After having taken a battering by the pandemic in 2020, the luxury Swiss watch industry is looking to strengthen its growth this year.
Optimism seems to be a talking point among brands, which are looking to a good year ahead.
Surprisingly, they witnessed a recovery last year.
The Federation Horlogere Suisse (FHS), otherwise known as the Swiss Watch Federation, revealed in January that exports for 2021 rose by 31.2% compared to 2020.
Totalling CHF22.3bil (RM101.5bil), last year’s figure is higher than the years from a decade ago – 2.7% increase compared to 2009, for example. The growth even surpassed the highest ever recorded by the industry in 2014 by 0.2%.
It should be pointed out that statistics published are based on export figures and not on sales to the end consumer. That said, they still are indicative of the market’s growth.
“While the Covid-19 pandemic continued to make its presence felt throughout the year, its consequences for the watch market proved less severe,” reads the statement released by FHS in the report.
“Overall, luxury personal goods benefited from the sharp increase in demand in China and the US, additional opportunities created by digitalisation, the use of savings accumulated during the various lockdowns and more significant restrictions on luxury experiences, particularly tourism-related activities.”
The Watches & Wonders trade show, which took place in Switzerland last week, was buzzing with excitement.
It welcomed physical guests once again in a hybrid mode straddling both online and offline. This was a large change compared to last year, where it was a fully digital experience.
The event was cancelled in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
State of time
“We’re back,” declares the president of Fondation De La Haute Horlogerie (FHH), Emmanuel Perrin, in one of the panel discussions.
He adds: “It’s the biggest fine watchmaking salon we have ever organised in Geneva.”
This year’s edition saw a total of 38 brands participating.
“Watches & Wonders is designed as a ‘fashion week’, where the whole industry can meet, see the novelties, sniff out the new trends, and meet the movers and shakers of the watchmaking world,” comments FHH CEO Matthieu Humair.
His statement perfectly sums up horology as a lifestyle experience – more so, one that is deemed as unavoidably tactile and fast-paced.
As for the watchmakers themselves, they are hoping for another good year.
“We’re cautiously optimistic, as we’re aware there are still challenges ahead, but I’m enormously proud of our new collections and the strong emphasis on bold new colours means we are starting the year in a very positive, uplifting fashion,” notes Omega’s president and CEO, Raynald Aeschlimann, when contacted.
“The last two years have not been easy for any industry or individuals, but we have weathered it well and our goal is to make the best of this momentum, with confidence and by staying true to our pioneering spirit.”
Omega unveiled an array of eyecatching designs for 2022. The aim was to give as many choices as possible to suit every personality and style.
“I think the diversity of what we’re offering sums up Omega so well,” Aeschlimann says.
“We have extraordinary dive watches, with depth-defying tech proven at the deepest place on earth. We have delicate dress watches with subtle pastel dials and we have everything in between.”
His top pick is the new Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep – the reason being that this watch, able to withstand underwater depths of up to 6,000m, embodies the brand’s thirst for adventure.
He also has his eye on the new Seamaster Aqua Terra watches, which have dials in shades rarely seen on a steel watch, and the new Moonwatch in the brand’s own alloy, 18K Moonshine Gold.
Aeschlimann says luxury timepieces are not just about the price tag. They can also have an emotional value.
“The wonderful thing about a Swiss-made watch is that it represents a timeless investment. So, even if customers are still cautious about spending, they can be sure their Omega will retain and even increase in value. And of course it brings a lot of happiness and joy after a challenging time.”
Evolving over the years
Clemence Duboi, chief product and marketing officer of Girard-Perregaux, points out that the interest in fine watchmaking has reached new heights today. This has worked to counter the pandemic’s impact.
“People are more interested and more knowledgeable, and this opens up a new potential to share our products to a larger audience,” he comments.
Reflecting on the past few years, Duboi says the brand has continued building a strong network and relationship with The Hour Glass, a distributor of the watches in Malaysia.
“These times also allowed the brand to shift its focus to its flagship collections Bridges and Laureato, while still animating them with exciting novelties,” he adds.
Another iconic design from Girard-Perregaux that deserves mentioning is the Casquette. This 1976 digital watch was recently updated with a ceramic case and Grade 5 titanium caseback.
Like the original Casquette, it displays the hours, minutes, seconds, day and date digitally.
However, the new movement comes with some additional functions, including the month, year, chronograph and second time zone, as well as a “secret date” – allowing wearers to put a pin on occasions like a wedding anniversary.
It shows that luxury watchmakers need to keep up with changing times too. They cannot just bank on traditional crafts, but instead, embrace new materials and better technology.
“Girard-Perregaux is a historical brand that keeps on pushing the boundaries of creativity and technical innovation in order to always bring something unexpected to its clients,” Dubois says.
He points to the Tourbillon With Three Flying Bridges watch, which is a modern reinterpretation of the one unveiled way back in 1867.
“Taking this creation to the next level and imagining a contemporary version is really something both unexpected and refreshing.”
The willingness to change
It seems that revisiting iconic designs is a theme for many watchmakers this year.
Tong Chee Wei, Bell & Ross general manager, Asia, believes that brands are doubling down on preserving their identity.
“Bell & Ross has proven its firm benchmark in the world of aeronautical field. This year, we will be reaffirming our stance on that, catering to followers of the brand.”
On the subject of brand collaborations, which have become widespread in the fashion industry, Tong says that they are important.
“They enable brands to speak to a new audience, to experiment with design and marketing outside of their typical routine, in a refreshing and different style with no judgement.”
For instance, Bell & Ross worked with streetwear label A Bathing Ape back in 2018 to launch two limited edition watches.
Tong says this arose from a common passion to design functional products with a clear identity. In the case of Bell & Ross and A Bathing Ape, their partnership shared a strong love of military-style aesthetic.
Some of the latest releases by the watchmaker include two BR 03-92 Diver models. This line was launched 20 years after the inaugural launch of the iconic Hydromax watch in 1997.
Bell & Ross also recently released a funky watch targetted at a younger market.
Named BR 03-94 Multimeter, it features separate scales in different colours, including three tachymeters. It is able to count heartbeats and monitors breaths, plus measure speed for running, cycling and driving.
“With the working from home practices, we realise that fitness has been a trend in our lifestyle,” Tong explains.
“We are known to make utilitarian watches and we combine the expertise from watchmakers to the wearers to making the right functional watch for our audience.”
Watch trends may move a little slower than, say fashion trends, but that does not mean the key players in the industry are not keen on change. Their decisions are seen as more deliberate, instead of being knee-jerk.
One example is how even luxury watch brands are now embracing online sales. They have always been a little reluctant to do so in the past.
“We have seen an increased importance in omnichannel retail, especially when Covid-19 hit us,” Tong says.
“The demands of the consumers have changed, and brands are doing more than ever to maintain their market share of customer loyalty. Today’s technology allows us to have a seamless, faster and more efficient communication with our customers.”
This pretty much describes the effect the pandemic had on the watchmaking industry.
Time did not ground to a halt – as much as being cooped up at home made a lot of us feel that way, but now, with the world opening up again, horology is keen to get its gears into motion and continue ticking.