Why are independent watchmakers so popular in Japan?

Japan and Swiss independent watchmakers have a very strong and long standing connection. The background of this bond isn’t quite a secret, but whenever I ask about it, no one can ever provide much insight. I was only ever directed to subtle facts about the strength of this bond: “Oh, you know, F.P. Journe’s first boutique was opened in Tokyo!” and “Amazingly, 50% of Philippe Dufour timepieces reside in Japan!”

Before diving in, I want to address a common, often reductive narrative used to describe this link. That is, that there is a “Japanese disposition” toward fine craftsmanship that caters well to the value proposition of Swiss independent watchmakers – the “love at first sight” narrative. Though this might be true to some degree, drawing from an ingrained reverence for specialized crafts dating back to the Edo period, it nevertheless remains a very romantic simplification of a much more complex reality.

So why did the stars align for independent watchmakers in Japan? I was lucky enough to get in touch with Naoya Hida (Japanese watch industry veteran), Masahiro Kikuno (Japanese independent watchmaker), Svend Andersen (one of the earliest independent watchmakers to visit Japan) and Pierre-Alexander Aeschlimann (current President of Andersen Geneve) to discuss the topic in depth. These conversations made me realize that in order to answer this question, we need to understand a constellation of macroeconomic, watch industry, and coincidental factors that shaped much of this bond.

The Economic Reality

The start of the 1990’s found Japan at an all-time economic high – opportunity was endless and wealth accumulated overnight. This moment in history was the equivalent of the Roaring 20’s in Japan. But just one year later, the pendulum swung the other direction with the bursting of the price asset bubble, sinking the country to an economic all-time low. Japan’s version of the Roaring 20’s was over and with it, so was many of its closely associated behaviors: extravagance and conspicuous consumption. In 1991, “The Lost Decade” began.

In effect, the luxury watch industry was caught in the line of economic and political crossfire. Demand for status symbol brands and materials (Rolex, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin & gold and platinum) dropped. Status signaling tip-toed very lightly in society. There was a demand, not an economic, but a moral one, for quality timepieces without the “strong flex” – a new, under-the-radar luxury that couldn’t easily be confused and associated with the delusions of grandeur leading up to the economic collapse.

This is the first factor in the constellation that aligned the stars for Swiss independents in Japan. The next has to do with changing industry dynamics and the rise of the luxury watch groups.

The Consolidation of the Watch Industry

For the Swiss watch industry, the 1990’s and early 2000’s were a period of great consolidation of brands under umbrella organizations like Swatch Group and Richemont. Vacheron Constantin, Breguet, Glashütte, Blancpain, IWC, Jaeger-Lecoutre, Panerai, Omega, A. Lange & Söhne were all acquired by groups over the decade between 1991 and 2001.

Naoya Hida relayed to me the impact of this consolidation of watch brands left Japanese distributors and sales reps unsure of how it might effect their businesses. In changing times, there is always a degree of uncertainty for the future of business relationships. Were things going to be business as usual, or were the watch groups going to in-house sales and distribution? The latter would mean a massive chunk of sales could be lost overnight.

We can see here that there wasn’t only an economic impetus to find new, more under-the-radar luxury timepieces. There was also an impetus inside the Japanese watch market to diversify with new products, and de-risk the possibility of distributors and sales reps being swept away by industry consolidation. Between the collapse of the Japanese market and the consolidation of the watch industry, there are very complementary forces at play pushing Swiss independent watchmakers to the forefront of a pragmatic business strategy.

Yet all of this is very high-level, economic and industry dynamic shifts. What happened on the ground, in the trenches, to make Swiss independent watchmakers a success in Japan?

The Arrival of Swiss Independents: Shellman’s Exhibition

Any discussion of distributors and sales in Japan cannot overlook the importance Shellman had laying the foundation for Swiss independents. As Svend Andersen mentioned, he came to Japan for the first time in 1993 alongside Daniel Roth on an invitation from Shellman. The purpose of the visit was to participate in a Shellman-hosted exhibition, bringing together their existing client base around not only watches, but also jewelry and fine art. I must mention that I could find zero information online regarding any of these Shellman exhibitions in the early 1990’s – this all lives as an oral history only to be narrated by those involved.

Notably, Svend Andersen said that the reception of his and Daniel Roth’s presence and timepieces was strong, and they were requested to give a presentation on the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI). It acted as an introduction to AHCI, what it is, and its significance and goals. 8 years after the initiative’s establishment in Switzerland in 1985, this was the first time AHCI was presented to an audience outside of Europe. It’s difficult to summarize this in any other way than first impressions were good and momentum continued from there for the independents and Shellman. As the years progressed, Shellman came to rep and distribute both Svend Andersen and Daniel Roth as well as other notable independent watchmakers, Philippe Dufour and Beat Haldiman.

It’s through a strong local partner, Shellman, with far-reaching and established connections to the watch collector community in Japan, that the initial response to Swiss independent watchmakers was one of immediate interest and respect. It produced a positive environment for the first face-to-face encounter, and first hands-on experience with new products. If this was the first introduction, a gathering of friends amongst friends, collectors amongst collectors in Tokyo, Swiss independents got a major boost in awareness when they became the subject of a documentary on Japanese TV.

The Documentary Moment

In 1995, NHK, a major Japanese TV broadcasting network, released a documentary on watchmaking. The two-hour showcase focused 45-minutes on Philippe Dufour, 45 minutes on Antoine Preziuso and the remainder on Patek Philippe, Rolex, and Swatch. Dufour mentioned in an interview with Europa Star how incredible the Japanese market is, how strong the reaction is due in major part to this documentary. “The film was broadcast nine times on television. I couldn’t believe it.

It’s important to remember that this was in the pre-internet, pre-cellphone days – TV retained a monopoly on entertainment and attention in the home. As far as timing goes, there would’ve been no other avenue with a greater reach to share information and generate awareness of Swiss independent watchmaking and the craft. This timeliness of the documentary in the mid-1990’s solidified the strong presence of independent watchmakers across Japan.

The Alignment of the Stars

The story of the strong bond between Japan and Swiss independent watchmakers is a whirlwind of unusual circumstances – economic collapse, industry consolidation, strong local partnerships, and even a popular documentary. I don’t think anyone involved would’ve predicted the results, because so much of it came from simply working with the changing tides. This is what playing the hand one is dealt with looks like in its successful form.

And the truth is, the picture I’ve painted here only scratches the surface of what really occurred and the degree to which coincidence and serendipity impacted the relationship and success.

Nothing represents the serendipity more than Svend mentioning that NHK TV’s motivation to create the documentary on watchmaking was to showcase new, higher resolution camera technology. The broadcasting company felt that the fineness, beauty, and intricacy of watchmaking would highlight how high performance their new cameras were. In the case of Japan and Swiss independent watchmaking, one gets the feeling that the spirit of serendipity set the board extremely well – unimaginable compatibilities produce remarkable results.

Another day with the beast,

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