he Kaufmann family is a perfect illustration of the relationship between Switzerland and Canada, in the field of watches and more. Pius Kaufmann, a jeweller from St. Gallen (now 90 years old), moved to Montreal to learn English before opening his own store there. His son Charles grew up in Canada and then returned to his homeland, where he worked at Bucherer... before being called back across the Atlanta by his father across to open a new store.
Today, Charles Kaufmann is the sole authorised retailer for Patek Philippe in the entire province of Quebec. His prestigious boutique, Kaufmann de Suisse in Montreal, also sells Carl F. Bucherer, Parmigiani Fleurier and, as of this year, Nomos. “The purpose of introducing this brand is to attract a new generation of buyers with a more affordable entry-level offering,” says the Canadian-Swiss citizen. The family also owns a boutique in Palm Beach, Florida – illustrative of the deep economic integration between the United States and Canada.
- Charles Kaufmann, owner of Kaufmann de Suisse in Montreal, is Patek Philippe’s sole authorised retailer in the province of Quebec.
However, compared to its southern neighbour, the Canadian watch market still looks tiny. Despite 37 million inhabitants and economic success, particularly fuelled by gas, oil and the mining sector, Canada ranked only 22nd last year in the global map of Swiss watchmakers, behind... Portugal, with 177 million francs in imports.
We were expecting the country to figure more prominently in watchmaking statistics! Admittedly, demographic giants such as India and Brazil find themselves even further down the Swiss Watch Federation’s annual ranking, but Canada, a proponent of free trade and a well-integrated globalised country, is a long way from the crippling levels of protectionism that prevent watch brands from investing more there.
“We must stop considering Canada as a second-category market for unsold timepieces."
“A land to conquer”
“The Canadian market as a whole remains a land to conquer for Swiss watchmakers. The population is well off and the economy is doing well,” says Marco Miserendino, co-owner of Bijouterie Italienne in Montreal (a Rolex official retailer), and president of the Canadian Jewellers Association, the country’s leading organisation in the sector with more than 1,000 professional members.
But why isn’t Canada already in a stronger position in terms of Swiss watch exports?
“Large watch liquidators are based in Canada. This fact distorts official statistics.”
Industry representatives cite several reasons, but particularly – given that watchmaking is now more than ever associated with foreign visitors – its short tourist season. Nevertheless, the current exchange rate would appear to favour cross-border purchases by American neighbours...
- The Rolex corner at Bijouterie Italienne in Montreal. The boutique, which has the support of Montreal’s large Italian-speaking community, is one of the country’s major independent retailers.
A more pragmatic reason is offered: “Most OECD countries offer a VAT refund for purchases made by foreign customers. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in Canada,” explains Grigor Garabedian, head of the Birks Group’s central watchmaking division. This venerable company, founded in 1879, is today the leading watch distributor in the country, with 28 stores located from Halifax to Vancouver. It operates a Patek Philippe store in Vancouver, a Rolex shop-in-shop in Calgary and a Richard Mille shop-in-shop in Vancouver.
“Most OECD countries offer a VAT refund for purchases made by foreign customers. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in Canada.”
- Maison Birks is the leading Canadian player in the sale of watches and jewellery.
A taste for discretion?
So, if conditions mitigate against watch buying by visitors, why is local consumption not higher? Cultural reasons, related to purchasing habits, are cited. “The wealthiest Canadians I know often don’t wear luxury watches. We prefer to invest in real estate. I believe that a form of modesty and simplicity is expressed in our way of life, compared to the United States or other countries. The luxury sector must deal with this reality,” says Dominic Handal, owner of Pax Jewellers in Montreal.
- Dominic Handal, owner of Pax Jewellers in Montreal.
“I believe that a form of modesty and simplicity is expressed in our way of life, compared to the United States or other countries. The luxury sector must deal with this reality.”
Marco Miserendino also observes this culture of understatement in the choices of his customers: “For example, we sell more watches in white gold, which has a more discreet charm than yellow gold. Our customers favour moderation and our portfolio remains stable over time: we have few requests for very exclusive timepieces and there is no permanent quest for novelty, as can be seen in other markets.”
- Marco Miserendino, co-owner of Bijouterie Italienne in Montreal and president of the Canadian Jewellers Association.
“There is a culture of understatement in customer choices. For example, we sell more watches in white gold, which has a more discreet charm than yellow gold.”
Montreal wakes up
“However, sales of Swiss watches have grown surprisingly in recent years,” says Grigor Garabedian at Birks Group. Are we seeing a ‘catch-up’ effect, which could see Canada eventually aligning itself with the sales levels of Spain, a country with a comparable population and development but with twice as many imports of Swiss watches?
