yet, the watch industry is particular because it is as sensitive as a seismograph to general economic tremors. This is even more so since paradoxically, this art and industry of time clearly does not have much memory and often acts only with a view of the short term. China is opening up, let’s fill up the drawers as quickly as possible, cram as many products into this country-continent as we can, saturate the windows, occupy even the smallest space… It has been said, however (and our correspondent in Shanghai confirms this), that many of the proud flagship stores, where you can still smell the fresh paint on the walls, are deserted most of the time. Are the staggering export figures for China (up 79 per cent between May 2010 and May 2012) nothing more than the sell-in, or at least in large part the sell-in? Doubt is beginning to creep in and is now contributing to this “strange ambiance” that we are speaking about.

A seismograph of seismographs, the suppliers and various related branches of the watch industry all say that people are once again being very cautious about ordering, some even delaying by several months. Another clue is that, besides a few stars in the spotlights, the independents are finding it more difficult than ever. Faced with the great power of the large groups, they tinker with their destiny the best they can; they slide their feet into any door that cracks open; they try to carefully thread their way through the mesh of the nets that are closing dangerously around them; they repeat like a sacred mantra that the pressure of the groups will open new opportunities for them.

Yet, in this midst of this strange ambiance, innovations continue to flourish and alternatives are reaching maturity, as we show on the pages of this special issue dedicated to mechanical watches. Watchmaking is indeed as sensitive as a seismograph—it rises, falls, and rises again faster than the others. It moves back and forth to the rhythm of the world. Its history corresponds to ours.

Photo: Mikrotourbillon central hand component by TAG Heuer

Source: Europa Star August - September 2012 Magazine Issue