Watchmaking in the 1990s
Swiss watchmakers and watchmaking, in general, went through massive changes in the 1980s and 1990s. Watch enthusiasts and industry insiders tend to link a specific watch design, distinctive watches, or outstanding brand achievements to a given decade. Watch designers in the 1950s distinguished their designs with classic styling, long lugs, box-style Hesalite glass, and curved dials. The 1960s ushered in more edgy designs, and the affinity between wristwatches and sports began in earnest. Brands created some exceptional diver watches during this period, and the link between car racing and specific brands started to emerge. Then, in the 1970s, the industry migrated into a chunky, yet nevertheless, pretty cool styling.
Dedication to The Watchmakers Art
After the life-threatening experience, the Swiss watch industry went through in the 1970s, the sector surprised the world in the 1980s—many revolutionary concepts from many brands, including Swatch and Tissot, were launched. Several visionaries stubbornly opted for mechanical watches when, during this period, quartz movements dominated the industry with over 95% market share by value. A small group remained staunchly purist in the face of overwhelming numbers. Blancpain’s repost was particularly memorable with the slogan, “Since 1735, Blancpain has never made a quartz watch and never will.” Among others who remained staunchly committed to their DNA were Ulysee Nardin, Breguet, and Patek Philippe.
The Italian market drove the trend for sports chronographs, with Rolex’s Daytona being incredibly famous and Breitling picking up the same trend quickly. The hard fact was that the sales of mechanical watches & watch movements were still negligible. Interestingly, as I mentioned in the first installment of this blog series, there were no common design elements or concepts to emerge from the Swiss watch industry during the 1980s.
The Phoenix Starts Its Ascent
Drilling down into the 1990s, or more precisely the early to mid-1990s, what are the essential aspects of the Swiss watch evolution that stand out? Apart from several famous Swatch launches, those that stand out include Jordi with its Ethno watch and Tag Heuer’s exceptionally styled S/el.
Does this mean the influence of the early years of the 1990s were negligible? Maybe, when considering design achievements, but not for the Swiss watchmaking or its success in the following decades. That is what this blog is all about.
I took my first steps in the Swiss watch industry in the 1990s. For this reason, I thought I should have a more detailed understanding of the developments of the time. As a responsible product manager for Tissot, I struggled to see the wood for the trees. My watch personality, my watch avatar, was born during these early influential years. I was experiencing these significant industry changes but lacked the perspective of the overall situation. Without distance from the day to day cut and thrust, it was only later, in retrospect, I was able to #seetimedifferently.
Watchmaking and the Watchmaker Rise From the Ashes
In the first installment of this series, I reviewed some of the critical industry numbers of the 1970s and 1980s. The Swiss watch industry was relegated to an also-ran in the watch business as the Japanese were asserting their advantage in the quartz watch war. During the 1980s and following massive restructuring efforts, Swiss production and Swiss brands put themselves back on the watch map. These restructuring efforts were the catalyst that led to the enormous growth that unfolded over the following three decades. There is a lot of literature available that documents this period in great detail.
The industry’s demolition in the 1980s would start with massive job losses and a loss of technical knowledge initially. The industry re-grouped, and by re-organizing the production systems, were able to meet the challenge of global competition. This industrial approach led to the centralization of production, which in turn initiated a drive towards standardization. This process of rationalization built the foundation for future innovations and products. Following the industry’s restructuring, some brands’ success resulted in jobs, further investment, and support for traditional watchmaking skills. Later in the 1990s, the combination of industrial evolution, structural refinement, and conceptual development combined with historical watchmaking spirit to propel the Swiss watch industry to success once again.
Brand Watchmaking From The Trenches
In 1991, I had just started my first job in the industry in the middle of all these market transitions. Many watch brands began operating like consumer goods brands, focusing more on product lifecycle management than the watchmaker’s skill. At TISSOT, part of the SMH that later became SWATCH GROUP, we benefited from the access to a robust centralized group of mainly young engineers. These engineers were the vanguard of new methods and standards; they were also keen to innovate. We had a dedicated engineer and a technical draftsman to consult, plus material specialists, construction specialists, and industrial designers as needed.
