Cover Altiplano Ultimate Concept by Piaget

As we enter 2021, we look back on a troubled year for the watch industry. But things aren’t as bleak as you might think

Last year wasn’t entirely bad, watch-wise. In fact, we saw some great new pieces released, a few of which I’ll call attention to below. Nonetheless, for most luxury watch producers, 2020 was an annus horribilis from the get-go.

Last January, watch companies were hit by plummeting demand from China’s consumers and tourists when the initial outbreak of Covid-19 began to cause borders to close. The 1.4 billion Chinese consumers the industry had banked on for two decades all but disappeared, almost overnight.

After the virus spread worldwide and air travel virtually ceased, sales to tourists, which normally account for about half of all watches sold, dried up. Large-scale events were banned, so the Watches & Wonders and Baselworld fairs in Switzerland were cancelled (permanently, in the case of the latter, with few mourning its passing).

As the crisis deepened from April onwards, demand was further stymied by a lack of consumer confidence. With a catastrophic recession on the horizon, the majority of rank-and-file watch collectors were busy pondering which of their prized pieces they’d sell if they were laid off. New purchases were the last thing on their minds. Unless, of course, you’re talking about purchases of loo rolls, hand sanitiser and, in the US, guns and ammo.

Those undeterred in their desire to buy a new watch were hamstrung by the industry’s abiding aversion to e-commerce. Stores were shut but willing buyers were prevented from purchasing online, mainly due to the stubborn refusal of many watch companies to sell and ship their product direct to the consumer. It was a wake-up call, causing numerous formerly reticent brands to hastily embrace digital commerce.

Coupled with a dip in demand came an inability to manufacture product, as most Swiss watchmaking factories and their suppliers closed, and watchmakers sat idle at home. The result of this supply-and-demand crunch? According to figures from leading trade association the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, April 2020 exports were down 81 per cent on numbers from the same month in 2019.

See also: 5 Famous Watches And Their Crazy Nicknames

Today, watchmakers are back at work, China’s shops are hopping, tills are ringing, and things have recovered somewhat. However, at the time of writing, it appears total Swiss watch exports for 2020 will be a quarter to a third less than 2019. Figures for January to September 2020 (the lastest available at press time) show a 28.3 per cent year-on-year decline. 

Sales of low-priced watches have been hardest hit, with the top end more resilient. Industry insides inform me that even in the darkest days of the Covid-19 lockdown, watch companies had no problem shifting big-ticket timepieces. Insulated from the economic downturn, and in some cases growing exponentially wealthier during the crisis, the super-rich kept snapping up diamond-pavé tourbillons and platinum perpetual calendars as per usual.

If you’re in the enviable position to purchase something in this rarefied segment, one of my favourite launches of 2020 was Piaget’s made-to-order Altiplano Ultimate Concept. The thinnest mechanical watch ever created, at just 2 mm thick, it’s a true work of horological art. Appropriately enough, the price of HK$3.5 million (and upwards, depending on customisation options) is on a par with that of a small Warhol.

For those being a bit more bearish with their money during these lean times, I’m very fond of the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic Satin-Polished Steel, the slimmest time-only automatic watch on the market. As canny as it is skinny, it’s remarkable value, retailing at about HK$100,000.

At less than half that price, take your pick of Rolex’s colourful new 36 mm Oyster Perpetuals, featuring vivacious lacquer dials in yellow, green, coral red, turquoise or candy pink. Quite the sunny spot in what was a gloomy year for the watch industry—and the world. Here’s to a brighter 2021 and better times ahead.

See also: January 2021: What's New In Watches