The Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie 2017 is now concluded, and the aBlogtoWatch team is predictably exhausted. We tried something new this year – a video log (vlog) series – to help capture what it is like to be at the show. Combining high excitement and energy-draining hours, we are glad people enjoyed that very intimate look behind the scenes and what it is like to attend the “world’s most prestigious” high-end watch trade show.
In my 9th year attending SIHH (itself in its 27th year) I’d like to once again recap the overall sentiment of the show as well as point out key highlights which we think the general watch-loving public should be excited about in 2017. Before we get to our top 11 watches of SIHH 2017, I’d like to explore the general watch and luxury industry atmosphere so that people get a better idea of why particular products are being made – and for whom.
Note as well that this can be “only” a “lefty watch,” that naturally means the RM 70-01 is designed to be worn in your right wrist. This is due to the fact that the shape ensures that the crown isn’t going to poke into your hands. This is particularly an issue given the arm and hand position of a cyclist, where with no design such as this, a debilitating crown might be an issue. It was seen just how many people like this watch and also happen to be those people who wear watches on their right, versus left wrist.While I’m not sold on this particular complication using too much of a future, I think this new case design will be redeemed for future Richard Mille watches, and I look forward to trying it on for myself. I think it’s a smart move for brands such as Richard Mille to court biking fans as another rich crossover area where individuals who also like watches appear to hang outside. While we are not seeing automobile racing-inspired watches moving away anytime soon, it sure feels good to find a little more variety. With this costly buy, Richard Mille wants to make sure that you’ll maintain their bike club using a “gift” that’s a limited edition Colnago C60 street bike (in matte black carbon fiber, of course). The super high-end Swiss watch manufacturer probably considers this almost $150,000 timepiece practically entry-level given its most million-dollar-plus creations — and yet, so much of why Richard Mille as a watchmaker is popular is in this particular limited edition watch. At a captivating marbled white and blue instance produced from Quartz TPT material — that the Richard Mille RM 11-03 Jean Todt 50th Anniversary timepiece is a salute to a pal of this brand as well as evidence that even high-luxury could be trendy.
It was a particularly cold and windy week in Geneva, Switzerland, during SIHH 2017. Our accommodations near Lake Geneva offered a first-rate view of what struck me as a suitable metaphor for the industry’s current circumstance. High winds blew over the water causing not only surfable waves (if you have an Iceman-like tolerance for cold) but also spilling onto the adjacent walking paths that in the spring and summer make for popular strolling avenues for lovers and languishers alike. The high winds and ominous lake waves seemed a fitting metaphor for the luxury watch industry which is continuing to experience a storm.
My fellow watch media, especially the more veteran channels or those seeking to appeal exclusively to industry folk, seem unsure of how to cover the clearly “bad times” that much of the industry is facing. Many people are losing their jobs, companies are being reorganized, and the Swiss watch industry – while there are more than a few strongly performing areas – is by most accords contracting (to put it lightly). Yet the weakness of egotism continues to shroud reality and despite unequivocal data (and a lot of it) indicating that the industry is bottoming out, few managers are looking at the issue square in the face.
In part, the traditional media is to blame, though they can hardly be faulted for not reporting on information that is so secretly guarded. While private banking is moving outside of Switzerland to places with more amenable laws to finance sheltering (especially for those with US bank accounts), many in the Swiss watch industry seem to fear the reality that without maintaining a strong sense of relevance the “traditional and lasting” Swiss watch industry is extremely vulnerable. Their customary reaction is to smile and sometimes boast of how “amazing” things are regardless of what the numbers might suggest.
A little bit of advice to watch industry managers – do not forget that those in truly confident positions hardly find value in boasting about it. The more you tell us how incredibly surprising sales are, and how much client demand is straining your production resources, the more media and retailers alike detect a blip on their BS radars. The irony is that humility is a deeply ingrained and valued element of Swiss culture – and thus the sentiments of the watch industry demonstrate how truly pan-European it is, despite the fact that many are physically located within the borders of Switzerland.
