In this “virulent” day and age, it’s been a long time since anyone had the audacity to present remarkable timepieces in the metal, yet Piaget and Roger Dubuis dared to lift the veil, at Watches & Wonders Shanghai, on watches that impress for their mechanisms as much as for their bejewelled exteriors: the full-set Polo Emperador Tourbillon Skeleton for the former and the one-off Excalibur Double Tourbillon Superbia for the latter. Not to mention Purnell’s Escape II Treasure, among others. Of the 80 watches displayed on Piaget’s booth at Watches & Wonders Shanghai, held mid-September, 25 were priced above €100,000, culminating at €1.7 million for the Polo Emperador. In an interview to the Financial Times, Piaget CEO Chabi Nouri said China was “the best place for pieces like that right now. For such watches, you need to see the piece in reality, you need to be able to engage with the people who have worked on it, you need to be talking to the maison. So that is why it was the best place to launch these pieces worldwide.”
A clientele of wealthy, watch-educated individuals isn’t the only reason China is currently “the best place”. The country’s economic recovery puts it well ahead of Europe and the United States. Also, travel restrictions mean that Chinese customers, who tend to do their watch shopping overseas, are relocating their purchases to the domestic market.
The Chinese government is also taking measures so that domestic consumption, in the medium term, becomes as powerful a growth driver as foreign trade, and has started to reduce import duties on luxury goods – the main items on Chinese tourists’ shopping lists. The numbers are eloquent. China is the only one of the top 18 export markets for Swiss watches to have grown (1.6%) between January and August 2020. For the month of August alone, shipments of Swiss watches to China increased by an impressive 45% year-on-year.
This focus on “home ground” coupled with an easing of Covid-19 security measures laid the way open for a physical Watches & Wonders fair in China (its Geneva counterpart became an all-digital affair following the coronavirus outbreak). The initiative makes perfect sense for Richemont, which owns the majority of the brands taking part. The luxury behemoth, which is based in Genthod, on the outskirts of Geneva, reported a 47% increase in sales to mainland China for the quarter to June. The other luxury giants have reported similar progress.
The benefits of physical fairs such as Watches & Wonders Shanghai are in no doubt. “It’s an event where several strong maisons put their forces together, so we create a momentum and it’s a great platform to communicate about craftsmanship. We are stronger together,” comments Louis Ferla, CEO of Vacheron Constantin which has 29 boutiques in China: 50% more than three years ago.
While much has been said in recent months about physical watch fairs, they remain entirely relevant, including in the current context. Why else would Watches & Wonders set up for the entire month of October in Sanya, a resort in the Chinese province of Hainan island? Even François-Henry Bennahmias, at the head of Audemars Piguet which last year pulled out of Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, suggested as much in an interview to Swiss television: “Fairs have a future, for sure, but… and there is a but! Watchmaking is a global industry with customers all over the world. Because travel isn’t an option right now, we have to relocate. There’s a reason to hold a fair in Geneva, but also Hong Kong or Singapore, Dubai for the Middle East or Miami for the Americas. If we can create smaller fairs that involve the industry, with booths that don’t cost a fortune, and if we can spread our launches more evenly across the year, then there are opportunities to be had.” Could this be the silver lining for the industry of Covid-19?