The Swiss watch industry is doomed

There was one slide in Tim Cook’s keynote that probably made the watch industry potentates choke on their oysters St Jacques. It was a simply a clear comparison between Apple Watch sales and sales of traditional watch brands, both high and low. And it wasn’t good.

At the bottom of the barrel was Japan’s Casio, makers of heavy-duty watches designed to take on tank treads and falls from your dresser. Further up the list was Longines, a mid-level brand with a long and storied history. Then Patek Philippe under Citizen and Seiko. Near the top was Fossil, the brand most of us get for high school graduation. Then the Apple Watch. Then Rolex.

This list, when read with a watch lover’s eye, is an outrage. It’s like showing a list of car brands – Toyota, Bugatti, Ford, Mercedes – and ranking them by sales, not quality. The list would be an affront. To the watch lover – and the brands that cater to them – none of these upstarts, the Casio’s, the Citizens – deserve to be on the same slide as Patek Philippe and Rolex. Omega and Cartier – mid-level brands – maybe, but not those patresfamilias of the watch industry.

But there they are. And that’s exactly why Swiss watchmaking is doomed. And that’s why more and more smaller brands are appearing to fill the yawning chasm between affordable and ludicrous.

First we must understand that the watch industry is about glamour. Watches have a deep and important history and are some of the most beautiful and well-designed objects of our era. But they are also just jewelry, and expensive jewelry at that. Watch makers have built a wide network of retail “doors” and they created artificial scarcity by making those doors take – not choose – product of the brand’s choosing. Regional manager didn’t like your store in Pittsburgh? He’d make you buy ten middling watches, a few expensive but unusable bands, and maybe a few good pieces. Then retailers mark them down, give discounts to favorite customers, and place orders for “grail watches” that wouldn’t be filled for months or years. The Swiss watch industry, during the 1980s and 1990s even into the 2000s was in firm control of its inventory, retail sales, and profits. And times were good.

Now watches are a commodity. Companies like Daniel Wellington and MVMT are selling millions of dollars worth of acceptable if poorly-constructed watches – thereby gutting the Swiss low-end – and with advanced manufacturing techniques we are seeing smaller brands produce mechanical timepieces. Glitzy houses like MB&F and more staid, traditional places like F.P. Journe – companies who make beautiful watches for the sake of their beauty and complexity – may make it out of this maelstrom but only in the same way vinyl producers have found a small niche with music lovers.

Don’t believe me? Check out this report from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

“July was not a strong month for Swiss watch industry exports,” they wrote. “The fact that there were two fewer working days this year certainly penalised the results to some extent, but that was not the determining factor because at the same time Swiss exports were higher overall. The industry saw the value of its exports lose 14.2% compared to July 2015 at 1.6 billion francs.”

The media is piling on. CNBC writes “Is time being called on the watch industry as a reliable source of income for Switzerland?”

It gives me no pleasure in stating any of this except for a small surge of schadenfreude: barring some miracle this line will fall and fall. In short, their hubris did them in.

Many would claim Tim Cook’s slide is bogus. Rolex doesn’t publish sales numbers but we can estimate the company is making and selling about a million watches a year making it hardly the rarified brand that most watch neophytes think it is. If Rolex is the brand to beat, and you can be certain they want you to think so, then in a few months Apple will beat it handily.

Why? Because people don’t need watches but Apple understands why they want them. Quality workmanship is the first leg on Apple’s little watchmaking stool followed by a wide range of well-made accessories. Functionality is the third leg. Can your Rolex tell you the temperature in Cupertino? You may not care on a daily basis but if you’re about to take a red-eye an Apple Watch is far better than a Rolex at telling you whether to bring a coat.

As I’ve said again and again, watchmakers brought this upon themselves. To create an air of exclusivity they jacked up prices and created artificial shortages. They ignored the Internet until it was far too late and ignored their true market – the watch obsessives who visit sites like ABlogToWatch and Hodinkee and post wrist shots on Reddit. Samsung even brought on, in its own, ham-handed way, an editor from one of those sites in order to steal some of the panache from the Swiss brands. Sadly, if things keep heading this way the only things those obsessive sites will write about are Samsung and Apple smartwatches.

The thing that really hurts? The Glycine Airman was once the watch to wear pilots in the early 20th century. It had a 24-hour dial and could tell two timezones at once. The Airman rode on the wrists of airline captains and helicopter pilots and there some examples so worn by use and abuse – yet still ticking – that you wonder how they survived. The watch had a story.

Last month Invicta – a brand more at home on QVC than in anyone’s collection – bought Glycine. It was a fire sale. And it will happen again and again until there’s nothing left. Jony Ive said “Switzerland is fucked.” He was right.