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CORDER’S COLUMN: Rise of independents could drain talent from watchmaking giants

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Rob Corder, managing editor, WatchPro and managing director of Promedia. (Photo by Ausra Osipaviciute/ITP Images)

The vertical integration of luxury watchmaking since LVMH, Richemont and Swatch Group grabbed control over much of the industry has been a force for stability and commercial success for the Swiss.

But, while I would not go as far as to say that innovation is stifled by life inside one of these groups, there are some who will bridle at feeling like a tiny cog in a large movement.

It is the independent sector that has always been the most creative; not necessarily re-inventing the way mechanical movements keep time (it hasn’t changed much for 200 years), but by keeping ancient arts alive, and combining them with modern technology or hand-worked engineering and manufacturing.

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Until recently, these independents could be safely ignored or even admired by shareholders of the big groups.

Their volumes were incredibly low, they didn’t put groups under any pricing pressure, and their creativity kept the story of precision watchmaking fresh.

That may change now that independent watchmakers are suddenly the hottest part of the market.

The likes of F. P. Journe, Philippe Dufour, Kari Voutilainen, Gronefeld, De Bethune, Urwerk and many more are keeping their artisan credentials in tact while accepting outside advice and investment that is lighting up their global popularity among collectors.

November’s watch auctions will pour further fuel on this raging fire (look out for a major report by Simon De Burton in the November edition of WATCHPRO).

This is impacting demand for group brands as collectors increasingly eye up independents as their tastes mature and incomes rise.

Once satiated with Omega, Swatch Group wants collectors to move on to Breguet or Blancpain.

Richemont hopes a customer who starts with Cartier or Panerai will get a yearning for Jaeger-LeCoultre or Vacheron Constantin grand complications.

That is happening less these day, retailers who stock these brands tell me.

Employees notice these trends, and this could pose the greatest challenge to group brands because, if working at an independent looks more interesting and potentially more lucrative, they will look for jobs there or maybe leave to set up their own workshops.

A talent drain from group manufactures — and I include the likes of Rolex, Patek Philippe and AP — would be a serious issue in a world of extreme shortages for watchmakers and put significant pressures on the industry giants.

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