You might have noticed we didn’t provide a wrap up of SIHH 2016. You also might have noticed less watch content in general, on the pages of TVG lately. You could attribute the lack of watch chat to my decreasing interest in the watch industry – the luxury industry as a whole, in fact. My personal attitude towards haute horology, supercars and pinnacle materialism shifted dramatically. I drove a Lamborghini Aventador and didn’t review it – I just couldn’t believe $800,000 didn’t get you Bluetooth, or a place to put your mobile phone. Call me mad, but the sheer impracticality of the whole thing was a real turning point for me. The SIHH trade show is the creme de la creme of watchmaking, where manufacturers exhibit their most amazing timepieces, but after monitoring the releases last week, as well as releases in 2015, and luxury goods across the board, I just felt compelled to put together some thoughts on the industry as I currently see it, and where it is, or is not, going.
I felt as though 2015 was a polarising year for the watch industry, and for those that comment on it. There were many factors that stirred opinion, first and foremost, the introduction of the Smartwatch, and the various replies by Swiss manufacturers doing everything they can to accept and incorporate smartwatch technology to some degree.
Secondly, when the Swiss central bank abandoned attempts to cap the value of the Franc in January, prices of Swiss watches skyrocketed. Many brands issued statements saying their products would increase in price by between 5-7%, but as the Australian dollar continued to fall, watches prices rose well above that. A Rolex Batman GMT at the end of 2014 was priced just below $10,000. That same watch now (if you can even get it) will cost you just shy of $12,000. Australian vintage collectors also suffered, as they finally came to grips with the value of our currency against the US dollar. The glory $1.08 days had well and truly subsided and grail watches from the likes of Eric Ku, Andrew Shear, Matthew Bain and Jacek Kozubek became 20% more expensive.
Thirdly, Daniel Wellington et al. The amount of garbage that has entered the market in the last couple of years or so, is staggering.
Finally, and take this point with a pinch of salt (if you hadn’t already applied one to my previous point), Fitness trackers and GPS watches also had a monstrous year. I have a Fitbit Surge, and I wear it on my left hand, in place of my watch (not that I ever exercise in my watch). If I’ve been running or cycling in the morning and want to monitor the rest of my day’s activities, I’ll continue wearing it. I don’t prefer to wear it over my everyday watch, but the simple fact is, it’s already on my wrist, it has multiple functions, it makes me feel healthy, and it tells the time. Even as a watch enthusiast I can appreciate the practicality, price, and associated lifestyle of these alternatives.
Considering all these factors, 2016 needs to be a huge year for the watch industry, not just for the enthusiasts, but for new customers entering the market. Unfortunately, following this year’s SIHH 2016 trade show, I feel deflated and uninspired – outside of a handful of my favourite manufacturers including Montblanc, A. Lange and Sohne and MB&F. By all accounts of what was displayed at SIHH, the watch industry has turned into some sort of dick measuring contest (I know that’s partially the point of SIHH). Who can produce the thinnest movement, most obscure limited edition or most detailed openworked movement? Who can produce the same watch in every type of gold imaginable, and who can charge the most for it? Who can’t produce a tourbillon?! Who cares? The 99.9% of watch buyers who will never be in a position to purchase a tourbillon certainly don’t. Sure, as enthusiasts we like to read about the amazing mechanics that lie beneath these complicated watches, but there comes a time when we’d like to read about an achievable dream watch that actually represents great value (tenuous use of the word ‘value’) – I know I would anyway.
It’s like these brands are only talking to that top 0.01% of buyers, when they should be appealing to the 99.9% I mentioned earlier, attracting people away from the plethora of alternative offers. Do I dare say that the industry is in its own private bubble? I certainly think so. As I looked around the internet this week trying to get a gauge on what was shown at SIHH, I realised how little coverage the trade show had this year. I couldn’t even work out what the standout piece of the show was. I’m not sure if there even was one. I tell you what would have been if created. Audemars Piguet introducing a steel self-winding Royal Oak, in a 39mm case, with a steel case back hiding a Calibre 3120 movement, minus the gold rotor, and a Grande Tapisserie dial finished in an interesting new colour – maybe a dark green, that would be lovely. You only need to look at Tudor over the last two years to see what an accessible sports watch can do for brand awareness. Instead, we’ve got either the exorbitantly priced, or the exorbitantly overpriced, and the chaps over at Hodinkee trying to convince you that US$3,950 is a fair price for a generic looking Pilot’s watch with a Sellita SW-300 base movement that Stowa make for under $1000. It’s not a fair price, it just appeared to be good value by default, because it was one of the only watches at SIHH under $5k that wasn’t a Baume et Mercier.
Thank god for Montblanc, and to a lesser extent Jaeger-LeCoultre, for providing the average man with a range of watches that run in-house calibre movements, inside steel and gold cases, at prices that make you refrain from jamming your Esslinger strap tool into your jugular. Personally, I think the Swiss brands have gotten a tad lazy, almost arrogant even. I find it interesting that Montblanc, a company that was founded by a German banker and still has its head office located in Hamburg (despite moving its watch manufacturing to Le Locle and Villeret), is flying the flag for great value watches. I’ve been recommending German watches to people for years, independent brands that produce watches with passion, and without overpaid ambassadors, brands like Sinn, Dornblüth & Sohn and Glashütte Original. Of all the Richemont brands displayed at SIHH, it’s the German ones that continue to drive my passion for the watch industry.
There’s no doubt my enthusiasm for watches has faltered in the last year, I think it has for many commentators, faced with increasing prices, lacklustre releases, and the influx of wrists wrapped in Chinese made junk that costs little more than your Single Origin Coffee to produce. With Baselworld less than two months away, I can only hope that we’re going to see some inspired, functional, and semi-accessible releases, where function is not a Constant Force Escapement but a GMT, and inspiration comes from the trenches, not an astronomer. Then perhaps we can remind ourselves why we love wearing watches because we’re men and we appreciate simplicity, practicality and ruggedness. Besides, you’ve already got an expensive, delicate and high maintenance asset in your life.