Such words are intended to poke at the stone-like facade of success that all luxury brands seem intent on both guarding and presenting to the outside world. The consumers and retailers that support you are keenly aware that things aren’t exactly bullish. So let’s take a lesson from the diplomacy Switzerland is so often associated with and consider the value of a group effort to help remedy your watch industry problems as opposed to displaying the exact same image of unwavering success, year after year, despite what logic and facts clearly seem to suggest regarding earnings.
If I haven’t made my point abundantly clear, Switzerland: it’s time to let go of total control and invite in some help. You do make some pretty darn good watches when you put your minds to it, with organized factories and efficient offices. When it comes to understanding diverse market needs as well as marketing communication, I suggest you entrust professionals for advice that may know a bit more than you in such areas. It isn’t like they are going to suggest that in order to fix the industry you should stop making high-quality mechanical watches.
Politics and conservatism are hot issues these days, and the watch industry is no exception. I’ve further identified two areas that need serious reorganization or at least to be rethought: hiring good people who have clear goals, and ensuring that conservatism does not always block actual innovations. By this, I mean a few things.
First of all, the watch industry is structured in such a manner that there are relatively few truly powerful executives and managers, and controversy is avoided like the Black Death. This presents two powerfully important problems. The first is that because there are so few people with an actual say (or clearly thought-out means of measuring performance success) that there is an abundance of discretion among a small number of people. This means watch brands or groups in general are more structured like monarchies than modern organizations with proper decision-making authority.
There are benefits to this approach when you have a strong, forward-thinking leader who is able to achieve success through the help of a willing team – eager to oblige his (and it’s almost always a man) every whim. More often than not, however, such autocratic leaders are woefully unqualified to run a watch business in an era when people buy watches as emotional treats you can wear and show off to the world around you.
Thus, too much discretion in the hands of too few people can cripple otherwise effective leaders from being in control of narrow but specialized tasks that they can excel at. I truly believe that there was more of this in the past (Switzerland’s more or less socialist mentality to labor and decision-making would seem to suggest as much), and these days good ideas are snuffed out or otherwise ignored due to mere incompetence – or decision-makers who have unclear or incorrect goals given market positions.
Such pondering comes at a time when I’ve observed, year after year, good people at brands leaving, and not being replaced with qualified individuals. It’s incredibly sad. You might point out that there is perhaps even more weakness among the small independent brands who, without corporate parents, are free to make whatever decisions they like. Further consider that many of these are responsible for making a large percentage of today’s best watches, and yet a good number are struggling financially. I would not disagree with this in the least, but I would point to a much more simple reason why so many cool independent brands (of course, not all of them) are suffering despite seemingly having amazing products.
The answer, in my opinion, is that overall weakness in the more mainstream industry is directly hurting the smaller independents. In order for them to survive and find customers, they must rely on the big brands doing the hard work to turn people into watch lovers, and then, secondly, to allow them to have a pleasant purchasing and ownership experience. Most watch consumers who collect watches from high-end independent brands do so only after “graduating” from products from the larger brands. A weaker mainstream industry unable to capture the hearts and minds of consumers (and give them a quality purchase and ownership experience) is unlikely to breed too many people who then go on to desire the experience of a high-end independent brand.
Let’s talk about products now, since the hot trends and patterns we saw in watches at SIHH 2017 will be of interest to many people. Many of the displaying brands seemed to have a good idea of how to capture the heart of “the lost market,” which is the United States. To do this, the industry needs to make attractive, practical watches such as sport watches and some complicated with focused functionality and non-precious cases. A lot of brands are doing just that ranging from “houses” such as Cartier to Baume & Mercier, Montblanc, and Ulysse Nardin. Again, “classic-feeling” sport watches in non-precious metals are performing much better in sales that many other types of watches these days. While not all new releases are amazing, more than enough of