Sunday, 27 January 2008

A brief history of watchmaking - The aristocrat

At the aristocratic level, it is still the artists who keep their heads well above the watermark with certainty. Patek Philippe claims to be the only company that will decorate a watch to the customer's choice, and their work is do delicate that the artist may even use a human hair to touch in the finer details. Inside such a watch, there may be up to 800 handmade pieces.

It is comforting to think that such a craft survives mass production, and that there are still chalet-type buildings in the snow, like Blancpain's, where only eight watches a day, individually numbered, leave the workshop for just 150 jewellers' shops around the world. It is also nice to pick up a cheap watch to tide one over when the other one is left accidentally at home. There is, after all, room in the marketplace for all varieties.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

A brief history of watchmaking - The birth of Swatch

Swiss manufacturers were thought to be dangerously ignoring the middle and low end of the markets while stressing the quality end. Something had to be done, and someone was already working on the problem in the suave shape of Dr Ernst Thomke. He'd worked as an apprentice to watch components firm ETA in Grenchen, an area well known for precision timepieces. He then read physics and chemistry, switched to medicine, researched clinical tumours and became a marketing manager for Beechams before becoming managing director of their Swiss subsidiary. As their company was going to the wall because the problems with the watchmaking industry meant dwindling needs for components, ETA invited him to join them again.

Thomke decided the only way out was to produce the world's thinnest quartz analogue (with hands) watch. He code named the research "delirium" and his engineers soon retitled it "delirium tremens". But they succeeded. In 1979, it was launched and 5,000 were sold at US$4,700 each.

Thomke then decided to create a watch that cut out as many components as possible and could be largely machine-made. He linked up with two engineers who finally created a system whereby 50 percent less components than the usual 90 could be used and most could be bonded on to the casing itself in mass production. In test-wearing the watch, they found an oddity. It was noisy and, they said, it tocked instead of ticked. Thomke went to outside designers of international repute in other fields for the visual impact he sought, and to US advertisers for a name that would say everything and bridge languages. It looked good and sounded better... S for Swiss, watch for its function.

The Swatch was brilliantly marketed, sensibly priced at around US$14, and sold 3.5 million in a year in the US alone. While the Swatch needs no internal changes, the 24 watches for gents and ladies have their designs changed twice a year to keep up with fashion trends.

Some traditional Swiss manufacturers were wary of the advent of Swatch, seeing it as downgrading their reputation. Others saw it as a lifesaver.

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