This seems to be the case in Montreal, Quebec’s biggest city, which, with more than 4 million inhabitants, contains half of the province’s population and wealth. A very important financial and trading centre until the 1960s, the city suffered from the geopolitical upheavals of Quebec, as well as from the shift of Canada’s economic heart ever more westward, towards the English-speaking provinces and the Pacific Ocean.
“In Montreal, infrastructure projects were at a standstill for about 40 years. But there is now a new confidence in the province’s economic climate and the city is benefiting from new investments,” says Marco Miserendino.
“Infrastructure projects were at a standstill for about 40 years in Montreal. But investor confidence has been restored.”
New watch festival in Montreal
Several signals seem to point to a new watchmaking dynamic in the city.
For example, last June, the auction house Phillips organised a presentation and sale of vintage watches during the Formula 1 Grand Prix Canada, Montreal’s most important international event. Among the timepieces presented at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel were beautiful vintage watches by Rolex, Omega and Heuer, under the common theme of motor racing.
Another sign: a new watch fair was organised for the first time this September in Montreal (Europa Star was a media partner). It brought together 14 brands, mainly Swiss but also German and even Canadian, with the aim of raising awareness of independent watchmaking in Canada. The event was organised by Simion Matei, a Montreal real estate entrepreneur with a passion for watchmaking.
The first Montreal watch show was organised on September 27 and 28 in the Canadian city. Fourteen independent brands, mainly Swiss but also German and even Canadian, introduced their latest creations.
Thomas Baillod, whose role it was to promote the festival, shares his vision of the Canadian watch market: “There is still a lot of educational work to do, but the potential is there. The market is now moving because it was neglected for a long time. Canada still lives in the shadow of the United States, which is getting all the attention. In addition, major watch liquidators are based in Canada. It distorts official statistics. The country is worth more than that: we must stop considering it as a second-category market for unsold timepieces.”
Different in the English-speaking provinces
The show, which was held at the luxurious St-James Club in Montreal, brought together mid- and high-end brands seeking recognition in Canada. Companies such as Maurice Lacroix, Dwiss, Bédat & Co, L&JR, Ultramarine and Junghans attended. “The intention is to offer a high-quality but relatively affordable watch offering,” says Thomas Baillod. “We do not want to create an inaccessible salon. With the dramatic changes that are disrupting traditional watch distribution, B2C shows, where direct sales are encouraged, have their place.”
Simion Matei launched the initiative because he wants to enrich the watchmaking environment in his city of Montreal and in the province of Quebec. “The retailers I’ve been able to meet are not yet up to speed on big names in the independent scene like Christophe Claret or Kari Voutilainen,” he says.
“We have chosen to set up a show that favours independent brands. We want to popularise fine independent watchmaking in Canada. Quebec in particular remains a little isolated on the global watch scene, more so than the English-speaking provinces.” Leading contemporary brands such as Richard Mille, Audemars Piguet and Greubel Forsey are present in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver but have no sales outlets in the province of Quebec.
Leading contemporary brands such as Richard Mille, Audemars Piguet and Greubel Forsey are present in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver but have no sales outlets in the province of Quebec.
A growing Asian community
Another perspective should be noted regarding Canada: it is a country with considerable immigration from Asia, particularly in British Columbia and on the Pacific Coast.
Knowing their importance in today’s watch sales on a global scale, could growth in Canada come from this community in particular? At Birks House, Grigor Garabedian confirms this trend: “Asian Canadians are the fastest growing community in the country. This clientele is becoming very important to us.”
A clear sign is that the group has recently adopted WeChat (China’s most popular messaging platform) to communicate with its customers. In Canada as elsewhere, a major part of the future of Swiss watchmaking will be written in Chinese!
In Canada as elsewhere, a major part of the future of Swiss watchmaking will be written in Chinese!
What about Canadian watchmakers?
The country is not without its home-grown watchmakers!
At the last Basel fair we had the pleasant surprise of meeting Alexandre Beauregard. This Montreal native is the founder of the brand of the same name (Swiss made). At the age of 17, he began drawing watch sketches and making prototypes. He finally launched his brand in 2018.
His creative approach consists in “reinterpreting the traditional idea of a jewellery watch, combining watchmaking and jewellery in a new way.” For this adventure, Alexandre Beauregard collaborates with a lapidary artist, Yves Saint-Pierre, as well as a jewellery and 3D drawing expert, François Ruel.
Drawing on their shared passion for gems, the trio gave birth to an initial collection with floral motifs called Dahlia. In terms of technical design, Beauregard called upon the services of Telos in La Chaux-de-Fonds to create the flying tourbillon that occupies the centre of the dial of this collection.
- The Dahlia collection by new brand Beauregard, Swiss made and founded by a Montrealer.
