Watchmaking’s Watchmaker Problem
The threat of a shortage of trained technicians, mechanics, engineers, and artisans in the watch industry is already a reality. The question we face now is: What can we do to correct the course?
With brands, buyers, enthusiasts, and the press coming together for auctions, pre-GPHG exhibitions, and watch fairs, it’s safe to say that the watch community’s October 2023 social calendar was pretty darn full. However, while most of the conversations centered around the love of fantastic and fantastical timepieces, there still was a lot of talk devoted to concerns about watch availability and service.
Both of these issues have vexed owners from time immemorial. Fun Fact: In the time of the Chinese Emperors, for example, wealthy buyers would commission two timepieces at a time so that if one was out for service (which could take months for travel time alone), they wouldn’t be without a timekeeper.
Unfortunately, these problems seem to have gotten worse in the last five years. Waiting lists (which are already more difficult to even get onto than you would think possible) have only grown longer because there aren’t enough artisans to fulfill the demand. Then, for those fortunate enough to procure a high-end timepiece, the odds are that when it does need maintenance, you’ll end up waiting months, or even a year, to get it back from “the spa.”
Cause & Effect
While COVID-19 disrupted workplaces across the board, most of the reasons we are experiencing personnel problems predate the pandemic. Not the least of the reasons is the fact that the number of incoming watchmakers is not outpacing the number of aging technicians.
Moreover, despite Swiss watch exports declining for decades – 15.8 million units in 2022, down 47% from 29.8 million in 2000 – in-house mechanical movements and high complications have become more popular, thus raising the watch’s overall value. As a result, the decrease in exports hasn’t hurt the bottom line as much as one would expect because brands can make more money from assembling fewer watches. However, the irony is that these mechanisms require more time and skills to manufacture.
If you can’t yet see the problem, the Employers’ Convention of the Swiss Watch Industry, the umbrella organization for employers and issues related to professional training, sums it up nicely. You see, according to them, an estimated 4,000 new watchmakers will be needed in Switzerland alone by 2026 just to cover the loss of retired employees and meet increased demand. Unfortunately, watchmaking schools don’t have the enrollment numbers to quell nerves in the industry.
Investment in Infrastructure
Naturally, brands and the Swiss government are investing heavily in attracting talent. And this translates into everything from taking on more watchmaking apprentices to sponsoring trade schools. The maisons are actively recruiting students from around the world and from groups, like women and people of color, who have been underrepresented in watchmaking historically.
Yet, while they are casting a wider net, the selection process remains rigorous. Rolex, for example, has trained hundreds of people of different ages and backgrounds since it started its education program in 1984 when it became the first company in Geneva to take on apprentices. Intellectual and manual abilities, as well as soft skills, are screened before they are accepted.
Today, more than 170 teenagers and young adults are part of an apprenticeship program at the Rolex Training Centre, which opened its doors in 2018, where they can learn one of 15 possible trades at either the brand’s headquarters and production sites in Geneva or in Bienne where its movements are made.
Nowadays, most manufactures sponsor scholarships and training programs, with the watch industry more broadly offering other initiatives. For instance, at the annual Geneva Watch Days fair, Phillips, in association with Bacs & Russo, organized an auction to fund a scholarship at the Ecole d’Horlogerie de Genève.
Moreover, tuition to watchmaking schools in the US is usually covered by a sponsoring brand, so the students only have to pay for tools and housing. However, housing, especially in large US cities, can be prohibitively expensive, so non-profits like the Horological Society of New York (HSNY) also offer scholarships to help pay for student’s living expenses.
After training students to the best of their ability so that they, in turn, will utilize their skills and share them with the next generation, the next challenge is keeping that talent happy. That is why, right now, the maison’s are offering competitive compensation, but it’s just as important to encourage creativity.
The Nicolas G. Hayek Watchmaking Schools are dedicated to the professional development of watchmakers and future specialists in customer service. The schools prepare their students in traditional watchmaking arts and crafts while encouraging the development of new products, materials, tools, and methodologies.
The courses have been developed in partnership with the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Education Program Foundation (WOSTEP), which, as we’ve written about before, certifies students with an internationally recognized diploma. Plus, as part of the Swatch Group, the schools also allow graduates to work for any Swatch-owned brand anywhere in the world.
In short, the industry is doing a lot to encourage people to join its ranks, but are its actions also hurting the cause?
It’s Us, We’re the Problem
Yes, brands, as well as consumers, share at least some blame for the current skills shortage crisis. For their part, brands used to share technology. In the past, for example, Audemars Piguet bought movements from Jaeger-LeCoultre or the specialist manufacturer Valjoux. Meanwhile, famously, Zenith provided El-Primero-based self-winding movements to power Rolex Daytonas for 12 years.
However, as brands moved toward the integrated manufacturing model, they also brought more and more aspects of the watchmaking process, including servicing, in-house. For repair places outside of the big cities, getting parts to fix watches became troublesome, with even jewelry stores authorized to sell and service specific brands having to send timepieces back to Switzerland for once-simple fixes like crystal replacements.
Servicing wait times are one of the biggest complaints we hear from owners. After all, enthusiasts have an emotional connection to their timepieces, which means, in addition to humanity’s desire for instant gratification, owners don’t want to be apart from them for an extended period.
Moreover, now that demand for complicated watches is up, the brands are forced to make some hard choices due to their limited resources. Specifically, brands need to choose between getting their workforce to assemble new watches or getting them to focus on repairing old ones.
Like all crises, who is at fault is not an easy question to answer. And in this case, consumers aren’t innocent bystanders. We have made collecting watches an asset class, much like collecting art. Additionally, modern society, as a whole, has become accustomed to convenience. We want what we want, and we want it now. But that puts a lot of pressure on the supply chain. To keep the business of watches sustainable, we may have to take our foot off the gas pedal for a while.
To be fair to the brands, we believe they are thinking toward the future; they just need time to adapt to changes in the industry exacerbated by a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. So, let’s try and be a bit more understanding. We’re all in this joyous hobby together, after all.