Since its emergence in the mid-16th century in Geneva, the Swiss watch industry has faced many challenges and world crises. Yet, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it has come out stronger after every setback and carried its people through hard times.
In the beginning, it came as a cottage industry that offered many Swiss farmers the opportunity to set up their domestic workshops during winter and earn additional income by making watches when agricultural activity was suspended. When Calvinism spread across Europe and brought with it a period of drastic reform that banned the wearing of jewellery, many French protestants who had fled to Switzerland to escape persecution combined their clock and watchmaking know-how with that of the goldsmiths, jewellers and enamellers in Geneva to create functional works of art, known at once for their beauty, craftsmanship and practical purpose. This innovative enterprise allowed for the continued livelihood of the affected craftsmen and kicked off a relationship that has prevailed over time.
Following the turn of the 20th century, shortly after the Swiss watch industry had begun adopting the mass production model as a result of research carried out by renowned watchmakers such as Frédéric Ingold and Georges Léschot, the world was struck by the two World Wars. While many businesses and industries collapsed, the Swiss watch industry took advantage of its newly increased productivity and the increased importance of precision timekeeping in war technologies, shifted from making pocket watches as a symbol of status to introducing and supplying waterproof, self-winding wristwatches to the military.
The biggest crisis came following the advent of Seiko’s release of the quartz-powered watch Astron in 1969. The revolution which lasted all through the 1970s and early 1980s caused a significant drop in the demand for mechanical watches and nearly drove Swiss watchmaking to extinction, with many Swiss watch companies becoming insolvent and ceasing operation, as the world turned to Japanese watchmakers for more affordable and accurate quartz wristwatches.
At its most critical point in 1983, however, two of the biggest Swiss watch players at that time, ASUAG and SSIH, merged to form what we now know as Swatch Group and launched the first collection of trendy quartz watches under the name Swatch. The move was a huge success and has allowed the group to give many of the brands it acquired over the years a new lease on life, including Omega, Tissot, Blancpain, Breguet, Glashütte Original, Longines, Rado and Harry Winston, while its subsidiary ETA has flourished into the largest manufacturer and supplier of Swiss watch movements. The success of the Swatch Group was followed by the development of other watch divisions under larger luxury groups, most notably Richemont and LVMH.
Today, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we take a look at how the Swiss watch industry has responded with its latest trade shows.
In 2020, the Swiss watch industry is once again struck by crisis, this time in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Baselworld taking the largest blow. Having grown from a small section of the Basel Mustermesse in 1917 with only 29 watch exhibitors, to the world’s largest and most important watch and jewellery fair by 2013 with over 1,500 exhibitors and 150,000 visitors, Baselworld had to bid farewell to its long-time tenants including Rolex, Patek Philippe and Chopard, following the announcement of its postponement to 2021 upon the bans of large-scale public and private events issued by the Swiss federal and cantonal authorities. These events were preceded by the departure of the Swatch Group with all of its 19 brands in the previous year. (More on the rise and fall of Bawelworld in our Features section).
Following two months of review and analysis, the MCH Group announced the conception of a new platform by the name of Houruniverse, with the tagline “It’s we time,” designed to unite and support a whole community that wants to regroup, make a new start and is receptive to change. According to the group, the platform will be digitally active throughout the year and will host an annual live show. It’s described as a community platform that creates bridges between buyers and sellers and all the players in the industry, as well as a place that
encourages exchanges, information-sharing, content creation, reflection through talks and conferences that also provide visibility for brands and their products.
The show is said to be aligned with the watchmaking events in Geneva, in the best interests of the international community which will only have to travel to Switzerland once a year. The show will reinforce contacts thanks to new tools, the creation of content, a maximum of touch-and-feel experiences, as well as moments of conviviality, networking and fully integrated events. Along with this new customer- oriented approach, a new competitive hospitality concept will also be an integral part of the packages proposed, and those associated players of Basel life will not be exempt from this involvement.
Stay tuned to www.houruniverse.com for more updates.
Watches & Wonders
In light of this year’s unprecedented challenges, the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie FHH accelerated the digitalization of its Watches & Wonders concept (formerly Salon de la Haute Horlogerie) and launched a new online platform in April on www.watchesandwonders.com. Featuring 30 of the world’s leading fine watch brands, the site provides an unparalleled opportunity to discover the watchmaking universe, as well as the newest watch introductions for 2020. A robust offering of customisable content, curated by the FHH, also ensures a vibrant educational experience for all watch enthusiasts.
