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Watching the watch people

A time-traveler, visiting from 1970s Britain, would be surprised by pretty much everything on the modern high street. While prestige brands such as Rolls Royce and Berry Bros. & Rudd have formed part of a much older landscape, the discriminating buyer of the Wilson and Heath eras would be astounded by the topsy-like growth of the modern luxury market. No longer the preserve of a privileged elite, myriad luxury brands now reach out to everyone. Specialist glossy magazines abound, for every interest, from hi-tech snowboards to waterproof smartphones — and the iPhone, in its regular updates, feeds a mass market appetite for the desirable luxury good. Apple has also spent years developing a related personal accessory — the iWatch — but for one group of discerning luxury buyers, this has proved to be a potentially disturbing phenomenon.

The market for luxury (or “high-end”) watches, in a world that naturally goes by a French title — haute horlogerie — has never been stronger. That market’s history has unfolded remarkably differently for participants in different countries. For the most tech-savvy punters — with funds enough for an iPhone — the rhetorical question posed of a fine Patek Philippe watch might be “why would I want such a single-function device?” Yet modern high-end brands can sell their entire output, and are coveted by collectors who own many valuable watches, yet perhaps leave them unworn, locked away safely, housed in boxes with motorized compartments that will keep the rotors of the automatic models turning and the lubrication properly distributed. The cult of the prestige watch has never been stronger, and one of its English bibles is QP, a magazine added by The Telegraph to its stable of luxury publications in 2013. And if there are bibles, so there is a temple, in that the Saatchi Gallery plays host each year to SalonQP, the showcase for haute horlogerie.

The phenomenon of the modern watch collector reflects the triumphant survival, rebirth, and stunning success of the Swiss watchmaking industry in particular, and is often credited to the intervention of one man — Nicolas Hayek — who rescued many heavily over-indebted brands from oblivion in the 1980s, and thereby saved a group of Swiss bankers’ bacon. The emergence of the popular Swatch at the popular end of the market underpinned the capacity of the high-end to recover its equilibrium and to forge forwards.

Swatch
Swatch by Motor-Head. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

No such luck for the British market of the same period. Our time-traveler would recall the 1970s witnessing the last gasp of a small British watchmaking industry, born just twenty-five years earlier, in the wake of the Second World War. Preparation in the 1930s had seen firms such as S. Smith & Sons of Cricklewood forge alliances with Jaeger and LeCoultre, and these were vital at the outbreak of war, in securing deliveries from Switzerland of tools, complete watches, and a huge range of parts, including millions of tiny synthetic jewels, needed in every fine instrument across the cockpit of the Spitfire and Hurricane.

As such supplies continued throughout the war, generally through diplomatic smuggling, the realization crystallized that Britain required a larger capacity in light and fine engineering, leading to ambitious plans for the development of a post-war watch manufacturing capacity. With the backing of Stafford Cripps and Hugh Dalton, Attlee’s post-war Labour administration did indeed back the creation of a new industry, centred around Smiths, with factories in development areas of Wales and Scotland, offering much needed employment and generating vital foreign exchange.

But technology, as well as political backdrops and personalities, moved on. The demand for guided missile technology waxed as the need for mechanical fuzes for weapons waned. The watchmakers recalled Cripps committing to their support in the Commons, and believed a covenant had been established between government and the horological industry, in which tariffs and quantitative restrictions on foreign imports would remain in place and at effective levels, ad infinitum. They were wrong.

The affirmation of free-trade doctrine under the Conservative government of the 1950s saw the dismantling of the protectionism that had characterized the post-war Labour government. A long and painful demise of the newborn British watchmaking industry resulted. When Heath replaced Wilson, Smiths was already winding down its watch businesses, returning briefly to the historic practice of importing Swiss mechanisms, and simply adding its name to the dial.

spitfire
Spitfire by johntrathome. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Remarkably, however, a dream of establishing high-end watchmaking in the UK was nevertheless kept alive, not by industry, and not supported by government subsidy, tariffs, and restrictions. The principal guardian of the flame was the determined and eccentric genius George Daniels (1926–2011), now considered one of the finest watchmakers ever. His methods involved a significant element of handcraft and he made nearly every part of his limited series of watches, which have risen colossally in value since his death. His successor and acolyte, Roger Smith, has in turn found huge support from a continuing market that demands the finest and most exclusive hand-crafted products. Another arrival in this rarefied atmosphere, Frodshams — a distinguished British clockmaking name of old — expect to produce watches in the coming years that will out-Daniels Daniels.

Thus the determined British private sector appears to have forged a new and successful small corner of a wider market, and the memory of the UK’s brief-dalliance with a state-supported and subsidized watch industry will gradually fade away in the slipstream. Corporate survival requires anticipation, commitment, investment, risk-taking, and many other qualities. Smiths risked and lost much in its involvement in watches (despite success in other industries), and the temptation is to imagine the Swiss watch industry revival merely preserved the natural order. In truth, the degree of sponsorship and backing for that industry in the last sixty years has been colossal.

If the British government’s support for an upstart post-war infant industry failed in short order, owing to overwhelming foreign competition, it will be interesting to see if the Swiss state and its horological industry, after the scare of the 1980s, have this time looked far enough forward, to support any repositioning necessary. Can the luxury ‘single-function device’ continue to thrive? We live in interesting times.

Headline image credit: 1970 by Noodlefish. CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Bill W

    The late David Landes’s book, A Revolution in Time, chronicles the hsitory of the watch-making industry from the late middle ages to the 1980s.

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