Decades of competition followed by waves of consolidation have left the Swiss watch industry with very few independent brands. Most have either been absorbed into larger groups such as Swatch or LVMH, or have ceased to operate entirely.
While lack of economies of scale and the financial resilience to last through downturns are stacked up against them, a few independent operations continue to thrive.
At BaselWorld 2010, some of the key independent exhibitors included Patek Philippe, Raymond Weil and Edox. Mint spoke to some of these makers about the challenges in staying independent, staying in business and staying profitable.
Small is spectacular: One of Patek Philippe’s chronographs at BaselWorld. Patek Phillipe
“Many people assume it would be a problem to be independent. But in fact I think there are some very strong advantages to being on your own,” said Alexandre Strambini, managing director of Edox watches. Edox, while possessing a history that dates back to 1884, has been a family-owned enterprise since 1983. Closely associated with sports timekeeping, the brand has cultivated a long relationship with motor racing and speed boating.
The strongest advantage with being an independent brand, Strambini explained, was the ability to take quick decisions and react quickly to the market. “It is a pleasure to be independent. When you speak to someone from an independent company, you are speaking to someone who can take decisions. And the decisions that are taken...are taken! Especially retailers like to work with us because of this. We do things faster.”
Also at BaselWorld, as a visitor but not exhibitor, was Stefano Macaluso, vice-president of Girard-Perregaux, a family-owned brand that dates back to 1791. Stefano spoke about how he worked with his father and brother to run the company and how this helped them to not only keep a close eye on quality, but also “guard the unique qualities of the brand”.
But would he be making a lot more watches if he had the scale, the infrastructure or the capital? Does being independent force Girard-Perregaux to be exclusive? “Personally, I will not be snobbish, when I refer to companies that produce high quantities of watches of good quality. But I prefer to remain exclusive. I don’t want Girard-Perregaux to make thousands and thousands of watches. So no, I have no problem being small. There may be companies that want to be listed on the stock markets and all that. Not me,” Macaluso explained.
While some independents continue to thrive with small-scale operations, others like Raymond Weil and Patek Philippe have graduated to being equal competitors with other corporate brands.
Patek Philippe unveiled a series of self-winding and automatic chronographs at Basel. While Raymond Weil announced extensions to classic lines such as Nabucco, Freelancer and Neomia.
Another independent watchmaker to make an impact at Basel was Carl F. Bucherer, which announced additions to the brand’s signature Patravi line. Despite being an independent brand, Bucherer unveiled movements last year that were entirely built in-house using the company’s EvoTech system.
This approach to movement making strips the watch of all unnecessary parts and elaboration to leave behind a pure, waste-free device. One of the more striking results of the new Bucherer movements is the peripheral rotor that reduces the traditional rotor in an automatic movement to just a strip along the periphery of the watch.
While they remain precious few in number, launches at BaselWorld 2010 will give confidence to fans of smaller, independent brands. They continue to survive and innovate.