Who is going to fix them in the future?

All things mechanical need to be serviced. The gears, wheels, pinions, springs need to be cleaned and lubricated once every so often. That needs to done by a watchmaker.

By SJX

With the rapid growth of the luxury watch market in the last decade, there are a tremendous number of high-end watches in circulation around the world. There are likely tens of thousands of tourbillon wristwatches out there, the vast majority of which were made in the last 20 years. And they will need servicing in the next 20 years.

Timepieces, at least those that collectors pursue, are mechanical objects. All things mechanical need to be serviced. The gears, wheels, pinions, springs need to be cleaned and lubricated once every so often. That needs to done by a watchmaker. Overhauling a watch in a proper manner requires time, practically as much time as assembling and adjusting (but not including manufacturing) a brand new movement from scratch.

In the next decade or so, all of these pricey, complicated timepieces are going to require an overhaul. What is going to happen? Servicing a high-end watch today is already expensive. A watch that costs below $10,000 will cost a few hundred dollars to overhaul, and one with a six-figure price tag will certainly cost a few thousand dollars to service. Not only is it expensive, it also takes a long, long time. The typical wait is a few weeks, or more likely several months. Even though that’s an absurdly long time, watch collectors meekly acquiesce since the elves who craft fine timepieces do things at their own pace.

The consequences are easy to predict: servicing will get more expensive because the labour situation in watchmaking is tight, and lead times will get longer. As it is most watch companies are dedicating far more resources – both in terms of manpower and investment – to production than after-sales service.

Watch brands often proclaim large investments in production capacity (so as to do things “in-house”) but rarely does after-sales merit a mention. In fact, visit a watch factory today and the after-sales service department (or SAV, for service après-vente, in the lingo of the Francophone watch industry), and it will pale in comparison to the size of the production floor, or floors.

More high-end watches were sold in the last decade than ever before, and in the next 10 to 20 years they will need to be overhauled. Switzerland exported just under 29 million timepieces in 2014, with complicated, high-end watches numbering in the high tens of thousands. Cumulatively, there will be several hundred thousand of these in circulation in the coming decades.

The mismatch of production and after-sales capacity is a problem that is being pushed into the near future. Owners of fine timepieces will eventually face the consequences unless watch brands do something.