Photos by Jake Witkin

“What do you think of the fair?” Ask any number of watch brand managers and staff members as the aBlogtoWatch team met with them at Watches & Wonders Geneva 2024. It’s not really a fair question because what they really want to know is if we have the same interpretation of the industry event as they do. One of the unspoken virtues of trade shows such as Watches & Wonders is that it is among the rare opportunities for people to measure industry sentiment. The watch industry does not publish any authentically reliable stats and figures on how well it is doing. When asked, all watch brands say they are performing well or amazingly well. The only way to get a gauge on how the industry at large is doing — aside from your own business and what your close buddies might confide to you — is to size up how people posture themselves at in-person events and to spend copious amounts of time gossiping and schmoozing. That is the true value of the modern watch industry tradeshow because no matter how many smaller events they do, there simply isn’t an alternative for getting the information you receive (implicitly or explicitly) by being in a building and having business meetings surrounded by so many peers, colleagues, and competitors.

In many ways, Watches & Wonders Geneva 2024 is just like any of its predecessor events. Lots of impressive and very high-end watches are debuted to crowds of retailers, media members, and various other interested parties who congregate in Geneva from all over the world. Snazzy and sometimes spectacle suits come together as guests of the great (and petite) “Maisons” of luxury who show off their latest horological wares. In some form or another watch tradeshows have been a feature of the industry for over 100 years. The last decade or so hasn’t been the friendliest to the traditional watch fair event, but the concept has remained amazingly resilient. It didn’t take long for watch fairs like Watches & Wonders (a consolidation of Baselworld and SIHH) to bounce back after the pandemic. Watches & Wonders Geneva 2024 had over 50 exhibitors, the largest yet, and it is still growing. Around town, easily another 100 watch brands hoped to capitalize on the influx of watch-obsessed travelers. While investments are still tepid, no one seems to disagree that in-person watch events are crucial to the industry, and yet some brands still do not want to return to a collective meeting approach. Ironically, the same brands that choose not to participate in Watches & Wonders still attend the show as guests, often eager to see what the competition is doing. More importantly, they are coming to sniff out sentiment and get some authentic notion of how people are doing out there. My contention is that all of this is needed and healthy behavior.

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From a commercial perspective, Watches & Wonders Geneva 2024 debuted many very sellable watches and extensions to product families that are already doing well in the market. It was a very slow year for what we might call “innovation.” Brand-new collections and designs were almost unheard of, with most “new” watches being some testament to previous designs and themes. Virtually all of the novel watches at the show were designed to fill out existing IP at brands while creating minor (yet often satisfying) variations on existing concepts. In other words, few new appetites were created, but plenty of existing appetites were attended to. It was common to see companies tweak popular models while occasionally overhauling longstanding favorites (e.g., IWC with the Portugieser). The watch industry still seems entirely infatuated with re-releasing watches from the past. In fact, I totally agree with the logic of allowing new generations of enthusiasts to freshly enjoy the designs that came before them. No one should have to contend with a finicky vintage watch just to enjoy a particular design. In that sense, it is never a bad idea to revisit old ideas. The problem is when you take revisiting greats so far that nothing new becomes possible (e.g., Disney). I jested (mostly) that I want the watch industry to put a moratorium on the use of the term “heritage” when it comes to product names. Someone needs to investigate this, but I imagine the number of times the word “heritage” has been used in brand marketing text and product naming over just the last year, alone, is shocking.

Most of the best new watches at Watches & Wonders Geneva 2024 were for women. Oddly, I’d wear more than a few of them. Never before have so many macho men at a watch tradeshow admired watches mainly aimed at women audiences that they would gladly wear (e.g., Chanel). Mind you, the majority of them are eye-wateringly high in cost (e.g. Patek Philippe… and also Chanel). Nevertheless. these objects were all incredible items of desire, class, poise, and utter beauty. Watches & Wonders never fails to deliver memorable watches you can’t stop thinking about. A great number of my colleagues did however complain that they still wanted to see more new watches. I understand their feelings because up until a few years ago, most watch brands heaped new products at us media when we met them at tradeshows. That era is over, for the time being. Today, you are lucky if a brand shows you four different watches. Some brands have one watch. Others have more than a dozen, though. It is clear that retailers still get to preview watches that the media doesn’t get to see. Brands have plans, but not very long-term ones.

