he existence of high-end watchmaking, just like that of industrial watchmaking, depends very largely on the strong fabric that surrounds it. Upstream is the design and production fabric; downstream, the distribution and media fabric. If this fabric dries out and tears on either side, or on both at the same time, the entire watchmaking sector is weakened.
Upstream we have the huge difficulties currently experienced by the subcontractors, who have no visibility and are in grave danger of collapsing altogether; downstream we have the pre- and post-Covid store closures, retailers left high and dry. Both are part of the same, single phenomenon – which the health crisis is not only exacerbating – it’s also revealing its true shape.
However strong the surge in vertical integration at the production level and the move to direct control in distribution may have been, it is a distraction. For all concerned. Because in reality, the essential mechanical creativity on which the well-established watch companies thrive comes from the independent workshops. Without subcontractors – which we would do better to call co-contractors – capable of machining parts that few others can, or producing every variety of component and handling seasonal surges like a restaurant chef, the grand watchmaking names that command the field would present a far less glorious sight.
Downstream, it’s the same story. The retailers who made the brands’ fortunes (and their own, while they are at it), wooed by a thousand means and patiently cultivated, sometimes over generations, circles of watch-lovers, faithful customers and curious onlookers, have all too often been dropped, without a parachute. And immediately subjected to the direct territorial competition of those whose cause they had promoted.
But when this whole fabric tears at one go – a phenomenon accelerated by the current crisis – the damage is real, quantifiable and measurable. People, whole families, are losing their jobs, lives are being turned upside-down, know-how – already on the verge of extinction – is dying out, towns are becoming depopulated, creativity and innovation are withering away.
Elsewhere, downstream, stores are closing, bankruptcies are being declared, the fabric is unravelling, disenchantment is setting in. If there is no longer any contact or emotion, there is no longer a sense of purpose.
Because today, a watch is a rather singular object. Having become objectively useless, it faithfully renders an agreeable service, while also being an ornament, a social marker, a transitional object in which aesthetic appreciation, nostalgia and an admiration for human mechanical genius are all mixed up.
If watches are to preserve these qualities and avoid falling out of favour and into gentle indifference – with the exception of a happy few – the watch sector needs to fight to keep its fabric in good condition at all costs. Because it is this fabric that nourishes it and enables it to flourish. *
*A fabric of which we, the media, are an integral part, as its living and long-term memory, whistle blowers and providers of perspective, supporters and reporters on all existing channels and media.