Thoughts: The Slow Death Of The Old Watch Industry

The Watch Industry feels more alive today than ever before. Yet, looking at it from a little bit closer, it has now become more than clear… the times they are a-changin’. As of this weekend, we are in the biggest and baddest bull market in history. Ten years of impressive financial growth. In order to balance against all that great financial news, I figured it was time to look at how the Watch Industry is doing in comparison to the overall market and why that may be so. A very sobering exercise.

As you might have noticed, we love watches over here, and we only wish the best for the industry. However, we do check up on the vitals of the industry nearly every month. And quite frankly while some brands are doing great work, many are at a very high risk of becoming irrelevant very fast.

In our recent interview with Jean-Claude Biver, we discussed the state of the watch industry. The man himself – the personification of the watch industry – stressed the importance and value of the Watchmaking Art (do have a look at the interview right here if you haven’t yet). The watchmaking art, he stated, that is the future of the watch industry. Everything else, so it seems, is at the doorstep of irrelevancy. It’s hard to disagree with that statement. So then, where is this supposed ‘Art’ in the watch industry today?

That Art is mainly found at a select few brands in the big Groups. That Art is also found, without question, at many of the smaller Independent brands. However, adding all of those up will still only get you to a mere fraction of the total brands that the industry still boasts today. Art requires more than cranking out more of the same, it requires creativity. This element it seems, is lacking across a wide range of brands seemingly shackled by their very own release history, doomed for perpetual sameness.

Creativity is further hampered by many brands being stuck somewhere in a Watch Group hierarchy. Where only its top brands are seemingly allowed to be truly creative, with the rest of the bunch being allowed to only go so far in their creativity (that is of course, because creativity in watchmaking costs a lot of money). It seems to me that the brands which until recently enjoyed the biggest benefits of the industrialization of the watch industry, now risk becoming entirely obsolete exactly because they have become so industrialized.

But wait, you may say, the Watch Industry is growing. Well yes, but please remember we are experiencing the biggest and best bull market (10 years!) globally. To grow is the very least you should do as an industry in these times. But look a little bit closer. Look at how pure watch groups such as Swatch and Richemont are doing, and how for example a much more diversified group such as LVMH is holding up in comparison.

Swatch Group is underperforming even in this incredible bull market. The (once) saviour of the Swiss Watch Industry is not looking that healthy compared to its peers. Richemont Group did a little bit better, sure. But essentially they also underperformed when compared against the S&P 500. The one and only watch group that did exceedingly well, LVMH, is the least watch focused one of them all. This alone speaks volumes.

Of course, the lack of creativity is nothing new to the Watch Industry. It is only now, with the ever improving Smartwatches that this ‘characteristic’ has become fatal. Any brand that sits in the price range of on Apple style watch should be on highest alert. Any watchbrand in that category that only tells you the time and lacks any sort of creativity, is absolutely and categorically doomed. Those brands are however a very large chunk of the watch industry as we know it today.

These brands have only one choice, get creative – fast. As I mentioned, creativity also costs a lot of money however. Therefore I would imagine that any brands currently priced in the Smartwatch price-range will as a direct result of trying to survive get (much) more expensive. To survive is to be creative, to be creative means investing and spending money, therefore, the survivors, will be (more) expensive.

How the industry will respond and evolve the coming years is a bit of a guess. That it will look dramatically different from today, seems to be certain.

  1. Dang Jan, tell us how you really feel ๐Ÿ˜… wholeheartedly agree with you however. I think the Independents are doing beautiful and creative work, they are the creative lifeblood of the industry. Independents are for me financially out of range sadly, I admire them from a distance.

    The big groups are dead asleep. Re-releasing ad nauseam ๐Ÿคฎ The โ€œaffordableโ€ watches in the range have no soul whatsoever. And my much beloved affordable, Seiko, is quickly becoming unaffordable too!

    That Swatch Chart is brutal…

    1. Hey there! I didn’t mean to be negative or so, but it is becoming pretty obvious where this is going… Yes, the independent brands are really what keeps the industry so damn interesting to follow, but those are indeed largely un-affordable for most. Still fun to watch along from the sideline I’d say ๐Ÿ™‚ It will become impossible for low priced, basic, watchbrands within watch groups to survive, I just don’t see how that will be possible on the long term. It will be up or out, with a special niche for affordable micro brands not part of any groups.

  2. Love reading your Thoughts column, always refreshing! Honest opinion articles in the watch industry, are you sure this is legal Jan? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. My man Jan, thanks a lot for writing this. Cutting through the BS with one sweet post. I’m sure you have just written down what many of us are thinking and I hope a few of the Industry readers actually take note. A lot of low(er) tier brands are confirmed dead from a WIS perspective even today, absolutely dead. No heartbeat left and soul confirmed having left the body.. There are a lot of brands which I don’t even look at anymore because it’s just copy/paste ‘meh’ every single time. Once in a while a well targeted wad of cash to the big watch outlets/cheerleaders will succeed at overhyping a particular affordable watch but that’s about it. Keeping some of these brands afloat is just postponement of the inevitable. Looking at the chart, you start wondering if Swatch Group management just decided to take an early nap or something but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because I love them so much. That chart is f’ing painful to see.

    1. Thank you for your feedback and insights Claude, I really appreciate it always! Might I also add that I feel like you could have written the post with more panache than I ever could ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Interesting thoughts and points made. the industry will be radically different in a few years with much lower volumes sold. letโ€™s not forget quite a few watch brands are also abandoning their old retailers in favor of direct to consumer sales. This will further redraw the watch industry…

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