Is time running out for classic wristwatches

When master watchmakers in the MB&F workshop in Geneva toil over their latest creations, time doesn’t play a role.
The company made just 245 limited-edition timepieces last year — and that low production figure is the point.
“Each piece has three years of design behind it and consists of 300 to 600 components,” says company founder Maximilian Buesser.
MB&F produces top-of-the-range mechanical wristwatches that embody design perfection. It recently exhibited 35 exquisite designs at January’s SIHH luxury watch fair in Geneva.
But like other specialists in their field, MB&F’s craftsmen must constantly confront the perennial question of whether traditional watches are obsolete in the age of the smartwatch and mobile phone.
“If we worked in the price range of 300-500 euros, I’d probably be panicking, because I see virtually no future there,” admits Buesser.
One look at a young person’s wrist supports his concern: The conventional watch has had its day, it seems, with most people checking the time with a glance at their smartphones.
And if someone is sporting a piece on their wrist, it’s more than likely a smartwatch, which not only tells time, but also tracks GPS coordinates, collects fitness data and manages passwords.
The topic has fired up a debate about how society tells time.
Members of Germany’s Friends of Mechanical Watches online forum frequently echo the same complaint: “Just look at the younger generation, clutching their smartphones rather than wearing watches.”
One ad-supported online news portal tries to impress upon young readers the special quality of conventional watches.
“It’s not always a good idea to get your mobile phone out of your pocket. At the beach, a funeral or a wedding, a wristwatch is more practical for checking the time,” it notes.
And in a possibly winning argument, the portal adds: “As well as helping men to keep their schedule, wristwatches help shape their personal style. A quick glance at your wrist is a far more stylish way to keep track of time during a date or meeting.”
Business Insider also agrees on the image-making power of the traditional watch: “It’s your own signature piece — something that you wear so often that people end up identifying it with you.”
So for now, the alarm bells don’t seem to be sounding within the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.
“So far, you can’t say smartwatches affect the business of other watches,” says association president Jean-Daniel Pasche. “But you also cannot prove the opposite.” In Switzerland, the trend in recent years has leaned even further towards mechanical watches, according to Pasche.
However, the Swiss market, with elite brands such as Rolex, Omega, Baume & Mercier or Piaget, is also special because of its tradition of watchmaking expertise: While more than 90 per cent of the watches manufactured worldwide are electronic —requiring a battery — that number is only 70 per cent in Switzerland.
Thirty per cent of Swiss watches are mechanical, meaning they have springs and cogs, and are wound by hand or by motion. These watches are much more expensive, which Pasche says is the reason mechanical watches account for 80 per cent of Switzerland’s total export earnings. — dpa

Christiane Oelrich