vol 9, issue 12

Mechanical watches: timeless timepieces

15 December 2014
By Nick Smith
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Omega de Ville Central Tourbillon

2014 has seen an upsurge in the popularity of the mechanical ‘skeleton’ watch, where moving parts can be seen

Exploded view of the Omega Co-Axial 9300 mechanical watch movement

This Omega is a chronograph with a silicon balance spring, two barrels, column wheel and vertical clutch

Breitling Chronomat 44 GMT

Breitling is one of the top three mechanical watch brands in Switzerland

Rolex Oyster Datejust

All of Rolex’s Oyster Perpetual watches are chronometer-certified

Ubiquitous near-perfect digital timekeeping on our personal electronic devices should mean the last nail in the coffin of the mechanical watch. But, in the mid-to-lux sectors of the market, sales are healthier than ever. There are good reasons why your precision-engineered analogue timepiece is here to stay.

Eighty-six thousand and four hundred. That's the magic number: the sum total of seconds in a day. If you have a reasonable mechanical watch on your wrist, you will be accurate to within plus or minus ten seconds. If you have a COSC certified chronometer watch in the category of 'excellent', you will be within one second. There or thereabouts.

COSC stands for Controle Officiel Suisse des Chronometres, the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute responsible for assessing the accuracy and precision of watches made in Switzerland.

To own a watch that gets into the COSC top tier of accreditation you will need to part with several thousands of pounds. And yet you can tell the time with a higher certainty of accuracy by looking at your smartphone. Provided you sync your phone to an Internet-connected computer on a regular basis, it's likely that what's little more than a free app cluttering up the screen will bring you within a few tens of nanoseconds. Telling the time has never been easier or cheaper.

Ubiquitous digital timekeeping

There are currently 1.5 billion smartphones in the world, which means that there is no lack of opportunity for us to tell the time whilst on the move. Add to that the ubiquity of digital timekeeping on our car dashboards, laptops, tablets and other personal electronic devices, and we're left with the resonating conclusion that, in theory at least, the humble old-fashioned wristwatch – especially the mechanical variety – should be joining the typewriter, valve audio amplifier and film camera in the dustbins of history. But as with all these retro analogue devices, there is a steadfast refusal to lie down and die that seems to have nothing to do with logic. As American sci-fi novelist William Gibson puts it: "Mechanical watches are so brilliantly unnecessary," further describing them as "fossils" from the pre-digital age.

While analogue loyalism is such that there will always be a 'nostalgia' market for 35mm photographic film and vinyl records, something else is going on in the mechanical watch sector. Despite having the digital technology to make our world cheaper and more accurate, we want it more expensive and we're quite happy to come to terms with our deviation of one second in 80-odd thousand, thank you very much. This represents a paltry 99.998 per cent accuracy – nowhere near the capability of our free smartphone app – and we're happy to pay richly for it.

The psychology is easy. For people with high disposable income, hugely recognisable international brands such as Breitling, Omega and Rolex offer ready-to-wear luxury goods that can be picked up in airport shopping malls. The brands tend to be Swiss, and the word 'Swiss' is often taken to imply high-precision mid-to-lux mechanical. But it is not always the case. The aptly named Nick English is CEO of Bremont, the UK's largest mechanical watch-maker. For him, the reason men splash out on expensive mechanical watches "is a no-brainer. Men don't wear expensive jewellery in the same way women do and you can't take your car with you into a restaurant. If you want to display wealth, status, taste – all these socio-economic markers – the way to do it is with your watch".

For English, who has a background in aviation and engineering, one of the real differentiating factors in this display of tribal status is that your watch be mechanical. Brand is important, but mechanical technology is critical. The mechanical watch is to its electronic equivalent what freshly ground coffee is to instant, what champagne is to cava, what Bentley is to Skoda.

A year ago the eyes of the market analysts were on the smartwatch sector, and while commentators were predicting steep growth, the mechanical sector put up a convincing show of being largely unconcerned. The main reason for this indifference was that despite watches in general being perceived as instruments with which to tell the time, there were fundamental differences between the sectors: smartwatches were very much an emerging phase in the wearable electronics sector, and the mechanical sector was mature and seemingly immune to digital fashions.

Stephen Urquhart, CEO of Omega, part of the Swatch Group empire that controls 18.3 per cent of the world watch market, says "you don't pay thousands of pounds for a mechanical watch because you want to tell the time".

Meanwhile Dialog Semiconductors CEO Jalal Bagherli thinks that wearables "will be a big thing" but for the moment are "very bad. First generation products fall far short of user expectations today".

Whatever development may or may not occur in the world of smartwatches, when it comes to the mechanical watch sector, these are effectively 'non-overlapping magisteria' and as such pose no threat.

Facts and figures

Definitive marketing data about the mechanical watch industry are notoriously difficult to pin down. According to watch journal 'W', "reliable figures are hard to come by, and are never provided directly by watchmaking brands themselves". Most of the hard data we have about the watch industry comes from private research institutes and that data tends to be neither cheap nor comprehensive. You can source screeds of statistics about emerging export markets such as China, but when it comes to finding out who does what and to what degree, things can get confusing.

However, an overall picture can be gleaned with some statistical forensics by scouring data from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (Convention Patronale de l'Industrie Horlogere Suisse), Bank Vontobel and COSC. Given that we often perceive ourselves to be living in a digital golden age, some of the facts and figures seem to be counter-intuitive, to say the least.

The size of the watch market is the initial bone of contention. But in terms of global production of units (mechanical or electronic) that actually go on our wrists to provide the time, there is a broad consensus that about 1,200,000,000 watches are made per year. Mechanical watches made in Switzerland have a 2.5 per cent market share in term of units produced and yet retain a whopping 54 per cent market share by value. The reason for this is that the average price of a watch manufactured in China (which produced 663 million watches in 2012) is US$3, while Swiss watches in 2012 cost on average $793.

