The Future Of Watchmaking

At Dubai watch week in November 2019, After the conclusion of a highly interesting panel discussion on the challenges faced by watchmaking industry, I put my hand up to ask a question to one of the living legends of Swiss watchmaking Mr. Stephen Foresey (One half of Greubel Foresey).

The question was simple “Innovation is a big part of any industry. Without innovating, no business can survive, and it clearly dictates the growth trajectory of any business. However, when it comes to fine watchmaking, the rules are different. The more you are steeped into tradition and history, the more you a treated with respect. In a business where your success truly depends on your reliance on old ways of doing things, how do companies innovate and progress?

Before going to the answer that I received, let me a take a moment to give you an idea on where I come from.

I am not a veteran in the field Horology by any measure, in fact I consider myself a novice. I never even wore a watch before I started working in the watch industry. My interest in watches only stemmed after being exposed to the industry 5 years ago.

Smart watch Vs High end Horology Debates

Ever since my interest in watches began to develop and I started reading more, I came across different forums discussing challenges posed by smartwatches to high-end horology.

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The discussions were all about how the smartwatches were going to decimate traditional watches and make them obsolete. Fast forward to 2020 and smartwatches have grown beyond imagination. Sales of Apple watches alone in 2019 were more than the export of the Swiss watch industry in 2019. The Apple Watch sold 31 million units worldwide, when the whole Swiss watch industry combined sold 21 million units, according to research from consulting firm Strategy Analytics. Although there was a decline of 13.1% in the number of exports from Switzerland in 2019 compared to 2018, value-wise there was an increase of 2.6%. For a challenging year with shutdowns in Hong Kong and Epidemic in China, the figure was not too bad.

To the novice mind of mine, the real challenge faced by the watch industry in the 21st century was never the one caused by the growth of smartwatches or their likes. It was always “where does the industry stand now and where are we going”. The part which describes where we are going is the “innovation” which I mentioned earlier.

So what does innovation really mean in Horology?

Does it mean abandoning the old ways of watchmaking completely and going technical rather than mechanical or should the innovation be solely focused on improving the mechanical side alone.

I think the approach should be mixed. Mechanics should always be the heart of a watch. The mechanism itself can be re-drawn and bettered with time but with time we should be able to adopt other technologies into the mix for greater utility and reliance of the craft.

The automobile industry is a great example. They have successfully integrated so many electronic and other technical gadgetry into cars while consistently improving the performance of their engines and other body parts(which is their core business). The result is the overall improvement of the driver’s experience. As a result, the industry has also flourished with the presence of so many brands. We have all benefited from power steering, windows and electrical ignition. We cannot think of reversing these features now it would not be practical.

A similar approach can be taken for watchmaking in my opinion. Some brands have already started implementing this successfully. For example, Ressence introduced an e-Crown on their Type-2 watches in 2019 wherein the watch remembers the time even after going dormant in your wardrobe for months. It combines mechanics with digital technology. There is no physical crown on the watch, the adjustment is done by tapping the crystal of the watch. Imagine you picked up your Type-2 watch from your wardrobe after 3 months of zero use and the time is completely off, the moment you double tap the crystal, the watch adjusts to the correct time!

Richard Mille is another great example. While the majority of the industry was still relying on precious metal and steel to make watches, RM took a completely different approach by using composite materials no one had used before. They used materials like TPT and NTPT to make their watches ultra-light and extremely strong, so that they are comfortable to wear but at the same time robust to take any beating. The movements very much resembled racing car engines. All the watches could be worn while playing sports. Movement rotors could be adjusted to fit the lifestyle of a person (movements of some of the watches were even suspended on wires). They made luxury sporty, practical and casual.

HYT has been pushing the boundaries of horology since 2011. The brand was set up by Swiss entrepreneur Patrick Berdoz along with Lucien Vouillamoz a nuclear engineer, who developed the innovative fluid system. HYT watches told time using a liquid system. The company was set up with an initial investment of $30 million. Developing the liquid to be used on the watch took a long time. The watches sell for prices upwards of 50k USD per piece, As per Forbes, in 2013, the first full year of sales and production, HYT made about 150 watches. In 2015, it turned out 400. Berdoz claimed sales of $4.6 million in 2013 with growth of about 40% in 2014 and another 20% in 2015. The brand has continued to grow since and has come up with so many innovations. Due to the different approach taken by the brand, they seem to have occupied a unique place among watch lovers.

There are similar examples from Urwerk, MB&F and others. As is the case with many innovations, my hope is that similar technologies and innovations will make its way to the brands which are in the mid and lower categories of luxury.
If you look at the watchmaking landscape today the biggest brands continue to be the brands we all hear the most from. Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Rolex just to name a few.
These brands have continued to dominate the market for years by focusing on what they do best. Make the best watch possible by relying on traditional methods of watchmaking and improve them year after year. Their products are amazing, and they will never be out of fashion or run out of demand.
But for any new brands who want to join their league, the formula for success cannot be the same. They need to bring their own innovations to the table otherwise they will have no relevance. It is also very important that innovations make sense to the end consumer. For me, making triple and quadruple gyrotourbillons on top of each other is not the way to go. So far, the only new entrant to this prestigious group of watch brands I can see is Richard Mille. For a brand which is only 20 years old, their achievements are a great example to follow for relatively new brands. The more we innovate; I believe the more the industry will flourish.

Now let me come back to the answer of the question that I posed to the Dubai watch week panel which incidentally included Benoît Mintiens, founder of Ressence and Lucien Vouillamoz, Co-founder of HYT. What I took away was that there should be a fine balance between innovation and the basics of the craft and its a line that each brand should manage for themselves. Lucien Vouillamoz highlighted the difficulties in pursuing innovation from an economic point of view. He mentioned the millions HYT had to put in developing the fluid-based technology before even the first watch was made. Not necessarily something that can be recommended for new brands unless they have big funding.

Personally, I would be very happy if there was a turbocharge button on my submariner wherein, I press the button when Its time to wind my watch and it does is it in 2 seconds 😊