Opinion: Should we do away with haute horlogerie?
Yes! This particular expression, a boon to the industry, has had its moment in the sun. It was created about 25 years ago, just like the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), and it is time for it to evolve. How about speaking of horlogerie d’excellence, or excellence in horology?
The expression haute horlogerie was imported from the realm of haute couture. It evokes certain idea of luxury, French style. But here is the hitch: the vocabulary of fashion also has the term prêt-à-porter to define all that is not at the top of the pyramid of luxury. This differentiation is by no means considered pejorative. Alas, the idea of prêt à porter does not exist in the realm of horology, it was never imported. In other words, anyone referring to haute horlogerie (literally "high watchmaking") is also suggesting that there is something like "medium" or even "low" horology. So the terminology is clearly reductionistic. It creates a gap that is totally unfair from the standpoint of the entire watchmaking community and its many skills.
So, we have to question definitions. At what point does watchmaking become "haute"?Is it the price? Is it the complications, or the number of manual operations, the limited series, the sum total of innovations? It would appear that this is is what is preoccupying the upper echelons of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, the body organizing the SIHH. As an aside, the criteria mentioned above do have the advantage of being easily used in the brands' communication. They generate striking images, bombastic press releases studded with verbal pearls that are easily reproduced in the media Alas, the term haute horlogerie has an arrogant touch to it, something pretentious. It divides, it incites one implicitly to focus only on the top of the heap and to avoid mixing with the other horlogeries….
Gentrifying the crafts, the regional roots
There can be no doubt that the use of this erstwhile neologism did have the merit of contributing to a phenomenon that is unparalleled in other sectors. What other industry has turned its "little hands" into golden fingers, its factories into workshops or manufactories, or even "grandes maisons. "Which other industry has systematically ennobled its crafts? In the era of globalization, what other industry has offered itself the luxury of staying in one country and surviving even the worst aberrations of marketing gurus often trained in other industries. Is watchmaking itself in any way to blame if world demand requires a Swiss watch and if tasks carried out by a partly French workforce in Le Locle or La Chaux-de-Fonds are more expensive than if they were carried out in neighboring France, in Morteau or Besançon? That the same action performed in the Genevan communities of Plan-les-Ouates or Thônex should have value added that it would lack if performed across the border in Saint-Julien or Annemasse? Switzerland owes a great deal to this territorial notion born from a visionary spirit…
So the emergence of the term haute horlogerie turned out to be very handy, since it contributed to this unique process. It crystallized it, conveyed it to the elites, to the decision-makers and to all those whose financial wherewithal make it inconvenient not purchase a product described as "haut. "In a nutshell, to speak of "haute horlogerie" was a necessity, be that merely to kindle a healthy sense of competition among brands that were more inclined to just bide their time rather than clamber up the greasy pole by a great deal of self-criticism and repositioning.
To ensure the future of this phenomenon of invigorated watchmaking, the time has come to turn the page on haute horlogerie and open the chapter called horlogerie d'excellence, or excellence in horology, or, as a matter of fact, any other expression that will respect the need for a globally understood Frenchitude. Because excellence horlogère can also involve industrial observance. It is not limited to manual activities or traditional crafts. It also includes the watchmaker who has explored the most extreme complications first-hand, and is then able by dint of R&D combined with his experience, to launch manufacturing processes that excellent results on a large volume of units.
Is it time to do away with the métiers d'art, crafts?
Yes, that too. Because this second term, which is in the same line as haute horlogerie, is, itself, just as reductionist. It diminishes the other crafts associated with watchmaking to the level of inferior competencies. But a polisher, whose fingers are black from the deploying his talent, deserves to be recognized as a full-fledged member of a large family born under the flag of the horological arts. Especially since there are no machines around that can quite make up for his hand. The same goes for the turner, his face sticky with oil that has also stained his smock. As for the polymechanical craftsman able to program a CNC in such a way as to negotiate with microns, he, too, will also have a place on that glorious stage when we begin speaking about excellence. So-called volume watchmaking, which produces large series, also deserves a voice in this chapter. Because it, too, in its own way, requires the involvement of rare talent:engineers, inventors, skilled workers laboring in series, makers and adjusters of machine tools, turners, programmers, designers…
Haute horlogerie and its métiers d'art have had a good run, let us thank them effusively and sincerely. And now, can we now go on to something different?