An Open Letter to the Swiss Watch Industry, From a Frustrated Millennial

Thoughts on how to do it better.
SIHH 2018 fair 2

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article “Is Time Running Out For The Swiss Watch Industry?“, which I read with great interest. The author spoke to LVMH watch division chief Jean-Claude Biver, one of the Swiss watch industry’s most successful and respected marketers, about his approach to the new crisis of millennials not buying Swiss watches, even as the generation moves into its prime income-earning decades. As both a millennial and watch collector, I wanted to share my thoughts on this issue and try to provide constructive feedback to the industry that I love so much.

The signs of this crisis are all around us, but the industry has struggled to cope. To date, the industry has responded to this trend by changing its promotional activities and product mix in an attempt to appeal to millennials. Quoting from the WSJ story, “Over the past few years, LVMH’s brands have enlisted Jay-Z and various street artists to design watches, signed models in their early 20s as ‘brand ambassadors’, bought ads in the virtual world of videogames and developed the Swiss industry’s first smartwatch.”

Vacheron Constantin, a mainstay of the upper echelons of watchmaking, both in terms of craftsmanship and pricing, responded to this trend at this year’s SIHH in Geneva by launching a new entry-level model, the FiftySix, priced near the $10,000 mark and equipped with a face-lifted movement from sister brand Cartier. This watch was launched in conjunction with an Instagram ad campaign heavily-ridiculed on social media, which featured what the brand actually called “urban individuals” in the “High Watchmaking Gentlemen’s Club”, all of whom are purported to be influencers.

However, it is my experience that millennials are wary of these types of cheap ploys to attract attention. We grew up with the idea that new technology quickly becomes obsolete, and that passing fads are not only passing, but engineered by marketers to increase consumption of short-lived products. For this reason, the concept of a luxury technology gadget will never be more than a gimmick. Likewise, a $10,000 mechanical watch does not offer more value as the result of an association with a television show or a celebrity. On the contrary, these efforts decrease the perceived value of items that are otherwise marketed as timeless luxuries.

So the key takeaway is this: millennials want to love watches because they can transcend the increasingly rapid pace of change that permeates their lives. By tying their watches to the zeitgeist, Swiss watchmakers are destroying a key element of the value proposition they are offering their customers, thereby accentuating the crisis they face.

So what can brands do to attract millennial buyers?

The Swiss watch industry should approach the millennial consumer the same way it approached the quartz watch consumer in the late 1980s and early 1990s: with a renewed focus on its core strengths. Rather than cutting short the longevity of its products with celebrity endorsements and co-branding, and hollowing out the value of their watches with low-cost movements, brands should instead focus on their strengths and strive to offer a product and promotional mix that appeals to the millennial consumer. Specifically, I have four recommendations.

Communications

Brands need to think critically about how they communicate with millennial consumers. Millennials have “high BS detectors” and resent being overtly sold. Shallow attempts to associate mechanical watches with outdated notions of what constitutes a luxury lifestyle are doomed to fail.

Brands should come to terms with the fact that millennials have a hard time relating to images of what might be called traditional luxury. I’m talking about lifestyle porn that usually involves a pick-and-mix of bespoke shoes, vintage Porsches, three-piece suits, and liveried porters carrying matching sets of heavy leather suitcases. Much of this manufactured imagery is simply camp, and if brands continue to equate their watches with this ridiculous mise en scene, they will not be taken seriously by millennials.

Instead, brands should focus on addressing a key problem – millennials don’t know what mechanical watches are. Most of my friends and colleagues don’t understand the pricing of luxury watches because they don’t understand what they are getting for the price. Brands need to address this challenge head-on by educating millennials about what mechanical watches are, and explain how these products are different than quartz watches and smartwatches, and why they are worth a higher price.

A great example of a brand that’s doing this right is Akrivia. This brand, founded and run by a pair of millennials, has built a strong Instagram presence by highlighting the behind the scenes work that goes into its watches. This strategy has enabled the brand to successfully enter the market at the high end of the price spectrum.