The luxury watch industry is still functioning at limited capacity. In addition to most brands lacking annual schedules, marketing plans, or communication strategies, they also lack the will to heavily invest in tradeshow presence, though their participation in the event rarely costs at least several hundred for the smallest brands, and into the millions for the major brands. Even though brands are striving to be economical while entertaining guests or building their booths out, the costs associated with participating at Watches & Wonders are not trivial. Many brands exhibit because they know they need to, but the energy and organization of the past is a vestige of brighter, more optimistic times. More than one CEO told me that they feared looking out of touch with sensitive social media audiences if they appeared to support partying and glamorous play during a time of war, suffering conflict, and division. The sentiment is predictable for a risk-averse (Swiss) management strategy, but the reality is that chasing good times (through brand marketing) during moments of chaos in the greater world has often not thwarted business (even if it does cause condemnation among portions of the public). We do live in wild times, and to be successful, brands need to increasingly think outside the box. Luxury brands can’t operate in times of threatened borders like they do in times when no one reasonably thinks countries are going to start invading each other tomorrow.

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This brings me to my final and main point about Watches & Wonders Geneva 2024. What I see is a very interesting conflict between the luxury industry and the watch industry. The intersection of these two industries effectively makes up the modern watch industry as we know it. Two different business models with different cultures, goals, and ways of profiting must cooperate to sustain each other. Powerful brands and marketing firms cannot sell high-end watches if no one is around to produce them. Furthermore, boutique watchmakers and small manufacturing suppliers that produce specialized tiny parts would have little chance of wide survival if it weren’t for luxury firms packaging and selling their goods to luxury seekers. Both sides of the industry may often scoff at one another, but they are entirely dependent on each other for survival. Survival is also not guaranteed. In past essays, I have suggested that, historically, watch brands or the entire industry went into periods of relative hibernation when times were tough. Only when the greater economic and industrial environment allows for there to be both a thriving luxury and watchmaking industry can both of them exist.

As the luxury watchmaking industry faces the above-mentioned global economic and stability outlook uncertainties, disparate parts of the industry will have their own ideas about how to respond. The factory-mentality watchmaking side of the industry sees uncertain times and wants to scale back investment in marketing. It will only produce what the market seems to demand without extra effort. The manufacturing-minded side of the watch industry is practical and tries to think ahead. They see low demand, so they aim to brace for it. Persistently dubious of investing in uncertain ventures, the watchmaking side of the watch industry’s “Yin and Yang” dynamic is systematically uncreative and merely reactionary. It exists to efficiently manufacture high-precision small machinery. Not to package emotions and sell dreams to end consumers.

The luxury industry is, however, all about packaging dreams and selling emotions. In essence, like other luxury goods, high-end watches satisfy a deeply psychological itch that wearers develop somewhere along the human hierarchy of needs. The industry must manufacture this itch at times, and then also sell the anti-itch ointment. At the least, they must sell you a product that when you wear it makes you feel like a better version of yourself. None of that is something that a watchmaking company knows how to do. At least they don’t know how to do it on purpose. Not without the help of fellow employees who believe themselves not to be in the watch industry but rather in the luxury industry. They want to celebrate the joy these little mechanical tools deliver users even if they need to be manufactured with far more effort than their practical utility requires. Both the wild engineer and the passionate dreamer need to come together for a cooperative effort to maintain an industry that allows them both to earn a living from the sale of most forms of modern timepieces.

