he first idea for a department store (or grand magasin in French) is generally credited to Aristide Boucicaut (1810–1877) and his wife Marguerite (1816–1887). It is said that they developed Le Bon Marché after visiting the Exposition universelle de Paris in 1855. More familiar with small convenience stores with poor choice, visitors were astonished by the extensive variety of goods offered at the fair. This incredible abundance was the spark that would transform the face of trade.
The development of large cities, mass production generated by industrialisation, the emergence of new methods of transportation and the birth of marketing techniques paved the way for a different shopping experience: urban consumption. After Paris, Chicago, New York, London and Tokyo, Shanghai (also nicknamed ‘The Little Paris of the East’), followed the same transformation process. The Chinese metropolis became one of the world’s largest trading hubs in the 1920s and 1930s. Shanghai (which literally means ‘up from the sea’) was a quiet little town before the second half of the 19th century, but its strategic importance gradually turned it into a cosmopolitan city.
Attracted by this port’s convenient location, many Europeans arrived and settled there, mainly for trade purposes. It is in this vivid context that the Tissot watch company (founded in 1853 in Le Locle, at the heart of the Swiss mountains) first made its way to China, to Shanghai and Hong Kong. In spite of the fierce competition raging between the many talented watchmakers of the time, the family workshop quickly grew into a busy factory doing business with various countries.
- Blueprint of the new Tissot factory in Le Locle, Switzerland, built in 1907. Tissot Museum Collection.
This achievement was no doubt due to its superior production standards, as well as a relentless search for improvement. The repeated crises that struck the watchmaking industry always inspired the brand to look to the future and opt for innovative strategies.
Like Aristide Boucicaut who had been much inspired by the Paris fair, the Tissots went to explore new business opportunities after the exhibitions they took part in. During these major events, similar products from various countries were placed side by side, compared, admired and potentially rewarded. In consequence, the Maison quickly learned how to deal with its competitors by making high-quality products available for every budget.
Tissot’s management also understood that in order to survive, it was impossible to rely on just a few markets. It was therefore necessary to constantly look out for new prospects and clientele, bring in fresh ideas and develop its sales’ methods. In the 19th century, involvement in these fairs was the best way to discover new technologies and promote creations. This experience would prove to be very valuable when entering the Chinese market.
Old Shanghai streets had a very specific appearance. They presented a surprising combination of Chinese traditional houses mixed with European-style buildings. Peddlers, all kinds of carts, rickshaws, bicycles, cars and public transportation travelled up and down wide avenues planted with unknown tree species imported from abroad.
- Shanghai’s Nanking Road, with a British company tram heading to Bubbling Well terminus, 1920s. Tissot Museum Collection.
Motiandalou – or ‘big building touching the sky’ – flourished in the foreign districts, along the busy Nanking Road as well as on the Bund by the riverside. These skyscrapers hosted various businesses, banks, high-end residences, fashionable shops, clubs, hotels and restaurants, film theatres and music halls. Everywhere you looked, colourful banners, painted signs, photographs and bright neon names glowed in various languages.
- Broad multi-coloured advertisements on Shanghai streets (detail), after 1937. Tissot Museum Collection.
These advertisements were designed to catch the eye and promote a new lifestyle. This fertile ground also generated luxurious new emporiums, designed to welcome a broad but demanding clientele. In the Shanghai of the 1920s, everything came together to offer a ‘modern’ shopping experience where both foreign and local goods were on sale in the attractive premises.
According to the Maison’s archive, the first Tissot watches were sold in Shanghai by local agents from 1920 onwards. At the time, foreign shops and traders were registered in the North-China Desk Hong List – a sort of business and residents directory. This source indicates that these boutiques were located in places such as the Bund. While the first addresses appear to represent relatively small businesses dealing in import and export goods, the last one – Hoyt & Co. (which had opened a department specifically dedicated to clocks and watches) – was established in the newly built Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) building that exists today on the waterfront.
- The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation building on the Bund 12, Shanghai, built by Palmer & Turner from 1921 to 1923.
No doubt the prestige of this commercial showcase increased the visibility of the brand. As a result, between 1926 and 1930, the retailer sold more than 660 Tissot watches a year. It was the beginning of the Swiss watchmaker’s adventure in China.
Unfortunately, little information remains in the Maison from these exciting beginnings. The watches sold in Shanghai matched the range of models produced in Switzerland during the 1920s for which few advertisements or customer catalogues are left. However, we can assert that both pocket watches and wristwatches were available, as well as timepieces specially made for ladies.
- Examples of pocket watch models sold by Tissot in 1925. Tissot catalogue n°6, 1925, pp 34b and 35. Tissot Museum Collection.
At the end of the decade in 1928, Tissot celebrated its 75th jubilee, having a commemorative image designed for the occasion, featuring the large silhouette of a pocket watch as a strong symbol of its growing global reputation.
- Illustration celebrating Tissot’s 75th Jubilee, 1928. Tissot Museum Collection.
This happy event was also an opportunity to assess past results and consider new business strategies for the years to come. These included how to better please the customer and attract him/her with high-quality watches at a reasonable price, and how to propose modern displays and advertisements specially geared to the country they were intended for. In 1933, the ‘Tissot Plan’ was born and would fully adapt to this changing consumption habits.
- Illustration of the Tissot Plan, 1933. Tissot Museum Collection.
In Shanghai, between 1917 and 1936, ‘Four Great Department Stores’ rose along Nanking Road, heralding a new era for the city’s prosperity. Their architecture, based on Western models , followed new, recently developed rules to provide a different customer experience. Passers-by were encouraged to enter the buildings through big neon signs, large advertisements and wide shopping windows.
