Where there are people playing with toys, there is variety in those toys. The Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair’s aisles are never short of inspired watches which connect art or a lifestyle theme to a timepiece. They do this much more directly than the Europeans do. Conversely, Asians have a lot more trouble designing wristwatches that are refined jewelry, which is where the Europeans excel. Playfulness in design is perhaps the most welcoming thing you see at the Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair as opposed to brands in Europe. I would actually say that for all the bad reputation Chinese brands have of copying, when it comes to the new products they make, there is so much more risk in being playful and interesting than you tend to see from European brands. Each side of the industry continues to (ideally) learn from one another.
The most interesting thing I noticed at the 2018 Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair wasn’t related to timepieces produced for global consumption, but rather how watch brands are focusing more on home markets – namely mainland China. Perhaps the most prominent player is Fiyta, which is a large Chinese watchmaker who also owns the more exclusive brand “Beijing Watch Company.” They proudly say that they are the only watch brand with permission to use the motif of the “Forbidden City” in Beijing, which is where the Emperors of China once resided. Beijing-branded watches are in a sense like Fiyta’s own version of Grand Seiko. You can get a pretty darn nice tourbillon for about $2,000. You can also get movements with rather impressive (German-style) design and finishing for hundreds and not many thousands of dollars. A few years ago these brands anticipated potential growth outside of China, but more recently I get the sense that attention is returning to the home market.
China as a watch market is endless interesting to me and sufficient for an entire discussion on its own. For the purposes of this conversation I will suggest that a lot of people believe the time is right for the Chinese watch market to actually begin maturing beyond timepieces as pure status symbols and bribes. A quickly emerging interest in enthusiast watches as well as timepieces in general is ongoing in various part so China (at least 3-5 different cities) and the potential customer pools are staggering. It is still apparently true that your average Chinese consumer does not know how to understand or choose watches – but that is rapidly changing. I’ve seen this happen more and more over the last few years and I think this collective willingness to adapt and mature as watch buyers and enthusiasts will be the foundation of a very serious and stable high-end watch market in China. Much of that market will be for foreign-made timepieces, but I truly believe that locally-made Chinese watches that are of a good quality will have vastly increasing relevance for consumers.
Enough people in China’s watch industry seem to agree, and with that comes not only more and more “nice” watch products intended for the mainland China market, but also a sense of confidence that Chinese craftsmanship will be increasingly valued in the years to come. So the question is then, how does a nice watch intended for the Chinese market differ from those intended for other markets? That is a good question. Currently a lot of it has to do with the rejection that their watches need to immediately resemble traditional European designs. Next, it involves the addition of Chinese cultural themes into the watch designs themselves. On a simple basis this can be the application of traditional Chinese art on the dial of an otherwise simple timepiece. More complicated examples include cases, dials, and even movements being inspired by traditional and contemporary Chinese architecture and fashion-trends.
The Chinese watch industry is not immune to global trends, which include the ongoing recession in the Swiss watch brand industry. What is happening there is that less brands are taking up a larger percentage of the overall market for luxury timepieces. That means less orders and clients for suppliers in the Far East. There will always be lots of business being a supplier to European luxury watch brands, but the mainstays at the Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair know better than to put all their eggs in that basket. The future will continue to be diversification from traditional business goals (being a supplier) and continuing to search for their own identities and markets for their own, unique products.