Revising watch partnerships for the 21st century

“A new century needs more than the new [calendar] date. It needs a new approach.”

– Jean-Claude Biver

Last week, Jean-Claude Biver and Wei Koh connected on a video call to discuss the watch world, the current COVID-19 pandemic, and industry transformation. One comment stood out to me:

“The new century has not started [for the watch industry] … we are not yet in the 21st century.”

It feels a little weird to talk about “changing times” right now, but even in light of all the chaos in the world, we can still ground our thinking of these things on a more macro level. To grasp how the industry has changed over time, let’s take a look at the watchmaking businesses in two parts – one part production, one part sales.

In terms of production, the watch industry is actually firmly in the 21st century. Machining tolerances, manufacturing volumes, modern materials and designs permeate the industry. From Urwerk to Ulysse Nardin’s Freak, there are plenty of examples of watchmaking that tradesmen would probably have trouble imagining 70 years ago. And, the future trajectory of this “progress” seems to only continue to accelerate. That’s why, when I hear Jean-Claude Biver say the industry doesn’t live in the 21st century yet, I am sure he is speaking of the second part of watchmaking: the sales side.

We have touched on this in the past – the difficulty of communicating with Millennials and Gen Z and the tension between progress and nostalgia – both are indicative of the “sales side” struggles of the industry in the 21st century.

There are many facets of watch sales, but I want to focus on one for this post: Partnerships. Limited edition collaborations and brand ambassadors are a linchpin for the sales of luxury watches, with a long history that permeates through entertainment and sports. But there’s a problem.

The very nature of celebrity is evolving and in the industry hasn’t caught up.

Popular culture in the Internet Age is not what it used to be. To younger generations, gamers and YouTubers are often celebrities of similar status as actors and athletes. You can see it in the numbers too. Gamers and YouTubers often have equal, if not larger, social media followings than “traditional” celebrities and they have earnings to match. The highest paid gamers and YouTubers are in the same ballpark as highly paid A-list actors and superstar athletes.

So what does this have to do with the watch industry? A lot.

You might think Internet culture is too low brow for haute horologie, but there’s precedence of popular culture intersecting with luxury watches. Hip hop, for example, has propelled brands like Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet into the mainstream. And now, luxury fashion has started to make its way into eSports too, with Louis Vuitton designing in-game clothing for League of Legends.

Before you click off and shun me forever, I will say that I understand if haute horologie is too [insert posh adjective here] for this kind of collaboration. We don’t want to undervalue or trivialize the craft of horology in pursuit of modernizing the industry.

But I do think there is a space for the industry to address this new breed of celebrity. I can see entry-level brands from Casio and Seiko to Tag Heuer creating meaningful partnerships at the bleeding edge of modern celebrity.

One way or the other, the watch industry will eventually have to follow the step of evolving celebrity in the 21st century.

Another day with the beast,

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  • Great article, Mike.

    I agree that Casio would make a perfect candidate to insert themselves into these types of audiences. Ironically, Wei interviewed Kikuo Ibe recently and I found out they had done a collaboration with Bathing Ape. Some brands seem to be cognizant of the wider range of "ambassadors" like AP’s recent collaboration with Austin Chu, who is not your standard ambassador, in that he was a collector with a large social media presence. I personally found this to be more authentic than a limited edition that was associated w/ a movie or actor.