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Here’s What I Learned And Saw At The Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair 2019

Here's What I Learned And Saw At The Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair 2019 Shows & Events

I eagerly anticipate the Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair more and more with each passing year. As far as I can tell, there is no other watch fair like it: With its five-day duration and 830 exhibitors from 22 countries and regions, it is an extraordinarily diverse gathering of mostly Asian original equipment makers (OEM) watchmakers, OEM-watchmakers-turned-brands, and specialized suppliers, both established and new. Here’s what I learned & saw at the Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair 2019.

Here's What I Learned And Saw At The Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair 2019 Shows & Events

There are two types of visitors, buyers and press — as the latter, what I mostly care about is gauging the overall development in the refinement and advancement of Asian watch brands and parts suppliers. This puts me in the minority, as the former, much larger group cares not so much about where things have been going, but what is available on the market right now. They need parts for their brands, and they need OEM manufacturers who will build watches (and jewelry) from scratch to completion. As is the norm, the most versatile assortment of global watch industry players gathered at the 38th Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair, with prices ranging from $1 to well into the tens of thousands.

Here's What I Learned And Saw At The Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair 2019 Shows & Events

Every time I attend, I like to catch up with fellow members of the press, as well as exhibitors I’ve met in previous years to compare our perceptions of the fair and the industry that it so beautifully represents. Given the distinct and steady increase in overall quality at all price levels (and by that, I mean $20 and up), I enjoyed shocking my fellow attendees by asking, “Though still quite a bit wonky at times, would you agree that brand presentations and marketing have overall been steadily improving?” Rather in line with my expectations, I kept hearing an eerily invariable response: “Yes! And once they have figured that out, we are all doomed!”

Here's What I Learned And Saw At The Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair 2019 Shows & Events

So, there. Even as few as five years ago, the mantra was the same, but it was not about marketing — it was about quality control and complexity and refinement of execution. In other words, every open-eyed attendee (press or otherwise) considered quality of execution as the final frontier that Asian watch manufacturers had to conquer to step up as a real threat to their Swiss counterparts. In 2019, the extent to which some OEM suppliers and brands have nailed quality of execution is scary for the established industry, or so it would be, if representatives of major Swiss luxury watch brands weren’t already present at the fair, looking for “overseas” case, bracelet, and dial manufacturers — or, you know, just renewing their existing contracts.

Mark my word: If the types and quantities of Asian-produced components that are omnipresent on expensive “Swiss-made” watches are ever revealed, through leaks of confidential documentation, the next big scandal could ensue. Do I know the exact types and quantities of “foreign” components in such watches? No, but even if I did, I’d need to be able to present such documents to back up my claims before taking on some very well-heeled companies of a traditionally rich industry by saying that the cases, dials, and hands that they use originate from China (or elsewhere).

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Here's What I Learned And Saw At The Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair 2019 Shows & Events

But then again, would most people care? I mean, we all know that Louis Vuitton has been manufacturing its “Made in France” shoes and boots in Romania since the early 2000s with a workforce paid around €320 per month after taxes (that is calculated with Romania’s 2019 minimum wage) — except for the soles, which are attached in Italy or France to attain the arguably fancier country of origin label. Oh, and this is, of course, perfectly lawful and in line with prevailing EU legislation. Although not quite so permissive, Switzerland’s 60% Swiss Made legislation leaves many opportunities for major components of expensive watches to be sourced far from Switzerland.

Here's What I Learned And Saw At The Hong Kong Watch & Clock Fair 2019 Shows & Events

Escapement components and other small, highly sophisticated parts, such as hairsprings, have very easily scaleable production facilities all geared up in Switzerland — there is no need to expand upon or relocate those elsewhere. However, it’s risky to expand the production within Switzerland of cases, bracelets, and other components that are extremely expensive, and there’s been a drastic uptick in demand. The manufacturing of these components requires new and expensive machines that require a lot of space; both space and construction costs are very high in Switzerland. Furthermore, these parts require yet more costly manual labor to finish. Considering all this, and the fact that even if the funds were available to expand production, the risk associated with an investment of such magnitude, has, in theory, driven the Swiss into the arms of overseas manufacturers who are happy to take in large orders. And what if the quality didn’t quite cut it? It has been surprisingly easy to raise quality to an acceptable standard (to the brands and, apparently, to the global market).

Here’s a different perspective: Asian original equipment manufacturers have become so sophisticated and quality-oriented that the best among them today experience absolutely zero struggle whatsoever in supplying Swiss brands with essential watch components. Whether this is a result of their own diligence or something they learned from European manufacturers who moved parts of their production to Asia only matters from a finger-pointing angle, but it makes no difference when assessing the situation that resulted.

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  • Swiss_Cheese

    Please tell me this is some kind of monumental piss-take. Anyone? Please…

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4128ac66f3a6055a1d4432f305adb394ab3c13855c3dd48d17ff248c916056ff.jpg

  • Jason Mirabello

    That Dufa watch is really nice

    • IanE

      Is it a Philip Dufa watch?

