For some, the least said about 2020 the better but not everything about the year warrants collective oblivion. Here’s why.
As 2020 got under way, the sentiment was that the face of the Swiss watch industry would change, as the sector faced an alarming drop in export figures, growing unrest in the special administrative region of Hong Kong and the prospect of breakaway fairs and gatherings. As LVMH prepared to finalise its takeover of Tiffany, the group’s watch brands were showcasing their latest products in Dubai. Back in the days when travel was still possible…
A bolt from the blue. The coronavirus outbreak put China into lockdown and began its spread to the rest of the globe. The Swiss watch industry saw markets shutter one after the other. None of which prevented Chanel from celebrating two decades of the J12, hailed as the twenty-first century’s first iconic watch. The Parisian firm marked the occasion with a version entirely in sapphire crystal, bracelet included.
Morgan Stanley’s report on the Swiss watch market found that, of the 350-some brands, the bulk of growth in 2019 was down to seven billionaire brands: the ones best equipped to weather the 2020 storm. At its annual news conference, Swatch Group presented the long-awaited T-Touch Connect Solar.
With no live event, due to Covid-19, Watches & Wonders rolled out its digital ecosystem as a platform for new releases and a place for brands to interact with the community. While astronomical watches emerged as a popular theme, sport-luxe staked its claim as one of the year’s most enduring trends. One of its strongest proponents, Richard Mille showed how women were increasingly a part of the brand’s world.
Unveiled at Watches & Wonders, at 2mm “thick”, Piaget’s Altiplano Ultimate Concept set a new (unbeatable?) standard in ultra-thin. As a production model, it would go on to win the Aiguille d’Or at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in November. On stock markets, shares in luxury companies presented new investment opportunities.
After a disastrous first six months when Swiss watch exports plummeted by 35%, brands went in search of an antidote to crisis… and found it in the form of vintage, from Zenith’s Revival pieces to Breitling’s “modern retro”. The first glimmer of hope came courtesy of retailer Watches of Switzerland.
Corporate social responsibility and environmental initiatives were high on the agenda. IWC was one of the first to take up the sustainable cause while Richemont set out its new goals. Rolex stood out for the ambitious objectives behind the brand’s Perpetual Planet campaign and its support for research expeditions. Scientists are the twenty-first century’s new explorers.
Post-summer releases included a number of highly complex timepieces, such as the Chronomètre FB 2RE by Ferdinand Berthoud, Greubel Forsey’s Balancier S or the Patek Philippe Reference 5303R Minute Repeater Tourbillon. As for the markets, all eyes were again on China, the first major economy to come out of recession and the first market for Swiss watchmakers to return to growth. Was the end of the tunnel in sight?
After so many cancelled events, Geneva Watch Days and the fifteen-some brands that hosted face-to-face presentations there brought a welcome breath of fresh air. As did Watches & Wonders which travelled to China for fairs in Shanghai then Sanya, complete with a digital component. A new format, mixing real and virtual, was taking shape.
Studies confirmed that younger watch buyers increasingly look at a brand’s green credentials before purchasing. This concern extends to the sourcing of gold, diamonds and coloured gemstones: all important issues for a sector witnessing a sharp rise in pre-owned watch sales. With annual growth of 8%, second-hand was outperforming every luxury segment.
Are we one step closer to an eco-conscious luxury watch? Slowly but surely, brands are beginning to manufacture timepieces from ethically sourced, upcycled or recycled materials. Would this be enough to stem the slide in Swiss watch exports? Morgan Stanley’s forecast of a 20% contraction in shipments to CHF 16 billion took the industry back a decade to 2010 levels.
Switzerland’s Richemont, China’s Alibaba and France’s Artémis (Kering) invested over a billion dollars in British marketplace Farfetch in a bid to increase their share of China’s luxury e-commerce and possibly beat Amazon in the race to become the world’s largest online luxury player. Is Internet the big winner from lockdown?