Millennial-approved authentic watchmaking

Product and Price

Studies have repeatedly shown that millennials are attracted to authenticity and craftsmanship, two traits that are core to the identity of the Swiss watch industry. While older generations might baulk at a $20 cocktail or an $11 snifter of craft beer, millennials are showing a preference for these types of products that exhibit expertise, craft, and single-minded passion. No one should understand this better than Jean-Claude Biver. In fact, he built the Blancpain brand on these attributes, which he encapsulated in their slogan, “Since 1735 there has never been a Blancpain quartz watch. And there never will be.”

This means that brands need to be smart about the difference between price and value. Millennials are actually an affluent generation, and are poised for decades of high earnings. Furthermore, millennials are actually quite financially risk averse. And while few watches truly constitute a worthwhile investment, many do hold their value better than almost any other consumer product.

For these reasons, brands should be cautious about hollowing out the value of their watches by dumbing down the movements in order to decrease prices. The movement is the heart of a watch, and it’s the key differentiator between a mechanical watch and an ephemeral technology product. I’m not saying that every brand needs to create a multi-axis tourbillon; they shouldn’t, and far too many brands do. What I’m saying is that each brand needs to be honest about its own history and capabilities, and create a product strategy that is authentic, believable, and results in watches that are mechanically differentiated from those of its competitors.

Experience

Brands should also explore ways of turning a product purchase into an experience. Millennials are notorious for preferring experiences to products, but these are not mutually exclusive. I recently attended a Scotch whisky blending class in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood, put on by Chivas. Far from the ritzy bars of Mayfair, it was packed with millennials who bought tickets to learn about how expensive whisky is made, and try their own hand at creating a custom blend.

Watch brands could follow this model, and sponsor simplified watchmaking classes to help educate millennials on what is going on inside the watch they’ve been eyeing in the window of a watch retailer. This type of experience just begs to be Instagrammed, and its likely to give millennials the confidence they need to walk into their local watch store, instead of just walking by.

While it’s true that some brands do this today, they are typically confined to the largest cities, like Singapore, London, Tokyo, or New York, and often restricted to clients of the brand. Brands should target high-earning millennial pockets like Austin, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle, in the United States for example, and open the events up to people who have no prior experience with the brand.

A workbench in the workshop of Swiss watchmaker Daniel Roth

Personification

Brands, especially true manufactures, should do a better job of highlighting the talented craftsman, many of them millennials themselves, that design and make their watches. To date, most brands have chosen to show a unified face to the market; one name encompassing countless anonymous craftsman.

Having met numerous watchmakers and toured manufactures, I can say that the the experience of seeing the watchmakers and the processes that go into watch production makes brands seem more impressive, not less. And Instagram is a great medium for this. Showcase your watchmakers’ profiles, and let millennials see the human side of your brand. Let them see how much they have in common with the passionate artisans that craft your products. Let them see into the daily life of the experts that they will one day trust to repair their first mechanical watch. I think we’re all sick of over-processed studio shots anyway.

While I can understand why a brand might not want to risk diluting an image they’ve spent decades crafting, this would be a great way for truly innovative brands to stand out from the crowd. Urban Jurgensen has done a great job highlighting its associations with independent watchmakers Kari Voutilainen and the late Derek Pratt, and I’ve noted that brands are increasingly crediting Jean-François Mojon of movement specialist Chronode for his contributions to their projects. I believe that more brands, especially newer brands with less historical baggage, should adopt this approach and give millennials and name and a face to relate to.

I wrote this letter because I’ve grown frustrated watching the industry dig itself into this hole. I’m frustrated when I read articles about industry executives who say they don’t understand the Millennial consumer. It’s simple. Stop reducing value. Stop trying to sell an obsolete lifestyle. Start educating. Start being true to your brand. Start connecting on a human level.


Brandon Moore works in the tech industry in Seattle, Washington. He is passionate about independent horology and the history of the watch industry.

