he year is 1998, two years before the release of Eminem’s mega hit The Real Slim Shady, which begins with the famous line: “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?” Somewhat prophetically, Pascal Brandt penned an article in Europa Star entitled “Will the real Haute Horlogerie please stand up?”.
The article was written in the wake of a forum held in Geneva to discuss and define the (already) overused and often misunderstood term of Haute Horlogerie.
In it, he gathers the views of legendary experts on the subject, such as Günter Blümlein, Michel Parmigiani and René Beyer, some of which may now surprise us.
Pascal Brandt conducts a retrospective for Europa Star in the following feature.
atchmaking terminology, a subject that mirrors an ever-changing industry. And watchmaking loves terms, terms that structure, terms that categorize. They are a form of reassurance, perhaps.
You may remember that, up until the 1990s, the segmentation of the watch market by product was based on price bracket. The entire industry enthused over the pyramid initiated by the Swiss Watchmaking Federation and composed of three clear, intelligible levels: high-end, mid-end and low-end. And that was it.
That classification, whilst useful in providing clarity, nevertheless bore the brunt of changes in the market and its stakeholders at a time when mergers and acquisitions were gathering pace and major groups were forming. There was the Swatch Group, of course, followed by LVMH, which was beginning to eye watchmaking, and also Vendôme, later to become Richemont.
Some were seduced by a segmentation that failed to flatter their brand portfolio, marketing and image strategy, not to mention a few over-sized egos.
“Remember that, up until the 1990s, the segmentation of the watch market by product was based on price bracket. It comprised just three clear, intelligible levels. And that was it.”
- Will the real Haute Horlogerie please stand up: an article by Pascal Brandt published in Europa Star in 1998
The changing landscape that characterised the late 1990s is reflected in the terminology. I attended one Forum at the time in Geneva which brought together many industry players to reflect on the numerous appellations in use at this key turning point in the history of the industry and the new balance taking shape.
“A multitude of terms. Haute Horlogerie, haut de gamme, fine watchmaking, luxury watchmaking, prestige watchmaking…”. I wrote this at the time, hoping to illustrate that “the level of confusion increases with the number of terms used”.
These definitions proved the fact that some brands (especially those in group possession) bandied around certain terms to secure a high-end positioning. This trend followed the growing obsession with the manufacture, which was to become an absolute pre-requisite for any brand worth its salt in the 2000s.
Either you produced all the components of your watch in-house, you were a brand worthy of the name and automatically placed your products at the tip of the pyramid. Or you weren’t and your watches (and therefore your brand) were worthless, falling short of the real or supposed sacred values of watchmaking.
You had, in effect, the authentic brands and then all the rest. It’s interesting to note in passing that, to this day, some brands continue to tout this concept even though they work with a network of outsourcers and are only manufactures based on the fact that they produce their own in-house Excel spreadsheets.
“Some brands (especially those in group possession) bandied around certain terms to secure a high-end positioning. This trend followed the growing obsession with the manufacture.”
The end of the 1990s and the dawn of the 2000s saw the gradual imposition of the appellation Haute Horlogerie at the instigation of Franco Cologni, the “philosopher” of the Richemont group. The distinction undoubtedly served the group’s interests in that it filtered out many brands whose production, although of a similar quality to Richemont’s, relied on a network of suppliers. You will recall that Baume & Mercier was – and still is – defined in other terms, despite all the group’s efforts.
In short, the first decade of the new millennium was that of Haute Horlogerie and the manufacture argument. The number of brands with complete in-house control over their watch production (movements of varying degrees of complexity, cases, dials) was clearly far lower than those cited officially in the hallowed texts of the time, even at Richemont. The pedigree of some prestige watchmakers was sometimes clouded in uncertainty, as I mentioned at the time.
A quarter of a century has now passed and the observation is still sometimes valid. However, one key element that altered the reality of watchmaking was the sudden emergence of the web and its (sometimes coercive) imposing of transparency. It’s difficult today to bias a final customer/consumer using fake claims.
On the other side of the mirror, of course, is the final consumer. Enthusiasts and collectors of valuable pieces had trouble navigating the terminological and semantic twists and turns imposed by these groups and a few legitimate brands with the innocent aim of steering the customer’s buying journey and eventually winning his custom.
“One key element that altered the reality of watchmaking was the sudden emergence of the web and its (sometimes coercive) imposing of transparency.”
Whilst the 2000s were the era of “Haute Horlogerie” and the obsession with the manufacture, tone and terminology have undergone subtle changes over the past few years.
Haute Horlogerie is out! And the obsession with the manufacture has lessened somewhat since the high-end creative supplier is considered an acceptable recourse. The buzzword is now “luxury” and it comes in many guises!
There is now a far more multidimensional approach to defining the quality of a watchmaking piece, and indirectly its proprietary brand.
“Luxury” is something that everyone is demanding these days irrespective of the product type from Birckenstocks to off-the-peg clothing, from mass market leather goods to macaroons and unique jewellery items. And the watch is no exception, whether it’s an item of high-added value or powered by an electronic movement.
Now it’s not so much the product that counts, but its packaging, the communication campaign behind it and, therefore, the weight of the brand. The stronger the brand, the more the product will be seen to fit the “luxury” category, possibly regardless of its actual added value and price. Until now both were considered absolute criteria or, at least, go-to reference points.
“Haute Horlogerie is out! And the obsession with the manufacture has lessened somewhat since the high-end creative supplier is considered an acceptable recourse. The buzzword is now “luxury” and it comes in many guises!”
Any type of object can be transformed into a “luxury” product by dint of relentless communication and image efforts to promote the “experience”, as does anything that ups a product by its outer wrappings and trappings. The social networks in this respect are a prime choice of vehicle.
At the same time, it’s interesting to note that, in the end, “luxury” cannot be defined by any broad common denominator, which only relativizes the tangible reality of the term.
Efforts are being made to clarify as much as possible the type of category a product falls into, was my concluding note, with the added comment that the time has finally come to put an end to the confusion.
Nearly 30 years have passed and terminology has failed to provide the solution to what was then perceived to be a problem. In the watchmaking industry, we have floundered between price positioning (high-/mid-/low-end) and the manufacture argument defining Haute Horlogerie pieces to finally end up on the shores of the “luxury” product, which it is sometimes, but mainly because of the choice of marketing environment.
Terms come and go, driven by the moment, or the structure of the market and its players. But the problem of categorization based on terminological definition remains.”
“In the watchmaking industry, we have floundered between price positioning (high-/mid-/low-end) and the manufacture argument defining Haute Horlogerie pieces to finally end up on the shores of the ever undefinable “luxury” product.”