How, when you’re a watchmaker, do you get inside the mind of Generation Y – the millennials whose oldest members are turning thirty? How do you attract a demographic into a world that has put every possible spin on tradition, and where the desire for ownership appears as just the other side of the hyperconsumption coin? No-one is saying Fine Watchmaking fits into that box – that would be to oversimplify matters. Nor can we deny that when it comes to values, and therefore communication, these are parallel worlds. And who better to reconcile them than the new generation of watchmakers? “They’re clearly a disruptive force in the profession,” says Alexis Georgacopoulos, director of Lausanne University of Art and Design (ECAL). “You don’t need to come from a long line of watchmakers. In fact most of them have no ties to watchmaking at all. Some of them aren’t even Swiss, but they are all prepared to take risks, to jump in at the deep end without necessarily analysing the market to death first. They know they have to act fast, given shorter product life cycles. And they know they have to get off the beaten track for distribution. They live in a world where everything is possible, where good projects get financed through crowdfunding and you don’t enter a market with the idea of staying there for all eternity. Even in watchmaking. An example just about everyone has heard of is Fiona Kruger and her skull watches, one of which was shortlisted at the recent Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève [GPHG].”
It’s a view shared by Jean-Marc Wiederrecht as he gets ready to pass on the company he founded, Agenhor, to the second generation. A specialist movement constructor, one of its most recent innovations is the much talked-about chronograph with central hands for Fabergé and Singer, both of which made it into the last round of competition at this year’s GPHG. “Millennials want something other than traditional watches. There are no more taboos, meaning we have to imagine different products and another way of selling them. It means moving fast, which is a point in favour of smaller companies, which are less vertically integrated and able to respond far more quickly. The young generation has taken all this onboard, which suggests to me we’re at the start of something fundamentally different in watchmaking. Look at education. We’re training watchmakers but we won’t be able to offer them an interesting job. Here too, we’re in the process of redefining functions.”
Innovation is vital. If you limit yourself to tradition and nothing but tradition, you end up dead!
With its new approach towards designing and building watches, and its innovative business model, Urwerk isn’t far from this definition of the millennial’s ideal brand. “Watchmaking has always been a passion, for me and my family,” said founder Felix Baumgartner. “When I started out twenty years ago, watchmaking was a land inhabited by famous names and grand complications. The mountain was far too old and far too rugged for me to climb. Artist Martin Frei and I were throwing around new ideas in watch construction just when Franck Muller was putting his name on his first watch. We felt like a door had been thrown open. We’ve haven’t stopped since, although you should remember that the first seven or eight years were a disaster in commercial terms. Remember too that we’re a niche brand making 150 watches a year, and that we don’t want to go above that figure. We’ve always stayed true to our way of thinking, thanks to which we were able to incorporate electronics into a mechanical watch, for example, with the Urwerk EMC 51. If I had to sum it up, I’d say the avant-garde is an investment, and that innovation is vital. If you limit yourself to tradition and nothing but tradition, you end up dead!”
Felix Baumgartner acknowledges that Urwerk can hardly be labelled a brand for millennials, given its price points. Does this mean giving up on the idea of owning a watch altogether? Or will they fall back on pre-owned vintage watches, more affordable and with their own emotional charge, or even smartwatches, to come back to their digital habitat? Clearly watchmaking is about worlds within worlds, and not everyone will make it to the top.