October 2014

A group of people got together to found Watch Thinking, the first think tank devoted to watchmaking. Among other things, they discuss the link between watches and new technologies. A wide-ranging, no-holds-barred interview.

They are unruly, outspoken and rebellious. Your correspondent sometimes has trouble keeping his subjects under control. This group of mavericks meets up regularly in the mountains above Neuchâtel, to talk informally about watchmaking, the philosophy and anthropology of the wristwatch, and its past, present and future. The first is one of the progenitors of Swatch, who set up the Creaholic innovation centre; another is an iconoclastic mathematician who, among other achievements, was Switzerland’s first Scientific Consul in Boston; the third is a well-known industrialist and watchmaking entrepreneur, and manager of Vaucher Manufacture; and the fourth is an argumentative ethnologist who revolutionised his domain.

Elmar Mock
Elmar Mock
Xavier Comtesse
Xavier Comtesse
Jean-Daniel Dubois
Jean-Daniel Dubois
Jacques Hainard
Jacques Hainard

They are Elmar Mock, Xavier Comtesse, Jean-Daniel Dubois and Jacques Hainard. These men, and a few others, recently decided to launch the world’s first “watchmaking think tank”, which they christened Watch Thinking. They share a love for Switzerland’s Watch Valley, the world watchmaking centre, with its 60,000 jobs in the industry. If their attitude sometimes seem harsh, it’s because they want to shake things up. And the reason they want to do that – and this is another point they have in common – is that they believe we are at a turning point. At a time when everyone is talking about the Apple Watch and the “dematerialisation” of timekeeping, they are flying the flag of resistance. Their mission is to keep the fires of Swiss horological creation burning, and ensure that it is not overtaken by events.

“Telling the time is meaningless without some connection to others.”

Since they’re so difficult to control, I finally decide I might as well just let them speak. It’s like watching a play. These larger-than-life characters constantly interrupt, sometimes arguing, often agreeing. They bounce off each other. Is this how a think tank is supposed to work? Lyrical flights of fancy and animal metaphors are followed by politically incorrect statements. “You’d better not print that,” they regularly caution. What follows is a snapshot of an ordinary, slightly unhinged session of Watch Thinking, one September afternoon in Neuchâtel. The group begins its discussion. Good manners are entirely optional. They’re outspoken and argumentative, but that’s fine. We’ll patch the pieces together later.

What are your thoughts about the advent of so-called ‘connected’ watches?

Mock: People talk about ‘connectivity’ as if it only applied to smartwatches! But telling the time is meaningless without some connection to others. A watch, even a traditional one, is a symbol of connection between human beings. If I’m alone in the desert or the jungle, I don’t care what time it is. Modern watchmaking was introduced to give us the ability to manage our relationships with others. It’s inevitable that watches should seek wider levels of connection through new technologies.
Comtesse: In a way, we’re going back to our roots. The connected watch harks back to the primordial function of a timepiece, which is to bring people together.
Mock: It’s fundamental. Recently we’ve focused heavily on functions other than the time: complications. It’s admirable, but it’s just ‘modern Tinguely*’.

Will the future continue in the same vein?

Comtesse: In the last five years, time has evaporated. It’s started to escape from the watch. Today, many people have got used to checking the time on their mobile phones. You might say that’s not important, because what we’re really selling in a traditional watch is luxury, an idea and an emotion. But it’s problematic all the same. It takes great skill to build a well-balanced watch movement. You can’t sweep it all away with the back of your hand, saying that accuracy no longer matters.
Dubois: What I find interesting about connected watches is that at least they are putting devices back on wrists! Many young people don’t wear watches any more. The wrist has been reclaimed.
Mock: Unfortunately, Switzerland lost the battle for the wrist a long time ago! We succeeded in winning the fashion battle, which is part of the wrist war. Today, out of every 200 watches produced around the world, just one is Swiss.
Comtesse: It’s not as simple as that. Out of the one billion watches produced every year, maybe 90% cost less than ten francs. And everyone who buys a ten-franc watch dreams of owning a Swiss watch!

“A connected watch is not really a watch. It’s part of a much bigger phenomenon known as the ‘internet of things’. And it also tells the time.”


