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A rough guide to survival in the merciless world of watchmaking

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Introduction

 
The world of watchmaking is easily large enough to get completely lost in. Indeed, its vastness is to the taste of large numbers of collectors, who are only too happy to be able to get lost in an apparently boundless environment!
 
However, not everyone is an informed amateur, still less an expert, and even those who are now experts were once naive newcomers themselves.
 
The sheer scope of the horological universe is not always immediately apparent to all. Before being able to recognise an outstanding timepiece – or simply find the one that really does it for you – there are many stages of learning, during which amateurs will encounter a variety of watchmaking styles ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.
 
As the years go by, common points become apparent and different groups emerge. There’s no official classification, but brands of a feather tend to flock together. They share the same DNA, which can be described in terms such as ‘traditional’, ‘trendy’, ‘visionary’, and so on.
 
Chronopassion does not list timepieces by family. Nevertheless, we’ve learned to discern some broad trends that have survived over decades – sometimes over centuries. Giving a label to these trends is not intended as a value judgement, but may help the less experienced to refine and perhaps consolidate their view of a particular timepiece. So are you ready for the rough guide to watchmaking?
 

Establishment

 
Brands that lay claim not simply to their own story, but to a piece of watchmaking History with a capital H, are legion. In fact, few can legitimately do so. How many, precisely? Giving an exact figure is a tricky exercise, but it’s widely agreed that brands such as Breguet, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Lange & Söhne qualify.
 
These brands, centuries old, ascribe great importance to perfection, constancy and a sense of history, every step of their way. They will not put up with the slightest compromise, be it commercial, aesthetic, or technical.
 
The key issue for them is ensuring the brand maintains a certain level of dignity. Do they embody the perfect brand? That’s not for us to decide. However, Laurent Picciotto notes that most of these brands “are prisoners of their own history”.
 
Watch-lovers may well place the Establishment players at the top of the pile in terms of objective criteria such as the item’s value, its gravitas, and the perfection of its movement. However, these attributes don’t take into account variables such as its emotional impact or particularities. The latter are subjective criteria which may or may not be sought by amateurs as their own taste develops.
 

Establishment Challengers

 
Plenty of players are keen to join the Establishment group. The implications of achieving this are unparalleled in terms of sales and image. As a result, there is no lack of pretenders to this coveted status. They can be described as the Establishment Challengers.
 
Achieving this is not just a matter of ticking the right boxes, but it can be observed that some brands appear closer to their goal than others – Blancpain, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Panerai are a few of the manufactories in question.
 
However, Laurent Picciotto also warns that a dizzying ascent can quickly turn into a downward spiral. “The two categories are not watertight. Making one casting error in a collection can be fatal to an Establishment brand, enough to knock it off its pedestal. It then becomes very difficult to regain that position – collectors have excellent memories.”
 
How can one distinguish between those brands whose stars are rising and those who are waning – and thus to be avoided at all costs? Once a brand has gone off the rails, it’s easy to predict a decline in value, but by then it’s too late. The sign of a smart collector is their ability to anticipate.
 
For Laurent Picciotto, this is where the human factor plays a pivotal role. “A brand does not exist in isolation. It represents a company. And in companies, the CEO plays a determining role,” he explains. “Some bosses have a remarkable capacity for reassuring the market that the brand and its strategy are viable in the long term. In short, they are able to provide the vital fuel for the brand to power ahead. That fuel is confidence.”
 
After the chaos of the 1990s and 2000s, certain CEOs engaged on much-remarked-on rationalisations of overblown catalogues – as was the case with Zenith.
 
The Blancpain case is even more striking. During the quartz crisis, the brand almost went under. In 1983, this Sleeping Beauty was bought out by Jean-Claude Biver and his friend Jacques Piguet. Thanks to the boundless energy of the former, the brand got back into the watchmaking game. The slogan “Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be” immediately positioned Blancpain as a ‘zero-tolerance’ watchmaker – a nice snub at its neighbour on Place Vendôme, Patek Philippe. Jean-Claude Biver knows full well that 40% of the latter’s revenue comes from its Twenty-Four watch – which is of course quartz-powered. Blancpain’s strategy was an instant success, enabling it to make models showcasing the six foundational watchmaking niches (moon phases, perpetual calendar, split chronograph, and so on) and recover a sense of prestige and presence that had been feared lost for ever.
 
Closer to us, there’s Audemars-Piguet: “such an important change at the top of a manufactory in the watchmaking landscape is highly significant”, explains Laurent Picciotto. “The arrival of François Benhamias is much-awaited – and being very closely watched. He’s notched up quite a degree of success on the American market that he formerly headed up. The winds of change will probably begin to blow in Le Brassus”.
 
 
 
“When it comes down to it, destiny is about people, not companies”, concludes Laurent Picciotto.
 
