In the dark days of the 1970s, when the quartz crisis was in full swing, there were few in Swiss watchmaking who believed the mechanical watch had a future. Employment in the industry fell by some three-quarters from its peak.
A band of believers clung on to the hope that the mechanical watch would eventually make a comeback. And of that brave band, an even smaller number would go on to influence the direction of the business, when it came roaring back in the 1990s and 2000s.
The best known of them were captains of industry. They were men who built, or revived, major names in Swiss watchmaking.
The biggest of all was arguably Nicolas Hayek, nicknamed Uhrenkonig by Swiss newspapers – the “watch king”. His legacy is the Swatch Group, a multi-billion franc conglomerate that was built out of companies wrecked by the quartz crisis: Omega, ETA, Tissot, Longines among them.
An even more improbable turnaround was executed by perhaps the most accomplished turnaround artist in the business: Jean-Claude Biver. He acquired the Blancpain trademark for a reputed 15,000 francs – and just the trademark alone, with no factory, inventory or staff – which he proceeded to turn into a successful maker of high-end wristwatches that he then sold to the Swatch Group for 60 million francs.
Others persevered with the patrimony they inherited. Philippe Stern of Patek Philippe ensured his family’s company survived, shrewdly laying the foundations for the brand’s success today by buying its own vintage timepieces at auctions before any other brand did so.
But most of these industry legends are no longer with us. In an interview last November, Biver agreed that among all the crucial personalities of his generation, it is likely that only he and Stern remain. Biver is now in his late 60s; Stern, almost 80.
With their number shrinking, the industry is almost at the end of an era. While these personalities are not brand founders – their names are not on the brands they led – they were the great generation of the modern watch industry, the horological equivalent of what titans like Bill Hewlett, Gordon Moore, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are to technology.
The next generation of leaders do not have the gravitas of men like Stern and Biver, just because they weren’t there in the trenches during the quartz crisis. But they are good at what they do (for the most part). And it works. For instance, Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs, but if Apple’s stock price is anything to go by, he is doing a sterling job.
One thing many of today’s managers seemingly lack, being professional managers, is a profound love of watches. In the 1980s when luxury watches were a dismal business, the crazy fools who stayed in the business inevitably loved watches, and believed that they could persuade the rich to do the same.
Biver, for instance, is estimated by Swiss business magazine Bilanz to be worth well over $200 million, allowing him to collect whatever he wants. He’s known to collect wine and cars, but importantly, he has spent a significant sum – in the millions of francs – on watches. And not timepieces made by the brands he runs, but a diversity of high horology. His collection includes watches from Patek Philippe, but also from independent watchmaker Greubel Forsey.
On an even grander scale, Stern has spent tens of millions of francs on timepieces for the Patek Philippe Museum. And the late Hayek of the Swatch Group was famous for wearing eight watches at the same time, all the way up both forearms, each representing one of the key watch brands he owned.
Because mechanical watches are objects with no practical value, yet are extremely expensive, passion and desire are necessary for a consumer to buy into them. And that’s what set titans like Biver, Stern and Hayek apart from today’s giants.
Read more of Su Jia Xian’s incisive commentary at his website, WatchesbySJX.com.