he Chinese Horologe Association speaks officially of 253 manufactures in the country, which means that each company produces an average 2.5 million items! When you know that Switzerland ‘only’ exported 25.4 million watches last year, it makes you curious to find out more about the mysterious giants of the Chinese watchmaking industry.
With these figures in mind, we tried to track down these ‘big players’ at the Shenzhen Watch and Clock Fair in late June. But the known and commonly marketed Chinese brands boil down to Sea-Gull, Starking, Tian Wang, Rarone, Fiyta (pronounced ‘Fee-ya-ta’), Ossine, Peacock, Golgen, Casiden, Poscher, Rosdn, Bowdor, Runosd and Geya, not forgetting Rossini, Ebohr and, one of the oldest (1958), the Beijing Watch Factory. Include digital, sports and smart watches and you can add another twenty or so brands.
So how many watches are produced all told? By addressing the Chinese Horologe Association, I thought to bag the figures in a ten-minute interview. In fact, it took four days of negotiation with the press service just to get an interview with one of its members. Anyone belonging to the ’Party’ is apparently not authorised to make statements to the media, and the others were ostensibly booked up.
What I thought would be a simple task was beginning to look like mission impossible. “In China, the figures are variable to allow various interpretations,” one member of the Canton (Guangzhou) horological association explains to me with absolute earnestness, also incapable of citing a single production, sales or export figure. As for the brand CEOs, they can announce any volume they like. At our level, we have not the slightest means of verification.
The real giant identified!
The prices of the brands cited above range from around one hundred yuan (15 Swiss francs) for a simple quartz watch to more than 100,000 yuan (15,000 Swiss francs) for a tourbillon. But the average export price is just 4 dollars apiece! This being the case, it’s easy to see why the real giants of the Chinese watch industry are nameless: they’re referred to as OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) – in other words, they are factories producing generic watches on behalf of brands scattered all over the world. But at 4 dollars apiece, these are giants with feet of clay…
That, in any case, is the view of the Horologe Association, which, at the forum opening the 28th Watch & Clock Fair in Shenzhen, welcomes the ‘Made in China 2025’ plan launched in 2015 by the central government. This represents a new phase for the industry: over ten years and in ten sectors of activity, OEM is to be transformed into ‘made in China’ first and foremost by raising quality. But a word of caution – the watchmaking industry is not one of the sectors concerned. But what does it matter; the invited media are satisfied and give a hearty round of applause.
For the umpteenth time, I ask the press service to organise an interview with someone in charge, but this time I decide to speak Chinese: “Put yourself in my place, imagine a Chinese journalist travelling 10,000 km to cover Baselworld and not getting a single interview!” Intrigued, Ms Yang Jingwen, an eminent figure in the Chinese Horologe Association since 1999, comes out of her office, her eyes wide with amazement: “But he can speak Chinese! I’ll find you an interlocutor.”
Open sesame …