From Seiko to Citizen, Asia’s watchmakers are claiming their own space in a post-pandemic world
In the first quarter of 2022, the watch world was hotter than ever, as demand for pricey Rolex, Omega and Vacheron Constantin timepieces boomed, but in Asia the high-end market cooled after governments clamped down on travel in response to the pandemic. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FHS), Swiss watch exports reached an eye-popping US$2.3 billion in July, climbing to the highest point in nearly a decade. Sell-Out Index, which measures global watch and jewellery sales, additionally revealed exports Stateside skyrocketed 13.5 per cent in comparison to the same time last year, with the US replacing China as the world’s biggest market for Swiss timepieces.
Nonetheless, demand in Asia is recovering, with Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan holding steady among the top five major markets. Collectors who have long enjoyed a Swiss-made diet of Song Dynasty water clocks and Chinese zodiac dials continue to chomp at the bit for releases inspired by eastern aesthetics. Big-name brands such as Breguet, Jaquet Droz and Jaeger-LeCoultre have been more than willing to oblige and, with FHS reporting that Asian buyers still provide the largest share of the business, they’re smart to. But it’s these same buyers, many of whom have been unable to travel internationally, who have also been redirecting their spending domestically—and Asia’s watchmakers are perfectly positioned to take advantage of this change in tide.
We hear a lot about the importance of Asia’s collectors but not as much about the region’s manufacturers. Unlike their European counterparts, homegrown brands have been able to avoid most of the retail and supply chain disruptions exacerbated by “zero Covid” strategies. By being geographically and culturally close to the action, they have also been able to keep up with rapidly changing consumer cultures. “All watch collectors have a keen interest in watchmaking but I do think those in Asia are especially particular about detail and precision,” says Yoshikatsu Kawada, director and executive vice president of Seiko.
In 1881, Kintaro Hattori began selling and repairing clocks in the Ginza area of Tokyo before manufacturing watches under the Seiko name. Today, the iconic brand is one of just a few fully integrated watch manufactures, and its Spring Drive technology, which Kawada says is especially popular among Asia’s connoisseurs, continues to power high-end Grand Seiko and Credo timepieces. Accurate to one second per day, the mechanism is fitted with a conventional gear train but uses quartz instead of an escapement and balance wheel to regulate the movement, which enables the watch to keep more accurate time.
Another respected Japanese watchmaker with a reputation for making tough electronic wrist candy, Citizen’s re-release of the Promaster Dive Orca earlier this year had watch nerds splashing about in delight. “Tastes vary in a similar way to how people from one country may have food preferences that differ to another,” says Citizen managing director Yoshitaka Oji, who emphasises the importance of acknowledging Asia as the world’s largest and most diverse continent. “There are observable differences between collectors from different parts of Asia,” he says, adding that each country has a different history, priorities and identity, all of which influences consumer buying behaviour.
Both Oji and Kawada do, however, agree that the region’s consumers pay special attention to the evolution of well-known collections, which explains why buyers may have historically opted for blue-chip brands and “safer” models like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or Patek Philippe Nautilus. “They [Asia’s collectors] prefer brand stories and products with meaning,” says Kawada. “They are uncompromising when it comes to choosing watches that best suit them and that choice is often made by sympathising with a brand’s history or the story behind a specific model.”
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Carson Chan is one such collector. As head of mission, Greater China, at the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie—a non-profit organisation that promotes watchmaking—he is equally fascinated by tradition and cutting-edge technology. Based in Hong Kong, Chan has his own thoughts on why Asian watchmakers are understudied. “When you hear ‘whisky’, you think of the Scots; when you hear ‘wine’, you think of the French; when you hear ‘car’, you think of Germany or Italy. Similarly, if you hear ‘watch’, you think of the Swiss, but we all know that there are awesome Japanese whiskies, excellent Italian wines and some great American cars. The mass market tends to stick with what’s popular and because Asia’s watchmakers aren’t often associated with high-end watchmaking, we don’t hear about them.”
