Seems like old times

Unit exports of Swiss mechanical watches have more than doubled over the past five years. How high can the mechanical rise?

By Joe Thompson

Switzerland exported 8.13 million mechanical watches in 2014. That’s the most in 32 years.

The surge is recent and significant. Switzerland’s now famous mechanical-watch renaissance of the 1990s and 2000s has entered a new phase, as emerging markets in the Far East embrace mechanical watches. A review of Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH) data shows that between 1986 and 2006, the period of the mechanical-watch renaissance, exports of mechanicals never reached the 4-million unit mark. Even in 2008, at the height of the luxury-watch boom of the last decade, mechanical exports topped off at 4.3 million pieces.

However, in the five years since the Great Recession of 2009, Swiss mechanical watch sales have exploded. Unit exports have jumped 117% from 3.74 million pieces exported in 2009. The jump coincides with the phenomenal surge in sales over the past few years of Swiss mechanicals in Asia, specifically the area known as Greater China (mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.), according to the FH.

By historical standards, a mechanical watch output of nearly 8 million pieces is small peas, to be sure. Switzerland’s best years for mechanical-watch production were 1973 and 1974, just prior to the quartz watch crisis, when exports topped 59 million units. From those heights, the mechanical downturn was swift and steep. Quartz watches from the Far East and the United States, captured consumers’ fancy and market share. In 1987, Swiss mechanical watch exports fell to a 20th-century low of 1.7 million pieces. Clearly, the mechanical watch was at death’s door. Only dreamers and fools believed otherwise in 1987.

The dreamers turned out to be right. The question now is how far the mechanical can come back. Switzerland exported 9.2 million mechanicals in 1982. Beating that is doable. The 1981 export number, however, is 15.3 million. Can the mechanical watch, with its 400-year-old technology, surpass that? Considering how far the mighty mechanical has come, you can’t rule it out.