BASELWORLD, a giant watch fair that ended this week, usually runs like clockwork. Companies show off new products; buzz and higher sales follow. However, something seems to have jammed. Exports of Swiss watches sank by a tenth in 2016, the worst performance since the financial crisis. Swatch, the world’s biggest watch company, saw profits plunge by 47%. In February exports were 10% lower than they had been a year earlier.
Swiss watchmakers have been around for long enough not to panic: Blancpain, owned by Swatch, dates back to 1735; Vacheron Constantin, owned by Richemont, a Swiss luxury conglomerate and Swatch’s closest rival, was founded 20 years later. In La Chaux-de-Fonds, a watch-manufacturing hub, workers toil much as they always have, at chin-high desks, using slim instruments to assemble springs, wheels, jewels and other tiny parts. But swings in demand have of late been particularly extreme.
The period from around 2004 to 2012 saw high growth. Chinese shoppers accounted for about half of Swiss watch sales during that time, reckons Thomas Chauvet of Citi, a bank. Manufacturers introduced pricier products and raised the cost of existing ones. The financial…Continue reading