Each watch’s technical drawings and each component’s specification sheet had to be approved by a centralized unit. This unit did not consider sales or design objectives, but merely the technical feasibility and adherence to all the new guidelines and standards. Sometimes, for those of us in product management, driven by challenging sales and product launch targets, this very structured approval process felt restrictive. Issues would arise with the formal procedure, which, over time, sapped our motivation. Nevertheless, what is evident in retrospect, was this was a necessary process to ensure product quality when knowledge and experience were lacking.
I recall, in particular, the standardization of all the crystals. Tissot, like all other brands, had crystals produced to their exact design requirements. It could be that over the years, multiple glass diameters such as 31.25mm, 31.40mm, 31.50mm, or 31.70 mm had all been used for classic 38 mm watches. This created massive complexity for after-sales service, not to mention the crystals and gaskets’ initial production. It naturally resulted in ever-higher costs. Standardization was the solution, and crystals would only be available in steps of 0.5 mm, so designers were restricted to 30.50mm, 31.00mm, 31.50mm, etc.
The thickness of the crystals also had to be included in the homologation process. The resulting matrix included the water-resistance specification and the crystals’ diameter. Simple, efficient, and combined with the growing volume, it was a key to reducing sapphire crystals’ price.
Traditional watch designers struggled with these limitations. As an outsider at that time, I could understand how such small crystal diameter changes could make a difference. But after some time, when I understood that 0.1mm could be significant for a watch design, I came to understand the designers’ perspective. I still agreed that standardization made enormous sense and was necessary.
Everything Was Scrutinized & Standardized
Tissot continued to replicate this process with many other components, such as crowns, tubes, lugs, and straps. There were even efforts to standardize visible parts such as cases, hands, and indices to accumulate larger production volumes. The market, however, demanded agility, differentiation, and identity from the brands. A classic conflict of interest that created a natural boundary on the standardization process. Overall, the process and its benefits were most pronounced for the mid-price, higher volume brands.
In 1991 – 92, we created the Tissot “Swiss Pack” Standard. A Swiss-made watch that is water-resistant to at least 30m had stainless steel (316L) case, sapphire crystal, and the quartz movement’s end-of-life indication. Tissot was one of the first brands to label the stainless steel’s technical specifications in the product specifications. In particular, in the low and mid-price segments, the case-back became fully engraved with product features and evolved into a cheat sheet for sales staff.
Testing Standards Too
There was further pressure for standardization from the industry in general. This was most pronounced with testing standards, testing on materials, and testing of finished products. New standards were informally established, group-wide but eventually became industry-wide. It helped raise quality overall and provided security to brands with limited resources, which at that time were the vast majority.
The More Things Change …
At Tissot, we started to prioritize time-to-market when launching new products. This drove the need for accurate preparation of the “fiches techniques,” fast approvals, and short homologation processes. This pressure for speed to market came from more confidence within the industry in general. From here, each brand began to assume responsibility for quality. The logical next step was to increase their watchmaking knowledge and invest in new talents to differentiate themselves in the market.
… The More They Stay The Same
This new positive momentum in the market was reflected in what we did at Tissot. The brands, the whole industry, invested in re-building the watchmaker profession and accumulating knowledge internally. After the period of centralization and commoditization, the time to rebuild the brands’ skills and identity from fundamental knowledge and take total responsibility was reasserting.
The accumulation of knowledge impacted the identity of each brand. Their points of differentiation became more prominent and lead to increased competitiveness. This then fed the culture of creativity, innovation and drove differentiation between the brands. This strategic direction change sharpened each brand’s image and helped define the marketing message for each product. This became visible from the mid-1990s and manifested in unique advertising campaigns, testimonials sponsorship, and new product launches.
I was had been dropped in at the deep end of the Swiss Watch industry’s structural changes in the early 1990s. It provided me with an incredible opportunity to learn and practice the full 9 yards of product management in an industry restructuring and preparing for take-off.
Next time I will take a wander down memory lane and discuss how the brands executed their “collection management” strategy, just like any good watch collector. But also how this integrated with the global and regional strategies of each brand.
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