The Swiss watch industry has been knocked back on its heels by the current Coronavirus outbreak.
Cancelling Swatch Group’s Time to Move event, Baselworld and Watches & Wonders Geneva is the correct and proportionate response to a virus that could infect tens of thousands and force millions into self-isolation for weeks if it cannot be contained.
However, it is the job of great businesses to succeed in good times and bad, and retreating into despair and failing to take a long-term approach to the future growth of the industry would be the worst possible outcome to what should be disruption lasting little more than a few months.
Richemont, Rolex, Swatch Group and Patek Philippe, which collectively account for eight of the 10 largest watch brands in the world, have so far been silent on what they intend to do to stimulate demand this year.
Which is in notable contrast to industry legend Jean-Claude Biver and Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin — both from the LVMH stable — who are on their own crusades to bring some optimism into these difficult times.
No two individuals have the power to support the whole market, so it is even more admirable that these two JCBs are unafraid to do as much heavy lifting as two men can.
Mr Biver is on a global tour telling audiences that with love in their hearts and an appreciation for the history and permanence of fine Swiss watches, life will be more balanced and just plain better. He’s an old hippy, Mr Biver, which might not chime with everybody’s world view, but the key take-away from his talks is that the class of the Swiss watch industry is permanent and virtually impregnable over the long term. He believes it will double in size within 10 to 20 years, and short term humps should not derail that.
Mr Babin is cut from the same optimistic cloth, and has stepped up to become the driving force within LVMH’s watch and jewellery business and also a front man for the wider industry.
In his announcement about Geneva Watch Days, a four day gathering of brands launching their 2020 collections from hotel suites scattered across Geneva, he notes: “Aware of the professional difficulties they are facing and wishing to avoid succumbing to gloom, Bulgari has decided to present its second wave of 2020 new releases over four days in Geneva”.
Breitling, Gerald Genta, Girard-Perregaux, MB&F, Ulysse Nardin, De Bethune and Urwerk have already said they will take part in the Geneva gathering. Chopard and H. Moser & Cie are likely to announce their participation and others may follow.
There will be cynics about Geneva Watch Days, but it is a sensible plan based on much smaller presentations at several hotels — no doubt fewer than 1000 people in any place at any time so that they do not fall foul of Swiss rules preventing large gatherings.
It will not replace Baselworld or Watches & Wonders Geneva, nor is it supposed to. But it should bring people together, hopefully at a time when Coronavirus is on the decline, to create a bit of buzz about the new watches that will go on sale.
They may be pushing dirt up a steep and difficult slope, but I am happy that these two JCBs are giving it a go.