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Perhaps the most astonishing phenomenon one can observe in the 30 years since Watches & Jewellery started regular publication has been the arrival of the luxury goods conglomerate. The chart below illustrates this: in 1986, the only company to have more than two prestige watch brands was SMH, itself then a recent formation from two companies. Most were held by the founding families or other private individuals, and two were based in East Germany, which nationalised them in the 1940s.
Now, four conglomerates dominate, holding 25 of those original brands: Kering, LVMH, Richemont and the Swatch Group. Some came into their possession through crisis, others through canny business, and they sit there among champagne houses, fashion maisons and, of course, jewellers.
In 1986, the report was called Clocks and Watches, and the former had as much space as the latter. Alastair Guild, seemingly author of the whole report, was bemused by the rise of the watch: “Watches have become just as much a means of expressing lifestyle and personality as the car you drive or the clothes you wear.” Some watch-owners even have more than one, he confided with astonishment.
One story, headlined “Life of a visiting clockmaker”, met John Redfern, a maker and restorer who used “modern techniques to improve on designs from the past”. Mr Redfern was unhappy that much of the clockmaker’s art might be lost: “There is no proper horological training available. The recent upsurge in interest and the value of antique clocks and watches has created a demand for craftsmen who do not exist. This demand is seemingly satisfied by a spate of probably well-meaning but poorly trained and totally inexperienced and incompetent hands, doing more damage than good.”
Even in 1996, clocks were still hanging on: the report then was called World Watch and Clock Industry. That year, 435m clocks were made, according to the Japan Clock & Watch Association, against almost 1.1bn watches. The headlines offered familiar stories: “Swiss firms defend brand”; “Status drives demand”. As the graph below shows, appetite for Swiss watches was edging lower then.
By 2006, jewellery had made it into the report’s title and there was not a clock to be seen, although Simon de Burton, one of our longstanding contributors, offered a piece on pocketwatches old and new.
All is not now lost for clocks, however. When the FT spoke to Mr Redfern last month, his spirits were much cheerier: “Restoration and repair are thriving. There are plenty of people around doing it . . . There is no replacement for experience but apart from that the situation is better.” Perhaps we are even due a clock revival.
Mr Redfern now combines his ancient techniques with the most modern technology and horological know-how: he makes animations of the inner workings of expensive watches.
Watches less than a century old had started to come to auction. Buyers would now consider their prices bargains: “Auction room interest in watches is not confined to antiques. Over the past four years Mr Turner has noted a continued growth in the collection of wrist watches for everyday wear made between 1920 and 1940. Rolex, Cartier and Patek Philippe watches from that period will usually fetch between £1,000 and £5,000.”
£1.9m is what the Henry Graves Jr 18-carat yellow gold tonneau minute repeating wristwatch by Patek Philippe sold for in June 2012. Its movement was made in 1895, its encasement in 1927.
Swiss watch exports were looking healthy 20 years ago; they have now levelled off in units sold if not in value: “According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, the value of Swiss watch exports in 1995 amounted to SFr7.67bn ($6.3bn). This figure — 8 per cent of the total made watches Switzerland’s third biggest export.”
The world was making fewer watches then: “Certainly, time is today of such importance to our lives that most who can afford to possess a wristwatch do so — 1,100m were sold last year around the world — and many people have more than one.”