The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to change how we live and socialise, as well as how we consume. Social distancing measures and lockdown guidelines mean that while we are ever more connected across the world, we are more isolated than ever.

The watchmaking industry has been pushed into serious and transformative measures in the last few months. As the pandemic worsened in Europe, the Swiss government and numerous manufactures began to organise closures, while the two main trade fairs were delayed or cancelled till 2021. It has led to digitisation and virtual setups, one of which has been our very own platform on YouTube, where we have been hosting virtual watch presentations with brand CEOs or founders at home.

But the real impact on the industry, apart from the ceasing of production, has been in the retail and export of products out of the country. As retailers furloughed employees and shuttered boutique doors across the world, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry marked a significant dip in watch exports in February (-9.2%) with select markets experiencing a reduction in imports as much as 42% (Hong Kong).

The Swiss franc is near parity with the US dollar and the Euro, which eliminates worries that this might turn into another crisis like the watch industry experienced in the 1970s. However, watch retail has been significantly hit, which has led various brands and retailers to adopt different measures to support the industry, some of which are extraordinary.

Start of a marked downturn in Swiss watchmaking in February 2020. - www.revolution.watch
Start of a marked downturn in Swiss watchmaking in February 2020.

Online Retail
While e-commerce has been part of the retail strategy for many brands over the last decade, many have kept authorised dealers out of the game or in a highly limited format, with brands holding on to their own online commerce solutions. Meanwhile other brands such as Patek Philippe have resisted e-commerce in the past, primarily because of the challenges of authenticating end-consumers as opposed to grey market retailers who seek to acquire their coveted timepieces in order to flip them for a profit.

However, as the pandemic hit, Patek Philippe’s management decided to allow, for the first time, authorised dealers to sell their watches online. A statement from the brand read, “During this extremely difficult time, an exceptional decision has been taken to allow authorised retailers, while their showrooms are closed, to sell online Patek Philippe watches they have in stock. This is only for a temporary period to help Patek Philippe authorised retailers that are closed due to the COVID-19 situation.

According to Patek Philippe, there are a strict set of guidelines required to retail their watches, one of which is a requirement that the watches go to a genuine customer, rather than just allowing anyone to buy them. Each retailer is also limited to the existing stocks they possess, as Patek Philippe’s manufactures are closed until such time as the pandemic eases.

The Watches of Switzerland UK Website retailing Patek Philippe, with guidelines from the brand. - www.revolution.watch
The Watches of Switzerland UK Website retailing Patek Philippe, with guidelines from the brand.

SEA retailer Sincere Watch introduced a “stay-home” campaign on their e-commerce platform to great success, according to them. “We’ve rolled out a “stay home” campaign on our e-commerce store (www.sincerewatch.com) and have seen traffic go up during this period. We realize that there is still an appetite and interest for watches at a time like this, and it could truly be that many are looking at retail therapy in order to find some sort of a distraction, or to while away all that time at home. It also helps that we’ve got special pieces that are only available online, even when our offline stores were in operation.

“Additionally, the delay in shipments this period doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. It’s nice to know that clients are completely understanding with regards to the company’s goal on keeping our employees safe.

“This circumstance has also fast tracked a number of brands to take that decision to come on board with us, and we are excited about the road ahead.”

Home Retail
In a number of brands, right up until the complete lockdown and “shelter in place” guidelines had been fully implemented, luxury brands had been exploring private and home retail solutions where VIP customers would contact a local sales team to highlight the items they wished to acquire, and these would be organised and delivered to the customer’s home where they could select and pay for them using a mobile payment solution.

Louis Vuitton's Tambour Curve Flying Tourbillon Poincon de Geneve. Prior to the complete lockdown, the brand initiated innovative home retail services to clients for safety and convenience. - www.revolution.watch
Louis Vuitton's new Tambour Curve Flying Tourbillon Poincon de Geneve. Prior to the complete lockdown, the brand initiated innovative home retail services to clients for safety and convenience.