So will the connected watch attack the Swiss watch?

Mock: Not directly. It’s true that with the connected watch, you’re not going after the sub-ten franc watches, you’re aiming for those that cost 100 to 800 francs. Nevertheless, the market won’t get any smaller, the cards will just be dealt out differently. The market will grow, it will bring in new clients. Let’s assume a 10% increase; that will mean additional production of 100 million units per year, which translates into 50 billion francs in sales. And that means that turnover in the connected watch sector will overtake that of the luxury watch sector.
Swiss watchmaking will no longer be number one in value terms. And that will be a major blow. Are we prepared for that? An extraordinary new market is opening up, and it’s a great shame that the Swiss watchmaking industry does not have any part in it, at least not yet.
Comtesse: In fact, a connected watch is not really a watch. It’s part of a much bigger phenomenon known as the ‘internet of things’. And it also tells the time. It will be bought by users who are mainly young people, many of whom might never have worn a watch before.

So, will the prestige of Swiss watches remain intact?

Hainard: The luxury watch remains an object with very strong recognition. At a dinner or a reception, the first thing you look at is people’s watches. With the watch I wear, I have to compensate with my witty conversation (laughter). I think that niche will be with us a lot longer than some people think.
Comtesse: But we have to be careful not to stay holed up in the ‘rich niche’, and steer well clear of ‘bling-bling’. In the 1970s, the Swiss watchmaking industry produced 100 million mechanical watches. Last year we produced 28 million watches, just 5 million of which were mechanical. For the time being we are holding our own in terms of value, but we’ve already lost the masses. Apple, Samsung and Google want to win them back, with products that are far more expensive than ten-franc watches.
Mock: All the same, this ‘rich niche’ as you call it has continued to grow, and Swiss watches are far more appealing than they were 20 years ago. That’s a good thing. But the problem is that we have put all our efforts into that, to the detriment of other potential avenues. What’s interesting about the new market for connected watches is that it is also targeting the middle and upper classes. It’s targeting everyone, whereas before, when we went for quantity, we were looking mainly to the base of the social pyramid, the mass market.

Nevertheless, smartwatches don’t appear to have a very long lifespan. People tire of them quickly. None of them has really broken through yet.

Mock: You’re right. I bought a Pebble watch. I tried it but I didn’t really get on with it...
Comtesse: Nevertheless, around two million smartwatches were sold last year, and those produced by Samsung and Google are getting better all the time. Personally, I think the design of the Apple Watch is a bit of failure. They only innovative function, its one crazy touch, is that it is programmable. All smartwatches will have that feature in the future. It means that I can change the screen to display any image I want, such as the dial of Swiss watch, for example. Until now the watchmaking world has never given anyone the possibility to programme a watch. That is a big departure.
Dubois: You can change your watch to suit your mood.
Mock: For me, a traditional watch movement is an industrial corpse. It stays in the same form until it dies. It’s frozen. A programmable watch, on the other hand, has incredible potential for constant regeneration. I’m not saying that it will kill off traditional watchmaking; it won’t. But it does meet the demands of part of the population. The key question now is whether we want to be part of this new market, or not. I think we are entirely capable. Not by copying others, but by finding a ‘Swiss way’, which will be more flexible and less tribal than Apple or Samsung. That’s where I think the real potential lies.
Dubois: It’s an extraordinary opportunity.
Comtesse: We’ll see the birth of a new profession: that of watchmaker-programmer. Tomorrow, 100,000 people will be writing smartwatch apps. There will be ‘killer apps’. We don’t yet know where they will come from or what they will do. But to have a chance of being part of it we need to start setting up training courses for watchmaker-programmers right now and right here, in the heart of Watch Valley!
Hainard: We are living in fascinating, exciting times. After 12,000 years, we’re finally emerging from the stone age! Everywhere, in all fields, we are seeing fundamental change.

“We’ll see the birth of a new profession: that of watchmaker-programmer.”


In the future, will all watches be connected?

