In the last two decades, we have seen mechanical watches grow in size, flaunt their muscles and display their innards. They have become more extrovert, trying on different colours and unusual shapes. Complication has been piled onto complication, and tourbillons have joined the dance, whirling around in twos, threes and even fours.
There was a touch of madness in the air. Prices skyrocketed; anything and everything seemed possible, provided it could physically be done, and there was someone prepared to pay for it.
But times have changed. Stylistic arrogance is passé. Millennials are into vintage and neo-vintage. Minimalism is back in fashion. Dials are reverting to the classical codes, sizes are shrinking and watches are becoming wearable once again.
Smartwatches have reached maturity, and the watch industry is breathing easier, relieved at having dodged a bullet. But at the same time, the digital revolution has brought about an explosion of watch start-ups, each striving to carve out its own niche. This is both positive – redoubled stylistic creativity, albeit often with vintage inspiration – and negative, with a proliferation of copies, mediocre products, flashes in the pan and a confusion of values.
Little now remains of the old, well-oiled and robustly constructed channels that used to convey watches placidly from the Swiss factories to their distributors and retailers, and thence to the end client. Today, what we have instead is a tangle of conduits, some electrified and some not. Some of the less well-maintained channels no longer convey very much merchandise, while the sexier pipelines link the brands directly with their end clients.
Suddenly, with digitisation, the watch industry faces such a plethora of possibilities that it doesn’t know where to turn. What is the best option, commercially speaking? Local events with loyal partners? Or would it be better to set up a dedicated e-commerce operation? And what about Instagram? How can you be sure that your “influencers” aren’t just hot air merchants? New questions require new answers. We asked two people with insider knowledge.
This period of disruption for commercial channels has provided opportunities for new actors to jump into the void, from Tmall in China to Amazon in the United States. And these newcomers have a significant stake in the preowned and/or vintage watches so highly sought after by millennials. We talked to the founder of one of the biggest watch e-commerce platforms, Chrono24, who revealed his ambition to develop a closer relationship with the brands themselves. Might we see these two worlds finally coming together?
Horological research, which for many years remained an intuitive discipline restricted to the watchmaker’s bench, has moved into the domain of science and technology. All the big groups have their own laboratories, and they’re filling their R&D departments with researchers from other fields. Research is blossoming in the search for new materials, non-Huygensian regulators, and hitherto undreamed-of mechanical solutions with abstract-sounding names like “compliance” or “origami”.
On the manufacturing front, similar phenomena are at work: robotisation, the mechanisation of tasks previously performed by human hands alone, and automation are making giant strides. These days, excellent mechanical movements capable of passing COSC certification can be manufactured entirely by robots.
Mechanical watchmaking is transforming itself, hybridising... but we certainly haven’t heard the last of it. Electronics have penetrated to the heart of the most complex mechanisms, auguring a future of “augmented” mechanical watches.