The traditional autumn gathering of the watch industry, the 35th of its kind, was held in Hong Kong on 6 to 10 September last. As everyone knows, the watch industry is living in challenging times. South East Asia, for a long time the driving force behind the sector by pushing sales to new peaks, is now just freewheeling. However, in the exhibition guide the organisers took a reassuring stance, stressing the continuous expansion of the event and saluting the presence of 800 exhibitors from 27 different countries. In particular, a sustained effort was made to host the best-known brands in a space curiously known as the “TE Room” which brought together some 150 exhibitors classed in the official guide as belonging to the “prestige” category. On site, the overall impression was rather different. Large areas remained empty of exhibitors. Clearly, last minute cancellations were rife. For the first time, the organiser had used this space to set up a parallel exhibition focused on fashion accessories and garments as a way of filling unoccupied square metres and attracting a different audience. Despite these praiseworthy efforts, attendance remained sparse from the first to the last day.
As it has done since 2008, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH) set up its surveillance operation on behalf of some fifty different brands. In an economic context which has been depressed for months on end with no real prospect of short-term recovery, would such hard-pressed exhibitors go on the attack? Moreover, in this complicated environment how would the organisers respond to the Federation’s action? The background conditions were highly uncertain as the fair opened.
The thin line
When it comes to design, Chinese exhibitors are known to systematically test the limits, examining Swiss manufacturers’ successful models from every angle to isolate that one essential distinctive feature, which is then reproduced identically on an everyday model to give it a close visual resemblance or at least a degree of similarity with a famous design. This is where the problem lies: at what point does this constitute infringement of a registered design? How many distinctive features must be copied for the infringement to be deemed to have occurred? The reader will have understood that this is all a matter of perception and weighting which makes the analysis, and hence the investigative work, much more complicated.
As soon as the event opened, eight investigators spread through the Convention & Exhibition Halls in Wanchai for the “window shopping” phase. This year, teams recorded 59 cases of infringement. After a preliminary examination by the team leader, 12 of these complaints were set aside for various reasons. The Panel was therefore called upon to comment on 47 cases (the same number as in 2015). The outcome of its deliberations was as follows:
• 23 acknowledged infringements (33 acknowledged infringements in 2015).
• 24 non-confirmed infringements (14 non-confirmed infringements in 2015).
Another task of surveillance is to detect any unlawful use of the “Swiss” indication of origin. Thanks to the FH’s certificate of registration, action is taken to prevent unlawful use on the basis of trademark law. This arrangement worked rather well at the Hong Kong fair. For the fourth time, the Federation cited its certificate of registration against an exhibitor who was presenting a line of watches with the “Swiss” indication. Examination of the watches on display clearly revealed the words “SWISS MOVT” on the dial. “MADE IN PRC” appeared equally clearly on the back. The fraud was therefore manifest and punishment ensued rapidly. The pieces were withdrawn from the showcases. The exhibitor who had been caught red-handed signed a document acknowledging that he now knows the conditions under which the “Swiss” designation may be used for watches.
Sometimes events take an unexpected turn, as with one exhibitor who, under cover of the production of leather straps, was in fact offering a whole range of counterfeit components (clasps, crowns, crystals, bezels) under the table. In view of the gravity of the situation, and after gathering together the essential elements of proof, the decision was taken to intervene not with the exhibition Panel but with the customs authorities instead. In a very short space of time, and thanks to the privileged relations between the Federation’s partner STU and senior customs officials, a raid was set up on the last day of the exhibition. All the stand material was impounded and the owners were led away in handcuffs before the cameras of a news channel, to the consternation of the exhibition management which had apparently not been informed.