Swiss watch exports dropped for a third year in a row

According to the watch press, this year’s Baselworld in Switzerland was a graveyard. “The Baselworld show, ended March 30, was grim,” said Joe Thompson in Watchtime Magazine, an enthusiast publication. In short, a once might industry is contracting at an alarming rate.

A further harbinger of death is far simpler to understand. Swiss exports have fallen for the third year in a row. This hasn’t happened since 1930, in the depths of the Depression.

“I spoke with dozens of watch executives and retailers: the consensus view is that the industry is ailing,” wrote Thompson.

Experts attribute the fall to a few factors. First, American imports have fallen 28% as more and more people abandon watches or settle on Apple Watches. Overproduction and overpricing are forcing watches into the gray market and younger people don’t want to buy watches at official sellers, instead choosing to go online.

Watch sales have fallen before. The quartz crisis dented the industry in 1975 and it dropped again in 1982 and 1995. The recent recession flattened new sales as traders sold their fancy Rolexes and Pateks at a discount just to get liquid. And, as a trend, smartwatches have torn pounds of flesh from Geneva’s greatest brands every month.

I expected this third lean year for a long time. The Schadenfreude is truly juicy here and it was already clear that things were bad a year ago. But it truly gives me no pleasure.

Watchmaking is an art albeit one that is no longer cherished. In a world where we are overwhelmed by time we don’t like to remind ourselves that it exists. The media we consume is out of time – a 24/7 rush of data that has no connection to the soft ticking of the daily news cycle of old. The morning and evening papers are gone, replaced by a torrent of Tweets.

Further, our devices all remind us of the time. Our phones light up. Our smart watches reset themselves every timezone. Our calendars beep and buzz and keep us on track. There is no place for the soft ticking of a mechanical movement in a quiet room nor is there any impetus to keep the watch wound and running from timezone to timezone, hours snapping into place as the miles pass.

The recent failures of the traditional watch industry isn’t quite the end. I’ve been watching a small watchmakers pop up on Kickstarter and other places online and each one is bringing back a little bit of traditional workmanship and style. I’ve seen the online markets like Crown & Caliber go from skittering bugs to dinosaur killers and I’ve learned to love the Apple Watch as much as I love my Omega Speedmaster. In the end people who love watches will have more choice, spend less on better products, and support small manufacturers who truly deserve the support. I just worry that in the upper reaches of Swiss watchmaking the passion will drain away and we’ll be left with me-too pieces that are, in a word, boring. Switzerland reacts to damage by shutting down. At this point they need to re-enter the world with exuberance and excitement. They need to abandon George Clooney mooning deeply at his new watch and instead focus on a new generation of spokespeople – makers, doers, entrepreneurs. After all it’s the rich nerd or nerdette who loves a complicated watch, not the socialite.

The Swiss can fix this. They have to cater to a new buyer, supply to folks who want to buy online, and give products to those who want to see new styles and colors. They also need to educate the next generation about the history of the things they want them to love. We can create a desire for the artisanal watch again just as we’ve brought back fine pencils and pickles because if we don’t we’re truly sunk.

Switzerland could falter again, however, and the coffin might be closed if they don’t see an uptick. I’m cautiously optimistic. Many aren’t.

“If, however, 2017 turns out to be one of those almost unheard of back-to-back-to-back slowdowns, then the Swiss watch industry will need painful medicine to cure what ails it,” said Thompson. That medicine comes in the form of closures, lay-offs, and a wholesale change in the way watches are made and sold. And it’s long overdue.