There’s an inherited view that watches from China, for example, are dodgier than a seven-dollar coin—and for good reason. China may be the world’s largest watch producer in terms of volume, but while the average export price of a Swiss watch comes in at US$1,000, Chinese watches leave the country at just US$4 per piece. And it doesn’t help that “homage” watches—budget clones of famous designs—are now synonymous with the term “Made in China”. That being said, if you take the time to wade through the sea of “Folex” Submariners and knock-off Panerais, you’ll find that the country can and does make first-rate mechanical tickers.
In fact, to keep costs down, traditional watchmaking countries frequently export Chinese movements to complete their “Swiss Made” masterpieces. Did you know that to slap “Swiss Made” on a dial, only 60 per cent of the watch’s parts need to be produced locally?
In addition to the slew of affordable brands such as Beijing Watch, Peacock Watch and Tianjin Seagull, a number of haute horologists have also emerged from the People’s Republic. Famed for achieving several firsts in watchmaking, Kiu Tai Yu built China’s first-ever tourbillon, which counters the affect of gravity to increase a timepiece’s accuracy. His most famous watches, the Mystery Tourbillons, feature free-floating movements that earned him the nickname “Mr Tourbillon”, in addition to a place as an honorary member of the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants, a non-profit that promotes independent watchmaking.
Chan’s favourite watchmaker in Asia is Seiko—the collector has added this year’s Grand Seiko Kodo Constant-Force Tourbillon SLGT003 to his wish list—but he’s also a fan of “Ming Watch, Hajime Asaoka and Kurono, just to name a few”. By fostering a sense of community through red-hot releases and creative initiatives, these watchmakers have been taking advantage of collectors’ fatigue with western brands during the pandemic. Historically run by grey-haired white men in suits, European companies proved popular when Asia’s collectors were mostly status-obsessed businessmen of a certain age. Fast-forward to 2022 and this stereotype is outdated, with attitudes changing as a new generation of social media- and K-pop-obsessed enthusiasts look to businesses that exude energy and generate hype.
Watchmakers such as Seiko are consequently gaining a huge—and loyal—fanbase, says Kawada. “Grand Seiko is enjoying great international growth,” he tells Tatler, crediting major product launches like the Grand Seiko SLGH005, which won the “Best of the Best” category at Red Dot Design Award 2022. This has been something of a watershed year for the brand, which spent the first half of 2022 steadily unveiling a variety of new tickers that range from porcelain-dial designs to automatic chronographs. “I think our high attention to detail gives our watches a competitive advantage globally,” Kawada says, which is made possible by the company’s ability
to develop and manufacture entirely in-house. All of Seiko’s watches are assembled at the Shizuku-ishi Watch Studio, in the city of Morioka, which is located in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan.
While European major-league players take a hard look at themselves as they struggle to find a healthy balance between tradition and what’s trendy, Asia’s watchmakers aren’t shying away from creativity in the service of self-expression. Authenticity is a critical component for any brand and, for companies like Seiko and Citizen, watchmaking is a high-wire act where the only way to look is forward: in terms of craft, representation, community and, last but not least, making extraordinary timepieces. Take Citizen’s proprietary light-powered technology, for example. Now known as “Eco-Drive”, the equipment was designed to keep watches running without ever needing to replace batteries.
“Sustainability has become a major concern in the last two or three decades,” says Oji. “As a pioneer in light-powered watches, Citizen’s focus goes beyond simply delivering appealing products that incorporate the latest technologies.” Coming up with new business models that rethink products as much as people will be essential to the recovery of the watch industry. And with a new generation of collectors ready to defy convention and opt for brands that they feel represent their local watch community, Asia’s watchmakers that champion craftsmanship—from hand-wound calibres to high-end complications—are poised to become the new conscious choice. “We are proud of our history as an Asian watchmaker,” says Oji—and now, more than ever, watch wearers are proud to support that.