Sunday, January 6, 2019

Who Really Made Your Watch?

Or the myth of origin.

This is a topic that comes up frequently (but quietly) around Switzerland, Germany and China, but curious to relate?  Not so often in the US, UK, the EU, Russia... in other words?  The countries where a lot of watches are actually bought.

Now I know what you're probably thinking -
"Of course those 'micro-brands' aren't making their own watches!"   Well, in some cases you would be absolutely correct.  Simply put, a lot of microbrands out there utilize companies that specialize in "white label" or "private label" production.  Many are what we refer to as off the shelf - meaning it is a pretty standard case and you can dress it as you like.  There is a reason why there are so many Rolex Submariner lookalikes out there.  And hey, fair enough.  People want it and will pay for it.  And beyond that, there are several firms that will offer you the opportunity to send them your own designs, and will then subcontract with a case manufacturer, dial manufacturer and assembler in (you guessed it) China.  And that is most often the situation even for firms based in, wait for it, Germany and Switzerland.

Fair enough!  You might argue that these are small independent micro brands, so who cares?  Well, get on any Facebook watch group or the dwindling number of watch forums still grinding it out, and you will find plenty of armchair experts ready to hold forth, and they DO care.  And these folks are experts because, like, they read other forums and can speak with absolute authority...

Well, I get it.  Passion is important.  And as they used to say back in the 70s and 80s as they were trying to convince us that illiteracy was not necessarily cool - RIF!  (Reading is Fundamental).  But having spent hundreds of hours moderating a brand forum (hours that I will never get back), I came to understand that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  Why?  Half smart is the same thing as half dumb.  So as a public service announcement, I thought it might not be such a bad idea to shed a little light on the reality of who really made the watch you are wearing.

So what does it mean to "make" a watch?  Well, that again is up for interpretation, but if we look loosely at the rules, one of the basic premises is that the watch itself is assembled in the country reputed to be the one of "origin".  Well, that is pretty easy to achieve.  You can ship things here, there and everywhere.  But then the next question comes down to content origin.  And very often, that is something that is even more flexible than the ethics of several people working in the watch industry itself.  Consider that a case can be "started" somewhere else, be shipped within the "circle of trust" and be "finished" in Switzerland or Germany.  And Hallelujah!  It's a Swiss or German case!  And that is just regarding the brands that actually bother to try and at least appear to be following the rules.  And then we get to movements.  That is more often than not a critical factor in the "origin story".  I mean, a SWISS movement is a SWISS movement, right?  Well... yes and no.  It goes without saying that several movement companies have subsidiaries and subcontractors in countries where rice is more common at meal time than Rösti ; )

So chances are good, that your Swiss or German watch has a whole bunch of stuff sourced from other places.  Okay, but then surely these BIG brands have clean, pristine, SWISS or German factories where all of these disparate parts are assembled under the watchful eyes of the brand!  Well, actually, not so much.

As another great Ohioan said about the "confidence" he felt when dealing with contractors and subcontractors (attributed to John Glenn):

"I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract." 


But suffice it to say, John Glenn made it back to Earth and NASA continued and we landed people on the moon and brought them back.  So surely using a contractor or subcontractor is not the worst thing in the world.  And perhaps the most significant (yet unheard of) part of the Swiss industry is the "assembly" sector.  Their role is pretty simple:

Brand A designs a watch.  They contact the assembler.  The assembler then subcontracts with the various component "contributors" and gets examples of cases, dials, crowns, straps and knocks together "samples".  Samples are reviewed, tweaked, and designs are finalized.  Orders are submitted (not paid for, but that is a story for another day) and once everything reaches the assembler, they are assembled.  I have been to a few of these places - NO NAMES - and I can tell you that this is not an horological urban myth.  You will see about 10 - 30 different brands being assembled side by side.  Well known brands that you have heard of.  And I can also tell you that very large as well as very small brands use them.  Even brands that are owned by larger groups.  Ever wonder why you never see journalists waxing lyrical about their visits to various brand factories?  Well as Anthony Bourdain once said:
"Can't believe it's not butter?  Well I can!".   Pals and gals, let's be real here for a moment, if a brand will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on ambassadors, advertising, and press junkets to watch God knows what, you think that they wouldn't show you a factory if they had one?  Yes, just like when you heard that the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa were, in fact, your parents, I am sorry to harsh your mellow.

So there it is.  And if you think I'm wrong, let me ask you a pretty simple question -
Assuming that a Swiss brand's watch is, in fact, made in Switzerland, how do you think that this might be economically possible?  Let me give you a "for instance".  Ever buy a cup of coffee in Switzerland?  Buy lunch?  Pay rent in Switzerland?  Putting it simply, it is not an inexpensive place to live.  Now let me ask the question in a different way - do you think it is more expensive to make coffee, or to make a watch?  This is more of a way of asking this - how is it possible that a company can afford to make watches that they put a suggested retail price of $1,000?  Let's drill down further - consider that at an SRP of $1,000 in most cases the watch was produced and sold to a distributor for 1/3 of that amount.  Now think about that for a minute.  That means that they sold it for 33.3% or $333 of the retail and were still MAKING MONEY on that deal.  Okay, so let's say that means that, ideally, they are making at least 75% of that 33.3% (i.e. 25% labor and cost) - meaning about $250.  So that means that it cost the company $83 (more or less) to make that watch.  Again, nothing wrong with that, but it is pretty simple economics.  There is no way that watch was "made in Switzerland", regardless of the semantics in use.  

So what if?

What if a company, regardless of whether they were big or small, made a watch where they told you exactly where everything came from?  Although he can be a bit of a pill and a celebrity chaser, Beat Weinmann has embraced this concept and he and ochs und junior produce a watch that can be sourced down to the last detail, and they are to be commended for it.  But you will pay a price for this, and I think it is a fair one, but let's just say it is a wee bit north of that $1,000 we were bandying about in our earlier model.

And therefore I am wondering, is there a way to offer a REALLY good mechanical watch - nothing earth shattering, but solid, reliable, good looking and comfortable, and do it for a price that normal people could afford without going into unrealistically aspirational credit card debt?  And that you could do it while clearly labeling the source of origin?

Well, stay tuned!


  1. There is in fact a way to make a solid, reliable, good looking and comfortable mechanical watch for normal people - just not in Switzerland.

  2. Ever had a look on Schofield Watches from GB? They are very clear in disclosing their sources. Check out the podcast they are publishing

    1. Interesting to relate, we will be conduction an interview with Giles of Schofield shortly.

  3. Well here at the Marine Chronometer Company in London, we most certainly make our own watches. Most components come from outside the UK, but all are manufactured to our own designs and specifications to create a quite unique chronograph. With a total production to date of just over 150 chronographs I think we fit into the 'micro-watch-company'.