Watchmaking in Japan

Reflections and travel notes on the japanese watchmaking market


February 2018

Reflections and travel notes on the japanese watchmaking market

Exports of Swiss watches to Japan seem to have decreased again in 2017. Rolex, Cartier and Omega remain the top brands sold in Japan.


oday the Japanese market is less healthy than the rest of the world,” stresses Kinya Mishima, a Japanese watch distributor and founder of Les Artisans.

There are several reasons for this, in his view: “Many people resell their watches on the secondary market, which is gaining ever greater influence. This is because the retail price was excessive for new watches. Furthermore, China has raised its taxes and Chinese tourists visiting Japan now often buy one, less expensive watch, which they wear at all times.”

Mishima, on the other hand, represents artisanal brands such as Urban Jürgensen, Grönefeld, Speake-Marin, Kees Engelbarts, Pierre DeRoche and Nomos Glashütte, as well as having close ties with Richard Mille’s Japanese distributor. “With my niche brands, I’m interested in a small minority of highly informed collectors. In this respect, Japan, which has a long history of watchmaking, is an interesting market for small independent brands.”

What does he think about the strategy of the major Japanese brands to move upmarket? “Seiko is the most likely to succeed,” says Mishima. “In fact, its major local rival, Rolex, has adopted a stricter attitude towards powerful local distributors regarding the conditions under which new watches are obtained. Seiko is lying in wait, in order to pounce on those retailers less inclined to this new policy.”

Etsuro Nakajima, Horological Institute of Japan
Etsuro Nakajima, Horological Institute of Japan

“Too focused on solar technology”

Now at the helm of the Horological Institute of Japan, Etsuro Nakajima worked at Casio for 40 years. He’s seen it all: the creation of digital quartz watches, the first racing watch with intervals, the first Pro Trek with altimeter, the first radio-controlled watch and finally, the arrival of Bluetooth.

“In 2007 we began talks with Nokia for a planned smart watch with Bluetooth Low Energy (LE), or Wibree. But the project took time because the challenge we needed to overcome was the watch’s energy consumption and recharging time. The energy consumption needed to be limited. In 2012, the G-Shock GB5600 was our first Bluetooth watch.”

In 2015 the launch of the Apple Watch changed everything, in particular for entry-level watch giants such as Casio, but also for Fossil and Movado. “The Apple Watch was a game changer, particularly as far as distribution is concerned, because they sell mainly via their own stores and earn a good margin, whereas traditional watchmakers have to share generally more than half the margin with their representatives. There will always be physical retailers but they need to modernise.” For Nakajima, Japanese brands concentrate too much on solar technology.

Their challenge now is to demonstrate their uniqueness and show what they can bring to their products that represents the Japanese way of thinking.