  • Bruno

    What an interesting report, and so well written! I never understood why no journalists report on the watch manufacturing development in China, providing the readers with something new instead of the well known platitudes taken from press releases of the brands.

    My own experience with higher end watch manufacturing in China is limited to the occasional showing of brands at Baselworld. While Memorigin disappointed with the detail finishing quality of the GMT model I was interested in, I wondered why other brands showing very interesting watches (like Ebohr) bothered to attend. Not only was no printed information available, but the representants did not appear to be able to explain anything of substance. Maybe these marketing deficits are indeed still “protecting” some Swiss exponents for some time…

    • David Bredan

      Thanks for your kind words and for sharing.

  • SuperStrapper

    So what was the distasteful watch? That’s not very nice to make sure to mention something like that without telling the whole story.

    • David Bredan

      The point was not what it was, but how it was presented.

      • SuperStrapper

        …ok… then how was it presented? (And I’d still like to see it….)

      • FrankD51

        Yes, but which watch? What did it look like?

  • IanE

    Hmm, the Swiss (and, to a lesser extent, the German) manufactures are starting to remind me of British motor-cycle makers before the Japanese demonstrated what happens to the complacent!

    • David Bredan

      Let’s hope they’ll find a way out/forward.

      • Sheez Gagoo

        If you know a new Hayek (the dead one) some of us would really appreciate a name. The rest would ignore him. My prediction is, the industry (in particular SG) will slowly fade into irrelevance not really noticed by the public. Like General Motors, General Electric or a Swiss company named “Ascom”, once Switzerlands Apple. You want to know what the next chapter of the Swiss watch industry is? Probably chapter 11.

      • Sheez Gagoo

        You know that some brands drive with a truck outside the boarder before the end of the quarter to consider them “exported” for quarterly or annual report? Then they drive back and throw them on the grey market.

    • Jared

      Japanese don’t really do all that well in the luxury goods segment

      The most luxurious Japanese brand is Lexus, and after 30 years they are still considered second stringer to the likes of Mercedes, BMW and Audi.

      They do best in the utility segment, lawnmowers, toasters, etc.

      • Berndt Norten

        There are a few exceptions to this rule.

        In audio, there are numerous high-end luxury brands: Luxman, Accuphase, Air Tight, Leben, Shindo, Koetsu, Almarro, Esoteric, and the Japanese Audio Note. This is a very partial list.

        • Jared

          i think audio is different.

          cars and watches is something you use in public, meaning you care a lot more about the prestige of a brand

          audio you use in your own home, so you don’t need to justify your purchase to others

          • Berndt Norten

            Agreed. Your point is more relevant and compelling than mine.

          • egznyc

            I really don’t think so. Unless one happens to be the sort who cares about what others may think (and I would venture to guess you aren’t) ;-).

      • egznyc

        Well … I’m not really knowledgeable about luxury goods in general (other than what I read about such products), so take this with a grain of salt, but what about Toto and the like? Toilets might not be associated with luxury, in general, but they should be! Far better than just squatting … and the Japanese really know how to make great toilets (among many other products, like watches, by the way).

        • Jared

          thats different because noone really gets impressed by toilets(unless its like a solid gold one).

        • Berndt Norten

          I hear Blenheim is looking for a toilet?

          • egznyc

            Hah! I figured since at least the time of Sir Winston they must’ve installed some indoor plumbing. But I’m talking out of my [thing that sits on a toilet].

          • Berndt Norten

            Haven’t you seen the news story about the solid gold toilet stolen from Blenheim?

          • egznyc

            Oh my – I had not heard about this before. More remarkable than the crime itself, I think, is that someone saw fit to find a solid gold toilet. I’d prefer to put that metal to other uses but oh well.

          • Sheez Gagoo

            “Yes mum, I’m a model now!”

        • Sheez Gagoo

          The Japanese may have a technological advantage, but good old Europe is working very hard:
          https://youtu.be/s30CReHgVWk

      • Sheez Gagoo

        That’s why the big three from Japan hired McKinsey. That’s why they decided to strive upmarket. Look at Grand Seiko. They’re doing great in the US. I expect big things from them.

        • Jared

          grand seiko is suffering the same issue as Lexus/Infiniti/Acura. They get their piece of the market, but they need to offer a crapload more than the big boys in order to get people to even look at them(let alone pick them ahead of the competition)

          • Sheez Gagoo

            They had a 20% growth in the US.

      • Mikita

        Infiniti and Lexus are considered luxury cars in my country 🙂 not less than Audi & Mercedes.

    • Sheez Gagoo

      Lol! “Are starting to remind me!” Rofl! Already started years ago. No offense (sorry for laughing but still to funny). Take a look at SG’s shareprice over the last three years.

      • IanE

        Well, I was being euphemistic about the nemesis coming to follow their hubris.

        • egznyc

          That reminds me of a lyric from AC/DC’s “She Shook Me All Night Long”: she told me to come but I was already there.

