41. time-business


The control-freakery of the luxury business

OPINION

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July 2019


The control-freakery of the luxury business

How a traditional culture of trust in the Swiss watch industry is changing over time. Are artisans being replaced by bean-counters precisely when the word “artisan” is on everyone’s lips?

A

well-known watch subcontractor (who shall remain nameless) recently shared with us his sense of despair at how his clients had changed over time. The connoisseurs and enthusiasts of the art and craft of watchmaking, with whom he had been able to have an honest discussion, had gradually been replaced by managers from other industries, or from the big business schools specialising in luxury. These people don’t possess an ounce of watchmaking culture, they are obsessed with control, and they’re only interested in the bottom line.

He said the situation was so bad that major clients now demand permanent and unlimited access to the subcontractors’ entire production procedure. Frankly, we could scarcely believe it. What that means is nothing less than full access to the computer servers of the company concerned, which gives the clients the ability to monitor operations in real time, and control every stage of production of their orders.

And as if that’s not enough, these control freaks (an obsession imported from across the Atlantic) have also developed a habit of regularly flying in inspectors to carry out audits of the production process, and indeed of the entire company in question, even going so far (this is not a joke) as opening the break room fridges to see what’s inside.

The connoisseurs and enthusiasts of the art and craft of watchmaking, with whom he had been able to have an honest discussion, had gradually been replaced by managers from other industries, or from the big business schools specialising in luxury.

We’ve come a long way, indeed, from the days when a handshake or a simple order slip would suffice. Back then, we were all time-served professionals in the watchmaking trades. We knew the level of quality we could expect from a subcontractor, and we trusted each other. Often, we’d been acquainted since our school days.

But the most disastrous aspect of this profound cultural shift, which has seen artisans replaced by bean-counters concerned only with shareholder value, is that it risks undermining the very core value of Swiss watchmaking: its savoir-faire. This savoir-faire is gradually being eroded, to the point where it may end up in the dustbin of History. The same subcontractor told us that, where previously one administrative assistant had been enough, he now needs five or six to handle the proliferation of norms and standards, and all the bureaucratic certification and control procedures.

Added to this culture of surveillance (a phenomenon that now affects all aspects of contemporary society) is the unremitting and aggressive pressure on prices. In the end, it’s the smaller outfits that suffer. They find themselves unable to respond to these technocratic demands, because they have no way of fulfilling tenders that include these kinds of requirements. The tragedy is that it’s precisely in these small, dynamic firms that you find the inventiveness, the creativity, the hunger for innovation that have been the warp and weft of the fabric of Swiss watchmaking for generations. The commoditisation of luxury, with its short-term horizons, will eventually kill the luxury business altogether. At the very least, it will empty it of the human substance that gives it its true and lasting value.

The most disastrous aspect of this profound cultural shift is that it risks undermining the very core value of Swiss watchmaking: its savoir-faire.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Let’s be grateful for the existence of the EPHJ fair, which brought together more than 800 subcontractors in Geneva from 18 to 21 June. It’s a fair where people still talk to each other with genuine passion and warmth. Some collectors even visit the fair to build their own watches, by approaching the contractors individually. They’re the ones with their heads screwed on.