Coronavirus Watch 3: Swiss Watch Survivors

Coronavirus watch watch

Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Hublot – Switzerland’s horological heavy hitters have ceased production. The reason given: they don’t want to put their workers at risk. Be that as it may, there’s no point making a Swiss watch. The world market has gone from freefall into hibernation. When it ends, which Swiss brands will survive? . . .

Oliver R Muller (courtesy thenakedwatchmaker.com)

Over at watchesbysjx.com, columnist and consultant Oliver R. Müller (above) analyzes Swiss watch sales data from 2019. Mr. Müller identifies winners and losers before Coronageddon. Let’s start with the clear survivors:

The top four private companies – Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille – had combined sales of CHF8.7 billion, which translates into a combined market share of 35%. Furthermore, these champions achieved their best-ever results in terms of sales and profitability in 2019.

$31m Patek Philippe - the quintessential Swiss watch? (courtesy Christie's)

These brands will be both viable and profitable after the coronavirus releases its stranglehold on the world economy. Remembering that privately-held companies don’t face stockholder pressures to perform. They can take the long view, and leverage past performance for life-sustaining loans, should it come to that.

H. Moser & Cie Pioneer Perpetual Calendar MD

High end Swiss watch brands nestling under the corporate wings of LVMH, Richemont, SWATCH Group and Kering should also be O.K. – thanks to their innate appeal and the 30 to 50 percent markup on their Swiss watch.

So don’t spend any sleepless nights worrying if high horology will outlast Coronageddon. Well-known high end brands like Jaeger leCoultre, Panerai, Cartier or Vacheron Constantin will be fine. Same goes for Blancpain, Breguet and high-end horologists like H. Moser & Cie.

Watches of Switzerland Rolex sales boutique - who's gonna buy a Swiss watch now?

Mr. Muller:

The Swiss are still masters of the game at the high-end, with Swiss watches accounted for an estimated 53% of the worldwide watch market by value, but only 2% by volume – meaning the average value of a Swiss watch is far, far higher than watches produced elsewhere.

But even within the Swiss watch industry the mix is changing in favour of the high-end; the industry sold 3m fewer watches in 2019. 

Long story short, Swiss watch brands competing at the low (sub-$500) to middle (sub-$1000) of the market were doomed before Coronageddon. The Smart Watch Crisis was already eating their breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Apple Watch alone outsold the entire Swiss watch industry combined, both in terms of total units sold and gross revenue.

Coronavirus watch - Tissot

When the market wakes up from its long slumber, Apple will be right there; updated, affordable and insanely capable. The Apple Watch was, is and will be an existential threat to Swiss-made watches operating at the wrist-borne computer’s price point. Brands like Tissot, Victorinox, Luminox, Longines and Hamilton are all in mortal peril. And the mega-brand that saved the Swiss watch industry: SWATCH. (As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.)

Korman Fine Jewelers Austin, TX

Entry level luxury brands like OMEGA, Oris, TAG Heuer and Breitling selling at $3k and up are relatively safe from the coronavirus cash crunch crisis and Applecide – at least in the short term. In the long term . . .

Execs in this arena like to believe that Apple Watch wearers will [eventually] develop a love for horology that [eventually] leads them to their mid-priced quality timepieces. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. And if they do, chances are they’ll have one or two watches for going out. They might not catch the bug (so to speak).

Yema Navygraf

Meanwhile, micro-brands are stealing their thunder. And sales. Why buy a garden variety Tissot when you can buy something “special” for the same price? A question that’s particularly attractive for Internet-enabled regular watch buyers at the sub-$1k price point.

That said, there will be a Coronavirus culling amongst the micro-brands. Thanks to the low cost of entry, the market was micro-brand saturated before Coronageddon. Very few of these small-time operators are sitting on a big enough cash pile to weather the drought – especially as the majority depend on cheap Chinese parts and labor to produce product.

The main trends were in play before the coronavirus called intermission. They’ll be in play when the show resumes. But the coronavirus cash crunch weakens the weak – disrupting new product cadance, destroying supply lines (especially to China), threatening quality control, reducing marketing money and clogging the sales channel.

For low-end and some mid-priced Swiss watches, Coronageddon will simply accelerate their decline and, in many cases, disappearance.

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