The Watch World’s Billion Dollar Babies

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The Watch World’s Billion Dollar Babies

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Switzerland is home to hundreds of watch companies, the majority of which are small, relatively obscure operations that sell just enough to cover their production costs. In contrast, a handful of brands sell more than $1 billion in watches at retail every year: Rolex, Omega, Cartier, Patek Philippe and Longines.

How did these five brands gain such outsize importance in the industry? And what do their billion-dollar success stories reveal about the future of the watch business?

Below, we offer a few theories, based on interviews with industry analysts, auction experts and retailers. All sales estimates pertain to 2016 results, although Rolex and Patek Philippe, both privately owned, don’t release figures, and the others belong to publicly owned luxury groups — Omega and Longines to the Swatch Group and Cartier to Richemont — that don’t disclose the financial performance of individual brands.

Rolex

With annual sales estimated at $5 billion to $8 billion, Rolex is king of the Swiss watch industry, with the crown trademark to prove it. But good luck confirming that figure. For all its global name recognition, ubiquitous advertising and well-documented philanthropic efforts, Rolex is among the world’s most secretive companies. Founded in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf, a Bavarian living in London, the Geneva-based company is wholly owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, a Swiss charitable organization so private that it doesn’t even have a website.

“No one knows who runs it,” said Paul Altieri, founder and chief executive of Bob’s Watches, a website specializing in vintage and pre-owned Rolex models. “I don’t think they started out purposefully being the Greta Garbo of the watch industry, but it works in their favor. If they can’t control it, they don’t want to be a part of it.”

In the past, analysts trying to determine Rolex’s annual production relied on figures reported by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres, known as COSC, a nonprofit organization that certifies Swiss timepieces for precision. That strategy worked because nearly all of Rolex’s production is chronometer-certified. Earlier this year, however, COSC stopped including brand names in its annual reports, reportedly under pressure from stakeholders.

In 2015, the last year for which figures are available, Rolex received 795,716 certificates from the group. “That tells us they’re producing about 800,000 watches per year,” Mr. Altieri said. “Multiply that by the average retail value — I think it’s around $10,000 — and you get $8 billion at retail.”

While the value of Rolex sales remains a matter of intense speculation and some dispute, there is virtually complete agreement on one thing: The brand is “mass produced with excellence,” said Paul Boutros, head of the Americas watch division at Phillips, whose Oct. 26 sale of a vintage Rolex Daytona once owned by Paul Newman earned $17.8 million. Auction house officials said it was the highest price ever paid for a wristwatch at auction.

Rolex is “the watch you want on your wrist when you’re in a Third World country and revolution breaks out and there’s only one seat on the plane and there’s a guy standing there with a machine gun,” said Alexander Linz, editorial director of the Swiss-based website Watch Advisor. “You give him a Rolex and he will give you the seat. It’s kind of its own currency.”

Omega

Founded in 1848 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the cradle of Swiss watchmaking, Omega — like Rolex, its No. 1 competitor — positions itself as a master of precision in the sports watch category, with estimated sales of $1.9 billion.

In 1932, the watchmaker became the official timekeeper of the Olympics, inaugurating a multimillion-dollar marketing effort recently extended to the 2032 Games. The relationship complements the brand’s reputation as an industrial powerhouse, second only to Rolex in producing chronometer-certified timepieces (511,861 in 2015, another number determined by COSC certificates).

It wasn’t, however, until the 1957 introduction of the Omega Speedmaster, a wristwatch originally designed for car racing, that the brand truly hits its stride. Then Neil Armstrong wore a Speedmaster on NASA’s 1969 mission to the moon, ensuring its status in watchmaking history.

“The Speedmaster, to many of us, represents what a watch should be,” Benjamin Clymer, founder of the influential watch site Hodinkee, said on a YouTube video that explains the lineage of the model. “It’s sporty, it’s a chronograph, black dial, manually wound, has great history behind it — this is what watches are about.”

Mr. Boutros credits Omega’s lasting success to its 1999 introduction of an industrialized version of the coaxial escapement, the part of the watch that controls the speed at which energy escapes from the movement. Based on the pioneering work of the legendary British watchmaker George Daniels, the revolutionary component requires virtually no lubrication, eliminating a major form of wear and tear.

The escapement is just one of myriad innovations the brand has unveiled over the past two decades, made possible by Omega’s access to cutting-edge research and development through its parent company, Swatch Group, based in Biel, Switzerland. (Swatch owns several component manufacturers, including the movement maker ETA and Nivarox, which specializes in making hairsprings.)

In 2013, for example, Omega presented a new Seamaster Aqua Terra watch featuring a first-of-its-kind antimagnetic movement, resistant to 15,000 gauss. (Gauss is the basic unit of magnetic flux density.)

