The dawn of the digital age called time on many traditions, habits and things. The wristwatch was just one.
Few people under 25 wear a watch at all, relying on their mobiles for time checks. Older people still favour the time-honoured way of carrying time on their wrists, in an instantly accessible, maintenance-easy device, a watch.
However, the watch is not dead. Now it has moved up-market.
The outrageously expensive accessory/statement speaks of power and money, prestige and authority. It is in the same league (if lower down) as the personal yacht and helicopter. There are tasteful restraint versions too, which still pack an elegant, stylish punch.
The luxury watch industry is booming with the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, for example, reporting sales to China in 2011 up over 48%. Add in the sales to Chinese visitors to Europe and that country alone is a huge market for good quality timepieces.
High-end fashion and luxury luggage makers, Louis Vuitton are adding the Geneva Seal (a set of exceptional quality, accuracy and finish tests) to its watches, showing they are reaching for the very top end of the market. Last year Swatch increased profits by almost 22%. Watches are part of the iconography of the fashion industry.
Time to Reinvent
So what’s going on? How can watches not simply survive, but do well? The answer is that many old companies are reinventing and positioning themselves afresh in the marketplace of today in terms of fashion & style, functionality, export essentials and offering the past glories as nostalgic must-haves.
Zenith is a company with history. The Rolex Daytona sported Zenith El Primero movement, ‘a watchmaking benchmark technological innovation’. Louis Bleriot flew the Channel in 1909 wearing a Zenith, India’s Gandhi owned one and so did US President Kennedy. But no company can feast too long on past glories; the future is hungry.
CEO of Zenith timepieces, Jean-Frederic Dufour admired Apple’s founder Steve Jobs: ‘Will Macs be here in 100 years? Is the initial concept of making a whole range of services in one product look simple, strong enough?’
Clearly he feels that his company watch is just such a strong product, and he has simplified the brands Zenith make to a contemporary pared-back look, promoted aggressively and is cashing in on the history ruthlessly but exploiting the trendiness now. Oh and they increased prices by around 30% too!
Many customers prefer the complicated tourbillon watch, which is a mechanism invented to compensate for the effects of gravity in the pocket-watch by mounting the heart of the piece in a rotating cage. This tiny, hard-to-make mechanism added value and cachet to a watch, and still does.
The James Bond style wristwatch with lasers, drills, capsules and high-tensile cords emerging is not simply the stuff of fantasy and film. Many people would like to have such multi-tasking capability in a watch, rather like an old Swiss Army knife did, with every blade fulfilling a different purpose.
Today’s horologists are competing in a gold-price hike that seems unstoppable, gems and other precious metals are similarly rising in value. This is where technology comes to the rescue. New metals, scratch-proof gold, fewer moving parts, rationalised manufacturing systems and digital accuracy are being exploited like there’s no time left.
Modern watches need to tell the weather, wind, temperatures, traffic, currencies and time in a touch-easy way, just like a smartphone really.
Add to that the way watch companies are employing modern marketing techniques or ‘communicating the narrative’ like personalised and franchised, strategically placed and evolving niche branding, effective use of social media to promote, and we know the watch is here to stay. For the time being.
That is until the phone, pad/tablet, watch become one and the same easily-worn thing.