Dumbing Down the Watch

In which Watchbore reveals a sinister plot to strangle the art and craft of horology

By Watchbore

The nineties will be remembered as a golden age of watchmaking, the flowering of the mechanical revival of the previous decade. Every springtime, at the Basel Show and Geneva Salon, Watchbore used to marvel at the colorful diversity of stylish and intricate new watches.

But this year Watchbore has bad news. If you’re looking for an enthusiastic millennium celebration of new and exciting horology, you could be disappointed. The Swiss watch industry has been attacked by a virus. It selects a well respected and preferably ancient name in watchmaking, incorporates it into a group, removes its nerve and frontal lobes and smothers it at leisure.

Such is the sad fate of the increasing number of watch companies belonging to the big groups that dominate the industry — Swatch, LVMH and the Richemont (ex Vendôme) Group.

Richemont has so far been the most successful in sucking the creative lifeblood out of the watch companies it owns. This year at Geneva’s Salon International de Haute Horlogerie, none of the Richemont brands (VC, Piaget, Panerei, Baume & Mercier, Cartier, Dunhill and Mont Blanc) have anything new to offer — no ground-breaking style nor ingenious complication, just a rehash of last year’s period revival.

Richemont is where Johann Rupert (a modest billionaire ranking two-thirds of the way down the list of the world’s 500 wealthiest people, from Stellenbosch in South Africa’s Western Cape province), has invested a fortune acquired over two generations of selling cigarettes and making deals.

The Rupert money and tobacco experience say globalization will liberate the masses of China, India and Russia into civilizing benefits of spending more than you can afford on something you don’t need. Luxury is the cash cow of tomorrow’s world.

The Ruperts are traditionally advised by those wise in their years, and none can be wiser in the art of luxury for the masses than the old Cartier hands now running Richemont. Mr Alain Dominique Perrin and Mr Franco Cologni know that for the bewildered masses emerging blinking into the dazzling world of luxury, there is but one savior — the brand. The sure guide to success for an inexperienced consumer confused by the etiquette of conspicuous waste; the Pavlovian bell that unfailingly reduces the newly rich into dribbling obedience.

Messrs Perrin and Cologni worked the magic on Cartier, the king of brands and the brand to kings. It’s the only brand that breaks the trade-off equation between volume and margins. Both increase at the same time. Cartier alone combines the highest rank in perceived prestige, quality and exclusiveness with a mass market. It’s better than owning a bank, and the Cartier brand-marketing formula is worth more to Mr Rupert than all the gold mines in South Africa.

In the Richemont Group, everything is subservient to the brand. Nothing, especially not creativity or originality and certainly not watchmaking, is allowed to distract from its clear call. The product is merely one of the vectors of brand image, along with advertising and sponsorship.

Thus the once rich horological variety of Vacheron & Constantin, Piaget and even Cartier is this year being reduced to a few emblematic, easily recognized products. Immense hierarchical distances and a multiplication of committees separate the watch from its unknown and diluted creative source.

To train the masses to salivate at the sight of a brand, simplicity and repetition are far more effective than finesse. Like the product range, the vast vocabulary of watches has been reduced to a dozen key Richemont-group words: creativity, prestige, emotion, style, perfection, passion, harmony, exclusivity, elegance, etc. These particular words are carefully and specifically chosen because they are virtually the same in French as in English, enabling the communication function to remain within intellectual grasp of the mainly French-speaking and invariably attractive female staff entrusted with it. Even the whole complex world of grammar and meaning is reduced to just two concepts. In advertising and communications, images and words are either “positive” or “negative”.

There is even worse news for the trade. Richemont is axing its distribution network to a couple of hundred outlets world wide. To qualify for the chosen few, a retailer has to be what Richemont calls “selective.” It means location, a rich client list and, above all, compliance with the Group’s brand culture.

The success of the Cartier method relies above all on reconciling the opposites of exclusiveness and mass availability. The trick is to divide the whole universe of the brand: product, PR, information, employees and clients into an infinity of finely graduated hierarchies of accessibility and exclusivity — right down to the size of the receptionist’s smile. Each item of jewelry or watch, PR event, bimbo, manager, and retailer has its slot. Carefully dosed patronage encourages the dynamic of fawning above and contempt below. Bottom of the heap are the despised consumers.

Caught in the dynamic of brand status, the globalized luxury consumer climbs the ladder, forced to push a bigger boulder up the hill at every upgrade. The brands in the Richemont Group are carefully positioned, so that the consumer can step up from the entry-level Baume & Mercier to Piaget in style watches, from Panerei to Vacheron Constantin for the technical, from Mont Blanc to Dunhill and ultimately to Cartier for the accessories.

Excluded from the brand universe are the outside suppliers that provide the creative input — the designers, watchmakers or constructors. Only the virtual craftsman exists to be worshipped and respected within the brand. The real one is held in strict anonymity, as far away from the consumer as possible. The elaborately sustained gap between them is margin. Yet the creator and the consumer, so far apart, are the only ones with any respect for each other.

The extinction of creative spirit, the dumbing down of the brand, the reduction of product variety, the concentration of the sales network and the creation of huge margins between producer and consumer — it’s the winning strategy that is snuffing out the creative boom of the last two decades. It is already well established in the big groups and is taking hold at big independent companies like Patek Philippe as well.

But despite the dead hand of the brands — not all is doom and gloom in Swiss watchmaking. Real horology is fighting back. You don’t have to buy a brand. You can still buy a watch that looks as if its is made by someone who actually likes watches.

If the big brands have abandoned watch-lovers, there are many small creative and independent watchmakers clamoring for your business. So if instead of buying a brand, you prefer to have your watches made by your own watchmaker, catch Watchbore’s column next week… this time for the good news.

Meanwhile Watchbore is off to Richemont, not to buy its watches, but its shares.


Copyright © Alan Downing February 2000