Watchmakers put brave face on slow China sales and Apple's smartwatch

The year's first big event for the prestige watch industry is poised to open amid uncertainty over continued slowing sales in China and the certainty of smartwatches going mainstream

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 January, 2015, 6:40am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 January, 2015, 6:40am

Talk to any luxury watch executive and they'll happily tell you (off the record, of course) that the faster they can put 2014 behind them, the better. However, they said much the same thing at the beginning of last year, when slowing sales in China - on the heels of crackdown on corruption and gifting instituted by President Xi Jinping - began dragging down luxury watch sales overall.

As they look forward to this year and its first big watch event - the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), which opens on Monday in Geneva - industry leaders are putting a brave face on things, publicly at least. They point to a rebounding American market and total Swiss watch sales increasing in 2014 year on year. A closer look at the statistics, however, reveals lacklustre sales growth after years of double-digit expansion, as well as increasing worry over too much reliance on the Asian market.

Figures from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), the industry body that tracks annual global exports of all watches and movements from Switzerland, showed that sales were up 2.3 per cent from January to November, the latest set of figures. That compares with 1.9 per cent growth for 2013, but is a long way off the 11 per cent growth in 2012 and the 19.4 per cent uptick in 2011.

Regional numbers cause even more concern: Asian sales were up 3.7 per cent in 2014 - not bad, but down from the more than 20 per cent year-on-year growth just a few years ago. More pointedly, Asia now accounts for 53.3 per cent of all Swiss watch sales, so the industry has become super-sensitive to unforeseen shocks to luxury retail sales from external sources.

It goes without saying that the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests that ignited on the eve of the Watches & Wonders exhibition and continued through the busiest sales months for watch companies had a big negative effect on many companies' balance sheets. "When it rains, it pours," as one watch executive put it at the subdued Watches & Wonders with the protests swirling just outside.

But SIHH is a chance to put all the glum talk aside and focus on the positives. The event, backed by the Richemont group, should return to a bit more vibrancy this year for two reasons: it doesn't clash as much with Lunar New Year, and it marks the 25th anniversary of the show - a symbolic milestone in an industry that has a penchant for monetising anniversaries and milestones. About 12,500 guests and 1,200 journalists are expected to attend over the five days, and they will see a dazzling number of timepieces from the 16 maisons exhibiting. In the pre-event releases, brands such as Greubel Forsey already have collectors excited about their new pieces. Its GMT (pictured) will certainly have found takers for all 22 pieces by the end of the show next Friday.

Audemars Piguet also has watch lovers talking about its new Royal Oak Concept, a sound and watchmaking project that has been eight years in the making. "Things could be better for the industry, of course, but we have some great watches for the next few years. The high end - and by that I mean the watchmakers who are really innovative and not just following trends - should still find an audience and grow strongly," Audemars Piguet CEO Francois Henry Bennahmias said in September at the opening of the company's first stand alone fully owner-operated boutique in Hong Kong. Bennahmias said bluntly he foresees a consolidation in the industry that will squeeze out mid- to lower-priced Swiss watchmakers.

Watchmakers who are really innovative ... should still grow strongly
Francois Henry Bennahmias, Audemars Piguet CEO

However, he is loath to mention the elephant in the room: smartwatches.

These watches have been an underlying challenge for mechanical watchmakers for a couple of years now. Priced in a similar bracket to low-end mechanical Swiss watches, smartwatches from the likes of Samsung, LG and Pebble have met with a tepid response thus far, from both a critical and a sales perspective. Tech analysts can see the growth potential for wearable tech-like smartwatches, but the products are not there just yet.

However, things could change quickly with the expected release of Apple's first watch; it could well be the biggest selling watch, mechanical or otherwise, this year through sheer brand power. As it did with the mp3 player, the smartphone and the tablet, Apple is expected to bring a whole slew of new consumers to watches and siphon off the existing customers for lower-priced brands.

SIHH next week will be another, clearer, chance for luxury brands to respond to Apple's expected entrance. Montblanc has already released details of the Timewalker Urban Speed E-Strap, a mechanical watch with a smart strap that offers message and mail notifications and an activity tracker among other features.

Others in the industry are less concerned about smartwatches. At last year's Baselworld show - the biggest watch fair of the year, which will take place in late March this year - Omega president Stephen Urquhart said smartwatches are a media-driven story and won't really affect the industry the way doom-mongers are suggesting.

However, Urquhart was speaking almost exclusively about the high-end, luxury mechanical watchmakers and, for all intents and purposes, he is correct. But the Swatch Group - Omega's parent company, which owns mid- to low-priced mechanical watch brands such as Tissot, Mido, Certina and Hamilton - must be more concerned about a repeat of the complacency during the "quartz crisis", a nearly fatal chapter in the Swiss watch industry when Japanese quartz timepieces almost entirely replaced mechanical watches in the 1970s and '80s.

Added to the challenges of a slowing Chinese market, complacency is the last thing these luxury watchmakers have time for.