Swatch Group created a buzz last December when it announced new certification based on research carried out for Omega’s Co-Axial movements, which now withstand magnetic fields up to 15,000 gauss. The brand didn’t pluck this figure out of thin air: it corresponds to the magnetic field generated by a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. To give some idea of scale, Switzerland’s NIHS standards require resistance up to 60 gauss in order for a watch to qualify as anti-magnetic. This new Master Co-Axial Officially Certified label, to give it its full name, mirrors the strategy of a brand that is building on a solid base of in-house technology to steadily up its game.
The importance of branding
“It’s in the history and DNA of the brand,” says Omega Chief Executive Stephen Urquhart in an interview to Migros Magazine. “Those who don’t know this history well only remember the difficult times, thirty years ago. Far too many styles, quartz, price points between CHF 1,000 and 2,000 compared with CHF 6,000 to 9,000 today. It’s firstly the quality of the product, with successes such as Planet Ocean and Speedmaster, as well as progress made in-house with our own Co-Axial movement that justify this more premium positioning, which has itself led to a complete revamp of our distribution.”
The brand effectively operates a more selective distribution strategy, having slashed its network of some 8,000 retailers to roughly 3,000 today, all the while increasing the number of Omega stores worldwide to 349, a third of which are exclusive. “In our segment, we’re commercially obliged to reinforce our own-name network,” says Stephen Urquhart. “We live in an age of branding, where people are more inclined to buy a name than a particular watch. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is, and we have to factor this in to how we sell our products.”
A position few can challenge
Urquhart is very clear on another point: without Swatch Group, the high hopes invested in the brand would never have materialised. “Not because it’s a multinational, but because it’s a major industrial group with important in-house resources, particularly at Nivarox [a Swiss manufacturer of oscillators and escapements] and in the R&D division at Swiss movement-maker ETA. They both played a key role in developing the Co-Axial movement. Following Nicolas Hayek’s brilliant intuition to acquire the patent for this technology, it took us just nine years to transform it into an industrially-produced mechanical movement.”
And not just any production either. While Omega is clearly on the cusp of Haute Horlogerie, it stands by what has become a virtually unassailable position. “We have a tourbillon movement which we developed something like twenty years ago, and that we intend keeping,” says Stephen Urquhart, “but this isn’t Omega’s vocation. Furthermore, we’re part of a group with a high level of vertical integration, and it would make no sense for us to enter a segment which other Swatch Group brands such as Breguet and Blancpain already occupy. Technically speaking though, we could do it. We produce 500,000 extremely complex Co-Axial movements each year. From an industrial point of view, not many brands can claim as much.”