Q & A: How to save the Swiss Watch Industry
A wonderful reader posted my article about the real impact of the quartz crisis over at r/watches and another Reddit user messaged me the following question. Rather than keep it squirrelled away between us, I'd rather publish my answer to the site!
Thanks for writing the piece you did regarding the quartz crisis. I love the conversation it sparked and I will bookmarking the site for future reading. We know the Swiss watch industry had to change/restructure/rebrand in order to survive. Today, it seems that there's a resurgence of the appreciation of not only vintage pieces, but mechanical and automatic watches overall; at least if you look at this Subreddit and other forums like WUS.
My question to you, is what are we seeing or "predicting" for the future? Are we entering another quartz crisis with digital and smart watches? Is it a smart idea to spend several thousands of dollars on 2-3 watches that may have come from obsolete brands in 10/20/30/40 years? I don't view watches as an investment but something I appreciate and enjoy as an enthusiast and I'm always curious what more experienced enthusiasts outlook is regarding the future and if I should spend the cash on that Rolex/Omega/etc etc.
Firstly we need to appreciate that the resurgence we're seeing in appreciation for vintage timepieces is confined to the small bubble of the watch community. Whether you're spending $200 on a 70's Waltham or $20,000 on a 50's Patek Philippe, you're still part of that same niche group that spends a disproportionate amount of time concerned about their watches. We're not yet at the point where you can start spouting out vintage Tri-Compax references to strangers and expect them to know what you're talking about. That being said, thanks to the popularity of online sellers of vintage watches (more on them down below) the community has never been more vintage focused.
When it comes to the climate of Swiss watchmaking, I don't think we're heading into another quartz crisis. I'm an optimist so I'd like to think that in the space of forty years at least one executive in Genèva has learnt something about underestimating technology. That being said, I do think that in order to reverse the decline of the amount of Swiss watches exported, changes need to be made and that doesn't have to be the pricing model or incorporating smart tech into dumb watches. It's quite simple really, luxury watch sales need to be more convenient.
I might criticise TAG Heuer a lot but they are one of the few Swiss brands that actually has an online shop to purchase their watches. Tissot and Longines also have online shops and IWC has a halfway-house arrangement where you can place an order with a concierge that will ship your watch to you but these are the rarity. I know that there are potential pitfalls to having customers place orders online and that by carefully curating the luxury boutique atmosphere, luxury brands can further control their image but c'mon guys, why do you make it so hard for me to give you money? Going through an authorized dealer is always an option but why would the brands not want to take your money directly? A brick and mortar boutique can only exist in one place but I can fit TAG Heuer's online store in my pocket.
Having a navigable and well-presented site helps too. Rolex and Omega lead the way in my opinion on this whilst Patek Philippe's site is incredibly annoying to navigate and browsing models on the A. Lange & Sohne site is painfully slow. Swipe....wait....load...swipe
The value of these luxury watches doesn't even need to be an issue either. Currently I could buy a De Bethune DBS from Contrapante for $33,600 and it will be posted overnight (fully insured if something dreadful happened). Online sellers like Contrapante, analog/shift, Hodinkee (Not that they're perfect), Theo & Harris, Those Watch Guys and so many more are making purchasing vintage watches easier than ever before yet buying new remains stuck in the past.
Theo & Harris, led by twenty-something Christian Zeron, is a small online vintage seller based out of New Jersey that has a better mobile experience than Patek Philippe. Theo & Harris has a layout that is designed for mobile devices whilst Patek's mobile site is little more than a collection of subfolders and poorly optimized images. This is completely topsy-turvy. Surely someone in Genèva knows how to design a website?
The after sales experience for servicing needs to improve as well. Currently there are only thirteen authorized locations in the United States where I can take my Zenith to get serviced with the closest being three hours drive away. I know America is a big place and not every state is going to have a market big enough to warrant opening a boutique or authorising a retailer but the system needs to be better.
I think that the Swiss industry is on the right track in terms of selling and branding their mechanical watches as luxury items rather than tools but they need to modernize their online experience with the consumer otherwise they are in for real trouble. And when it comes to whether it's a smart idea or not to spend thousands of dollars on mechanical watches? Well that's a question between you and your bank account.
It should be noted that unless you're a watch dealer then you will never make 'real' money off your watches. Toby Sutton and Alex Stevens from Watches of Knightsbridge both agreed that when buying a vintage watch, you should buy what you're interested in, not what you think is going to turn a profit in six months when you flip it. So I'll finish with these hopefully wise words. Get into mechanical watches for the love and if you make some money from your passion then more power to you.