Brands such as Louis Vuitton, which recently unveiled its latest Tambour Curve Skeleton models, had adopted this solution prior to the complete lockdown instituted in various countries, in order to allow their customers to limit their exposure to the coronavirus. At the moment they offer online retail and contactless delivery to ensure the safety of their customers and delivery services. Other luxury retail brands such as Gucci, also offered similar options to ensure the safety and privacy of their customers during this time.

While Rolex's production facilities are closed for the forseeable future, retailers continue to receive deliveries so that they will be able to fulfill their customers' orders when the lockdown ends. - www.revolution.watch
While Rolex's production facilities are closed for the forseeable future, retailers continue to receive deliveries so that they will be able to fulfill their customers' orders when the lockdown ends.

Business As Usual
Of course, one brand that has not suffered any significant disruptions in production or delivery. According to sources, Rolex, while having shuttered three of its production facilities, is still shipping out watches to authorised dealers during this time. These are assembled pieces that have presumably been kept in its high-tech automated warehouse facility, which continue to be delivered to retailers so that when business resumes or in countries where business continues, they still have stock to provide to end customers even as production is resuming. Unlike Patek Philippe, Rolex has not allowed its retailers to sell online, preferring to keep to a traditional model for the time being. What it does mean is that waitlists for coveted timepieces should shrink as retail resumes, since stock will be available to customers waiting for that jubilee bracelet Batman or rainbow Daytona. (Rolex declined to comment for this story.)

One brand that has not been significantly affected by the shutdowns is Swatch. The same brand that emerged from the post-Quartz crisis to save the Swiss watch industry back in 1983 appears to be still running smoothly throughout this period, primarily because most of its production is automated. That includes the mechanical Sistem51 collection, which was first released in 2013 as “the world’s first automatic mechanical movement with entirely automated assembly”. Thanks to the automation employed in the clean room, automated assembly line, System51 watches are still rolling out the factory floor, including its most recent development, the Sistem51 Petite Seconds.

The Swatch Sistem51 Petite Seconds. Image by Revolution. - www.revolution.watch
The Swatch Sistem51 Petite Seconds. Image by Revolution.

The Sistem51 Petite Seconds maintains the 51-component design of the laser-adjusted movement and offers a +/- 5 seconds a day accuracy, same as its predecessors. However it departs from its other Sistem51 models with a far more developed and sophisticated design, featuring circular graining and sunday brushed dials as well as a small seconds counter at 6 o’clock. It also lacks the dots on the dial which previously was a hallmark of the Sistem51 design, that some pundits found gimmicky.

The clean, refreshed and sophisticated look certainly gives us a clue into the future of watch manufacturing. While we haven’t gotten our hands on a model yet, it looks as if Swatch is targeting to develop a fully automated manufacturing for inexpensive, well-made timepiece that is fully mechanical and boasts some very impressive specs for its price.

Home Schooling
Even as our kids are teeing up e-learning, so are several retailers. In Asia, The Hour Glass has opted to engage most of its 500-odd retail staff in training programs on video conferencing, hosting seminars and discussions with brand heads, industry leaders and more while boutiques are shuttered in the meantime. Sincere Watch is also doing the same in the meantime.

A spokesperson for Sincere Watch noted that “in fact, many brands have ramped up their online trainings during this period, capturing as much of the sales team’s time spent at home. Some have also organised live digital conferencing for introductions to their novelties, many are not allowing this time to go to waste.”

Even as the coronavirus continues to transform our lives particularly in retail, marketing efforts are still ongoing. CEO of IWC, Christoph Grainger-Herr, in an earlier interview with Revolution on the significance of retail and its transformation during these years, remarked that both within and outside of retail networks, he believed in “technology as an aid to give our clients a better experience”. Indeed, during this time, IWC has been actively engaging with customers and the general public at large with its #TIMEWELLSHARED campaign. Through the initiative, IWC staff, brand ambassadors and partners are sharing their time, knowledge, experience and passion through digital channels. This is also part of a contribution marketing campaign, with voluntary donations that will go to the Save the Children organisation, to support its programs protecting children and families in countries badly hit by the coronavirus and more.

In a time of crisis, innovation is essential. The watch industry may be a legacy industry sharing an age-old tradition of mechanical watchmaking, but in the age of the coronavirus, it’s evolving more rapidly than ever.