Beautiful and obsolete: the wristwatch boom mystery

Charles Dupont bends with satisfaction over a watchmaker's table where 78 minuscule cogs, wheels and springs lie in a neat display. It took an hour to unpick the mystery at the watch's core. Now it's time to put it back together.

Mobile phones may have elbowed out the humble wristwatch as the modern time-keeper of choice but the luxury end of the trade is booming, supported by an army of passionate watch-lovers and collectors from Paris to Shanghai.

Dupont, a 40-year-old computer technician, was one of dozens of aficionados who signed up for a watchmakers' workshop at a luxury watch fair in the French capital last week - to get under the case of the coveted object.

"It's all about the precision, how on earth they managed to make such ultra-precise mechanisms, even centuries ago," said the Parisian, who used to take alarm clocks to bits as a child to peer at their intricate innards.

Organised by the Swiss-based Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, for the duration of the Belles Montres fair in Paris and once a month in Geneva, the workshops are fully booked until February.

"We live in a world where the time is everywhere - on our phones and on gadgets all around us," said industry expert Gregory Pons. "Yet it's precisely because no one needs a watch anymore that we are seeing an explosion of watchmaker brands."

"A watch is a magical object. It locks maximum value into the smallest possible space."

Toys on offer at the Paris fair range from exquisite hand-crafted models - some sophisticated to the point of abstraction like a watch by Swiss creator Yvan Arpa that tells the day from night but not the time - to machine-made watches that are technically basic but encrusted with rich jewels.

Like 90 percent of trade fair visitors, most watchmaker students are not in the buyer's league for the fare on offer here, with watches that retail for an average of 10,000 euros and can easily jump past 100,000.

"It's kind of a dream - these are things we never could afford," admitted Charles.

- Wealth but passion -

Today, 40 percent of Europe's luxury watches - produced by some 300 brands, mostly in Switzerland - are shipped to China and other emerging Asian markets like Malaysia, South Korean and Thailand, and the figure soars above 60 percent when Asian tourist purchases are factored in.
Annual sales in emerging Asian markets are surging by 30 percent year on year, with China at the heart of the boom, Pons said.

"There is a real craze," he said. "In Hong Kong, they are having to manage the crowds outside watchmaker stores. Some just want to flash their wealth. But there is more to it than that - the Chinese have always had a weakness for watches."

With Chinese buyers making up a disproportionate number of the global clique of 15,000 to 20,000 buyers who sustain the luxury end of the market, their tastes are shaping contemporary design.

"The Chinese like their watches classical - not sporty - and so everyone is making classical watches. The Chinese like mechanical watches, not quartz. And so everyone is back into mechanical watches," said Pons.

"In the West red is seen as aggressive, but in China it's a sign of prosperity. So we are making red watches."
And because Chinese consumers prefer smaller watches - having more slender wrists than Americans - watches are shrinking in size.

Geoffroy Ader, head of watches for Europe at Sotheby's auction house, has also witnessed a surge of Chinese interest in recent years.

"There is a real Chinese tradition around watchmaker's objects," he says.

"Emperors in the 18th century used to order pocket watches in Europe, buying the movement from the English and the enamel from the Swiss," extremely rare models that today fetch record prices at auction.

Later, during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, ordinary people were encouraged to aspire to own "Four Big Things" - a bicycle, a sewing machine, a transistor radio and a wristwatch - seen as essential to set up a home.

Financial flair is also part of the Asian picture with three luxury watch investment funds set up to date, on the model of what has been done with fine wines, Pons said.

"There is a kind of underlying anxiety, that the good times might not last, so they might as well invest in tangible goods. A watch will never completely lose its value, unlike stocks, the dollar or the yen."

 

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Opilio Recruitment: Product Owner

    £40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

    Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Support Administrator - Part Time

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the South West'...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £40,000

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding business based in ...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas