Vianney Halter belongs to the generation of independent master watchmakers who have largely contributed to reinventing contemporary watchmaking. Speaking at Baselworld, he shared his views on recent developments in a sector that has been hard-hit by the financial and economic crisis of the past eighteen months.
Vianney Halter: I think 2010 will be a very mediocre year for the profession. We were hit by an earthquake last year and still have to rebuild the ruins. The question is, how will we go about it.
I’m able to take a detached view of watchmaking as a whole. We need to avoid making the same mistakes as in the past, when we could produce whatever popped into our heads without worrying if the watches in question would find a buyer. Once again this year I’ve seen some totally out-there products that take buyers for fools. If there’s one lesson 2009 should have taught us, it’s never again, yet looking around I can see this isn’t necessarily the case. Watchmaking, like banking, is prepared to go back to the same old ways that hastened its fall. It bothers me to see contractors in dire financial straits.
We’re still fighting to exist with one definite advantage as concerns myself: making watches is all I know how to do! So I keep my hopes up and carry on doing what I enjoy, creating work and satisfying the customer. Not that there’s any point fooling ourselves. It will be harder to keep business going at a satisfactory rate. When the market was on a high, customers made up their minds fast. Now they’ve learned to think things over and weigh up their options. This is why we have to restore their faith and show them why certain timepieces, by virtue of the work they entail, the experience behind them, and the technique inside, can correspond to a considered purchasing decision. In other words, I’ll stick to my route, being sincere and coherent in the products I propose whose price must reflect their intrinsic value. Customers need to realise that when they buy a brand, they’re paying for the name. Now that watch companies are run by businessmen, you get the impression that the point of the added value chain is to squeeze as much out of the customer as possible.
If the automotive industry had applied the same principles as watchmaking these past few years, there wouldn’t be a car left on the road! I’m exaggerating of course, but we can’t deny the financial crisis hit a sector that had lost touch with reality. Having said that, the past ten years have spawned some healthy emulation, even if there has been a lot of jumping on the bandwagon too. Of course I understand that companies need their margins to maintain often heavy yet essential structures. Still, don’t imagine that watchmaking could play the same game today as ten years ago. Customers are far more knowledgeable, the urge to binge-buy has gone, and they will take longer to think about what they want. The only way forward in this context is to propose products whose price doesn’t betray their value, motivated by equity and a humanist vision. Notions such as quality work, professional ethics and meeting needs got lost along the way, and need to be relearned.
I’ve spent the last three years working to improve my products by making more and more parts in-house. When the time is right, I’ll launch a new model, a well-born model. Basically I’m consolidating structures with an eye to constant improvement and the long term. Ten years of Vianney Halter production have given us grounds for reflection in the watches that are finding their way back to the workshop, comparing what we were capable of when we started with what we can do today. This is an excellent measure of how quality has progressed. Janvier Manufacture has always advocated human capital and its capacity to make good, functional products that can be serviced and restored. In this sense, nothing has changed. We are still a company on a human scale making timepieces intended to echo our customers’ aspirations and which are a credit to the artistic crafts.