Comtesse: Not everyone in Watch Thinking agrees on this point. I think that, one way or another, all watches will eventually have some sort of connectivity, even at the very top end. Look at the car industry: Ferrari makes plenty of ‘connected’ cars, which have security modules in case of theft. Even just for monitoring purposes, people with a watch worth more than 100,000 francs might well want their timepiece to be fitted with a discreet chip. And maybe also a chip that can be used to make payments. This kind of system will become more and more common in years to come.
Dubois: In fact it’s already possible to fit watches with tracking chips, to guard against illegal resale.
Mock: The real challenge is not the electronics per se, it’s making the product easy to use. If the experience is sufficiently user-friendly, new technologies will also be integrated into top-of-the-range models. But for the time being, customer satisfaction with smartwatches has not yet reached the hoped-for levels.
Comtesse: What we need to understand is that high-tech and luxury are not mutually exclusive. The most well-off people are often comfortable with both. They’re geeks! And it can be done discreetly, for example by fitting a classic watch with a connected bracelet.
Mock: So will luxury move towards high-tech, or will high-tech move towards luxury?
Comtesse: Both!
Dubois: They’ll meet in the middle.

“The real challenge is not the electronics per se, it’s making the product easy to use.”


Why set up a watchmaking think tank now?
The founders of Watch Thinking explain their reasons.

Launched as part of the Swiss Creative Centre in Neuchâtel, in partnership with Vaucher Manufacture, the aim of Watch Thinking is to give the watchmaking world a new forum for debate, by leading discussions and organising conferences on relevant topics such as the future of luxury, the internet of things, smartwatches and manufacturing. In order to be able to conduct its debates and try to gain some influence, the think tank is financially supported by businesses and institutions including banks, watchmaking companies and multinationals.

How did Watch Thinking come about?
Dubois: We started out with similar ideas, it was a meeting of minds.
Comtesse: Forty percent of the residents of the Jura Arc work in watchmaking. However, we felt we lacked a forum for discussing watches. It’s important not to rest on your laurels!
Dubois: There was no industrial think tank of this type. In the watchmaking world we have something of a cult of secrecy. Everyone likes to work on their own, in their own little corner.

What is the point of departure for your discussions?
Mock: Will tomorrow be an extrapolation of yesterday? Does Swiss watchmaking need to undergo a transformation, or can we continue to do what we have always done? That is the great unknown. For 200 years, luxury watchmaking has based its future on a projection of the past. Will any of this be called into question? Our aim is not to criticise but to reflect.
Comtesse: We know where we come from, we’re all locals who recognise the value of the watchmaking industry. However, there are two ways of celebrating this: you can look to the past with nostalgia, or to the future with enthusiasm.
Dubois: In this region, watchmaking is practically all we know how to do...

How do you work?
Mock: We have spontaneous, completely unstructured discussions. The main thing for a discussion group is to find inspiration. But we never know where that will come from. That’s why it’s important that we include people with varied horizons. Something is happening, and that is exciting. But perhaps in six months, other people will come along and take over. We must not be so arrogant as to think we are better than others, or that we are the only ones who know anything.
Dubois: It must not become an elitist club.

What influence do you have?
Mock: Personally, the experience has already been extremely rewarding for me. I hope the same is true for others. Our objective is not to find the ultimate answer, but to suggest possible ways forward. We’re trying to stimulate some brain cells! Will anyone listen to us? As things stand, we have no clear signs that the matriarchs are really interested in childbearing, to extend my metaphor...
Comtesse: I think our voice is starting to be heard, despite the fact that it may make uncomfortable listening.

What advantages does Watch Valley have that could safeguard its future?
Hainard: As Einstein said: “To move forward, you have to think sideways.” What unites us, here in Watch Valley, is thinking sideways. On the one hand, you have scientific thought, and on the other you have ‘magical’, creative thought. Innovation happens when the engineer meets the sorcerer.
Mock: The strength of Watch Valley is “System D.”* (Laughter)
Comtesse: The people here are very cultured. The discussions we have in Le Locle are far more interesting than the ones we have in Geneva. People around here read a lot.
Hainard: That’s not surprising, given all the snow they get in the winter.
Dubois: And during those long winters they can also do a bit of watchmaking on the side!

Source: Europa Star October - November 2014 Magazine Issue