Outside Quebec, we should also mention Canadian brands Birchall & Taylor (Toronto), Wilk Watchworks (Toronto) and Novo Watch (Alberta). Still more are in the process of being launched. A new watchmaking startup, José Cermeño Montréal, was actually launched during Montreal’s first watch fair in September (see above).
“A particularly strong ecological conscience”
Meeting with Grigor Garabedian, Head of the Birks Group’s Central Watchmaking Division.
- Henry Birks opened his first store in Montreal in 1879.
Birks is Canada’s largest chain of watch and jewellery stores, with nearly 30 points of sale across the country. It also produces its own jewellery lines. For the latest financial year, the group recorded sales of $151 million.
This company, founded in Montreal in the 19th century, also has a role in the vast reconfiguration of watch retail in North America. In 2017 it sold the American watch chain Mayors, active in Florida and Georgia, to the British group Watches of Switzerland for 106.8 million dollars (read here our article on the arrival of the major European watch retailers in the United States).
In 2017, Birks sold the American watch chain Mayors, active in Florida and Georgia, to the British giant Watches of Switzerland for 106.8 million dollars.
The launch of Birks branded jewellery collections in the United Kingdom began in September 2017 through an exclusive distribution agreement with Mappin & Webb and Goldsmiths. The company intends to increase its presence in international markets over the next five years.
We interviewed Grigor Garabedian, head of the Birks Group’s central watchmaking division.
- One of Birks’ major activities is its own jewellery brand, which includes the popular Bee Chic series. Part of the income from this series is used to protect Canadian bees, wildlife and natural areas.
Europa Star: What have been the major milestones in the Birks’ Group’s history?
Grigor Garabedian: Henry Birks opened his first jewellery store in Montreal in 1879. A few years later, he moved to Phillips Square, where one of our flagship stores is still located today. By 1901, the group had expanded nationally, with outlets in Ottawa, Winnipeg and Vancouver.
Another turning point was the introduction of the Birks Blue Box jewellery gift concept in 1920. In 1954, the Birks Group opened its first store in a Canadian shopping mall in Dorval. We should also mention the creation of a gift for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1959, followed by our appointment as official supplier for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
In 1993, Jonathan Birks sold the company to the Regaluxe Group and in 2005 Birks merged with Mayors to form the group we know today.
How many points of sale do you have today?
Maison Birks has 28 stores across Canada and our jewellery collections are available in 63 retail outlets in North America and the United Kingdom. Our group also operates a Patek Philippe store in Vancouver and several shop-in-shop stores, for example for Rolex in Calgary and Richard Mille in Vancouver.
- Maison Birks has 28 stores across Canada and its jewellery collections are available in 63 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.
What are the main growth drivers for the group?
We seek above all to remain as close as possible to the evolution of our customers’ expectations. For example, in recent years we have noticed that they are increasingly attentive to the traceability and ecological impact of their purchases. Birks has taken many steps to become a more sustainable company. We are proud to source Canadian diamonds and participate in the campaign against “dirty gold”. In addition, the recent renovation of several of our flagship stores in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto offers a new shopping experience. I think this adaptability will ensure a bright future for us on the Canadian market.
“We have noticed that our customers are increasingly attentive to the traceability and ecological impact of their purchases.”
In 2017, you sold Mayors to the British group Watches of Switzerland. It also allowed you to develop your brand Birks Jewellery internationally, particularly in the United Kingdom. What stage are these developments at today?
We are continuing to develop Birks Fine Jewellery in the United Kingdom and the United States. We are constantly looking for new opportunities to expand our international presence.
- Several brands, for example Cartier and TAG Heuer, are available for purchase on the group’s e-commerce platform. Birks Group has also developed a partnership with Crown & Caliber for the second-hand segment.
Do you have an e-commerce platform?
Yes, a wide selection of our watches, for example from Cartier or TAG Heuer, are available for purchase on our online platform. Digital shopping is gaining in popularity. However, we have also noted the importance of maintaining a strong physical connection and personal experience with each customer. We want them to take the time to get to know the brands we offer in a welcoming space and to feel at home in our stores.
“In Canada, we have an exclusive partnership with Crown & Caliber, which specialises in second-hand watches and professional authentication.”
Do you also offer pre-owned watches?
In Canada, we have an exclusive partnership with Crown & Caliber, a platform that specialises in second-hand watches and professional authentication. We wanted to be able to offer a trusted service for this segment, which is why we have partnered with a well-known player in the industry. The process is very simple: you can choose between cash payment or Birks gift credit, with an additional 20% value for the second option. You then send the watch to Crown & Caliber for inspection and authentication, before receiving your payment directly by mail.