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China’s watchmakers take a detour via Switzerland

China’s watchmakers take a detour via Switzerland

Monday, 27 September 2010
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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5 min read

Chinese watch firms are investing in Switzerland with the likes of Ebohr, which has launched its first brand; Fiyta, which has taken over Montres Chouriet, and Sea-Gull which is taking a stake in a Swiss movement manufacturer. Their objective is to move upmarket and seduce Chinese customers with the lure of Swiss Made.

A terrible rumour shook the Swiss microcosm in August: what if an invasion of Switzerland’s green pastures were to leave the country’s horological treasures in Chinese hands? The smoke behind this particular fire was the launch of the Codex brand by Swiss Chronometric, a Chinese-backed, Biel-based company. This launch coincided with the opening of the brand’s first shop in Lucerne. Of course this was all mountains and molehills, yet the fact remains that Chinese watch firms have Switzerland increasingly in their sights, even if recent endeavours haven’t all been crowned with success.

Indeed, the industry still remembers Peace Mark’s takeover of STM Holding (Indtec, Soprod) which came to an abrupt end after the downfall of the Chinese giant, which was forced to sell to Festina. Universal Genève was put on hold last year by its owner, Stelux, a Chinese group quoted in Hong Kong. Not forgetting Technotime, in the hands of the Hong Kong billionaire Charles Chong (Chung Nam Watch, Roamer), which in December 2009 shut down its site in France.

Swiss Chronometric aims to open ten stores

As far as Swiss Chronometric is concerned, these examples are the exception rather than the rule. Early this August in Lucerne, it presented its first collection of three models, proposed in 18 versions and manufactured to Swiss Made standards. Said René Kohli, general manager of Swiss Chronometric and member of the board: “Our watches will be 70% made in the region, and virtually 100% for our Venus Prestige and Venus Master special series for which we have acquired and reworked 200 Venus movements that were developed in Moutier in the 1950s. We’re aiming for 25,000 watches a year.”

We needed a partner to break into the China and Asia-Pacific markets.
René Kohli

To achieve its goal, Swiss Chronometric has plans to expand its distribution network at a steady rate. The company intends opening ten shops worldwide over the next two years. The next opening is scheduled for Moscow in January. Prior to this, in December, it will preview its advertising campaign at the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne before an audience of 500 guests, including President Dimitri Medvedev. Further openings in Shanghai and Beijing shouldn’t be far behind, knowing the importance Asian markets now have for watch firms. Which is where Swiss Chronometric can count on its major shareholder. “We needed a partner to break into the China and Asia-Pacific markets,” René Kohli explained at the ribbon-cutting in Lucerne. “Ebohr is a giant in the sector with over a thousand points of sale. A partnership of this kind is the only way to crack the market. I might add that finding Swiss investors at the height of the crisis wasn’t easy. Ebohr is already established at entry-level and is now expanding into the mid-range and high-end segments.”

Coveted Swiss experience

This is exactly what Fiyta is hoping to do. The brand belongs to China National Aero Technology Import & Export Corporation, which makes no secret of its ambition to become one of the world’s top watchmakers by 2015. Named “King of Watches in China” in 1995, Fiyta is the official timekeeper for the Chinese space programme, thanks to which it has seen its popularity soar since the triumphant return to earth of the Shenzhou 7 space capsule in 2008, and the first spacewalk by taikonaut Zhai Zhigang, sporting a Spacemaster chronograph. Matching words with action, Fiyta recently acquired Montres Chouriet in Geneva, a brand geared towards the Chinese market. In an interview with Watch Around, managing director Bruce Du declared, “Fiyta is based on Chinese culture and we are confident we will continue our success story by focusing on quality and style. In a specialised industry such as watchmaking, we cannot simply offer better value for money to gain market share, as China has done in other sectors. The approach is much more complex. We have benefited from Switzerland’s long experience and tradition, but we have also drawn heavily on Chinese watchmaking culture. I believe this combination is the key to our success with customers.”

China’s Sea-Gull brand, which markets 300,000 watches a year and presents itself as the world’s biggest manufacturer of automatic movements at some five million a year, including a tourbillon, has taken a different route. “We have no projects involving a Swiss brand at the present time,” declared Jian Wang, managing director, at this year’s Baselworld. “We are, however, investing in a Swiss movements company which, thanks to its watchmakers’ experience, will enable us to improve the quality of Sea-Gull movements to ETA standard.” There can be no doubting that China is a goldmine for home-grown brands too.

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