Unlike some other Swiss brands, Omega has embraced online marketing to great fanfare — such as the online sale of its “Speedy Tuesday” Speedmaster limited edition in January, when all 2,012 pieces sold within four and a half hours.

Cartier

Unlike the other billion-dollar brands, Cartier derives most of its success from jewelry, where its name has sparkled since the company’s founding in 1847 in Paris. That’s the backdrop to the watchmaker’s estimated annual sales of $1.6 billion. The last decade, however, has not been without its strategic missteps.

A few years ago, when the watch industry was enthralled with China and its seemingly limitless appetite for luxury timepieces, Cartier, flush with cash and perhaps some hubris, seized the opportunity to court men with the introduction of several inventive and highly complicated watches, each priced at more than $100,000.

Today, however, Cartier has done an about-face: “Previous growth was primarily male-driven, more linked to gift giving,” said Antoine Belge, a Paris-based analyst at HSBC. “Growth in the next 10 years in China will come from women becoming increasingly independent financially.” (Beijing’s continuing crackdown on gift-giving doubtless has something to do with the change, too.)

Mr. Linz of Watch Advisor said, “Cartier will reduce its engagement in men’s watches because it turns out that men are not so interested in Cartier watches as women. The Cartier client wants style, icons, history, emotions.” He referred to the revival earlier this year of Cartier’s iconic Panthère collection of women’s watches, which now includes an entry-level steel model for $4,000.

“This makes it attractive for customers who’d otherwise go for a Longines, a Frédérique Constant,” Mr. Linz said. “This may push sales down in the beginning, but if the strategy works correctly, it will bring many more hundreds of millions in turnover.”

Patek Philippe

If Rolex is king of the Swiss watch industry, Patek Philippe, a Geneva-based firm owned by the Stern family since 1932, may be its (benevolent) emperor. Known for its uninterrupted 178-year history of producing mostly men’s watches of extreme precision and style — from the coveted perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatches of the mid-20th century to its sporty 1976 status symbol, the Nautilus — Patek Philippe tops the mechanical watchmaking pyramid with an annual production of 58,000 timepieces and an estimated $1.3 billion in sales.

Mr. Belge of HSBC contends that one reason Patek Philippe has maintained its place among the top five is that it didn’t “become too obsessed with Chinese consumers five years ago.” Unlike a host of brands that overproduced to supply the Chinese juggernaut, and were left with excess inventory when the market began to cool, Patek “maintained the so-called scarcity effect,” he said. “That’s why their image is still intact.”

The Stern family has done a sterling job of burnishing that image. It embraced the idea of public exhibitions early, staging large-scale pop-up museums in Dubai, Munich, London and, in July, in New York. During the 11-day event, approximately 27,000 visitors ogled more than 400 timepieces, historic models as well as new special editions.

“Once every 10 or 12 years, we take a break from our very targeted marketing effort and try to encourage and expand the people who know Patek Philippe,” said Larry Pettinelli, president of the Henri Stern Watch Agency, Patek Philippe’s American subsidiary. “The big question is, how do you get watches on 20-somethings’ wrists?”

If any of those young people follow the auction world, Mr. Pettinelli’s job will be that much easier. The brand is a sensation on the secondary market, where its complicated timepieces regularly fetch millions.

“People believe in Patek,” Mr. Boutros of Phillips said. “They’re a good store of value.”

Longines

Since Walter von Känel became president of the Swatch-owned Longines brand in 1988, the company has taken advantage of its strong positioning in Asia to reach an estimated $1.2 billion in annual sales.

“The thing about watches is that the primary consumer is not American; he’s basically Chinese,” said Mr. Belge of HSBC. “When a brand is doing $1 billion in sales, they usually do less than $250 million in the U.S. Probably the only exception is Rolex.”

Despite Longines’ mid-tier pricing — on average, its watches retail for $2,000 — its track record of producing respected chronograph movements such as the caliber 13ZN, which dates to the 1920s, justifies the brand’s place among the greatest watchmakers.

“The architecture of the 13ZN chronograph movement was so beautiful and so high-quality that when A. Lange & Söhne introduced the Datograph, they used the 13ZN as inspiration,” said Mr. Boutros of Phillips. “Longines has a rich history of focusing on accuracy, a fundamental quality of the great brands.”

By all accounts, the firm also has a secret weapon: Mr. von Känel, who joined the company as a sales executive in 1969. “He’s like a mega-computer,” said Mr. Linz of Watch Advisor. “He’s perfectly connected within the Swatch Group, making excellent deals with ETA to get special movements exclusively for the brand.”

What happens when Mr. von Känel, 76, decides to retire? “I have no idea,” Mr. Linz said.

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