A bright future

It’s hard to deny that mechanical watchmaking is indestructible. Its technological foundations may be outdated, but it remains as relevant as ever and continues to make hearts beat well beyond the rather restricted confines of luxury circles.

By David Chokron

It’s hardly surprising that Patek Philippe produces over 40,000 mechanical watches per year. On the other hand, the fact that Tissot uses over a million mechanical calibers seems to belie the common assumption that the survival of watchmaking is solely linked to rarity, to manual work bordering on artistry, and to the retro charm of complication calibers.

In terms of internal competition, the gear train has been more than a match for quartz, digital and so-called smart watches, and has fared equally well against external competition from the smart phone, which some thought would replace watches entirely amongst the under 20s. Thus, timepieces continue to inspire us, whether they cost 500 or 2 million Swiss francs (even without diamonds all over the case). Despite the fits and starts of the global economy, watches just keep selling. Where does this resilience come from? How can we explain its highly implausible success? For the survival of mechanical watchmaking is rather like the steam engine triumphing over the electric motor.

The experts reply that the continuing attraction of watches goes far beyond the technical and the industrial, and has much more to do with notions of positioning, history, and authenticity. But this is only true for a particularly discerning and sophisticated niche of the market.

The truth is that watchmaking is driven by two internal forces, two primordial wells of energy.

The first is its often-overlooked entrepreneurial flair. It’s time to give Swiss watchmakers their dues and admit that they certainly don’t give up easily. For two centuries, they have roamed the planet in search of new markets, clients and opportunities. With a little historical perspective, it soon becomes clear that the recent conquest of the Chinese market is, in fact, the third of its kind.

The second is its ability to innovate. True, this takes place within the rather restrictive gear train and check-spring paradigm. But it is within this tight framework that they have repeatedly carved out new areas of freedom.

Given its freedom of expression, creativity and inventiveness, this industry—sometimes described as conservative—is in fact highly pragmatic. At inspired moments, it suddenly makes great leaps forward, sometimes into the unknown. During these giddying episodes, the archetype of the Swiss watch as a reliable, reassuring and accurate object handed down from generation to generation seems to be on some kind of drug (perhaps of the hallucinogenic variety), which does it the power of good!

The years 1995 to 2015 have merely reinforced this power, folly and determination. And in light of today’s projects, emerging ideas and unflagging desires, the menu for the years ahead looks every bit as enticing. Bon appétit!