Jewellery & watches


Watchmaking in search of eternity

ANALYSIS

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March 2021


Watchmaking in search of eternity

While mechanical watchmaking – the existence of which dates back not millennia but “merely” a few centuries – could conceivably one day dwindle and die out, jewellery and its most prestigious component, precious stones, will probably not disappear until the extinction of mankind. How could watchmaking find its “share of eternity” too?

T

he oldest jewels in the world date back to around 130,000 years ago, during the Neanderthal period. Jewellery, you might say, is intrinsic to the human species. Since time immemorial it has fulfilled multiple functions: decorative, of course; erotic, enhancing certain parts of the body; religious; symbolic; utilitarian (when it fastens a toga or cape); but also social, indicative of status; fulfilling an identifying function, by showing affinity to a group; or a magical, sentimental, family or commemorative function... the list goes on.

One key term reveals how ancient the use of gold and diamonds is: the word “carat”. It comes from the Ancient Greek keration, denoting the seed of the carob tree, which has a constant weight of around 2 milligrams.

Neanderthal composition made from eight eagle talons, dating back 130,000 years
Neanderthal composition made from eight eagle talons, dating back 130,000 years
Credit: Luka Mjeda

Diamonds are forever...

In our current civilisation, dominated by economic considerations, jewellery and gemstones can be regarded as a market for which demand will never die out. They constitute a global market that is difficult to evaluate in its entirety because it is split up between a multitude of players, often modest in size or even artisanal, working for a plethora of communities with different tastes. Various sources estimate these innumerable and anonymous players (anonymous except to the wearer of an item of jewellery, who knows where it came from) at 70 to 80 percent of worldwide jewellery sales. The remainder is divided up between the great global players, such as Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Bulgari, etc.

The figures are difficult to grasp because they differ significantly depending on the sources. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, one institute, Grand View Research in the US, estimated that the global jewellery market would attain more than USD 323 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, Euromonitor International estimated that the major luxury brands and international jewellery brands were worth USD 35.4 billion over the same period in 2020 (20% less than 2019, because of Covid-19). If we can believe these figures, the share of the major recognised brands would amount to just over 10% of total sales in the sector.

Advertisement for the Bone Cuff designed by Elsa Peretti for Tiffany & Co. 50 years ago
Advertisement for the Bone Cuff designed by Elsa Peretti for Tiffany & Co. 50 years ago

And the share of the biggest acquisition ever made in this sector – the USD 15.8 billion paid by LVMH for Tiffany & Co. – would alone be worth around 40% of the combined turnover of the big brands. In terms of the watchmaking sector, these figures are still staggering. The USD 15.8 billion paid by LVMH for Tiffany & Co. have to be considered in relation to total Swiss watch exports (declared export price, multiplied by three or four to obtain total turnover, excluding Switzerland). In 2019 this amounted to CHF 21.7 billion, and, with Covid, to “a little under 17 billion” in 2020, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. This says a lot about the economic attractiveness of the “eternal” jewellery sector.

No name

When it comes to jewellery, the name, brand or label carries nowhere near the same weight as it does for watches. The act of purchasing an item of jewellery does not obey the same rules. Of course, status plays a significant role, in terms of how it is embodied in the jewel and assumed by the brand. But another, undoubtedly more important factor, is far more intimate in nature. Jewellery is highly personal: it is worn as close as possible to the skin, it forms one with the body, and it’s not encumbered by any capricious mechanism. Its brand or label is less important than the personal relationship one has with it, its interaction with an occasion, the mood of the day or the season, whether it’s daytime or night.

Drawing of a Maori chief, 1784, by Parkinson following Captain James Cook's first voyage to New Zealand
Drawing of a Maori chief, 1784, by Parkinson following Captain James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand

But the cake is huge; it covers the entire world, and the many and varied guests can all have a slice of it. And the intense manoeuvring in progress is evidence that the big names in global luxury are determined to take an ever greater share. Increasing numbers of watchmaking brands appear to be having the same idea.

It is said that John Warner, Liz Taylor’s seventh husband, wanting to rival Richard Burton, gave her a necklace adorned with a large “LIZ”, all in diamonds. “My name is ELIZABETH”, she replied, disdainfully rejecting the gift.

Major brands have maturity on their side

It’s abundantly clear that the companies that dominate the jewellery market today have the advantage of seniority in the trade: Tiffany & Co., founded in 1837 by the jeweller Charles Lewis Tiffany; Cartier, founded in 1847 by the jeweller Louis-François Cartier; Boucheron, founded in 1858 by Frédéric Boucheron; Bulgari, founded in 1884 in Rome by the Greek goldsmith Sotirio Bulgari; and Mikimoto, the Japanese king of pearls since 1893. Not forgetting Swarovski, created in 1895 by the Austrian glass cutter Daniel Swarovski, or a certain Van Cleef & Arpels, dating back to 1906.

Maturity is also a feature of other major players in the jewellery industry who came from other trades, such as Hermès, founded in 1837 by the saddler Thierry Hermès, Louis Vuitton, founded in 1854 by the trunk-maker of the same name, as well as the younger Chanel fashion house, created in 1910 by the dressmaker Gabrielle Chanel.

It’s worth noting that while most of these companies today have a foot wedged firmly in the door of watchmaking, that line of business took off only once their jewellery business was flourishing. There are fewer counterexamples – that is, companies that started out as watchmakers and successfully branched out into jewellery. One such company is Chopard, founded in 1860 by the watchmaker Louis-Ulysse Chopard; another is Piaget, founded in 1874 by movement manufacturer Georges-Édouard Piaget.

