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Swiss watch exports: the French connection

Swiss watch exports: the French connection

Thursday, 22 October 2009
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Marie Le Berre
Freelance writer and journalist

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Spread the word of watchmaking and introduce as many people as possible to an all too little-known sector.

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5 min read

A country-by-country analysis of Swiss export figures shows that France has been one of the most buoyant markets since 2006, distinct from the other countries that share the top five spots. Laurent Picciotto, proprietor of Chronopassion in Paris, suggests why.

Statistics show a substantial progression in Swiss watch exports to France between 2006 and 2008. In value terms, exports grew +21.3% in 2006, +20.9% in 2007 and +15.1% in 2008, when France rose from fifth to fourth-ranking market worldwide. Surprisingly, the French market has significantly outperformed the United States, Hong Kong, Japan and Italy which join it in the top five. Even though the trend has reversed for the months from January to August 2009 (-11.8% on the same period in 2008), this downturn is still one of the smallest. France is the only market in the top five slots to have progressed on 2007 (+6.7% over the same period). It even takes the number-three spot worldwide, relegating Japan to sixth place. However, as always with Swiss watch exports, high-end models are driving sales.

The importance of tourism

Laurent Picciotto, a respected retailer, owner of Chronopassion in Paris, and a Fine Watch Ambassador appointed by the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, observes that this is a clearly discernible trend yet one which isn’t easy to explain in a completely rational way. That France should boast an impressive number of points of sale, at least in Paris and along the Côte d’Azur, is worthy of note. These include both multi-brand and single-brand stores. By means of comparison, Laurent Picciotto can think of only six points of sale across the entire United States that are capable of defending the values of Fine Watchmaking. This proliferation of retailers in France is all the more remarkable as it is relatively new.

At Chronopassion, it’s by no means unusual for 70% and even 80% of our revenues to come from foreign customers.
Laurent Picciotto

“Business has really taken off within the past ten years at most. There was a longstanding tendency to underestimate the French market, as was obvious in the difficulties I used to encounter in obtaining the models that caught my eye. However, it has to be said that only a small proportion of our clientele is French. At Chronopassion, it’s by no means unusual for 70% and even 80% of our revenues to come from foreign customers, and I think I can say that this ratio is between 60% and 80% for most of my fellow retailers. I’m certain that in France, and in Paris and on the Côte d’Azur in particular, tourism is a decisive factor. This isn’t the case in Italy, for example, where the clientele is predominantly Italian.”

"I have no intention of cutting back orders"

At Chronopassion, the selection of models plays a fundamental role, not only because it is different from anywhere else but because it has never faltered, whatever the circumstances. Laurent Picciotto, who started his business twenty years ago, selling to a handful of aficionados, has always made atypical choices. “I give preference to watches for their technical, aesthetic or innovative qualities far more than I do to brands. I also prefer models produced in limited quantities to what I consider to be industrial luxury, without of course casting doubt on the value of the products concerned. At first I was virtually alone in proposing “watchmaker’s watches” which did include a handful of classic models but also what were then extremely rare complications and almost unheard-of creations, mostly by members of the AHCI [Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants].”

“It was only natural that I should draw a clientele of true enthusiasts. Fundamentally, I would say that nothing has changed, except that the audience has grown as interest has developed in new quarters, helped by media interest and a more “democratic” market. Today as in the past, a knowledgeable customer will be drawn to a display and quickly spot those products that warrant his attention. I believe in the importance of a rich, fresh display, meaning a diverse range of recent models. Of course we benefit from a reputation forged over twenty years, but people do still come into the store because they have been blown away by what they’ve seen in the window. This is why, recession or no recession, I don’t intend cutting back orders. I don’t see the current levelling-off of sales, the result of fewer occasional customers and more considered purchases, as being a cause for concern.”

A window display at Chronopassion with the new «Carrousel» system, a dynamic, interactive and secure innovation, developed by Xavier Dietlin in consultation with Chronopassion (Paris) and L'Heure AscH (Switzerland) DR
A window display at Chronopassion with the new «Carrousel» system, a dynamic, interactive and secure innovation, developed by Xavier Dietlin in consultation with Chronopassion (Paris) and L'Heure AscH (Switzerland) DR
Chronopassion, in a class of its own

Of course, it’s hard to extrapolate from the very specific case of Chronopassion. We can perhaps surmise that the heavy concentration of stores within such a limited perimeter as Paris is conducive to sales. Laurent Picciotto has another theory: he suggests that, inasmuch as France was late in convincing the leading brands of its potential, a certain number of challengers were able to slip into the gap and place their products. France and Switzerland also share a border, which facilitates installation, and a certain mindset. Lastly, there is every chance that France’s reputation for luxury isn’t entirely without influence on the glowing credentials of its retailers.

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