Behind the Watch Face Part 2

The internet may be the ultimate forum for the watch market to improve its transparency

Column courtesy of Mr WatchMaster

Part 1 here

The craze for ‘in-house’ has come to underpin much of the rhetoric of the watch brands in their public relations and advertising, and is reflected in the interests and concerns of watch collectors and amateurs alike, visible most easily through the widely used Internet watch forums and discussion groups. Watch collectors (and, in large part, watch observers who perhaps spend a lot of time following and commenting on the watch brands without necessarily purchasing) have come to obsess on issues of location of manufacture and the degree to which something is made in-house. The claims of watch brands to have accomplished anything, whether it be a new model, or a new element of a design, are now tested in the white-hot crucible of watch forums, which, by virtue of their on-line nature, have the effect of spreading commentary (especially negative and critical) like wildfire, world-wide, within hours. A notable case of this occurred in July 2014, when British brand Bremont unveiled a new model at a Science Museum launch. Starting the day before the launch, a remarkable online storm broke, summed up later by the Financial Times on 5 September 2014:

“Comments on online forums and blogs challenged the claims for the BWC/01 calibre, the accusation being that it was not designed by Bremont but by La Joux-Perret, a specialist Swiss watch movement manufacturer with which Bremont has worked in the past on both its limited editions and its core collection […] The controversy underlines the fact that there is no industry-agreed definition of the term ‘in-house’. Over the past 20 years, some larger brands have bought specialist Swiss movement manufacturers, absorbing them into their own operations to create ‘in-house’ movements. The practice of commissioning an in-house movement from a third-party supplier and calling it ‘in-house’ is more common.”

In the maelstrom of criticism that resulted, Bremont suffered a public relations setback. Bremont is a UK-based manufacturer, now employing more than 70 staff, and on a planned pathway towards the manufacturer of watches in the UK, but an overly ambitious claim to have reached further along in that plan than was actually the case brought about a significant adverse reaction from observers, unhappy with a perceived lack of transparency.

The issues highlighted above are the stuff of Internet forums and discussion groups and conversations among collectors—rarely does the discussion widen to include significant numbers of industry participants. An exception occurred in March 2015, when the British Watch and Clockmakers Guild hosted a day-long conference in Watford, under the title ‘Developing a Co-ordinated Action Plan to Support the Growth of British Horology’. There were several sessions throughout the day, the most significant of which focused on the issue of the supply of parts from Swatch. Other topics included horological education and the role of trade organisations. Of interest to us, the subject of ‘Brand Britain’ came last on the agenda. There was always the risk it would therefore be met by ‘conference fatigue’ and that the discussion might be less than vigorous. It was indeed the case that a noticeable proportion of the 100 or so delegates from the morning had left by the time the conference reconvened for its last session.

Following presentations on what it might mean for something to be ‘British Made’, and how the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) had acted in the past in relation to complaints about firms making claims relating to Britishness, the discussion was thrown open to the floor. Several delegates emphasised the point that, while there might be legal niceties over questions of claims to Britishness that may well be observed by market participants, there is also a moral dimension. The essential question posed was ‘While something may legally be entitled to be described as British, can it morally be claimed to be so?’ And of course for ‘British’ one can substitute ‘Swiss’ or ‘American’ with ease.

Examples were given of products in other markets that succeed despite their manufacturing process being in a developing country—the Apple iPhone, for example, which claims to be ‘designed in California, made in China’. The view expressed was that Apple benefits from the transparency with which it trumpets the manufacture of items in China—this is not seen as a negative, quite the reverse—while it also trumpets the location where its design work takes place—California—knowing that this is an important and compelling selling point.

An interesting intervention came at the end of the discussion, from James Gurney, editor-in-chief of QP magazine. He referred to the problems Bremont had encountered with its BWC/01 calibre in mid-2014. His view was that the way forward could only be through better communication between brands and the public. He argued legal approaches to defining country of origin would be too difficult to mount, whilst leaving a policing role to any given institution would be too great a burden. Instead, precisely the medium in which Bremont had met its difficulties needed to be the forum for egregious behaviour to be picked up and broadcast. Gurney argued the power of the Internet forum had been demonstrated by the Bremont debacle, and that it should be seen as the best method for the industry to regulate itself.

Gurney’s call for greater transparency chimes with the sentiments of the Clockmakers Company. There are two key areas in which the Company would argue firms should be more transparent. One is in relation to the invocation of significant British heritage behind modern watch brands, and the other is in relation to country of manufacture. The discussion above suggests ways in which the modern obsessions of watch brands have led them into error.

First, the overly strong and relatively recent emphasis on the production of items ‘in-house’ ignores a centuries’ old international tradition in the industry for reliance on a broad range of independent makers of the necessary components and assemblies, whether they be arranged as single piece workers, or in smaller companies and co-operatives. Some collectors and purists might well argue the industry has lost by this—and that the quality found in the finest creations of a century ago is now rarely visible, with limited and notable exceptions.

Second, the desire to self-identify with traditional centres of excellence—with ‘Swiss Made’, ‘Made in USA’ and ‘Made in England’ as obvious examples—has led some companies to sail too close to the wind. If the state of current legislation, and various trading standards, allows a watch brand to claim as ‘British’ or ‘Swiss’ items which any discriminating buyer would reject as such, were they to have the entire manufacturing process revealed to them in a transparent fashion, then the regulatory framework is probably at fault. But the solution doesn’t lie in an arms race of ever more detailed legislation or trading standards, in the face of which some manufacturers might choose to employ ever more devious tricks—it instead lies in the shining of an ever more powerful spotlight on the brands and their claims. Those who emerge as producing precisely what they claim—even if it is only the design and not the execution—will succeed in securing and maintaining customer confidence and appreciation.

Finally, there is the whole issue of the horological equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. Recently, several of us, wearing different hats entirely, were considering a draft timeline for the watch and clock industry for use on a web-site, to be used as a useful reference tool by newcomers to the watch and clock worlds, or perhaps to be used by journalists, in a hurry to discover when the lever escapement was invented, or the application of the pendulum happened, or perhaps when the first wristwatches were used. It had been a long day, and to lighten the tone, it was suggested that we might also draft a special April Fool’s Day version of the time line. This would include various key dates in the 17th, 18th and 19th century, marking the formation or starting dates for various modern Swiss-owned brands. Except of course the names involved were ones more familiar to students of horological history as being the famous names of various distinguished English watch and clockmakers, who have no connection whatsoever with the various modern brands which have revived the names in question. It is one thing to be inspired by a great character in history—it is quite another to appropriate them as your ‘ancestor’, or to appear to have done so. However small the number of people might be that have been or might in the future be fooled into imagining that these modern brands have a long and distinguished heritage, stretching back to important figures in the history of horology, it is too many. It can only damage the watch industry to be seen to be less than transparent in such matters.

In fact this is the key conclusion to be drawn from this survey. There may be watch buyers without much discrimination, but they are more than offset by the huge numbers of collectors and watch observers who look very closely into the claims of modern watch brands. For those who have an eye to long-term success, and who wish to be held in high regard by the watch buying community in both the near and distant future, it is vital to be honest and transparent in all facets of your business, from the integrity of the processes and skills brought to bear in making watches, to the advertising copy used to sell them. riddle_stop 2

 

Dr James Nye

James is chairman of the council of the AHS. He is a long-standing member of the BHI, a Life Member of the NAWCC, belongs to the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Chronometrie as well as Chronometrophilia, and is also a liveryman and member of the court of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers.

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