What Is Fine Watchmaking?

Last week, I attended a breakfast presentation in New York City organized by the Geneva-based Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie to announce the publication of its three-years-in-the-making white paper on fine watchmaking.

The presentation began with a short video featuring a handful of the 46 independent experts FHH tapped to consult on the white paper, including William Rohr, managing director of TimeZone.com, Hodinkee founder Ben Clymer, and Aurel Bacs, founder of Bacs & Russo, a consultant to Phillips’ watch department.

“There is a need to define fine watchmaking,” Bacs said on the video, “because we need to draw a line between fine watchmaking and the production of timekeepers.”

With the explosion of “luxury” watch brands over the past decade, an independent, third-party process that establishes strict criteria for what is and what is not fine watchmaking makes sense, because without it the label can and will be misused. (Three years ago, I ranted about this very topic.) In short, clarity begets confidence. Consumers deserve to know what they’re buying.

In defining fine watchmaking and creating the evaluation method to determine which brands would fall inside its perimeter, the FHH concluded that watch brands belong to one of four segments: historic maisons—think Patek Philippe and Breguet—“that perpetuate a tradition and a heritage”; contemporary brands (i.e., MB&F) that “are characteristic of modern times”; luxury brands, such as Chanel and Hermès, “which invest in the art of technical and/or precious fine watchmaking with creativity, innovation, and excellence”; and artisan-creators, like Kari Voutilainen, “who generally carry out the manufacturing, sale, and after-sales service of their products.”

Of the 86 brands evaluated by FHH, 64 were granted entrance inside the perimeter. They were judged in seven areas of expertise (on scales of one to 10, 10 being highest): R&D and production, style and design, history and DNA, distribution and after-sales service, collectors, brand image and communication, and training.

When evaluating a brand’s history, for example, the experts looked “for an authentic and uninterrupted history,” said Pascal Ravessoud, secretary general of the FHH. “Needless to say, no one scored a 10.”

When assessing a brand’s connoisseurs, they looked for the brand’s performance on the secondary market as well as evidence of a passionate collector base, along the lines of Panerai’s Paneristi.

A total score of six and above grants a brand entrance inside the fine watchmaking sphere. “Everything underneath we don’t speak about,” Ravessoud said.

He added that FHH won’t be publishing the scores, although individual brands are free to share them, and that the organization will reevaluate all brands that scored between five and seven.

I wondered if there were any surprises in the results. “The surprise was that there were no surprises,” Ravessoud said.

But one brand did stand out for not having made the cut: Baume & Mercier. Given that FHH is the organizer of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, the exclusive trade fair that takes place in Geneva every January, and that Baume & Mercier is a founding member of the event, the results of the white paper pose an awkward question: Must all exhibitors at SIHH be defined as “fine watchmakers”?

When I put that question to Fabienne Lupo, president and managing director of FHH, she explained that SIHH is a commercial venture run by the exhibitor committee, while the purpose of defining fine watchmaking is to give the category a clear definition and system of categorization—and that just because Baume & Mercier is “no more part of the perimeter of fine watchmaking,” you can’t just pull them out of the fair.

Which makes sense. But in light of FHH’s commendable white paper, how are brands that fall just below the line now defined? If not fine watchmakers, are they now merely “watchmakers”? “Fair-to-middling watchmakers”? “Almost-luxury brands”?

As Baselworld continues to hemorrhage exhibitors, losing some to their own events and some to SIHH—Ulysse Nardin, for example, and, in 2018, Hermès—and sales continue to slump (albeit with some relief in sight), questions like these will surface more and more. Let’s hope the industry is prepared to answer them.

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