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MB&F Introduces the Fifth Element Clock (And Weather Station), With An Alien Pilot

The wildest interpretation of a desktop weather station.
MB&F The Fifth Element 2

The partnership between MB&F and clockmaker L’Epee 1839 has created some of the zaniest clocks ever, with designs informed by the fantasia of 1950s space exploration and ufology. Following the launch last year of the bubble-headed Octopod clock, the pair’s latest release is not merely another desk clock but also an mechanical weather station, incorporating a barometer, hygrometer and thermometer, in addition to telling the time.

Dubbed the Fifth Element, the entire device looks like an archetypical flying saucer, measuring 37.5cm in diameter and 20.9cm tall, or about 15″ by 8″. Made of brass and stainless steel, the weather station is composed of a substantial 531 components and weighs 15kg. And just like the fully crewed Alien Nation wristwatch, the Fifth Element has its own little alien, made of brass, piloting the clock.

MB&F The Fifth Element

The clock, barometer, hygrometer and thermometer are each contained in an independent pod, which are all removable and interchangeable between the ring-shaped mounts on the UFO-like clock base. Each pod measures 12.4cm in diameter and 9.2cm high, and is also fitted with legs allowing it to be used as a standalone device.

MB&F The Fifth Element 6

MB&F The Fifth Element 5

The clock is powered by L’Epée’s 8-day hand-wound movement which has been skeletonised and modified to have the regulator is perpendicular to bridges, allowing the balance to be seen on the side of the pod. As the clock is detachable, the regulator is equipped with an Incabloc shock protection system to protect the pivot from damage when the clock is being relocated.

MB&F The Fifth Element 3

In full accord with indulging the abandoned fantasies of childhood, L’Epée also created a rotating clockwork mechanism that runs around a track with ball bearings located on the base of the station. Activated by a pusher, the mechanism rotates the wheel that the alien is perched on, leaving the extraterrestrial to orbit around the station’s cockpit, presumably on the lookout for bad weather or potential abductees.

Price and Availability

The MB&F Fifth Element is priced at SFr52,000 and is available in three versions – silver, black, or blue – each limited to 18 pieces.


 

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Baselworld 2018: Patek Philippe Introduces Pilot Travel Time for Men, and Ladies – On Instagram

A surprise launch on social media. What's next?
Patek Philippe Pilot Travel Time 5524 rose gold 3

Teased about on the account of the Patek Philippe Grand Exhibition three days ago, Patek Philippe unveiled its own Instagram account today with a pair of new releases for Baselworld 2018. The first is the ref. 5524R, which is the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time in rose gold with a brown dial, essentially a new look for the original Pilot in white gold launched in 2015.

And the second is almost identical to the first, but smaller. The ref. 7234R is the Pilot Travel Time for ladies is 37.5mm in diameter, in contrast to the 42mm men’s model. Both are powered by the same movement, the self-winding cal. 324 S C FUS. That makes the ref. 7234R the first automatic Travel Time for ladies, with the earlier models having been hand-wound.

Patek Philippe Pilot Travel Time 5524 rose gold 1

Patek Philippe Pilot Travel Time 5524 rose gold 4

Patek Philippe Pilot Travel Time 5524 rose gold 2

The next question then becomes what else will Patek Philippe debut on March 21 when Baselworld opens its doors?

One would expect new models in its bestselling lines, namely the Nautilus and Aquanaut. With the Nautilus range already counting a simple calendar, annual calendar, chronograph, and Travel Time, the only signature complication missing is the perpetual calendar, which means the most logical addition would be, well, a Nautilus perpetual calendar.

And then there is the Aquanaut, arguably the younger, hipper version of the Nautilus. Despite being a sports watch, the Aquanaut line-up still lacks the most obvious of sports watch complications – a chronograph. And since the Aquanaut for ladies is already available in a variety of colours, it might just be time for brighter colours on the men’s models, particularly since the rubber strap allows for a versatile colour palette. So who knows?


 

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