 

The Dearly Departed

 
In theory, little remains to be said about brands that no longer exist, but Laurent Picciotto is quick to point out that they are well worth investigating. “Understanding the reasons that have led to the decline of a brand can be a good way of ensuring you don’t make a bad investment”.
 
In much the same way as a CEO can play a key role in a brand taking off, a single error on their part can also lead to its downfall. Unfortunately there are more reasons for failure than there are for success: poor management, over-ambition, making a bad choice in terms of market segment or geographical location, and so on.
 
Over and above the human factor, Laurent Picciotto also emphasises the particular nature of the watchmaking market. “The industry relies completely on micro-mechanics. This is not the case in most industries – in fact it’s the exception rather than the rule. The greater the degree of miniaturisation, the more an error of a millimetre, or even a micron, can be fatal. No timepiece is immune from unexpected friction, stuck cogs and so on, but this doesn’t mean such problems are acceptable – anything but. A higher-than average rate of returns for a given timepiece or worse still, for an entire brand, can sound its death knell. There’s no room for approximation in the watchmaking industry.”
 
This is one reason why new projects by veteran watchmakers always inspire more confidence than ideas dreamed up by somebody – an investor or designer, for instance – who has never actually engaged in the process themselves.
 
However, even that is not enough to guarantee success. “Materials and machine tools are constantly changing. New alloys are just one example of this constant technology race in which even the most experienced manufactory will be taking risks. Nobody knows how the unprecedented alloys being concocted today will behave one or two centuries from now. Ultimately, a star brand today could suffer major decline over the long term if the gambles it’s taking at the moment don’t pay off over time.”
 

The Independents

 
Since the turn of the new millennium, independent watchmakers have acquired something totally novel: recognition! Ever more numerous, ever crazier, ever more daring, the one thing that they generally have in common is a fine disregard for traditional specifications.
 
In fact the goal of all their endeavours is usually to arouse emotions by creating an entirely new item. “You don’t have to be mad to push your ideas to the limit, but it helps!” observes Laurent Picciotto. “It’s certainly an extremely audacious strategy. Only the best survive. At the end of the day, even if the item is like nothing ever seen before, seasoned amateurs will judge the piece using the same objective criteria as for most other timepieces: reliability, positioning, and so on. The one thing that can make a difference is when emotion overshadows all these factors. It does not eclipse them altogether, though. However amazing an independent watchmaker’s creation may be, it will not survive six months if it turns out to be unreliable.”
 
What are the distinguishing marks of an Independent? Laurent Picciotto has built up much of  Chronopassion’s success around Independents, and provides a good picture of their common DNA. Watches by Independents “have a strong identity. The name is a secondary consideration. The piece should be recognisable even if you don’t know what it’s called.” Independents’ timepieces almost always achieve the same initial effect. “Amazement. People are never indifferent to a watch made by an Independent. You either love it or you hate it.”
 

Parallel Worlds

 
The poetry, values and environment of watchmaking often draw in brands that at first sight have nothing to do with the art.
 
Fashion is both the best and the worst illustration of this.
 
Watches can be fashion accessories, but if they are seen only as such – and they often are –  the disastrous result only becomes apparent when it is too late. The skills, expertise and level of excellence required to enter the world of watchmaking are so great that major resources must be brought to bear in order to achieve even a basic level of credibility.
 
Haute couture brands do have these kinds of resources, and many of them have conducted appropriate development strategies for watchmaking, implemented with patience – the most important attribute required to enter this refined world. “Nowadays, nobody disputes the legitimacy of Dior, Chanel or Hermès in watchmaking, even at the highest levels”, says Laurent Picciotto. “To achieve this, they have played two trump cards: doing things properly, by acquiring the resources of authentic manufactories, and successfully extending the brand universe which forms the basis of their strength in their original market into the realm of watchmaking.”
 
At the end of the day, fashion brands have a good chance of breaking into watchmaking on the basis of their identity – the world they embody and the passion it arouses in their most ardent supporters. Conversely, brands that are no more than ‘designer labels’ will never manage to produce anything more than accessories – watches, glasses, pens and so on – without ever establishing proper credibility in any of these areas. Laurent Picciotto sums it up like this: “Credibility cannot be bought: you have to build it yourself.”
 
Be that as it may, some brands that thought they had achieved credibility have stumbled nonetheless. It’s easier to fall back out of the Parallel World than might be thought. Even some watchmaking brands have discovered this to their cost.
 
For instance, certain brands positioned on entry-level models have sometimes sought to offer timepieces with complications, or even top-level ‘haute horlogerie’ models. Laurent Picciotto analyses these misguided attempts as “a problem of consistency. There needs to be consistency between the brand and the price of its watches. Brands positioned on entry-level models cannot suddenly leap to selling tourbillons or perpetual calendar watches. Simply put, to the naked eye, two stars in the same galaxy may shine just as brightly and be indistinguishable. But on closer inspection, there are light-years between them; they’re so far apart that it’s actually impossible to travel from one to the other.”
 
Journalist : Olivier Müller