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Better Watch, Better Life
History & Masterpieces

Better Watch, Better Life

Friday, 22 October 2010
By David Chang
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David Chang

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6 min read

Were it not for Swiss Horological Art, the exhibition staged from September 9th in the Swiss Cities Pavilion at Shanghai World Expo, the relationship between the fair and watchmaking would no doubt have escaped us.

For watchmaking has been a consistent theme since the very first World Fair in 1851, and watchmakers have dreamed of using this window on the world to show their counterparts their latest discoveries, and also for the immense honour of seeing their work acknowledged and praised in articles that chronicle the milestones in brands’ development. The history of World Fairs has mirrored the development of watchmaking, whose history Swiss Horological Art set out to describe.

Through the eras

The exhibition presented some forty historic and contemporary timepieces from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. These four hundred years of creation were the thread for visitors to discover Swiss horological art, from the elaboration of decoration techniques to the end process, from the expansion of markets from Switzerland to China and the world, from the pocket watch to the wristwatch. While such progress was embodied in a single object – the watch – the exhibition in fact painted a wider picture of culture, industry and the evolution of materials and artistry.

Swiss watchmaking is founded on art, decoration, complexity and practice, as the objects in the exhibition beautifully illustrated. The pendant watch in the form of a dove, created in Geneva in 1680, is an example. The hinged belly of the bird conceals the mechanism and the dial with its one hand. Without such genius for decoration and conception, who would have guessed that the vital forces of the universe were hidden within? This is also when the distinctive style of Swiss watches began to emerge. The art of enamelling, as practiced in Geneva, reached its apogee in the second half of the eighteenth century. Paired with watchmaking, it left to posterity works of art from which to read the time. As early as the nineteenth century, Swiss watchmakers had added numerous complex functions, such as a minute repeater, to their timepieces, and this would ensure that Swiss watchmaking dominated technical fields for many years to come. From the turn of the twentieth century, the practical wristwatch became a part of daily life and a byword for the leading Swiss brands.

Exhibition by the FHH in Shanghai - Dove-shaped pendant watch. Silver case. Movement signed Nicolas Gando, Geneva, circa 1680 © Jaeger-LeCoultre Heritage Collection
Exhibition by the FHH in Shanghai - Dove-shaped pendant watch. Silver case. Movement signed Nicolas Gando, Geneva, circa 1680 © Jaeger-LeCoultre Heritage Collection
China's passion for Swiss watches

The Chinese were early aficionados of timepieces, in particular Swiss, which they viewed as works of art. This tradition can be traced back 410 years, to 1601 and the reign of Wanli in the Ming dynasty, when the missionary Matteo Ricci travelled from Italy with clocks he presented to the Imperial Court. Emperor Qianlong, a lover of all things horological, wrote a detailed treatise on this period of history which was published in 2009 in China and Horology. The Swiss were inspired to produce watches for the Chinese, giving rise to the extraordinary saga of the “Chinese watch.”

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Swiss village of Fleurier had its sights set firmly on the Chinese market, for which it produced large quantities of original “three hand” watches. Hand-chased and decorated mechanisms commanded admiration. Sometimes the dials were graduated with Chinese characters, leaving no doubt that they had been made specifically for the Chinese market. The “Chinese watch” presented in the exhibition is a fine example of the historically close ties between China and the Swiss watch industry. These watches were presented in red cases and always as matching pairs, a reference to the Chinese belief that “good things come in twos” and an indication of the efforts Swiss watchmakers made to win over Chinese customers.

The 3Cs of Fine Watchmaking

Fabienne Lupo, director of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva which staged the exhibition, travelled in person to Shanghai with representatives of the 14 leading Swiss watch brands and Foundation’s partners, where they met and exchanged views with the Chinese audience. The exhibition was an opportunity to present watchmaking in a different light, and in particular to convey the values and significance of Fine Watchmaking. These values can be summed up as the 3Cs: Complexity, Craftsmanship and Culture.

Culture is at the heart of Fine Watchmaking.

Two documentary films presented 11 complications, and the skills required to produce each one, and 11 portraits of craftsmen and women to explain why, from cutting-edge technology to centuries-old expertise, Fine Watchmaking stands apart from ordinary watchmaking. Already, more than a century ago, the value of this cultural heritage left no doubt and in 1886 the Poinçon de Genève, another of the exhibition’s themes, was introduced with regulations to defend the Geneva name as a guarantee of quality in watchmaking. Whether brand or object, culture is at the heart of Fine Watchmaking which takes root in the rich tradition of Swiss horological art.

Time to change

Taking advantage of the Foundation’s presence in Shanghai, Chinese watch specialists heard extracts from , an important book on the strategic perspectives of Fine Watchmaking. It addresses the “rules for success” within this global market, and examines the specific values and cultural differences at play. As the title of the book reminds us, the Chinese market is in the midst of radical change. Think back to 2004 when visitors to the Watches and Wonders exhibition in Beijing had never heard of most of the brands taking part. A far cry from today. Now China is a key factor in watch sales; not only are more and more brands coming to mainland China, Chinese consumers are perfecting their knowledge of watches and watch culture.

Independent specialist retailers play an increasingly important role in the distribution of Fine Watches in China. One of these retailers is Liu Zhongyang, appointed Fine Watch Ambassador for the FHH. His stores carry prestigious timepieces by such leading groups as Richemont, LVMH and Swatch. Luxury watchmaking pays great attention to the transmission of culture, the provision of information and services to the customer, and the rapid development of Fine Watchmaking in China. Mr Zhongyang’s store in the InterContinental Hotel in Dalian is the largest and most influential in mainland China.

The theme of World Expo in Shanghai is Better City, Better Life. In Chinese consumers’ eyes, Fine Watchmaking is also the reflection of a better life.

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