Friday, June 21, 2019

What Do the Swiss Think About Japanese Watches?

Guest column by Arnaud Aimonetti

Arnaud Aimonetti is a watch collector and co-owner of the vintage watch shop, Ikigai Watches, which specializes in Seiko and family. 

I work in Switzerland and live in the suburbs of Geneva, and I can tell you that most Swiss disdain non-Swiss watches, especially Japanese watches, even though they don't know anything about them. In Switzerland’s watch community, some people are better informed than others and consider a watch’s quality, rather than focusing on just the name on the dial. Those watch enthusiasts tend to appreciate Seiko and Grand Seiko a little bit more.

Two Swiss watches, an Omega and Rolex, on the Tokyo subway.
Photo taken June 2019. 
The Swiss remember that Seiko, as well as Citizen and Casio, cost thousands of people their jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, during the Quartz Crisis. The Quartz Crisis, inspired by an infusion of inexpensive, super-accurate Seiko watches, was also called the “Quartz Revolution,” depending on your perspective. For Switzerland, it was a crisis. In 1970 Switzerland had 1,600 watchmaking companies; by 1983, only 600 remained. Japanese watchmakers are considered the devil himself! Most people —even people working in the Swiss watchmaking industry today—  won't even try to hear what you have to say about Japanese watches. They cover their ears when you extol the wonders of Japan’s time pieces.

But what’s interesting is that a Swiss historian specializing in the history of watchmaking wrote a book called Catching Up With and Overtaking Switzerland about the economic history of watchmaking. He explains how the crisis in the Swiss watchmaking industry in the 1970s and 1980s was not caused by quartz, but by Japanese watches being equally as good as Swiss ones, but cheaper. Quartz wasn't the cause of the Swiss watch industry's troubles, which began in the late 1960s. The problem for the Swiss was the whole organisation of the industry: This crisis was a structural crisis. Because the Japanese industry was verticalized, they were able to make everything in-house to reduce costs. But in Switzerland, the industry has always been very horizontalized, with a lot of subcontractors. Not a single Swiss brand made in-house watches, as some parts (and sometimes all the parts) were bought to various specialized subcontractors and only assembled by said brand.

The goal that Kintaro Hattori set for Seiko was to make watches that would surpass Swiss watches in quality but keep the low prices by using the American industrial model: make watches in large quantities and entirely in-house.

But when the Swiss industry crashed in the 1970s, it was easier to blame the Japanese and their new technologies than to tell the thousands of people that got sacked that it was the industry itself that had to evolve. And interestingly enough, it’s the quartz that saved the Swiss industry with the birth of the Swatch a few years later, proving (if proof was needed) that quartz was a non-issue.

And yet, you have to understand that the watchmaking industry was one of the most dynamic ones in Switzerland and that every family had people or friends working in this industry. The 1970s and 1980s were a huge blow for tens of thousands of people in Switzerland; seeing a lot of cheap quartz watches everywhere, it was easy to blame them for the hard times the industry was going through.

A modern Grand Seiko quartz watch, the 9F
That being said, I play baseball with a watchmaker from Patek Philippe, and when he saw my Grand Seiko, he was deeply impressed. He actually very much likes Seiko, and even owns a cheap Seiko quartz that he wears most of the time.

I've also met a young jeweler in the old town of Geneva who only sells non-Swiss brands (German mostly). When I showed him my small Grand Seiko collection, he was unexpectedly baffled, but mostly dazzled by the watches’ polish, dials and hands. Now he’s going to try to become an authorized dealer for Grand Seiko.

So yes, ninety-five percent of the time Swiss will look down on Japanese watches, whether they know anything about them or not. But from time to time, you find enlightened people who really appreciate any watch despite the brand, as long as it's a quality product.

A version of this article was originally published on The Grand Seiko Owner’s Club.

No comments:

Post a Comment