The Rise & Fall Of The ‘Golden Revival’ Period In Modern Luxury Watchmaking

The Rise & Fall Of The

I’ve come to conclude that the watch industry is currently wrapping up an era that we are now seeing the tail-end of. This period began in the early 1990s and saw a high-point in roughly 2012. For reasons I’ll explain below, I’ve tentatively given this era the name of “Golden Revival” because of the prolific and luxurious nature of many of the products, as well as the fact that it was typified by reviving old ideas in new and freshly consumable forms as new products for today’s consumers and collectors.

The modern Golden Revival kicked off just as the luxury watch industry was recollecting itself as an assortment of big groups and bright ideas as opposed to a legion of once-strong individual brands. The most significant event that led to this era forming was the quartz crisis, which was its strongest in the 1980s. A discussion of the quartz crisis (or “quartz revolution” depending on your perspective) is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it say that the quartz crisis saw the decline of mechanical wristwatches.

The Rise & Fall Of The

By the late 1960s quartz clock technology had been faithfully miniaturized to wristwatch form – offering a level of accuracy (and reliability due to infrequent battery changes) theretofore unknown in mechanical watches. Quartz-based wristwatches began as expensive exotic products, unaffordable to most consumers seeking practicality. The quartz revolution occurred when quartz regulator-based integrated circuit chips could be cheaply printed in Asia, which soon dramatically reduced the cost of quartz timepieces. By the early 1980s quartz watches split into both digital and analog products, for the most part entirely replacing the role mechanical watches had on the wrists of most timepiece-wearing consumers.

The Rise & Fall Of The

The Rise & Fall Of The

The 1980s was also a time when the average consumer still required a watch to know what time it was – and being precise with the time was seen as increasingly important and computers and other digital instruments invaded our lives more and more. Thus, in the 1980s the fun and effective (not to mention comparatively inexpensive) quartz watch dominated the wristwatch landscape. Only a few brands continued to produce mechanical watches during this era, mostly relying on wealthy customers accustomed to wearing mechanical timepieces. Thus, the mechanical watch was quickly and almost entirely cast as a luxury lifestyle product explaining one’s ability to emphasize style and story over practicality and efficiency on their wrist.

Most mechanical watches produced in the 1980s were continuations of earlier models often from the 1970s – which was the case with companies like Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and Patek Philippe. These brands each invested in products with quartz movements as well as products with mechanical movements. Rolex did not stop selling its Oysterquartz watches until the early 2000s. In the 1990s things started to change.

The Rise & Fall Of The

The Rise & Fall Of The

One of the most important changes in the 1990s (and it continued into the early 2000s) was the gobbling up of traditional watch brands by large groups, which included the Swatch Group, LVMH, and the Richemont Group (formerly Vendome Group). Watch brands require lots of resources to operate because of the cost of both manufacturing and development – and in weakened or non-existence states in the 1990s, most of them could not afford to do business. Part of this was because the network of suppliers, who for decades supported the watch industry, were becoming less common, more expensive, and increasingly owned themselves by large corporate groups. These groups had high hopes for many traditional watchmakers whom they hoped would deliver sales and profit growth. Part of this excitement was due to the relatively high margins received by watch retailers per sale, which excited institutional investors.

Something else was happening in the 1990s from the perspective of the consumer. The once dominant quartz watch was slowly falling victim to information redundancy. By the mid-1990s many consumers started owning mobile phones and in general, devices to indicate the time became increasingly ubiquitous. The same tendency for efficiency and practicality, which led to consumers wearing quartz watches in the first place, was now causing them to remove their watches because they had a multitude of other means of knowing the time.

The Rise & Fall Of The

The Rise & Fall Of The

The displacement of quartz watches, or just watches in general led to an interesting phenomenon, and that is “empty wrists.” Consumers first replaced mechanical watches with electronic watches and now replaced the practice of wearing a watch altogether with other hand-held time-telling technology. This led to a void on the wrist and what I call “newly available wrist real estate.” It is true that the vast majority of consumers out of not being able to afford luxury watches never returned to the practice of wearing a timepiece. Luxury and style seekers as well as collectors however, found high-end watches desirable for their emotional (non-practical) value and didn’t have anything else on their wrists, which fought for viability with an otherwise impractical luxury timepiece item.

The Rise & Fall Of The

The seductive power of high-end watches is a phenomenon any timepiece enthusiast can attest to. While most people who wear a timepiece end up using it to reference the time, time-telling utility is rarely, if ever, the sole motivating factor behind a purchase. In short, watch lovers wear them because of what they see and how wearing the watches makes them feel. The utility is only important in terms of how it helps complete or enhance the “story” of the watch.

It was thus in the 1990s when luxury seekers returned to timepieces en masse because their wrists were missing something more practical to wear. Luxury watch brands were keen to make this process easy by engaging in newly ambitious international marketing campaigns and the design of new and often contemporary products that merged modern aesthetic tastes with the experience of wearing a solidly-made mechanical timepiece.

The Rise & Fall Of The

The Rise & Fall Of The

The promise of selling large volumes of luxury watches to men and women all over the world prompted the watch industry to invest heavily in the creation of new factories and new types of manufacturing technologies. The rate of growth for an industry no longer producing a product that the market needed (as opposed to wanted) was staggering. Historical production and decoration techniques needed to be relearned, and many traditional watchmaking mechanism concepts were revived for the modern age.