  • PR

    Good read. If the luxury product stigma around made in China turns into pride for the Chinese, rest will follow and the entire industry is toast.

    • David Bredan

      Thanks. Yes, and pride it is turning into — slowly, but exponentially.

  • PowNation

    Great piece, appreciate the detailed reporting.

    Here’s to continued innovation in both design, manufacture and marketing of watches on all fronts. Competition breeds excellence.

    In this coming decade, I do believe we will see a few prominent Chinese makers make sufficient splash in the US/EU markets to grab the attention of serious watch collectors and enthusiasts alike.

    • David Bredan

      Thank you for your kind words and for sharing — I’m all for continued innovation!

  • Raymond Wilkie

    I would feel completely bamboozled walking into that watch & Clock Fair. I would be like a kid in a candy shop. Their are some gawd awful watches out there. I would have liked to have seen how one distastefully presents a watch.

    • David Bredan

      Bamboozled is probably the best way of describing your reaction. It is also something industry professionals would probably call: good television.

  • egznyc

    That is one ugly paperweight strapped to the wrist.

    • Mikita

      Must be some raw banana leaf paper 🙂

    • Gokart Mozart

      Maybe it’s on the wrist of a toddler who just happens to have hairy arms….

  • DanW94

    Abeler & Sohne, lol. I love it. It’s like when you were a kid and you had the friend whose family could afford the brand name products. He’d ask you what you had for breakfast. You’d say, ” I had Fruity O’s”. And he says, “You mean Fruit Loops?” Ummm, yeah, sort of…..

    • David Bredan

      Haha! But were those Fruity O’s “Made in Germany”?!

  • egznyc

    David’s a natural storyteller. Always a pleasure to read these in-depth analyses, regardless of the topic.

    • David Bredan

      Thank you, I really appreciate that.

  • Raymond Wilkie

    This man is clearly compensating for something, I’ll leave what up to your imagination.

    • Mikita

      Small car? Tiny lawnmower? Please, what did you mean?

      • Raymond Wilkie

        His penis Mikita, I meant his penis!

  • SuperStrapper

    Back for a second read, it was worth another go.

    David, can you comment on the dial of that second Behrens? I like the depth and detail but the execution seems a little off. All the asymmetrical stepped geometry and those odd chevron hour markers are an incorrect contrast to each other I think. The material looks a bit plasticky. The lapis dialled one is very nice but I’m not sure on that one.

    • David Bredan

      I appreciate the second read. The execution actually wasn’t bad and the material appeared to have been milled (from metal), not cast in plastic. What’s interesting, I think, is that for these manufacturers working with metal actually comes more naturally than lesser materials — he has the multi-axis CNC machines to work with relatively high precision on relatively small parts. To use plastic or other stuff would probably mean more trouble than gain. The lapis lazuli I agree was a whole lot better and would be my choice too. What we can bet is that they will keep on trying — why JLC signs a new movie star, this guy will have made 50+ creative new dial versions, because that is what he cares about.

      • SuperStrapper

        And then if they become actually successful he’ll be running around trying to sign movie stars.

        • David Bredan

          Let’s hope not! Or even if he were, that it doesn’t turn into to end of all their efforts. I feel I’ve received way more red carpet emails from JLC than product related ones — sigh.

          • SuperStrapper

            Yeah that’s a shame. I mean, i understand, but still.

  • David Bredan

    What it is, is in the article: it’s a (rather accurate and harmless) homage to experimental dive watches from half a century ago — and a halo product for a brand. I could name probably a hundred other watches I’d rather pull the compensatory joke over, but that’s just me.

  • Mikita

    I actually quite liked what I’ve seen from your pics, especially Behrens Original.

  • Rushmore

    I saw a photo of a Pequignet – that is chinese made as well? Looked for it online but I didn’t found anything to connect them to China.

    • David Bredan

      They are made in France (with some Swiss parts as well) and they attended to find distributors.

  • egznyc

    Perhaps my next wallet could be made from banana fibers? But not my next watch …

  • David Bredan

    Happy to hear.

  • Tony NW

    David, you don’t have to start every sentence (or 10 of the first 12) with a clause-comma combination.

    Or, to put it in your style 😉 I hadn’t checked who wrote it before I started reading, but I quickly realized it was David’s style. This isn’t technically wrong, although perhaps a bit stilted, but it is both distinctive and jarring. His material is generally good – David knows a lot – despite the unnecessary convolutions. But then again, why should I care? After all, most readers will defend him on substance, the style either not-withstanding or not relevant. Good content, it must be said, is king.

    Nice examples of their attempts to create strong brand identities, borrowing from existing brands. Were there many signs of counterfeiting or of Asian parts being used in Swiss watches surreptitiously?

    • David Bredan

      Thanks for your feedback. I do have my own peculiarities (wouldn’t dare call it style) and we have been having a somewhat more heavy handed copy editor (she’s doing great) — add these up and things might end up a bit jarring at times. But we sure are always trying to improve 🙂