Sunday, August 07, 2005

Mass Market Tourbillon = New 'Quartz Crisis' Ahead

What's going on? Well in case you've missed it, Chinese tourbillon movements have migrated into 'Western' watches (e.g. Uhr-Kraft and Trias). Thus, you now have European law covering warranty, sales, fitness for purpose and so on, i.e. meaningful protection for purchasers. This must inevitably mean more market penetration as buyers don't have to take a punt on some watch with very little redress if it stops in two weeks (although admittedly cheap at <$750). And really you have to wonder why they shouldn't actually be any good in the age of high precision CNC machining.

PTS Resources FD-3031-1 Hand Winding Tourbillon Movement.
One of three tourbillons offered by this company.

Good quality watches have always been available cheap, think Seiko 7s26, and even high complications such as rattrapante and repetition have their cheap functional examples in Western makers (Nivrel, Kelek, ETA etc) and that doesn't prevent sales of more expensive versions. But if the Chinese begin to manufacture complications like this, a) at high volume, b) with super low prices, and critically, c) provide 'Western' companies with these kind of high complication base movements, the question is how do the Swiss maintain a clear "luxury premium" buffer?

At this point, I remembered some thoughts from interview with Philippe Dufour

"Right now we have to be careful of what we are doing. I mean, I'm talking about myself, ok? Doing a complication for doing a complication, I don't like it so much. I prefer to do something less complicated but perfect. You see? Because we have been through everything, you know? We didn't invent anything because everything was done before us. We have to recognize. We have to be modest, some people forget sometimes to be modest (smiling), but everything has been done by our grandfather or great-grandfather. Even the repeater, everything. Now we adapt that to a certain size and so on. Ok, now everything has been done. You come out with a rattrapante; well everybody has a rattrapante. A very cheap rattrapante from ETA and so on. What's the point of doing a rattrapante? Unless you make it classical, you know? With beautiful springs, nice shapes, difficult to do. And you don't add something new in complication but you add something in art, the way it's done. You see? The Aubert or the Piguet from Le Brassus, they were crazy people. When I see what they've done with the tools they had, it's crazy. Now we have some difficulties, we have computers, we have calculators, we have everything. And at the end the product is not as good as before, why? Because we miss something. We miss the feelings, the hands, the workers to do that. We have too much facility now I think. Personally I think we'll return a bit backwards and get more original product, more simple product. Because we cannot go any further. The windows of the shops are full of complicated watches, of chronographs, everything. We cannot go any further. We have to come back to more simple things."

Is it going to be down to hand manufacturing and finishing content? Well, whilst trying to perpetuate the image of 'atelier' and the hand element of their watch manufacturing, the reality is the Swiss have adopted more and more precision automation so they have to be careful there if their future revenues lie in handicraft. However, I believe there is only so much people will pay for finishing in a simple watch and in fact the mass loss of the exclusivity of the execution of complications removes one of their (the Swiss) unique selling points, and a primary reason for charging high premiums for them. This could be likened to the 'Quartz' crisis and the industry survived that, so they should survive this, right? Well, trading on what? Finish, exclusivity, and the emotional? It's not enough in my view. There is a silver lining here. I would suggest that the only direction to go in for the Swiss is to maintain the above three AND to give us a technical renaissance. Not necessarily combining complications much more ( I know this is an unpopular approach) at the risk of finshing up with some kind of Swiss Army knife (ironic), but to truly innovate in new directions; I mean escapements, materials, methods and so on.

Judging by the slow, steady and relaxed pace the Swiss work at, they may yet have the space and time to shift up a gear and tap more earnestly into some of their bookshelved innovations and create more in the longer term. If not, I fear they may disappear in any form other than brands.


Speedmaster said...

This is a great blog post Velociphile.

I tend to agree w/ Mr. Dufour. I think that most mech. watch fans will still want something "Swiss", though we know that an entirely different thread. ;-)

I think the Chinese hih-mech movements will only eat at the lower end. I don't see any threat to high end Swiss/German watches.

I think a good example might be the VW Phaeton. While it's probably mechanically as good as a high end Benz, I think many people will still ave trouble shelling out $90k for a VW.


Speedmaster said...

Another quick thought.

Check this out:

I fing it amusing that a movt complication whose original intent was to improve accuracy, is rated in these movements as +/- 30 seconds/day.

I know it's for aesthetic reasons now, but I still get a kick out of it. ;-)


Velociphile said...

Europstar covered this topic in September:

Paul Loatman said...

I don't care about what the Swiss are doing, they can keep getting more automated and cheaper for all i care.

However, the watches that are coming from all the big brands are relatively the same. I'm talking about the big brands, not the small independents, which frankly, there aren't many of in Switzerland, there are more independents outside of Switzerland and even a few that are in Switzerland originally came from someplace else.

When it comes to watches made by hand and given an individual touch, the Swiss have already lost that battle, they've gone too far into mass production, a modern Breguet tourbillon might cost quite a bit of money, but it's still a mass produced watch. Those are the sort of watches where the prices may eventually be affected by the even cheaper and even more mass produced complicated watches.

However, when it comes to hand made watches, the prices will always remain the same, noone will go through all that trouble of spending months and sometimes years working away towards the goal of perfction just to sell it for a few thousand dollars, it'll never happen, they'll stop being made before that happens, but i don't think they'll stop being made. There aren't many people that really see the difference between a modern, mass produced complicated Swiss watch and a hand made, complicated watch, but those few people will continue to buy what they prefer, and independents don't need thousands of customers like the larger Swiss brands. This crisis is a battle between manufacturers, not craftsmen, so craftsmenship, and Dufour, have nothing to do with it.