A few non-purist thoughts on high end watch brands, cynicism, and the markets

Based upon a few decades of self-searching in the world of watches and timepieces as functional instrument; as socially acceptable male jewelry; as expressions of high craft and continuations of an important cultural legacy; as prestigious status symbols; and ultimately, as something that gives me personal pleasure, damn all the other crap; I have found that cynicism is a dead end with high end watch brands. I have found no "brand" that can stand the withering scrutiny of the strict purist. Economic compromises; commercial considerations; monetary priorities and realities - these are what ultimately govern the decision making process, on whether the finisher throws away that slightly less than perfect bridge for the 12th time and starts over or does he just say, "Okay, that's good enough."

We've all read the ads and heard the cultish chants of the marketing department mantras - "Lovingly hand crafted;" "over a year to create;" "unfailing pursuit of perfection." Yet what are these things really? For me, a very personal conclusion - they are simply beautiful expressions of a cottage industry tradition that also happens to have a useful critical function. And most importantly, I happen to like 'em.

If I dwell too much upon what I know about the goings on behind the marketing curtain and in the sales and production department meeting rooms, I would throw all the high end watches I can get my hands on and throw them in the bay and make an artificial reef for the fishes and corals (with due apologies to strict environmentalists.)

Many brand and marketing observers, professional and amateur alike, often end up sooner or later expressing the view, "The brand is successful because it has a succinct and clear identity." Or, alternatively, "The brand fails because it has no clearly iconic model line or image."

In the case of Breguet, I know of no brand that has a stronger, more clearly defined image in the minds of the consumers who really matter most to the brand -

the formally classical, immediately recognizable cases of the lions' share of the product line;
the historically inspired dial layouts and designs, usually impeccably executed;
the famous design elements used or developed by AL Breguet - the meticulously formed, finished, and blued pomme hands, Breguet arabics;
the more abstract homage to AL Breguet's technical innovativeness and daring, in the way of a wide variety complications, practical and useless.

Put more directly, have most any Breguet enter the room on a wrist, and it is difficult not to be able to properly identify it as a Breguet, even from half a basketball court distance away.

I find it ironic that this consistent, clearly identifiable style, so often used to explain the success or failure of other brands, is often inconsistently applied or denied in the case of Breguet.

It has been reported in certain internal market analyses within certain banks in Switzerland that 5 brands are usually considered "bankable" - Rolex, Patek, Cartier, Vacheron, Breguet. Like most statements of this sort, there can be as many reasonable refutations as there are affirmations. What is interesting in this statement is not whether it is "wholly correct and true," but that someone, somewhere, who is actually in a position to put their money where their mouth is, is willing to put their money on Breguet.

And in the world of marketing and business, that is the only currency that carries.

For any diehard or would-be fan of the brand (which I myself am not yet a confirmed member of either) there are legitimate reasons for concern, of course. Historically, there have been lapses in quality resulting in higher than normally acceptable return rates; marketing and distribution mis-steps - overpricing retail to ridiculous heights, then having market correcting mechanisms make a bad joke out of those suggested retail prices; questionable distribution practices and strategies that ended up with more product moving through non-authorized channels than authorized ones; callous indifference when legitimate issues were brought to the attention of the persons in charge.

However, in the here and now,

Mr. Hayek is a demonstrated, brilliant strategist and effective businessman;
changes are afoot; some of those plans are already seeing their execution as we speak;
very, very interesting new product and a streamlined distribution and marketing strategy are making their way to the markets.

Will they hit the mark? I don't know, and if anyone does, they wouldn't be wasting their time discussing it, they would be doing it.

A few last comments about vintage pieces and their value (i.e., non-current pieces, admittedly a rather loose definition of the term) -

There is an irrefutable "attraction" and prestige attached to high auction hammer prices. Patek, the reigning king of perceived value and prestige, particularly in the vintage area, leaves me wondering - what's all the noise about? I have had the pleasure of owning a few of the fraternal twins of some of these record setters. They are very nice, and certainly worthy of respect. But a difference of MULTIPLES for the identical movement, identical dial, identical case style, similar (or even better) condition, but different only because of having a (possibly) unique, different case material (platinum, steel)?

Please, we aren't talking horology here, we're talking ego and vanity, the pursuit of the "I have it, you don't; who cares if it is purely contrived" exclusivity. And sadly, this blind attraction to "exclusivity" lends itself to easy manipulation.

(As I say this from the sidelines, while quite a few acquaintances make a killing speculating and riding the bubble...)



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