This time, the numbers leave no doubt. After gaining 3.2% in the first quarter, Swiss watch exports have hit a bump in the road. The 2.2% drop registered in the second quarter is confirmed by the 9.3% fall observed in July, prompting this comment from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry: “The main Asian markets all reported sluggish sales and weighed heavily on this result. Overall, sales in Asia were down by 21.4%.” Once again then, Asia has rained on Swiss watchmaking’s parade and not for the first time, albeit for different reasons. Forty years ago, Switzerland’s mechanical movements were sapped to the core by Japanese quartz. Today, China’s struggling economy is dampening the enthusiasm of its citizens, who are the biggest buyers of Swiss timepieces. Then there is the small matter of smartwatches, which some predict will have the same devastating effect on the industry as electronic timepieces four decades ago.
Knocked for six
Since then, there can be no denying Swiss watchmakers’ success in winning back customers with products that have virtually cornered the market today. That French news magazine Le Point should devote pages to the fortieth anniversary of Swiss watchmaking 2.0 ought therefore to come as no surprise. “In 1975, Switzerland was knocked for six by quartz while its own industry continued to insist too heavily on value over volume. Yet talent was bubbling under, waiting to emerge.” For example? Felix Baumgartner, the founder with Martin Frei of iconoclastic brand Urwerk, was born in 1975. This was also the year Romain Gauthier embarked on a life odyssey that would have him cast anchor on the same shores as Philippe Dufour.
Still in 1975, Nicolas Hayek met a certain Ernst Thomke, boss of ETA, and engineer Jacques Muller. Their encounter would lead to the Swatch watch, whose genesis and rise to fame are set in the stone of watchmaking history. Again in 1975, Zenith decided that the future lay with quartz, and earmarked for scrap all its mechanical calibres and the tools to make them. As Le Point notes, “One employee, Charles Vermot, refused to capitulate. He salvaged all that was needed to manufacture the El Primero movement. Forty years on, Zenith has a lot to thank him for: 80% of its collections are driven by the El Primero.”
Of watches and men
Future stalwarts of the industry were also beginning to emerge, Jean-Claude Biver among them. He cut his teeth at Audemars Piguet, then moved to Omega before reviving the fortunes of Blancpain. 1975 witnessed the arrival of Alain-Dominique Perrin at the head of Cartier where he would remain until 1998, during which time he established Maison Cartier as the jewel in Richemont’s crown. Luigi Macaluso came to Girard-Perregaux that same year, turning the brand around before becoming its new owner in 1992. Two brands, Raymond Weil and Maurice Lacroix, saw daylight in 1975, which was also the year Michel Parmigiani began making watches in the village of Fleurier. Vincent Calabrese set up his business that same year, and would later create the baguette movement that drives Corum’s Golden Bridge models. Last and by no means least, in 1975 George Daniels was putting the finishing touches to his co-axial escapement, now a hallmark of Omega movements.
With the benefit of hindsight, in this single year we can see how the Swiss watch industry was sowing the seeds for its future. But having weathered one storm, is it ready to face more headwinds? Latest developments suggest the sector is more determined than ever. After all, they do say life begins at forty…