The Golden Revival era was golden because of the sheer optimism, level of investment, and prolific volume of original designs. It was a revival because many dormant or antique ideas were brought back to life and an industry that just a few years earlier was acknowledging its demise was suddenly growing again. One of the most important elements of the Golden Revival (and possibly the first sign of its eventual downfall when they left) was the presence of creative people. This is nowhere better articulated than in observing the rise of the independent luxury watchmaker. Watchmakers turned artists (or vice versa) were able to inject the unique aesthetic and technical vision in high-priced, low-volume watches being purchased for a new era of watch collector, who in many instances was new to having wealth.

The Rise & Fall Of The

Globalization efforts starting in the 1990s, including free trade and international industrial or commercial investments, combined with investments into developing nations resulted in large volumes of “new money” laden families. One after another the luxury watch industry chased new money in Brazil, Russia, India, and China (among many other smaller regions). The watch industry was fortunate to benefit both from newly high levels of institutional investment as well as a world currently experiencing growth in a number of areas with economic bubbles being relatively common in one region of the world or another.

A major downfall of the Golden Revival’s economic outlook was how monetary decisions and expectations were formed. When large corporate groups purchased smaller and often modestly-operated watchmakers, they instituted economic expectations that demanded predictable growth. Managers were expected to sell increasingly large volumes of luxury products using untested growth models not designed to apply to a watchmaker in an era when the lay consumer did not want to buy a watch.

The Rise & Fall Of The

When faced with the problem of not being able to meet forecast expectations or produce models based on real data, many managers simply guessed and produced forecast expectations not based on market data (because there was none). This is one example of how the needs and expectations of large corporate owners often do not meet the needs and expectations of boutique, low-production traditional watchmakers. The resulting economic “sin” was to market a product with the promise that it was exclusive, and then producing far too many units for most of them to actually fit a consumer’s definition of exclusive. One result of producing more watches than the market could sustain was the creation of the epic gray market for discounted watches that were not sold via primary authorized dealers. For consumers, the broad availability of discounted luxury watches further eroded at the sanctity of retail price and brand value.

The Rise & Fall Of The

The Rise & Fall Of The

In about 2014-2015 I started to notice a massive reduction in the volume of new and ambitious timepieces produced by both the big names as well as boutique independent brand operations. Some brands altogether stopped producing some of their more expensive products to produce or develop items, and other brands realigned to doing just the opposite, which is to produce a smaller number of higher-cost goods in order to be happier selling fewer products to their network of existing clients.

It was also around this time that I started to notice the relative lack of creative talent in the watch industry. A further investigation found that in many instances, creative people leaving their positions were not being replaced, and that creative people of all types from designers to creative directors were increasingly uncommon at watch brands. For a fashion label to not have a creative director is almost unthinkable, but ironically at even some of the biggest watch brands a lack of creative force was not uncommon.

The Rise & Fall Of The

Brands without new creative effort have only their existing products and history to work off of. People familiar with the last several years of new watches will immediately recognize that many watch brands have spent more time re-releasing existing products in modified forms and putting far less effort and resources into new products. This happened first out of a lack of resources, but more specifically because the more established watch industry over the last few years has been hostile to or entirely uninteresting to creative people. The migration of creative professionals away from the watch industry was just one sign of resource consolidation and operational shrinking (downsizing).

During the height of the Golden Revival it was not uncommon for us to be presented with a massively complicated, and massively ambitious watch that didn’t seem to have a market or particular consumer it mind. It was just one creative person’s wild idea and the notion was that there was a market for it. It turns out that there was a market for it but not at the inflated prices and too-much-for-the-market-to-bear inventory levels. Even if one particular watch was produced in low enough volumes to protect exclusivity, too many other competitor watches existed without enough consumers to purchase them all.

The Rise & Fall Of The

The Rise & Fall Of The

The Golden Revival era was defined by exuberant spending, exuberant expectations, and exuberant design sensibility. It produced massive volumes of products priced and styled in all sorts of ways – but with most prices starting in the several thousand dollar range. As a collector I recollect with fondness dozens of products I’d like to still own and I think this era of watches is ripe for collector attention. Especially as the “vintage” watch fad winds down as available affordable inventory is dwindling and consumer attention for the products is waning.

Golden Revival era watches range from the modestly-sized and practical of the late 1990s, to the big and bold of the early 2000s. Some of history’s most complicated watches with the most ambitious designs resulted from this era, and many unique marketing and aesthetic experiments were attempted. The point of this article was to introduce for discussion and subdivision the roughly 20-year period from the 1990s to the 2010s. It isn’t that interesting watchmaking stopped after the era-ended, but today’s watchmaking has us in a newly conservative and cautious era where the watch industry is currently in a crunch versus an expansion.

The Rise & Fall Of The

The Rise & Fall Of The

In many ways the luxury watch industry is beholden to the global economy. When there is economic growth and bubbles, the watch industry is keen to invest in products and marketing. When growth outlooks are less exciting, the industry’s industrial capacity naturally shrinks and talent often departs. Today’s luxury watch brands are for the most part all in a transitional period in an attempt to discover sustainable business practices that will carry them forward. This transitional period with its bumps and instability will naturally preclude high volumes of risk taking and thus creativity.

While I can only guess what will come next for the luxury watch industry, I can safely say the we are seeing the end of an era, one of golden expectation and an unprecedented revival in traditional concepts for new audiences and enthusiasts.

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