NEUCHATE: Andrew I-Jen Chen swapped a career crunching numbers at French bank BNP Paribas to take up an apprenticeship at one of Switzerland’s most prestigious watch-making schools. He is one of a growing number of people attracted to a career in horology as Swiss watch firms vie for staff to meet buoyant Asian demand for high-end timepieces and to fill the hole left when industry heavyweight Swatch decided to cut the volume of mechanical watch parts it sells to others.
Legislation to tighten the rules on what can be called a Swiss made product also means that watch companies are ploughing millions into new factories at a time when many Swiss firms are thinking of moving production abroad.
Exports of Swiss timepieces soared 19 per cent to a record USD 20.8 billion last year, rebounding from the USD 13.2 billion low hit in 2009 in the depths of the financial crisis.
Lessons from the past
At the heart of the watch sector’s success is a disciplined approach to innovation, says Maarten Pieters, director of the Watchmakers of Switzerland Training and Educational Programme (WOSTEP) based in Neuchatel.
In 16th century Geneva, the city’s strict Calvinist elders banned citizens from wearing jewellery, among other pleasures, forcing the local
jewellers and goldsmiths to find a new craft. The industry outgrew the city, expanding about 200 kilometres from Geneva to Basel. Over the
next four centuries, it consolidated its reputation for quality and innovation.
“Companies prepare for the future,” Pieters said. “They think about what’s going to happen in the next 10 years.” They do not always get it right. Caught off guard by the explosion of Japanese quartz watches on the market in the 1970s, about 60,000 jobs evaporated between 1970 and 1984 and nearly 1,000 firms shut shops. Lebanese immigrant Nicolas Hayek is widely regarded as saving the industry from cheap Asian imports by launching the colourful plastic Swatch watch in 1983.
Now, even with the franc about 30 per cent stronger than when the financial crisis hit in 2008, demand for fine pieces is keeping the industry booming and propping up national trade figures. It is Switzerland’s third most important export sector.
Swatch has pledged to create 500 new jobs in Switzerland this year, while Richemont, the world’s second largest luxury goods company, said it plans to create up to 2,000 jobs over two years, but finding qualified staff could prove a headache.
In 2011, the number of trainees enrolling at Switzerland’s seven watch-making schools was still only 425. Only 330 qualified watchmakers graduated. And with Swiss unemployment at just 3.1 per cent, compared with 10.9 per cent in the Euro Zone, there is no untapped reservoir of likely local candidates.
The silence of deep concentration hangs over the WOSTEP workshop. Learning to produce some of the 130 complex components of a mechan-ical watch is all the more pressing now as Swatch has decided to cut deliveries of parts. This is in a bid to force competitors to invest in their own production and choke off supplies to Asia, where they might be used to make fake Swiss products.
Some of Swatch’s customers have said the measures would jeopardise their growth and threaten jobs. But WOSTEP’s Pieters disagrees, arguing it will encourage brands to deepen their own watch-making know-how. The move follows amendments to the laws on what constitutes a Swiss made product.