The watch industry as we see it today is a constantly adapting animal. Born essentially from an innovation one century ago and forever adapting to its place in the world. An explosion of creativity in the first half of the 20th century in design and mechanics surrounding this innovation of the wristwatch gave birth to what has become a billion Swiss franc affair. Glitches during its lifespan have caused momentary panic, the invention of quartz in the 70’s, the financial crisis following the decline of Lehman Brothers in 2007, but with every knock, the industry bends, drops and recoils but inevitably finds its footing and moves forward, always changing, not always learning.
Running parallel to the empirical corporations that umbrella so many brands is the new world of Independent Watchmaking, named as such because they are not found under the corporate umbrellas. Sometimes born of entrepreneurs with an eye for opportunity or a love of horology, and more in number if not production quantities born of a new generation of living watchmakers.
There has never been another period in watchmaking history where the tools have so effectively existed to grant small makers the possibility to live their watchmaking dreams and on occasion nightmares. The irony being the tools required are a result of modern technology and opportunity, making a product that in the most basic mechanics is centuries old.
The tools that permit this new generation touch both the watch and those watching. For the products, CAD, ‘computer aided design’, has revolutionized development. Its precision, adaptability, user friendliness and speed has transformed the development and manufacturing process. Apart from CNC ‘computer numerically controlled’ machines there are new systems of manufacture that allow complex forms to be literally grown, eliminating the need for tooling. The technology is moving faster than the imagination to be able to use it, but it will be exploited, as the maturity in design and use of these technologies is better understood.
Communication, the singularly most important tool in selling any idea is more potent today than it ever has been. The web; forums, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, websites. Coupled with digital photography and animation, all have resulted in greater knowledge, sometimes inevitably corrupted, but presenting to the growing world of enthusiasts, collectors and tourists a new world of horology. Fueled by interests linked in watchmaking as diverse as mechanics, art, design, celebrity and on occasions philosophy. The watchmaking world is a brave and diversifying new world.
There slowly appear paradigm shifts in this world, the massive ownership of markets by the large companies slows down, product is produced faster than it is sold through to the final consumer. ‘Exclusive’ loses value when you can by this name in 500 retailers around the world as well as on the internet, grey market and on occasions from suit cases. Special is not always special. People begin to buy differently and many companies scramble to find solutions to satisfy number expectations.
The problem, or the challenge, in the luxury world is the core reason why people buy what we as watchmakers and manufactures make in the first place. Watches are luxury, luxury is that which brings quality to life, that which makes us human. The anchors being found in exclusivity, aspiration, innovation, technical execution, branding and much more. When this becomes industrialized, it slowly and inevitably corrodes value. Those that make the volumes
write their own stories, looking at numbers and not people and why we buy into this wonderful world of watchmaking in the first place.
This industry will always exist, its sine wave path will continue to greet us and entertain us. Horology is a drug to a growing market of takers. From those that create to those that buy, and the infinite number of links in between. I am constantly fascinated by the adoration and desire that surrounds watchmaking, and the number of people who are associated to it on all of its copious levels.
30 years ago this year, I walked into Hackney Technical college in London to start (slightly tardily) a course in horology. 30 years on, I have lived every dream I had as an adolescent and many that formed on the journey that ensued. I have helped no small number of people live their dreams on the way. My journey has taken me through virtually every sector of watchmaking, from antique to modern, simple to complicated, designer to manager, consultant to founder. In addition it has lead me around the world, help nurture a love of Asian art, introduced me to extraordinary people of many origins. Clients have become friends, fiends have become family.
Horology is the study of time, time is the measure of life, and nothing is and ever will be more precious.