Q: “Age is no guarantee of efficiency.”
James Bond : “And youth is no guarantee of innovation.”
Some of you may know the quote from the James Bond film Sykfall. The scene takes place in London’s National Gallery and shows 007 looking at the famed painting “The Fighting Temeraire” by William Turner. In the process, he makes his first acquaintance with his new quartermaster.
Innovation is also a thing in the watch industry. While many historical maisons are mighty proud of their long history, it feels more and more like it is the young mavericks who come up with new technologies, materials, or simply strategies and thus really move the industry forward. But is this really true – and are the big top dogs maybe just resting on their laurels?
This is the question we want to briefly explore in the following article. We therefore take a look at the oldest watch brands in the world in order to examine to what extent they can still compete in terms of innovative strength and inventiveness.
Breguet was founded in Paris back in 1775, although today the brand calls Switzerland home. The founder and namesake was none other than Abraham Louis Breguet, who in a sense can be called the “Gyro Gearloose of watchmaking.”
One can only speculate about what the watch industry would look like today without the inventions of this exceptional talent – just think of the parachute shock protection, the tourbillon or the Breguet overcoil balance-spring. Most of them, however, have not lost a shred of their significance to this day and are still considered the measure of all things.
Just twenty years earlier, a young watchmaker named Jean-Marc Vacheron and his apprentice opened a workshop in Geneva that laid the foundation for what we now call Vacheron Constantin. Today, the manufacture belongs to the so-called Holy Trinity among connoisseurs and watch fans (along with Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet), which attests to the brand’s outstanding quality and fine craftsmanship.
Vacheron Constantin is now part of the Richemont Group, which also includes brands such as IWC, A. Lange & Söhne and Cartier. In addition to the elegant Patrimony series, the sportier Overseas models (see picture above) in particular are considered objects of desire, which are becoming more difficult to acquire year after year.
Favre-Leuba is admittedly much less known than the two heavyweights Breguet and Vacheron Constantin. Yet Switzerland’s second oldest watch brand, founded in 1737 by a watchmaker’s apprentice in the watchmaking mecca of Le Locle, can look back on an impressively long history. The brand reached its heyday at the beginning of the 1960s, but got into difficulties shortly afterwards and ultimately fell victim to the quartz crisis.
The current owner is the Indian Titan Company (which in turn belongs to the billion-dollar Tata Group), but the latter seems to be anything but satisfied with the performance: Last year, it turned off the money tap and ordered the Swiss brand to curb all activities for the time being – at least as long as Favre-Leuba is in the red.
Jehan-Jacques Blancpain founded the Swiss watch manufacturer Blancpain in 1735, making it the oldest in the world. However, it is important to know that there is a crucial difference with the Vacheron Constantin brand, which incidentally also dubs itself the “oldest watch manufacture in the world”: While VC can now look back on over 265 years of uninterrupted production, Blancpain’s path has not always been so easy.
In fact, in the wake of the quartz crisis, Blancpain had to close its doors for several years. Then in 1982, it was none other than Jean-Claude Biver who took over the company for an almost paltry 22,000 francs. He succeeded in polishing up the dusty image and transforming Blancpain once again into a flourishing luxury watch manufacturer (before selling the brand ten years later for 60 million francs to today’s Swatch Group). The Fifty Fathom (Bathyscaphe) models in particular are big sellers today.
The concept of “innovation” in the watch industry can be viewed from many angles: the most advanced case material, the most forward-looking sales strategy, or the most sophisticated marketing strategies. But who can win this race: the reckless newcomers or the traditional top dogs?
Well, it is not that easy to give a general answer to this question, as it is highly subjective of course. While for many the last real innovation in the watch industry was Grand Seiko’s introduction of the Spring Drive technology back in 2004, for others IWC’s new paper-based TimberTex watch straps are the latest game changer. Where to draw the line?
However, there is probably a broad consensus on one thing: The four brands presented here are not among the top innovators. Of course, this does not mean that the watches are even remotely inferior, quite the contrary. But when it comes to real innovations, the four brands mentioned here will ultimately have to leave the field to others. Instinctively, brands like H. Moser & Cie, Hublot, Zenith, De Bethune, Richard Mille, Ulysse Nardin or Piaget come to our mind, to name just a few.
Which brands do you consider to be part of this?
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