Writing about watchmaking in the 1990’s was not what I signed up for when Steve and I decided to start SNGLRTY. It was certainly the last thing on my mind as Steve and I sat in the bar all those years ago scribbling our design on the back of a beer mat. I do not remember when I signed up for writing blogs and actively, strategically scheduling time to work on my social media account?
The Early Years to Watchmaking
As with so many other things that you never planned for but you have to do, there can only be one response – you just have to get started. Taking that first step with any task you embark on for the first time you have to just experience it. Once you have experienced the task, once you have enjoyed exploring the next steps, hopefully, over time, it begins to create a sense of satisfaction. Better understanding the process and experience leads to more enjoyment for me – that’s another #seetimedifferently !
My grandparents on my mother’s side were farmers and also our neighbors. I remember on Wednesday afternoon when I was around 9 years old I only had a half day at school and my mother would ask me to go and help my grandparents in the fields. Descending into a kid’s tantrum, my ADHD impulsivity prevailed. The details are irrelevant but I wasted a lot of tears. Eventually I would dutifully head off with my uncle and occasionally my cousin to help in the fields. When I finally got there and started work it would feel good. Being in nature and doing some very physical exercise to the point of exhaustion, it just felt good, very satisfying.
It is a bit like that with writing a blog post. The thought of it is quite daunting until I get some time to sit down and really engage in the process. Once I am actively thinking about what to write I automatically cheer up, my brain gets into gear. My spirits rise as I get time for reflection. It affords a great opportunity to step out of the routine, take a bit of distance of the daily stress and think, dream and write – in that order.
…and Teaches Us
I was recently reminiscing about watch developments with a friend. We were trying to remember how we designed and assembled watches before 3D rendering became “common”. That was the 1990’s. What do we remember of the 1990’s watch wise? I do not recall this as a stand out period of watch making. There were no specific styles, no watch designs that clearly stand for this period. Of course, there were exceptions, brands that wrote a little bit of history or left their footprint on watch development in the 1990’s. For me, when I reflect on the market as a whole, there seems to be no defining trend or specific watches represent the period. Yet, in retrospect it can be classified as a crucial period of consolidation and learning for the industry. It was a period that set the foundation and prepared the industry for its future success.
So, I thought I would share my experience of the decade. It was my inaugural decade in the watch industry in Switzerland, that is what I was living and breathing. This is watchmaking in the 1990’s – my personal experience.
Where it All Began
I started my first job in the watch industry in 1991. Following a number of years of experience as a product manager in a completely different product category I was appointed as a product manager at Tissot S.A. My first interview did not touch on watch making; it was much more focused on marketing. I was being peppered with many questions like, “What would you do when you want to launch a 2nd generation of a product line but your inventory is still packed with the 1st generation?” This line of questioning was great for me because at that time I did not know much about watches and I was far from being a watch lover. All I wanted was to work on a fast(er) moving product that combined design, technique, fashion and emotion.
Watchmaking Takes A Back Seat
At the time I had no idea that my experience in that first interview was so representative of the status of the Swiss watch industry. The marketing driven approach in watch development, innovation and launching concepts in the 1980’s brought the Swiss watch industry back to a successful path after years of severe crisis and struggles. There is little doubt about that. However, it also left the industry with a lack of watchmaking knowledge. Many of the skilled artisans were unemployed and the industry suffered high unemployment for more than a decade. There was also an over emphasis on marketing, or perhaps better described as an unbalanced value attributed to its success in the watch industry. This resulted in many successful brands launching many unsuccessful watch concepts.
Regardless, my expectations, my dream became real and I was appointed a product manager.
The Swiss Watch Industry I Dropped Into
Let’s start a bit earlier and take a look back and crunch some numbers.
At the beginning of the 1980’s the Swiss watch industry was considered virtually dead. The industry had been unable to mount a response to the worldwide expansion of its Japanese rival. The Japanese watch industry had put an end to the Swiss domination of the global market. Japan had started to mass produce high-quality mechanical watches in the second half of the 1960’s. This challenge was compounded in the next decade with the the quartz watch revolution during the 1970’s.
Japanese watch production skyrocketed in the 1970s from approximately USD 400 million in 1970 to 2.0 billion in 1980. It finally overtook Swiss watch production in the early 1980’s. By the mid 1980’s Japanese watch manufacturers production was 15 – 20 % higher than Swiss production. Export numbers of both countries present a similar picture. These numbers clearly demonstrate the loss of competitiveness of the Swiss watch making industry in the global market.
The Yin and The Yang
This crisis in the Swiss watch industry was also characterized by a steep decline in employment from 89,000 in 1970 to 33,000 in 1985. Yet at the end of the 1980’s both countries moved into entirely different phases. The Swiss industry recovered and showed a large growth in watch export value from USD 4.9 billion in 1990 to 6.1 billion in 2000. Exponential growth followed with exports reaching 15.9 billion in 2008.
Meanwhile the Japanese watch industry stagnated from the 1990s. It was facing its own crisis and was facing a significant drop in exports. There were two principal reasons for this. The first was the success of the Swiss watch industry in the mid-priced to luxury segment. More worryingly was the challenge from Chinese manufacturing in the low-price segment.
Baptism By Fire
As I sat in that interview in the early 1990’s I was not aware of the more than 50% increase in the production of Swiss watches at the end of the 1980’s. What I experienced during my first interview was a taste of what I would see develop into a larger trend. Later, as my career in the Swiss watch industry developed, I could identify the profound change of direction in the industry, a movement in mindset and priority.
The increase of sales and production numbers during the second half of the 1980’s was triggered initially by Swatch. This was the Swiss “smart” answer to the industrial revolution the Japanese had unleashed on the industry. It became necessary for the whole Swiss watch industry to think more conceptually about watch making. Their new approach combined technology, production on an industrial scale, fashion, emotion, story and innovation.
The TwoTimer – Watchmaking Ahead of its Time
Tissot launched the first generation of its TwoTimer in 1986. This was the first watch with both an analogue and digital display where the movement and the case form a single unit. It was a revolutionary design at the time as it reduced the production costs and combined the latest technology. This was part of the Swiss response to the low priced digital and analogue watches that the Japanese watch brands were manufacturing in huge numbers.
Along with Swatch, these were the first successful launches to take the fight back to the Japanese after the rout of the 1980’s. It was the shot that put the Swiss watch industry back on a path to success, but there was still a problem.
The early 1990’s was characterized by an industry dealing with a huge inventory from previously successful watch concepts or failed launches. This was the result of overconfidence that marketing would save the day. During this period there had been neglect of the watchmaking tradition which undermined the authenticity of the watch making. The few brands that went against this trend really stood out and were extremely successful. Although ultimately positive this process of rationalization led to huge amounts of watchmaking knowledge disappearing or being neglected.
In At The Deep End
I started as a product manager for Tissot in the midst of all this and was assigned to the Jewels of Nature, Rockwatch, WoodWatch and PearlWatches product lines. All of these brands were ending their lifecycles. All the technical aspects and engineering of these brands were outsourced or centralized to a very capable unit within the SMH group (later Swatch Group). Three months later all the other product managers left. I was now solely responsible for the whole Tissot product collection together with 3 assistants but, crucially, without any watchmaker or experienced watch technician.
This structure was typical of the industry in the early 1990’s. There was great skill and knowledge on the technical and industrial side of the business but it neglected traditional watchmaking. All the focus was on product development. It was from here that an amazing transition started. This transition would combine the essence of Swiss watchmaking with the marketing revolution of the 1980’s that ultimately sent the industry to new, unseen heights.
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