The online platform offers dynamic opportunities for interaction, education and inspiration, while showcasing the heritage, values and ambitions of the brands it represents, in a centralized portal where watch enthusiasts, retailers and journalists from around the world can experience the fine watchmaking universe, as well as the newest watches of the year and connect directly with the 30 participating brands.
“We are thrilled to be partnering with the finest watchmaking brands in the world to bring the Watches & Wonders concept to life online at a time when our industry needs it the most,” said Fabienne Lupo, chairwoman and managing director of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie. “This dynamic new platform will allow watch lovers everywhere to discover exciting new products, engage in enriching experiences, and connect directly with our participating brands in one place.”
For the first phase of Watches & Wonders, the site features dedicated pages for each brand, where visitors will have the opportunity to discover their respective universes, including the newest timepieces for 2020. They will also view up-to-the-moment social media content, and connect directly to the brands’ own sites and channels.
For the opening day of watchesandwonders.com, the FHH carried out a series of new product launch presentations where executives from the participating brands showcased their novelties through 10-minute streaming videos, which are now permanently accessible on the site. Working in collaboration with the participating brands, members of its Cultural Council and other opinion leaders, the FHH has also curated a broad range of expert and educational content for the site, including product analysis, trend forecasts, technological innovation and in-depth explorations of design, artistry and craft, as well as business talks and commentary from industry notables. The new platform has been designed to remain a key destination for watch enthusiasts and the industry overall, beyond this first phase at the end of April, as it will continue to be updated with new content over the longer term.
FHH has also announced in July that Watches & Wonders will also be making its debut in Shanghai in September, where eleven brands including A. Lange & Söhne, Baume & Mercier, Cartier, IWC Schaffhausen, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Panerai, Parmigiani Fleurier, Piaget, Purnell, Roger Dubuis and Vacheron Constantin will exhibit at this leading watch fair at the West Bund Art Center. By invitation only, the exclusive event will see media, retailers and clients experience the novelties first- hand. The participating brands will welcome visitors inside two halls at the heart of West Bund Art Center, Shanghai’s hottest address for art, lifestyle and design.
The Auditorium will host product launches, talks and panels on a variety of topics such as the return of the pilot’s watch or the vintage watch trend. The LAB, a showcase for innovation, will present selected projects and technologies from the exhibiting brands. A workshop will introduce visitors to the secrets of a mechanical watch movement. The Métiers gallery will host workbench demonstrations of rare skills by master artisans and watchmakers. This engaging experience will also be visible on the watchesandwonders.com digital platform as well as social media.
Geneva Watch Days
Announced in March to take place in August, with the support of the State of Geneva, the Geneva Watch Days will be the only multi-brand gathering of the watch industry taking place in 2020 after the cancellation of Baselworld and the digitalisation of Watches & Wonders.
Held at various hotels in the city centre of Geneva, as well as in the boutiques and watchmaking workshops of the participating brands, this innovative enterprise brought together a diverse group of brands with very different profiles, including Bulgari, Breitling, De Bethune, Gerald Genta, Girard-Perregaux, H. Moser & Cie, MB&F, Ulysse Nardin and Urwerk, enabling retailers and media to discover a wealth of products.
The operation was intended to be decentralised, agile, collegial, convivial and inexpensive in its organisation to make the event as efficient and attractive as possible. All the brands were across easily accessible locations within the specified area of downtown Geneva. A central reception desk provided orientation and guidance for retailers and media to navigate in the smoothest possible way with their appointments with the participating brands throughout the four-day event. In the same spirit, an extremely user-friendly digital support platform – called www.gva-watch-days.com – enabled retailers and the media to register, book their appointments with the different brands and reserve their hotel rooms at prices negotiated by the Steering Committee with the support of State Councillor Pierre Maudet.
The Geneva Watch Days programme also included media and retailer dinners as well as a festive evening, all of which were organised in strict compliance with the precautionary health measures defined by the Confederation and the Canton of Geneva, whose fight against COVID-19 has thus far proved exemplary in terms of efficiency, confirming Geneva’s stature as one of the world’s safest cities.