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CORDER’S COLUMN: Rolex is bigger than the whole of Swatch Group. Now what?

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2021 market share by Swiss watchmaking groups. Source: Mogan Stanley/LuxeConsult

There is an often-used assessment in Swiss watchmaking circles that there are two markets: Rolex and everybody else.

The phrase is trotted out so frequently that it is rarely questioned and executives act as if they are powerless to alter the situation. I am often left with the impression that they have given up even trying.

This was not always the case.

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When Raynald Aeschlimann became CEO of Omega in 2016, he said in an interview with the Financial Times that overtaking Rolex “would give me the greatest pride”.

He was honest that, despite Omega running Rolex a close second at the time, there was a lot of work to do, and it would take time.

“While we would very much like to be number one, what we need to do first and foremost is to work towards giving customers more confidence,” he described.

Despite Omega’s heritage, its undisputed qualities in design and engineering, and an exceptional line up of watches headed by the Speedmaster and Seamaster, the company has been outpaced and humbled by Rolex’s growth.

Two years into Mr Aeschlimann’s rein, Omega’s turnover was estimated by Morgan Stanley in 2018 at CHF 2.34 billion, less than half that of Rolex’s CHF 5 billion, but a gap that might be closed with the marketing and business genius of the new CEO.

Five years later, according to Morgan Stanley’s report on the Swiss watch industry in 2021, Rolex sales have risen to over CHF 8 billion while Omega’s turnover has slipped to CHF 2.2 billion.

Even more remarkable is that turnover of all Swatch Group brands combined — including historic icons and industry giants Longines, Tissot, Blancpain and Breguet — totalled CHF 6.2 billion in 2021, according to the report, almost 25% less than Rolex, alone, last year.

Do the same calculation in 2018 and Swatch Group’s combined turnover for all brands was CHF 7.22 billion, more than CHF 2 billion bigger than Rolex.

It is worth noting that Morgan Stanley’s estimates are for watchmakers, alone, and do not include other revenue sources such as ETA’s movement business, electronic systems and jewellery.

The group’s audited accounts for 2021 put turnover at CHF 7.31 billion, but that is still smaller than Rolex, if Morgan Stanley’s estimate is correct.

All of Richemont’s watch brands also fall short of adding up to one Rolex. Cartier had a good 2021, increasing watch sales to CHF 2.4 billion, according to Morgan Stanley. Add all other Richemont brands and the total is CHF 6.12 billion.

LVMH’s four watch houses, TAG Heuer, Hublot, Bulgari and Zenith, generated sales of CHF 1.8 billion between them, the report estimates.

Right now, Rolex is doing the entire Swiss watch industry a service because, with demand exceeding supply for its product, it is making the world believe luxury timepieces are exciting to own and a great investment.

However, instead of seizing on this opportunity to make more and better watches, the majority of brands are limiting supply because they prefer the easy profits that come with rising prices to more costly and risky strategy of making more watches, improving their marketing so they sell more, and thus increasing market share.

In other words, they continue to play it safe in the dwindling portion of the market that is not already owned by Rolex.

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