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FIyta: The horological side of Chinese soft power

PORTRAIT

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November 2019


FIyta: The horological side of Chinese soft power

As part of a group that controls a large proportion of China’s watch distribution, Fiyta represents the best of what the local industry has to offer in terms of watchmaking prestige. It has always shown a willingness to export, but the label “Made in China” is not yet synonymous with quality, internationally.

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here are very few Chinese watches at the International Watchmaking Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds, which has catalogued the “best of the best” in the sector since its inception. One of them is Fiyta’s Space Watch, which equipped China’s first manned space mission in 2003, and was introduced in a public version in the Aeronautics collection, which won a RedDot Design Award. This anecdote says a lot about the position of the brand founded in 1987, as part of the Chinese national watchmaking industry. Particularly so since it has recently absorbed the Beijing Watch Factory, another historical name that is now part of the same group.

Based in Shenzhen and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the Fiyta group also owns Swiss brand Emile Chouriet, and controls Harmony, a giant in watch distribution in China, which operates several hundred stores covering all price ranges. Its majority shareholder is Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a public aerospace conglomerate. One of Fiyta’s latest models in its Mach collection is inspired by the J-20 fighter aircraft developed by AVIC.

Fiyta Mach Collection
Fiyta Mach Collection

As one of the largest customers of Miyota calibres, Fiyta has an annual production of 1.2 million watches, 80% of which are automatic, at a core price range from 180 to 500 euros. It also uses ETA movements, as well as its own calibres.

The example of Grand Seiko

Ever since it first set out its stall in Hall 1 of Baselworld in 2011, Fiyta has sought international recognition, unlike the majority of Chinese brands, which are content to stay with the huge domestic market. During our visit to the brand’s booth this year, we were impressed by the beautiful craftsmanship of the pieces presented, which pay tribute to the city of Dunhuang on the Silk Road and its Buddhist caves.

But international results remain elusive, despite the investments made: the domestic market still accounts for more than 80% of total sales and most exports are concentrated in south-east Asia, for Chinese visitors. As we reported in detail in our June issue, the Japanese brands themselves, which are much older than the Chinese watch companies, are only now starting to promote a more upscale façade internationally – as seen in Grand Seiko’s recent independence.

Are Fiyta’s international efforts perhaps premature, given that the average export price of Chinese watches remains at 3 dollars, compared to 859 dollars for Swiss watches?

Are Fiyta’s international efforts perhaps premature, given that the average export price of Chinese watches remains at 3 dollars, compared to 859 dollars for Swiss watches? Is it realistic to want to compete in the field of fine watchmaking in the most mature markets?

Global ambitions

Oscar Madriles, Head of Brand Development for Europe, is aware of the complexity of the task at hand: “It starts by gaining the confidence of retailers, by positioning ourselves as a credible alternative for mechanical watches, at a time when distribution is being reconfigured and the quartz segment is stagnating. France is by far our largest market in Europe, and we are the number one brand in some stores.” The brand currently has over 200 points of sale in Europe, as well as its own e-commerce platforms in France and Germany.

Most Chinese brands consider themselves first and foremost as producers, while we are building a brand.

Fiyta doesn’t try to hide its Chinese origins. It wants to stand out as “the brand of the East with a spirit of the West”. Oscar Madriles adds: “Most Chinese brands consider themselves first and foremost as producers, while we are building a brand. The desire to export has been present since the company was founded in 1987. It is part of our identity, it defines our strategy, the composition of our teams and the choice of our designs.”

Although the brand is not subject to the “existential” export pressure that has always weighed on Swiss watchmakers with their tiny domestic territory, it does have to overcome the poor quality image conveyed by the Made in China label. And, unlike the Swiss, it can count on the support of the state, within a public conglomerate. This seems to have sealed Fiyta’s international fate so far.

But Fiyta is only the watchmaking component of China’s global “soft power”, which is beginning to gain a firmer foothold. The company was recently selected by the trade ministry as part of a programme to improve the perception of Made in China around the world. More than thirty years after its creation, the export objective still stands, in a global market where the might of China is stronger than ever.

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