In an era where sleek, pocket-sized tech tools enhance modern timekeeping with calendar alerts and meeting notifications, it would be easy to leave my vintage chronograph at home. And yet I don’t, curating a modest collection of limited editions and vintage serials set with precious metals and banded by rare animal skins from various lock boxes.
Call me nostalgic or reverent, but I like to keep my grandparents’ heirlooms close to my pulse. Decades ago, my grandfather up and moved out of his native Swiss German town east of Zurich to start a new life in New York, long before the Quartz Crisis of the Seventies and at a time when the Statut Horloger still safeguarded Helvetia’s elite industry. He was tired of a mind-set that during the Crisis doomed watchmakers to rely on a generations-old tradition rather than embracing the quartz trend. During that time, Switzerland, in classic conventionalism, fell behind countries like Japan and the United States, which were gung-ho for innovation and riding the market wave. Swiss watchmaking foundered, and its competitors circled, hungry for the kill.
Cutting-edge technology and cheaper production portended the future. But along came Nicolas Hayek leading a dramatic rescue mission to singlehandedly save Swiss watchmaking through the creation of the Swatch Group, and redefine the Swiss precision export into an accessory that flirts with high-end design and luxury, while providing an attractive and affordable product on the side.
Today, Swatch Group, Richemont and Rolex are the global market leaders, accounting for 45 percent of global watch sales. In its 2013 excursus, Credit Suisse reported that the watchmaking industry was responsible for CHF 20 billion in Swiss export revenue and weighed in as the third biggest contributor to the export sector after pharmaceuticals and machinery. The national industry’s annual growth rate has hovered at 7.2 percent over the past 10 years. And though China is the world’s largest exporter of timepieces, roughly 96 percent of those are quartz watches made of non-precious metals and plastic. Hardly the prestige of high-end horology.
And still Apple gears up to launch its new first-gen Apple Watch in 2015, tossing the gauntlet down in front of Swiss market leaders in September of this year. As its first generation model, the Apple Watch feels more like a Boegli trying to fill the shoes of a Breguet in the world of mechanical music box wristwatches than a bona fide competitor to Swiss watchmaking. Yet tension is high. Speculation over whether the product will be a threat to an industry that doubles as a national identity is heated.
Divergent from its smart watch predecessors, Apple’s new watch crosses into what could be considered good-looking wearable tech, which sets up justifiable competition for Swiss watchmaking. Where Apple Watches start at $349 USD, the 18-karat gold cased Apple Watch Editions with sapphire crystal are expected to retail at up to $10,000 USD.
There seems to be no doubt that the Apple Watch will cause the industry to gasp and stagger, but like the calculator watches of the Seventies, it could just be a passing trend. Only time will tell. Some are asking whether wearable technology is really tantamount to high-end watchmaking, and whether one can replace the other. Ulysse Nardin’s CEO, Patrik Hoffmann, recently told the Financial Times that the impact is superficial, at best. “When you are in the luxury sector, selling mechanical watches, you are not selling timepieces. It is more an emotion, or a lifestyle.”
That lifestyle could be the buffer in the end. When the world talks about Swissness, it talks about quality. When words like Swiss Made or Swiss Label surface, they are unqualifiedly synonymous with a high standard longevity, and attention to design. In watchmaking, that translates into a timekeeping masterpiece that lasts for generations.
Mario Ortelli, Senior luxury goods analyst at Bernstein, told CNBC in early November that while the new Apple Watch might affect the low-end Swiss watch market, it could ultimately work in favour of upmarket watch brands by garnering the interest of an emerging consumer demographic.
I strap my mechanical timepiece to my wrist, wind it and hold it to my ear as the tick-tocking of Swiss craftsmanship beats out another day. No need for a next gen watch— vintage only gets better with time.
Article by Allison Zurfluh