- The Sincere department store in Shanghai on Nanking Road, by night, 1930s. Tissot Museum Collection.
Once inside, they were invited to wander down the aisles to admire an impressive quantity of goods – featuring a price tag – attractively displayed in glass cases. The place was comfortable, pleasantly heated or cooled depending on the season, with delicate lighting effects. Everything was organised to encourage the potential client to stay for as long as possible and finally purchase something, even if he/she did not initially intend to do so.
Promotional leaflets were also widely distributed to showcase the latest arrivals, and abundant advertisements were printed in newspapers and magazines. These new sales techniques would prove to be very efficient and this type of publication is very telling when it comes to learning more about Tissot’s developments in Shanghai during the 1930s.
- A Sincere department store advertising leaflet, dated 1934. Tissot Museum Collection.
The Swiss watchmaker had strong connections with the Sincere Co. Ltd department store as it appeared in one of its brochures (dated 1934). The store and Tissot obviously shared similar concerns as the English name of the ‘Sincere’ company promised “Genuine Goods at a Fair Price”. However the Maison was also represented in two of the other three department stores, namely: Wing On and Sun-Sun Co.
- The Wing On department store in Shanghai on Nanking Road, by night, 1930s. Tissot Museum Collection.
In addition to two line drawings of watch models (a rectangular-shaped wristwatch with a leather strap and a rounded pocket watch with Art Deco details), Tissot was introduced as follows: “Robust mechanics, precise, trendy and beautiful – at a good price and all with a warranty […]”. Last but not least, the lower end of the advertisement provides a list of other points of sale. This information gives an impressive overview of the watch company’s dense network at this time at the heart of Shanghai.
- Leaflet advertising Tissot watches in the Sincere department store, dated 1934, p.42. Tissot Museum Collection.
- Tissot Antimagnétique (antimagnetic) pocket watch, 1938. Tissot Museum Collection, E00012406.
Always interested in keeping up with new commercial trends, Tissot began to design and publish advertisements in the 1910s. The earliest visuals preserved mainly feature an idyllic image of the factory in Switzerland, generally highlighting one or two watch models in black and white.
- Tissot advertisement, 1918. Tissot Museum Collection.
A descriptive introduction, generally in French, showcases the Maison’s best models and their intrinsic qualities. In the late 1920s, a noticeable shift was observed when the company decided to fine-tune its advertisements to each countries’ cultural traits. One or more colours gradually appeared, accompanied by catchy slogans, written in English this time, or local languages.
- Tissot hermetic watch catalogue, 1929. Tissot Museum Collection.
In the 1930s, the company produced its first tailor-made advertisements for the Chinese market. Today, these historical images are still relevant to the choices made and the difficulties encountered while trying to win over a new customer base.
A good example of an advertisement geared to the Chinese market was rediscovered, promoting “Tissot watches as the most beautiful Christmas present”. The tagline and the main image are extremely meaningful as they feature a gift for a foreign celebration within a foreign decoration (the silhouette of a giant Christmas tree). However, there is a fashionable Chinese woman in a modern furnished home with the skyline of the Bund (or maybe Hong Kong?) visible through the window behind her.
- Tissot advertisement for the Chinese market, 1930s.
Evidently, this new East-meets-West lifestyle conveniently matched the reality of both cities. Other designs were less complicated, simply presenting some of the brands’ iconic items. Interestingly, these visual sources also confirm the range of watches available in China which matches the examples printed in Tissot’s contemporary catalogues.
- Tissot advertisement for the Chinese market, 1941. Tissot Museum Collection.
Along with the first advertisement campaigns in the 1910s, Tissot catalogues (sometimes referred to as ‘sale manuals’ or ‘customer catalogues’) were created to help further promote the factory’s designs around the world. Today, they form a valuable archive as they list the exact models produced by the Maison for a particular period of time.
While these sources describe the details of every watch (decoration, material, shape, size etc.) – highlighted by a black and white picture – they also present the technique within (mechanism, components, etc.) and display the purchase price, always in Swiss francs. As the number of calibres was drastically reduced from 1933 – in order to keep lower prices in line with the ‘Tissot Plan’ – the idea was raised to personalise your own watch instead.
It was then possible to: select a dial and have it painted according to taste, with or without radium/tritium to glow in the dark; have the case of your pocket watch engraved; add a specific chain loop; and select a strap and buckle for a wristwatch. As a result, viewing these publications is almost like travelling through time; pushing open a Tissot boutique’s door whenever you want, to catch a glimpse of what was on display in the glass cases. It is therefore easy to get a more complete picture of the models circulating on the Chinese market at the time.
- Examples of watch models sold by Tissot during the 1930s. Tissot catalogue, 1938. Tissot Museum Collection.
During the 1930s and 1940s, and in spite of the many complications to be overcome, life and business activities continued. In 1932, a Tissot ‘voyageur’ (travelling agent) named Marc Paul Croset, along with associates (Matheo, Dario and Albert Beraha as well as the Stetten brothers), opened a new watch shop on 320 Kiangse Road, offering a vast array of timepieces.
Together, they established the Crobest Limited Company (CRO-BE-ST for Croset-Beraha-Stetten). Due to its huge success, the company became the sole Tissot agent for the whole of China. While sales were very satisfying until 1941, they were completely frozen just two years later. The decision was then made to move the retail company to Hong Kong where it continued to operate until the 1990s – but that’s another story.
Recounting Tissot’s past presence in Shanghai ties in with the Maison’s present day. Not only did the watchmaker celebrate its 170th anniversary in 2023 – including a 103-year presence in China – but this event also culminated with the opening of a new store on Nanking Road, in the exact same spot where Tissot watches were sold a century ago.