Grappling with entry-level independent brands

Hajime Asaoka is an independent watchmaker who recently released an entry-level watch under Kurono Tokyo, the Kurono Classic. While I admit I do not own a Kurono Tokyo watch, I do own something else from Asaoka – a Tsunami to be delivered in the first half of 2020 (knock on wood). In light of this, I’m often asked how I feel about a master watchmaker working on entry-level products and brands. These questions are usually framed semi-negatively; prodding at whether I believe the sibling brand is a risk to both my own watches’ value and the reputation of the beloved watchmaker. Though I encourage these entry-level products, it’s a complicated discussion and here’s why:

Collectors are not troubled by independent watchmakers moving from high to lower prices. Dufour, Journe, and Voutilainen all started extremely high in price, respectively with the Grand Sonnerie, Tourbillon Remontoire, and Decimal Repeater, before creating the Simplicity, Chronometre Souverain, and Observatoire at much greater quantities and lower prices. More recently, we’ve seen a very similar pattern with the Rexhepi and Grönefeld brothers, moving from tourbillon to time-only pieces.

What makes us uneasy about true, entry-level brands (US$1-5,000) is that they move away from the core substance and finishing these craftsmen perfected and applied elsewhere. Is a Kurono Tokyo watch really produced by Hajime Asoaka when it lacks the same philosophy, finish, and technical sophistication – isn’t that the watchmaker’s fingerprint? This is why the critical collector is probably very quick to dismiss many entry-level brands created by “haute” independent watchmakers.

Even so, I tend to be fairly nuanced in my stance because the collector critical of entry-level brands often occupies this position with two common misconceptions or biases:

More product ≠ less value

Associations between luxury and rarity play tricks on our mind, nudging us to believe that more of something is bad. Recent history informs us that some of the most iconic, high-value watches were and continue to be serially produced. The Rolex GMT and Patek Philippe Nautilus, both modern and vintage, are prime examples that more product in the market does not necessarily mean lower values.

Independent watch enthusiasts and collectors should not shy away from more affordable products from haute horology watchmakers. We want more people in love with their watches, more appreciation of this beautiful craft. Scarcity and waitlists aren’t just a personal inconvenience. They are detrimental to the long-term growth of independents and the watch collecting community as a whole, because it prohibits curious newcomers and even veteran collectors from participating.

Commercial success ≠ selling out

We need to address some of the romantic ideas surrounding independent watchmakers. These permeate the community, and lead us to look skeptically at entry-level brands. There is an almost subconscious understanding that the value of independent watchmaking, like the value of art, is detached from commercial success. It’s a means in itself; a noble pursuit. I tend to rebuff these ideals by focusing on how each watchmaker is simultaneously craftsman and entrepreneur – one does not negate the obligations of the other.

Unquestionably, there is a commercial timeliness to more entry-level independent watches now. Due to the general scarcity of entry-level products available by more mainstream brands, the average consumer is forced in other directions. It’s an opportunity for independent brands to fill a hole in the market, stuck between steep secondary market premiums and a tremendous amount of undifferentiated noise.

I’ve made the argument that the rise of smartwatches will have a positive effect on mechanical watches, revitalizing wrist wear amongst the next generation. As converts to analog trickle in, entry-level independent watches will become increasingly important, acting as a gateway for fresh enthusiasts to interact with the design DNA of revered independent watchmakers. I find it difficult to believe, as the alternative, that independent watchmaking will benefit by remaining exclusively at or well above the US$25,000 mark.

Now it is not in every “haute” independent watchmaker’s capacity or interest to create entry-level brands— that I completely understand. I’ve taken a critical stance here against the biases that question the value of affordable watches. My position encourages more entry-level brands from independent watchmakers, even if they transgress on finishing and technical sophistication. The long-term benefits of more accessible products is far greater for the watch community than any alternative. This position also encourages independent watchmakers to dismiss the same negative questions that bubble up regarding value, reputation, and watchmaker fingerprint.

Another day with the beast,

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  • It is in the best interests of horologists that independent watchmakers not only survive, but prosper. Prosperity allows for continued investment and creation, as well as maintaining a level of joy and engagement on the part of the watchmaker (it’s hard to stay excited if one is hungry and broke). Accordingly, I think we as devotees of horology need to be understanding of efforts by independent watchmakers to achieve their desired level of prosperity.

    That said, the fashion industry provides a cautionary tale. Many small fashion houses have come into being making unique, high quality items. Some have captured the public’s attention and become popular and successful. Many of these companies then decided to broaden their appeal by making more affordable alternatives available. In order to meet production and cost goals, quality and detail were reduced. Ultimately, many of these companies lost their focus, losing both their dedicated original customers and their more fleeting mass market crowd. Some, however, have managed to prosper making products at different levels of quality, exclusivity, and price.