Woman Holding a Balance, formerly also entitled Girl Weighing Pearls or The Goldweigher, is an oil painting on canvas (42.5cm × 38cm) by the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer, painted between 1662 and 1665 (detail).
Woman Holding a Balance, formerly also entitled Girl Weighing Pearls or The Goldweigher, is an oil painting on canvas (42.5cm × 38cm) by the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer, painted between 1662 and 1665 (detail).

Even the Chinese giant Chow Tai Fook opened its jewellery-making business in 1929. Founded in Canton by Chow Chi-Yuen, it is still majority-owned by his descendants (nearly USD 3 billion in turnover in 2020). In short, it would seem that seniority plays a key role in the success of international jewellery brands.

But while the name plays a less important role than in watchmaking, the biggest names in jewellery have succeeded in becoming part of the collective unconscious, thanks to models that have taken on iconic status. Some examples at random: Cartier’s Panthère (1928), Piaget’s Possession series (1990), Van Cleef & Arpels’ clover-leafed Alhambra (1968), Chaumet’s Liens ring (1977), Boucheron’s Bohemian Serpent (1968), Chopard’s Happy Spirit (1970s), Louis Vuitton’s Idylle Blossom rings (a signature monogram dating from 1896), Buccellati’s Rombi lace (1920s), Bulgari’s Serpenti (late 1940s), Chanel’s Ultra ring, (2012), Tiffany’s Coeur Return (1969), or Hermès’ Collier de Chien cuff bracelet (late 1920s). [For more, read our interview with journalist Isabelle Cerboneschi.]

Grand manoeuvres

Thanks to this precious reserve of icons recognised by customers the world over, the biggest luxury brands have succeeded in occupying an increasingly large place in the jewellery sector.

LVMH Chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault pointed specifically to Bulgari – bought by the group in 2011 – when presenting the company’s results in January 2020. He noted that the Italian brand had “doubled its turnover and multiplied its operating profit by five.” [For more on Bulgari, read our interview with its CEO Jean-Christophe Babin].

It is a performance LVMH intends to replicate with its very recent acquisition of Tiffany & Co. So the grand manoeuvres have begun, with LVMH and its Bulgari/Tiffany & Co. duo, backed up by Chaumet, poised to take on the Richemont jewellery empire, the latter shouldered by the giant Cartier and flanked by Van Cleef & Arpels, not forgetting Piaget. The task is huge and will again require hundreds of millions in investments, mainly to modernise and transform Tiffany & Co’s 321 stores, including the flagship store in New York, which the former management decided to renovate completely at a cost of USD 250 million. It is therefore a mathematical possibility that the share of the jewellery market occupied by the large luxury groups will increase further in the years ahead, but without coming to dominate the market completely.

Atlas Clock, Tiffany & Co. building, 727 Fifth Avenue, NY
Atlas Clock, Tiffany & Co. building, 727 Fifth Avenue, NY

It is a mathematical possibility that the share of the jewellery market occupied by the large luxury groups will increase further in the years ahead, but without coming to dominate the market completely.

Structurally, jewellery and watchmaking differ significantly. The jewellery production centres are innumerable and exist all over the world, whereas watchmaking is much more concentrated, in a handful of countries; the artisanal production segment still has a bright future ahead, although the technical demands of watchmaking and the number of trades involved in making watches are a brake on purely artisanal production. Watchmaking was built on the central notion of brand as the guarantee of trust for the consumer, whereas jewellery is more easily able to do without this kind of recognition.

Watch brands and jewellery

The recent decline in the attractiveness of watchmaking – a phenomenon already visible even before the pandemic came along and added to the problem – has boosted the jewellery business of watch brands. All, or almost all, now offer collections enriched with diamonds and precious stones, or featuring dials with jewellery-like ornamentation. Stone-encrusted ladies’ watches have become a new watchmaking frontier, a potential reservoir of growth – starting at the mid-range up to the top.

Is the quest for growth percentage points making watchmaking more feminine? Several indicators suggest this, and a fai ly clear trend can be observed. For too long, creating a jewellery watch has all too often consisted in adding diamonds to a smaller version of a men’s watch. We are now witnessing – thanks, perhaps, to the presence of more women in the production teams? – greater attention to shape and decoration, and greater delicacy in the workmanship.

At the high end, Audemars Piguet, for example, has already shown extraordinary creativity with its high jewellery models, such as the ultra-contemporary Diamond Punk, Diamond Fury, Diamond Outrage and Sapphire Orbe. These jewellery watches have nothing in common, to say the least, with a Royal Oak (and so their origin, their name, are not obvious at first glance).

Audemars Piguet Diamond Punk
Audemars Piguet Diamond Punk

Taking a quite different approach, Jacob & Co, with its incredible wristwatches-cum-planetariums combined with spectacular stones, shows that high-end mechanical watchmaking can successfully walk the tightrope between horology and high jewellery. [Read our interview with Jacob Arabo].

Another recent example that remains closer to the grand tradition is provided by Vacheron Constantin, which has a significant jewellery history. Today, the company is betting strongly on a new, very classical but also very jewellery-oriented collection, Égerie.

Journal Suisse d'Horlogerie, 1929
Journal Suisse d’Horlogerie, 1929

But amid this growing competition, the Swiss, with their deep-rooted culture of watchmaking and engineering and their specific codes, are less familiar with the very different codes of jewellery and gemstones, which are closer to those of haute couture and fashion. The very act of purchasing a watch is different from the act of buying jewellery. The purchase of a timepiece is more rational, while that of an item of jewellery is more intimate, more emotionally charged. The fact remains that these two worlds are becoming increasingly permeable. And in this rapprochement, jewellery is exerting a strong pull on a watchmaking sector in search of eternity.

The fact remains that these two worlds are becoming increasingly permeable. And in this rapprochement, jewellery is exerting a strong pull on a watchmaking sector in search of eternity.