On the Watch Industry’s Language Barrier

„Durant le mois de novembre, l’équilibre a presque été atteint, avec une légère diminution de 3,2% par rapport à novembre 2019. Ce résultat s’explique principalement par un retour en force de la Chine, après un mois d’octobre moins dynamique. En onze mois, la Suisse a vu ses exportations horlogères reculer de 23,5%.“ FHH Horlogerie Suisse en Novembre 2020 

Oh, sorry! That’s right, English for this audience. Well to those who understood some of that…. congrats! You may have the chance to work in the Swiss watch industry! To those who did not, I am sorry, you probably don’t, regardless of how otherwise qualified you are. 

Jokes aside, let’s start this article with a disclaimer: some readers will be uncomfortable with the argument put forth (perhaps understandably so). Therefore, I apologize in advance to my Swiss, French, and German colleagues who may feel that I am questioning their professional ability. I am not, and you know who you are.

My personal perspective is that of a trilingual speaker.  I speak English, French and German. And although not a Swiss national (nor raised in Switzerland), my linguistic abilities have (and continue) benefit me tremendously within the watchmaking industry.  

Many readers have probably already correctly guessed what I am about to suggest – that perhaps some of the “problems” of the (Swiss) watch industry could be theoretically alleviated if the industry were more accessible to non-French/German speakers. 

What are these “problems” do you ask?  Simply put, linguistic barriers drive a sort of cultural groupthink – it results in more of the same people involved in decision making. 

More broadly produces plateau’s in cultural development. Mike and fellow contributors have touched on a variety of these industry challenges and stagnation. The list includes stale marketing campaigns, a failure to understand and maximize the value of the internet, and most importantly, a difficulty to relate to younger, international audiences.

It should not be surprising that language and cultural barriers in the watch industry contribute to many of its largest issues. Nor should it be controversial. After all, Switzerland is the center of the high-end watchmaking and French and German are the main languages of the luxury watch industry.  

 So what about just accepting this barrier of entry and learning French? Learning the language is the easy part. It is the important cultural knowledge which is difficult (if not impossible) to learn. And the reality is, every culture has cues that define one as being an “insider”. An accent (inevitable for 99% of non-native speakers) is one of those cues, demarcating who is “native” and who is “foreign.” As many Europeans of an immigrant background can attest, speaking the local language is not the cure-all solution.

 And yes, while professional English is more or less a requirement within a Swiss business environment (it is a predominately export market), it only reaffirms the insider-outsider language dynamic within the industry. English is simply a tool to communicate with and understand foreigners. 

With this in mind, I do not want to suggest that the solution is merely everyone should just speak English. However we should think about language accessibility to “outsiders” – that is if a more organic competitive advantage is desired. Without doubt, the industry would benefit greatly from more cultural diversity inside its management.

Without doubt, this is a complex topic. And there is no simple, all-in-one solution. As someone currently working in the industry, it’s difficult for me to see how change will be led internally though. It’s more likely to come from a combination of outside pressure from the community and a very small minority of insiders at every level of the brands.  


For those with industry experience and outsiders looking in, I’d be curious to hear what you think about the insularity of French and German language and culture in watchmaking. Comment below or on Instagram, and … nous vous remercions d’avance pour vos réponses 😉

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