The condition of the Swiss mechanical watch market has never been better, with annual exports in the sector increasing by record margins in the years 2011 and 2012, and predictions that, when the figures are in, the following years will still post significant expansion (even if the rate of increase will be seen to be slowing) of an estimated 10 per cent. In the decade 2002-2012, exports doubled from 10,561 million Swiss francs to CHF21,400m. The main export market is Hong Kong, which consumes 20.4 per cent of the Swiss watches, double that of the next largest customer the United States (10.2 per cent), which is then followed by China (7.7 per cent), France (6.2 per cent) and Germany (5.6 per cent).

What's interesting about the last figure is that it represents year-on-year growth of a third. In Switzerland, there has never been higher employment in the watchmaking sector, whilst the use of precious metals – gold in particular – as a basic material for watchmaking is increasing at twice the rate of steel.

If any doubt remains as to the significance of the Swiss watch industry, a report from the brand consultancy firm Interbrand shows that in 2013 there were 16 watchmakers in the country's top 50 most valuable brands. Rolex came in fifth after Nescafe (coffee), Roche (healthcare), Novartis (healthcare) and Nestle (health and nutrition), with Omega tenth. Interbrand concludes: "Thanks to its unique reputation, the Swiss watchmaking industry is ideally positioned to benefit from the growing global demand for luxury products."

In terms of the watchmaking empires, Swiss giants Swatch Group, Richemont and Rolex account for nearly half (45.8 per cent) of the entire global watch market by value which is an eye-opener, especially when taking into account that the three largest Japanese watchmakers – Citizen, Seiko and Casio – take less market share between them (9.4 per cent) than Rolex alone (11.8 per cent). There may be a lot of watches manufactured in the Far East in circulation, but they're not mechanical and critically they don't have much of an impact on the purchasing behaviour of those in the market for a decent mechanical timepiece.

Power and the glory

Mechanical watches ultimately derive their appeal from the fact that they are precision-crafted machines, engineered to keep time as accurately as unpowered human endeavour will allow. Chronometer-certified watches are the most accurate mechanical instruments that humankind has ever produced and, as Nick English of Bremont suggests: "A great deal of the satisfaction comes from the fact that the time is marked so accurately and successfully without resorting to the batteries and chips that power pretty much everything in our daily lives these days."

It appears that the sector – despite having no evolutionary imperative for remaining in existence – survives, flourishes and grows precisely because there is no real need for it. The fossilised concepts of analogue and mechanical time-keeping and fine craftsmanship continue to appeal to consumers and stretch designers because they seem to say something about who we are. And although manufacturers continually aim for the highest possible accuracy, the truth is that wristwatches in this sector hardly exist to perform the function of a precision instrument.

Omega's Stephen Urquhart wears one of his company's products on each of his wrists, meaning, to put it in its most vulgar terms, he's wearing maybe as much as £100k's worth of extremely elegant bling on him at any one time.

He assures me that he's not wearing a second because he thinks the first will break down. But when pushed to reveal why he is wearing a watch at all, he takes us a level deeper into the fundamental contradiction that is woven through the thread of the mechanical watch sector. "I really don't know," he says with a smile that suggests that he probably does.

"If I knew the answer as to why we wear luxury watches and why we continue to buy them and collect them in such volume, then for me the magic would be gone. It is a mystery. There is no reason I can think of that says we need to wear a watch today."

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The modern precision wristwatch is 100 years old in 2014

Certificate number 492282, issued by the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex, dated 15 July 1914, was awarded in favour of a wristwatch by Swiss horologist Rolex for 'superior merit.' It stated that the accreditation marks were awarded to watches "whose performance is of a higher order than would have just sufficed to gain a Class A certificate." It was the first time such a certificate had been awarded to a wristwatch.

Until this point, Class A certificates had only been issued in connection with large marine chronometers. (A chronometer is defined by the Swiss assessment body COSC as: "A high-precision watch capable of displaying the seconds and housing a movement that has been tested over several days, in different positions and at different temperatures, by an official neutral body.") The award of the certificate was to become an important milestone on the timeline of the development of modern wristwatches.

At the time, it was thought that the unpopular wristwatch was incapable of achieving such accuracy, the main objection being that the miniaturisation required to make a watch 'wearable' on the wrist meant that the mechanism wouldn't be able to compete with the accuracy of movements in the larger chronometers.

Rolex had good reason to believe that the wristwatch had a contribution to make, as it already had certification success back at home in 1910 from the official watch rating centre in Bienne. But in 1914 the company passed with flying colours: after 45 days of tests it emerged triumphant with a result of on average a gain of only one second per day – enough to put it up there with marine chronometers that were being used by the Royal Navy for navigation.

These devices had been invented by 18th-century British clockmaker John Harrison to help mariners calculate longitude at sea. His clocks proved far more accurate for finding a ship's position than the previous dead reckoning method.

With its timepiece now officially as accurate as Harrison's chronometers, Rolex had broken down the main objection to the wristwatch, largely thanks to the vision of Hans Wilsdorf, the German watchmaker behind what is now one of the more recognisable brands in the luxury goods market. Rolex would eventually become the world's largest maker of chronometer-certified watches, noted especially for its Oyster Perpetual model, all units of which are certified.

The year 1914 has an additional special significance in the history of the wristwatch, as it was during the First World War, which began in that year, that designers first started to realise the impracticality of soldiers in trench combat carrying pocket watches, leading to the industrial-scale development of the wristwatch and ensuring their enduring popularity.

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