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Towards a “deglobalisation” of watchmaking?

OPINION

Français
July 2020


Towards a “deglobalisation” of watchmaking?

The implosion of the industry’s calendar, with the prospects of a global event becoming ever more remote, is a symptom of the erosion of the globalisation of watchmaking. The many new barriers to trade in the wake of the pandemic are pushing the sector into a reversal of the curve that has carried it over the last twenty years. As they move ahead in disarray, watch brands must prepare again to attract local customers, and adapt to a world in which people travel less.

H

ourUniverse, Watches & Wonders, Geneva Watch Days, Time to Move, Time to Watches, Imagination: given the number of watchmaking events now in the pipeline, beginning from August, it looks like those who thought that the crisis would accelerate the global unity of the watch industry are going to be disappointed. The implosion of the watch calendar, which was already under way before the outbreak of the pandemic, was only reinforced by this crisis.

Identities are changing, but doubts remain. The ex-Baselworld announced a new concept, HourUniverse, designed as a community platform that would be active year-round, with an annual physical meeting. The ex-SIHH preceded it with a similar initiative, the Watches & Wonders platform, which aims to provide digital content throughout the year, punctuated by physical events (including Shanghai in September). The Geneva Watch Days will be held at the end of August (with or without masks?). General uncertainty reigns over the watchmaking calendar.

The prospect of a global event is fading away

Attempts at a rapprochement between MCH and the FHH, as exhibitors continued to abandon their respective fairs, came to nothing, swept away by the crisis, and the dialogue has been replaced by latent conflict. With the departure of the most important brands from Baselworld, the most existential dialogue of the moment, aiming to restore a modicum of order to the watch calendar, is taking place between these brands and the FHH, around a global event scheduled for April 2021 in Geneva.

The alternative is a total implosion of the calendar, with scattered presentations by brand or by group. But in truth, this is the direction we’ve been heading in for the past five years.

The many “orphans” of Basel are anxiously awaiting the outcome of these negotiations, their anxiety heightened by the economic crisis, before they look to establishing their own calendar. Most of them are now organising their own presentations, however modest their means may be.

A “deglobalisation” of watchmaking?

Now, more than ever, the crisis should highlight the need for this ailing sector to join forces, so that it can retain a form of social relevance, some visibility, and a variety of options for moving forward, in a world that has far more pressing concerns than watchmaking.

The alternative – and this is the direction we’ve been heading in for the past five years – is a total implosion of the calendar, with scattered presentations by brand or by group. Just as the pandemic crisis, by revealing pre-existing fault lines and accelerating underlying tensions, risks undermining the very concept of “globalisation”, watchmaking, which was built on the opening of borders, risks falling victim to a form of “deglobalisation”.

With the demise of shopping tourism, the role of retailers, who are best attuned to local realities, could be enhanced.

This trend is already under way, with the end of international travel by the Chinese. In June, according to FHS figures, watch consumption in heavyweight China was in fact on the increase, due to the repatriation of purchases that would previously have been made abroad. This is also in line with the Chinese government’s plan to stimulate domestic consumption.

Local watchmaking “culture” remains a powerful asset

Watch brands must be prepared to reinvest aggressively in national markets and local clienteles, given the interruption in the flow of tourists for an indeterminate (but undoubtedly considerable) period of time. Among other things, this will necessitate the creation of local teams, in direct contact with local culture.

One major challenge that the Swiss watchmaking industry will have to meet, if it is to overcome its dependence on now non-existent Asian shopping tourism, is that of encouraging new generations of Westerners to dream of watches once again.

One major challenge that the Swiss watchmaking industry will have to meet, if it is to overcome its dependence on now non-existent Asian shopping tourism, is that of encouraging new generations of Westerners to dream of watches once again.

The watchmaking industry nevertheless retains many assets that can be exploited in this new context, thanks in particular to its attractive heritage culture. But we would like to see watchmakers making as much effort to understand the expectations of young people in France, Malaysia and Mexico and they do to design a double tourbillon.

Many brands do not have the means to lay this groundwork themselves. They will have to rely on intermediaries, i.e. retailers, who have the best grasp of their local situation. Indeed, the role of retailers could be enhanced, as this kind of “deglobalisation” progresses.

Throughout its long history, the watchmaking ecosystem has shown considerable agility. It must now prepare itself for a reversal of the curve that has taken it to new heights over the last twenty years. Its cultural richness will be the key to success in the new “relocated” world that is taking shape before our eyes.

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