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The new Longines HydroConquest is the love child of restraint and sportiness.
The new Longines HydroConquest is the love child of restraint and sportiness.

Enter the dragon

What does a Swiss watch industry dominated by the Chinese market look like? Beautiful. Compact. And utterly gimmick-free

Every 10 years, a booming new market somewhere in the world fundamentally alters the way watches are made and sold by the world’s most important Swiss watch companies. So I was told, just a few days ago, by Stephen Urquhart, president of watch brand Omega.

Urquhart has 45 years’ experience in the watch business. So I am safely going to assume he knows what he is talking about.

We discussed the new easterly winds blowing across the Swiss watch industry when I sat down with Urquhart for a chat at Baselworld, the world’s largest watch industry exhibition at Basel, in Switzerland, held from 25 April-2 May. “So there was that period when the Middle East was buying all the watches. That phase saw a lot of gold and diamond watches. Then came the boom in Europe and America and Russia…when watches got bigger and bigger. And now we are going through the Chinese phase," Urquhart observed with a frankness that is uncommon in the Swiss watch industry.

There is nothing more abhorrent to most top-end Swiss watch brands than to admit that they are reacting to a market or a consumer trend. Of course this is what they all do. But most will act as if they came up with the idea for a matte black watch entirely independently, trying to brush aside the fact that EVERY SINGLE brand has a matte black watch this year.

But then Urquhart has never been one for marketing or public-relations niceties. He tends to, as they say, keep it real. Maybe it is because he is part Scottish.

He is right, of course. The Chinese phase is upon us.

Is there a worse time in the world to write about the virtues of Chinese domination in an Indian newspaper? Perhaps not. But at least I can write about it and not get driven over by a Red Guard in a tank. Hurrah for democracy.

So what does a Swiss watch industry dominated by the Chinese market look like? Beautiful. Compact. And utterly gimmick-free.

After Lehman Brothers went belly up in 2008, the Swiss watch industry geared up for a bloodbath of epic proportions. For some time it looked like the massacre was upon it. Business dropped. Export numbers fell in 2009 and in 2010.

But then they began to grow again. Despite widespread feelings that the Chinese economic juggernaut was slowing down, somehow that market continued to suck up as many watches as it could. Indeed, the singular reason why the Swiss watch industry has bounced back to the pre-Lehman days is sustained demand from the Chinese market.

Now with the US market rebounding as well, watch companies are slowly regaining their optimism.

But the terms of engagement in this new global business scenario are simple. Either you sell really well in China. Or you fight a brutal battle for consumers in the other world markets. Many brands are taking the safe Chinese option.

But in the process, they are being forced to meet Chinese expectations of watches. Numerous conversations at Basel lead me to believe that the Chinese consumer seeks well-made, well-priced, wearable products that are restrained. They seek watches that are gimmick-free, up to 40mm or 44mm in size but no more, and in more conventional colour combinations of dial and strap. This is not to say that the Chinese market does not have an appetite for the extremely expensive high-end segment.
It does. But the watches will have to earn the old-fashioned way: fine materials and
fine movements.

No longer will brands be able to charge thousands upon thousands of dollars/euros/ francs/yuan for ugly, oversized monstrosities drenched in dubious quantities of precious material.

Thank Mao for that, I say. This was exactly the kind of system- wide reset the industry needed. This Chinese phase has created a genuinely “virtuous" market that good brands will thrive in, and bad ones will flounder in.

Baselworld this year was full of simple, sensible watches priced competitively. Watches that are timepieces and not talking points. Watches that don’t make you stand outside the store window with your mouth agape in a mixture of amazement and disgust.

Recently, this column told you how there had never been a better time to buy simple, two-handed watches for men. In fact, there has never been a better time to buy simple, elegant watches of any kind for any gender.

Thank the People’s Republic.

Also Read | Sidin’s previous Lounge columns

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