    I think Hajime Asaoka is wise to use a different name for his entry level brand. This allows him to keep the two entities separate, offering distinct products appealing to different audiences. In the Great Depression, Cadillac offered Lasalle as a more affordable alternative, while Lincoln reduced the pice and content on their core models. The result of these actions were that two previously comparable brands become stratified, with Cadillac holding a higher position that Lincoln has not yet regained almost 100 years later.

    Finally, while I hope and believe that wearables such as the Apple Watch will increase interest in mechanical timepieces, current export data from the Swiss watch industry indicates that wearables are decimating the affordable mechanical watch industry. Swiss watch exports are forecast to reach their lowest level since 1984, primarily due to a drop in exports at the entry level. Investment in this segment of the market could be a waste of precious capital for an independent watchmaker, capital that might not be replaceable and could harm their ability to pursue their core business. As you have pointed out, this is a nuanced issue on many levels.

    • My apologies for missing this comment over the holidays! Firstly, thank you for such a thoughtful comment.

      The reference to fashion is a great one – it is indeed a relevant cautionary tale. The trick, for any business, is scaling while losing as few customers as possible at each stage of the business’ development. I think a lot of early-involved collectors in indies feel alienated as they scale and change, and many later-stage collectors feel less of a personal connection to the brand/watchmaker. It’s not an easy thing to balance.

      Regarding different brand labels, I completely agree. I think the position we occupy (fervent collectors / guardians of horological purity :D) lends itself to be overly critical of these entrepreneurial moves. I don’t think operating an entry-level brand is a sell-out move, but if the quality of all products and audience changes too quickly, as you mention with some fashion brands above, it can be a sell-out and destructive strategy. I look forward to seeing what other indies attempt to operate entry-level brands and how they do so.

      To me, the extremely low export numbers have less to do with outside competition/smartwatches and more to do with how the watch industry as a whole tends to operate. From my vantage point, it’s been a decade (if not longer) since the industry gave anyone a reason to buy a watch. The overall marketing/advertising approach of the big brands communicates very little other than the obvious (this is a picture of a watch!). It’s way too easy for the industry executives to deflect responsibility and focus on geopolitics or smartwatches. Especially in light of how the boom of global economy in recent years, we need to start turning inward to see where the real problems lie. In this instance, my hypothesis is chickens are coming home to roost 😀

      I’d be really keen to hear if you think there’s some truth in my position on the export slump. I’m still formulating my thoughts on the topic, and greatly enjoy the dialogue! Anyways, thanks again for this thought-provoking comment!

      • It’s my turn to apologize, as I didn’t see your reply until this morning. I have read several of your posts discussing the industry’s branding and merchandising practices. It seems to me that watch brands’ marketing efforts fall into one of two camps; product photography or brand ambassadorship. While neither is a new approach, I think that social media in general, and Instagram in particular, have accelerated this tendency.

        I personally prefer product photography over brand ambassadorship when it comes to watch marketing. I purchase what I like, not what a celebrity purports to like (especially since their affinity is often purchased). That said, many people feel differently about this. Influencer marketing is clearly effective in many product arenas, including segments of the watch world. Many people chose to purchase a watch to make a statement about themselves to others and watch brands certainly promote this notion, with influencers as well as other marketing.

        One question to consider is whether all celebrity influencers are created equal. Is Mercedes Gleitze (the woman who wore a Rolex Oyster while swimming the English Channel) more or less relevant and motivating to prospective purchasers than Nicole Kidman (Omega brand ambassador)? While both promote the brand, does one speak more to brand identity and values than the other?

        The previous question brings me to the concept I believe you have been discussing. What does a brand stand for? Is it just the products they make or who wears them? Why (beyond making money) does a particular brand make luxury timepieces? Most brands today don’t seem to enunciate good answers to these questions. I think Rolex performs better than most in this arena. I can quickly identify (at least in my mind) that Rolex stands for quality, accuracy, real world usability/performance, and lasting value. The Rolex timepieces that I own certainly live up to those promises. Yes, Rolex has come to stand for a number of non-product related values as well, most of which I believe they encourage, but they are very true to a brand DNA. If pressed as to what Audemars Piguet stands for (their "why"), I would struggle to answer that question. An answer of "because we have been doing this for XXX years" is inadequate, IMO.

        Now that we have full year 2019 export data from the Swiss watch industry, we can see that, even in the high end segment, growth is driven not by an increase in unit volume, but by increases in unit price. If a world economic downturn were to materialize, this trend of declining volume would accelerate. Like most collectors, I own more watches than I need (these days, 1 watch is more than I need!). If I am to acquire more, each one will need to speak to me on some much more substantial basis than simply a pretty dial or the support of a sports star. They will have to be differentiated, not only based on product attributes, but also on the manufacturer’s vision of where they want to take watches going forward.

        Lastly, I always try to remember that WIS’s like me represent a small percentage of watch purchasers, so our opinions should be considered accordingly. After all, for all of the talk in the collector community about the Nautilus, Patek Philippe still sells more Calatravas, and Rolex makes their living on DateJusts, not ceramic stainless Daytonas.