Listen up. The watch industry is about to change–totally, radically and irreversibly. Because the men leading it now are no longer going to be shackled by the confining mentality of their past. Instead they are going to capitalize on the tools, language and mediums of today to connect the values of Swiss watchmaking to the audience of tomorrow. And it couldn’t come at a better time.

It’s no secret that Richemont Group in particular has been badly hit in the past couple of years due to over investment in the Asian market. It encouraged competition between its various watch brands, which resulted in the development of an in-house movement strategy for each and every brand, in many cases severely increasing the cost of watches until they were priced out of the market. The group also incorrectly believed that consumers wanted mechanical complications when the reality is that the vast majority is far more interested in the lifestyle expressed by a watch.

But worst of all, the group allowed its brands to create passionless, unexciting and largely irrelevant products. According to a highly placed Richemont insider: “You have 60-year-old guys in boardrooms making watches for other 60-year-old guys in boardrooms.” They couldn’t have gotten it more wrong, and that’s why brands that chose to imbed themselves in contemporary culture – brands like Audemars Piguet, Tudor, TAG Heuer, Richard Mille, Hublot, Rolex and even Patek Philippe – found themselves becoming more relevant than ever while many of Richemont’s brands began to feel more and more anachronistic. Says the same insider: “It’s like trying to convince the generation that loves Drake or The Weeknd that the harpsichord is cool.”

The tools of today

According to Georges Kern, outgoing CEO of IWC and new Richemont Group Head of Watchmaking, Marketing and Digital: “The watch industry didn’t understand that you don’t lose your values when you use the tools of today to communicate with the audience of today. Instead you connect those values with the next generation. But you have to do it using the film, music, sports and culture they relate to.”

Kern’s last major move at IWC and clearly his first one at the helm of Richemont is a brilliant one – to feature his brands on the most visible and dynamic commercial stage: e-commerce. For years Richemont and its brands have resisted selling watches online despite having purchased Net-A-Porter (and Mr Porter) back in 2011. The fear was that e-commerce would cannibalize existing brick-and-mortar retail, but in the words of David Lauren, who introduced e-commerce to his father Ralph Lauren’s company back in 2000: “We got a lot of resistance from retailers believing we would take sales away from them. But once we launched the site, the opposite happened. Their sales increased because there was greater visibility and awareness for our brand.”

Kern concurs: “Since IWC has been part of Mr Porter and Net-A-Porter, the results have been great. We’ve seen that when you integrate the watch into a fashion narrative, suddenly you reach a much greater audience. We’ve seen this with our men’s watches and even more with our women’s watches. Incidentally our e-commerce customer is a full price customer and this may point the way to settling the issue of discounting at brick-and-mortar stores.”

How long before the loftiest of the Richemont brands like Cartier make the great leap forward? According to CEO Cyrille Vigneron: “We are already talking to the most entrenched player (read: Net-a-Porter).” While Vacheron Constantin’s incoming CEO Louis Ferla discloses: “As long as the environment protects the elevated positioning of our brand we would be open to discussions.” And Christoph Grainger-Herr, the new IWC CEO, explains: “The key thing is that an e-commerce platform must connect us to an audience we don’t already have. It has to bring something to the table and expand the conversation.”

The move into e-commerce for Richemont is a brilliant one and thanks to its familial relationship with Net-A-Porter (it owns 50 per cent of the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group with 25 per cent voting rights) and the ingenuity of Georges Kern, the group now also has first-mover advantage relative to the rest of the watch industry. And it’s refreshing to see that Richemont is moving ahead of its competition and in particular LVMH, which, thanks to the leadership of Jean-Claude Biver, has been winning the marketing wars of late because Biver understands that marketing today extends beyond sponsorship and advertising and is highly intertwined with social media.

While understanding its importance for several years, the established watch industry has had trepidations about setting foot into the world of Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Why? Because the brands can’t have total control and this terrified them. However, by not seizing this opportunity they’ve instead let a consortium of opinion leaders, auction houses, vintage dealers and media owners whip the social media world into a frenzy over vintage watches so that they then retail these same watches at lofty premiums. But then came Hublot and its 1.7 million-strong following demonstrating how social media can be used to tremendous effect by shaping the message and providing quality content to the user of today.

The new old

What about watches? Possibly the two best ones of the year are not available to see yet as they’ve only been shown to retailers. The first is by Vacheron Constantin and the second is by IWC. In both instances these brands are demonstrating that they can capitalize on the current popular obsession with all things vintage yet create watches that are somehow better versions of their predecessors–just as the current TAG Heuer Monza, with its DLC-coated Grade-5 titanium case, is a better version of the original.

Even the most vintage-obsessed enthusiast has to admit that owning one or two vintage watches is great for capturing the original spirit of a brand but modern watches are far easier and more practical to wear. I’ll put it this way, even if you own an original 1968 Shelby GT-500 or 1973 Porsche 2.7 RS, are you going to want to be gridlocked in it through bumper to bumper traffic every day to work? No, you’d keep in the garage and drive a new GT500 or GT3RS every day.

Offering the best of old and new, Audemars Piguet wowed this year with a stunning tribute to the original yellow-gold Royal Oak jumbo as well as a ceramic-cased Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar. I probably won’t buy the first watch as I already own the best example of an original B series yellow-gold Royal Oak, but would I buy the modern ceramic perpetual? Hell yes.

The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in hand-finished black ceramic.

The point is that there are plenty of awesome watches created by Richemont brands this year, including the stunning Montblanc 1858 Monopusher chronograph in bronze as well as Panerai’s perfect 42mm steel Submersible. Piaget’s Altiplano in yellow gold and green dial evokes perfect 1970s playboy Riviera chic. Cartier’s Drive Extra Flat is a better and more elegant version of the original. And, if you’ve got a million dollars you want to blow, then Greubel Forsey’s titanium Grande Sonnerie is sublime.

What’s important is that it seems the watch industry is not just going to create cool watches, it’s going to actually connect them with the world that exists beyond the valleys and mountains of 19th-century Switzerland, and that can only be a very good thing.

Piaget