If you have been following the Swiss watch industry for the past years, there’s been an undeniable shift towards the higher end of the market. While Swiss watch exports rose 17% between 2015 and 2022, the export value of watches with an export price below CHF 500* was halved over the same period. The industry growth has been driven by high-priced models while the low/mid-end segments have been under pressure for several years. In particular, the smartwatch expansion seems to have come at the expense of the lower-priced Swiss timepieces. But over the first six months of 2023, the total value of watches with an export price below CHF 500 rose drastically, and faster than the rest of the market. Earlier this month, Swiss watch powerhouse, Swatch Group reported sales up 18% for the first half of 2023 “with strongest growth in the lowest price level.” Accessible watches are still relevant but it is a matter of proposing the right product to create emotions.
*(an export value of CHF 500 most often translates into a retail price well over CHF 1,000)
The Evolution of prices and exports values from 2000 to 2023
Before entering into the ins and outs of the question of the return of accessible luxury watches, here is a quick recap of how the watch market, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FHS) and its export statistics, has evolved in several price categories.
As we can clearly see, over the period 2000-2022, the market has grown impressively, with a 155% increase in exports. Over the same period, watches priced at CHF 3,000 and above (remember, export prices) grew by a staggering 470%, now representing more than 75% of the market, compared to about a third in 2000. In the meantime, watches priced below CHF 200 or at CHF 200-500 respectively lost 44% and 34%.
Several factors can explain this situation. First, the average price of watches has grown significantly over this 20+ year period. For instance, a steel Rolex Submariner Date was priced at about CHF 3,200 in 2000, and it’s now priced at almost CHF 10,000. As such, it used to be positioned in the CHF 500-3,000 export price category and is now in the CHF 3,000 and above segment. There’s been a shift in price that partially explain the rise of the higher price segment. Second, we can’t deny an ever-growing appetite from customers for luxury watches, and luxury goods in general. The luxury market has been growing immensely over the past 20 years (according to www.statista.com, the luxury market grew from 116 billion euros in 2000 to 353 billion euros in 2022).
If we look more closely at the recent situation, using the statistics of the FHS for the month of June 2023, we can see that while the overall market is growing in value (+14%), the best performance has to be seen in the lower-end segments, specifically in the CHF 200-500 range, where many of the mechanical and accessible luxury watches are positioned.
The Return of Accessible Luxury Watches
The term “Accessible luxury” sounds like a paradox. However, it does resonate with consumers who seek a balance between quality, affordability, and aspirational values. As far as watches are concerned, with the advent of the smartwatch and the refocus on mechanical watchmaking, accessible brands had to reinvent themselves, adapting to evolving consumer preferences, digital transformation and the changing retail landscape. It is a matter of offering value-conscious watches but with a point of view, with a focus that is not just on ownership and status, but rather on emotions and values. And indeed, some brands have adapted or even reinvented themselves with a more open, accessible attitude from consumers, specifically Gen-Z and Millennials.
In line with this idea of creating watches in line with current aspirations, Swatch’s playful take on the iconic Omega Speedmaster, the MoonSwatch, was a smash hit and a true turnaround for the brand. As explained by Nick Hayek Jr. in an interview with the South China Morning Post, “You had to throw everything you had been thinking about overboard and try to open your mind and think differently, but we had to try to stay within the DNA of Swatch’s positive provocation and joy of life.“ Over one million MoonSwatches were sold in 2022 and the demand has continued unabated so far.
The trend for neo-vintage watches, with the recreation of past glories or the success of the luxury sports watch with integrated bracelets, has also been a successful source of inspiration. The Tissot PRX and the Maurice Lacroix Aikon have been massive hits and true game-changers for both brands. Naturally, this is not just a Swiss thing. Japanese brands excel in this segment. Seiko has relaunched its Seiko 5 Sports collection in 2019 with prices starting from about EUR 280. Launched last year, the Citizen Tsuyosa Automatic is another example showing that a good mechanical watch does not have to break the bank…
A new generation of accessible watch brands
Besides the established brands in the segment and their effort to reinvent themselves, a new generation of accessible watch brands has been entering the market, disrupting some of the traditional industry models. Brands like Baltic, Furlan Marri or Nivada Grenchen are true success stories and they are often ahead of the curve in many respects. They offer cool, vintage-inspired watches at an affordable price but also have great agility and a great capacity to engage online with their community. And, importantly, their watches are emotionally driven, answering the need to connect to a watch that has a story to tell, and not only the time to display.
Etienne Malec, Founder of Baltic Watches, advises that their credo is to “offer watches with a vintage feel, with their charm and personality, at an attractive price – all this with the advantage of modern watches in terms of reliability while remaining between 400 to 2,000 Euros.” The brand has seen triple-digit growth per year since its creation 6 years ago and sold about 15,000 watches in 2022.
These brands have also taken full advantage of the digital transformation to become fully relevant in a changing retail landscape. Most of these brands are operating mostly online, sometimes taking advantage of crowdfunding platforms to minimize risks. Importantly, by adopting this direct-to-customer strategy and cutting out middlemen, they are able to provide watches offering excellent value for the money. In this respect, the rise of brands like Christopher Ward is a prime example.
Andrea Furlan, Co-founder and lead designer of Furlan Marri explains “We started during the Covid pandemic, so everything had to be online. We naturally continued in this direction because e-commerce allows us to collect data, precisely identify buyer behaviour and adapt quickly to market trends. Digital helps us at a strategic level.”
Etienne Malec advises that this direct-to-customer is engrained with the e-commerce generation. “This gives us total control over our margin structure and our prices. This allows us to offer attractive prices. The downside is that it is not simple to try on our watches. We will keep opening showrooms in the most logical places for us and keep working on our logistics to offer the smoothest and most fluid experience to our customers.” Baltic currently has showrooms in Paris and London and considers opening its next in New York.
This combination of new players, with fresh ideas in both commercial activities and product creation, and the flexibility of some well-established brands could well bring back the slightly overlooked accessible luxury watches segment. While low-end Swiss watches, powered by quartz movements, will certainly continue to suffer from the connected watch, a slightly higher price range, if managed cleverly, by offering emotionally-driven mechanical products at fair prices, can be the solution. And now that big players have entered yet another segment of price, with a Submariner slowly approaching the 10k Swiss francs barrier (at retail price) or a Speedmaster being close to 7k Swiss francs now, there’s surely room for other players to actively bring the once-important accessible luxury watch category back to its former glory.