The French watch market is not setting the world on fire. Far from it. And it’s not because the French don’t sell any watches; watches make up almost one-third by value of total jewellery sales. This is an entirely respectable figure for a country where jewellery plays an important cultural role. But the thing is, the proportion of watches fell by 6 points in 2016.
A closer look at the statistics paints an even less rosy picture. Sales of watches over 5,000 euros have declined significantly (-10%), and in the price-bracket lower down, between 1,000 and 5,000 euros, things are even worse, with a decline of 14%. The obvious conclusion is that the French buy quite a lot of cheap watches. The only segment that grew was watches priced between 100 and 300 euros.
Action, reaction: entry-level value
How are Swiss brands dealing with this disappointing situation? Well, it’s quite logical: the models that offer the best value for money are leading the way. For example, Baume & Mercier’s Classima watches took a clear lead in 2016. There’s a similar situation over at Seiko, where the 3-handed Presage automatic, which offers excellent value for money at just 479 euros, is forging ahead.
Anonimo, while less well-known than the other two, has come through with its Nautilo at 1,950 euros (steel case, Sellita movement). And then there’s Frédérique Constant, whose Heart Beat collection remains a winner in France and many other countries, thanks to its particularly well-thought out positioning.
But where do smartwatches come in all of this? TAG Heuer is doing very well. Its Connected Watch currently tops sales in France, although it has been said that the watch’s marketing budget virtually guaranteed it would be successful. But if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.
Star for a day, star forever
There are nevertheless a number of hardy perennials that appear unaffected by the turmoil. Look at Hublot, whose Big Bang Steel Ceramic was a top seller in 2016 in France as well as internationally, a position it has held since 2005! Close behind is the Classic Fusion Aerofusion Chronograph Titanium. The former is priced at 13,400 euros, and the latter 14,800 euros, both well under Hublot’s average price of 20,000 euros. So France loves Hublot, yes, but there are limits!
A similar phenomenon is at work over at Piaget. One of the watchmaker’s most lauded models repeated its convincing performance in 2016. This year, once again, the Altiplano 38mm in pink gold, with its legendary calibre 430P, stole the show. There’s a similar situation at A. Lange & Söhne, where the Lange 1 remains dominant, albeit with a local preference for the Moon Phase. Richard Mille’s RM 011 collection (which includes the RM 011, RM 11-01, RM 11-02 and the recent RM 11-03) remains the front-runner in terms of sales. And Hermès’ eternal Cape Cod refuses to relinquish the top spot, as do Girard-Perregaux’ evergreen 1966 and Laureato collections.
Haute horlogerie: after a difficult year, some difficult conclusions
Sales in haute horlogerie are obviously smaller in number but far bigger in price. Nevertheless, some brands still offer a number of standout models. Roger Dubuis’ French best-seller of 2016, for instance, was the Excalibur 42 skeleton automatic, with the RD820SQ calibre.
However, it is less easy to draw any meaningful conclusions as far as independent brands are concerned. Distribution can be far more patchy, and is often significantly weighted in favour of particular territories, which can hide strong disparities. As far as independent haute horlogerie watchmakers are concerned (Christophe Claret, Greubel Forsey, MCT, Romain Gauthier), sales are rare because the watches are rare. Julien Coudray 1518, for instance, charges as much as 400,000 euros for a single piece. That means the company doesn’t have to sell very many in order to keep its head above water. This year, HYT recorded a preference for the H4, which overtook the H1 for the first time. Creativity remains a strong driver for growth in watchmaking – provided that the price is right.
A special quality of Caliber L921, also known as the Sax-0-Mat, is a zero-reset role for those seconds — thus the “0” in “Sax-0-Mat.” The tiny seconds hand automatically contributes to the zero position when the crown is pulled out, for to-the-second time setting. “Sax-0-Mat” appears on the dial and rotor. A. Lange & Söhne offers the Langematik with or without a big-date display.The company unveiled its in-house chronograph movement, Caliber L951.1, at the Basel Fair in 1999. The grade, which was hand-wound, 30.6 millimeters in diameter and 7.5 mm thick, was four years in evolution, and included a flyback function.Its unconventional features include another bridge for its fourth wheel, a chronograph functioning lever mounted between two bearings, an adjustable coupling lever positioned in the center of the fourth wheel, plus a minute-counter-operating lever mounted between stones. There is also a stepped pinion for accurate minute-counter improvements, an escape wheel with four stones, a massive Glucydur screw balance and a Breguet balance spring. The balance oscillates in the classic frequency of 18,000 vph. The grade additionally supports Lange’s familiar outsize date, where the prefix “Dato” alludes.