As the word shifts into likely further instability, the luxury industry is actually more prone to spending, but alas, its wings have been clipped. Strong forces in the industry have prevented brands from investing in themselves. The most common manifestation of this is staff shortage and unhappy workers. It was somewhat tragic for me to see various colleagues who are either currently unhappy in their work or had just jumped ship to another company because they were unhappy at their previous jobs. Luxury brands tend to understand the full breadth of the staff numbers they need to operate properly and behave as luxury brands ought to, to meet lifestyle expectations. And yet, in 2024, many (but not all) watch brands are still anemic in size or chronically unable to meet all of their commitments due to having too few humans to delegate to. The sad thing is that Swiss and European teams are less affected than American offices. Even though the United States is such a huge part of the income for Swiss watch brands, many offices and country teams in the United States are in desperate need of much more money to hire staff and execute their marketing responsibilities. There is absolutely no excuse that watch brands should maintain cozy employment for their headquarters teams while letting subsidiary teams in important countries be overworked and under-resourced, especially in the context of an environment where there is plenty of money being made right now.

The luxury watch industry is all about building brands and amazing products. To do that, the luxury industry has always been adept at attracting fresh and relevant talent when the incentives have been sufficient. Marketing firms routinely hire from outside when fresh perspectives are necessary, but factory-minded industries tend to hire more insularly. That is exactly what is happening with the watch industry. Even brands that are actively hiring complain there aren’t enough qualified people to hire in their geographical areas. When I probe further, it becomes clear that many of these hiring firms are neither willing to train new people nor hire remotely, even if the job merits it (like a marketing or creative role). While it is happening more and more, the luxury watch industry needs to speed up its adoption of forming companies that make up a series of remote teams in various places around the world that together make up the collective company. The concept of “headquarters” should be decreasingly relevant for major brands. A more international mindset can allow watch brands to benefit from teams made up of more effective specialist professionals if they allow key people to live far away from where the manufacture is located.

As the world heads in the greater unknown, the stakeholders who control spending in the luxury watch industry are too often at an impasse. Their manufacturing base and inventory management mindset tell them to hold back on spending and anticipate stability problems ahead for the foreseeable future. At the same time, all modern watch brands are also, in small or large part, luxury firms that trade on desire and beauty. Turbulent times ahead could have a net zero impact on greater demand for luxury goods, provided brands remain relevant and accessible to enough consumers. To foster this demand, luxury product makers must first boldly behave like luxury firms. They must not only craft a following but also build a lifestyle and message for fans to follow. This all requires the will to communicate and the people to form the message. Paying for that should be a crucial part of what any watch brand (large or small) should do today. The luxury industry concurs with this assertion. Conservative voices in the industry, however, are skeptical of any strategy that doesn’t involve predicting the outcome prior to implementing it. This type of mentality is antiquated and nearly entirely irrelevant to how to build and maintain a luxury brand today. As I’ve repeated for several years now, to remain relevant and demonstrably desirable, luxury brands must embrace risk in more than just their products.

2024 is a wonderful time to be a watch enthusiast. The industry continues to pump out beautiful new watches from major brands, while novice brand leaders and entrepreneurs continue to flesh out the market and further up the competitive ante for the luxury watchmaking establishment. Commercial offerings though widely vary in their value proposition and desirability. There are some extremely beautiful watches at fair prices and extremely niche models are outrageous prices, and everything in between. Consumers can’t trust brands or media to tell them what to buy but rather need to use available resources to survey as many products and prices that are available in order to help them decide what is best to invest in for their wrist. In a separate article, the aBlogtoWatch team will summarize our list of the top 10 watches of Watches & Wonders 2024. For now, the important thing for the industry to consider is how it will marshall the current fight between those mentally in the watchmaking industry and those mentally in the luxury industry. Neither should win, but both sides need a voice and areas of compromise.

Check out all of aBlogtoWatch’s coverage of Watches and Wonders 2024, including podcasts, hands-on articles, and tons of new releases!

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