Things we learned in 2014

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After the confidence exhibited in 2013, this year has been one of consolidation and reflection for many watch brands. This has been especially true in the tricky mid-market price segment, where a considered purchase by a shopper on a finite budget has been made all the more difficult by increased competition.

Brand Britain is strong

Brand Britain is still the most attractive of international commodities. The traditional pomp and circumstance associated with This Sceptred Isle is still valued in foreign territories, which can be witnessed in Bremont’s continued expansion into the Middle East, Europe and now the US, with its first American store due to open soon in New York. New brands continue to appear on these shores too, with entrepreneur David Brailsford and watchmaker Simon Michlmayr partnering in the establishment of Garrick Watches, a tastefully designed Swiss-made, British-finished and assembled watch brand. Watch designer Alexandre Meerson, son of French watchmaker Emerich Meerson, could have no doubt selected any territory to launch his eponymous watch brand this year, but his watches will be designed at his Surrey HQ, with movements coming courtesy of Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier. Gile Ellis also continues to expand the Schofield range of watches, which were lusted after by trade and consumer alike at the recent Salon QP luxury watch exhibition in London. 2014 has proved that all things British continue to carry a disproportionate amount of influence on the international stage, great news for the future of the industry.

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Small is the new big

While oversized watches still have a solid customer base, BaselWorld 2014 began to show evidence that the taste for vintage watches, which were traditionally much smaller than today’s models, is having an effect on modern designs. Rolex re-issued its Cellini collection of classic dress watches with newly resized 39mm cases. Changes at Rolex are often viewed as an industry barometer and later in the year IWC followed suit with the grand unveiling of it Midsize Portfino range with 37mm cases, deliberately pitched as watches suitably for both men and women. Piaget took things even further with its 450P-equiped Altiplano which measures in at 34mm, a case size almost unimaginable just 12 months ago. Small and tasteful would now seem to be the way to go for all but the sportiest of watches.

Less is more

Minimalist designs are taking over. We explore the growing trend later in this issue of WatchPro (p. 42 of WatchPro’s December issue) but it seems to have manifested as a negative reaction to the perception of luxury products. Flourishes, colours and finishes are being dumped in favour of clean, simple dials with no more than indices and hands. Complication on the inside seems to be acceptable as models are often powered by mechanical movements, especially in the trend’s heartland of Germany. At a commercial level minimalism might seem to be a self-defeating, almost Soviet principle of repetitive, indistinguishable designs. However strong design work has ensured a varied array of models has sprung up from a multitude of brands wanting to put their own stamp on the trend.

Divers watches are big business

2014 was the year of the Divers watch, suggested that a disproportionate number of watch buyers were either already underwater explorers or aspired to the calm of life beneath the waves. In practice it’s the technical prowess of such tool watches that is attracting buyers and fuelling demand. Only a handful of people on the planet would ever actually require a watch that could reach the ocean floor without taking on water and those that do would unquestionably use a digital dive computer for such an endeavour. So the allure of Divers watches is the horological equivalent of a game of Top Trumps; which watch can go deeper, display brighter and provide more functionality? Still, it’s made for a classic year in the genre with standout models from Rolex, Seiko and Cartier of all people.

It doesn’t have to be new

Interest in vintage watches continued to gather pace this year with records being broken at auction houses around the world, especially for models from Rolex and Patek Philippe. Watchfinder’s continued expansion, growing portfolio of awards and recent influx of $10million worth of investment all point to an increased demand for watches with a bit of pre-worn history. Vintage is also influencing new models with a surge in heritage reissues from brands across all price sectors in 2014. Tudor’s creative director Davide Cerrato suggested during his Styling the Watch seminar at Salon QP that the vintage watch trend had begun as a reaction to the financial crisis. Whatever the root cause, vintage is here to stay.

Watches got smart

The announcement of the Apple Watch was the point of no return for the digital wrist computer. With the tech giant’s long-heralded project finally out in the open, smartwatches have been cemented in place as part of the watch landscape. It won’t necessarily be functionality that proves the success of models in this sector, after all how many apps can one person get through in a day? The deciding factor of a successful smartwatch must surely be ease-of-use, and this is where Apple comes in. Apple products have long been noted for their intuitive user interfaces thanks to the late Steve Jobs’ mantra that design is not just about aesthetics, but how a product works. For smartwatches to fit into our daily lives they will have to bring something to the table without requiring too much effort.

London – the global shopping destination

Brands flocked to London this year to make sure their logos were seen above the doors of the right addresses. The global luxury set headed to Bond Street as was to be expected. IWC, Montblanc and Blancpain all debuted on Bond Street while Breguet and Patek Philippe refurbished and expanded their existing boutiques. Meanwhile niche luxury brands have found a new home, with Richard Mille joining Parmigiani Fleurier and William and Son on Mount Street. Trendy Soho drew in two equally trendy American watch brands in the shape of Nixon, with its watch customisation bar, and Shinola which chose to open its first store outside of the US on Newburgh Street. Elsewhere FF Group fashion brands Folli Follie and Links of London picked a new development on Oxford as the site of their latest own brand stores.

Spending more, buying less

GfK’s Jonathan Hedges seminar at the London Watch Show revealed that customers have been buying less but spending more when it comes to watches in 2014. Volume sales were down during the first half of the year but a healthy Q3 showed 2014 creep marginally ahead of 2013 in terms of volume sales. Value however was up by nearly 5%. Fashion watch customers also appeared to be prepared to spend more on purchases, having dominated the £100-250 price segment in the last four years, now accounting for 62.1% of value sales in that segment.

Mobile tech is a marketing tool

We’ll go out on a limb and state that in 2014 we reached the point where everyone in the UK owned either a tablet or mobile phone. With such incredible market saturation in place, what’s the best way to interact with this cross-generational audience? The findings of our retail investigation in October suggested against trying to use mobile as a retail tool, due to a reticence on the part of consumers against making online purchases on anything other than a desktop computer. That’s not to say retailers are ignoring mobile, but rather using it as a marketing tool to educate consumers and entice them into bricks and mortar stores.

British horology is alive and well

In an eye-opening visit to the Yorkshire home of Sinclair Harding we realised that horological manufacturing was possible and indeed happening in the UK. Yes, the world’s finest watchmaker currently makes watches of unrivalled quality on the Isle of Man (Roger W Smith in case you were wondering) but making in the region of 10 pieces annually at a cost approaching and exceeding six figures is not a suitable model for an entire industry to follow. Sinclair Harding owner Bob Bray has developed his luxury clock business with an engineer’s mindset, slowly, methodically and studiously. He now supplies the most magnificent clocks around the world with a four figure entry price. Bray even admitted to us that he now has the machinery, and the will, to make watches. As long as we don’t expect volume production of British-made movements overnight or give in to needless sniping, the British watch industry is headed in the right direction.

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