It’s a simple market rule: if a product or brand cannot adapt to ever-changing consumer needs, it is bound to collapse sooner or later. Unfortunately, in the world of watchmaking, this has happened all too often. And not always because market demands were too low for a brand to cope. Sometimes, it just wasn’t their time. A real shame, according to Tom van Wijlick.
The Dutch watch enthusiast and CEO for Compagnie des Montres Lebois & Cie has made it his mission to track down and restore these pedigree mechanical watch brands and revive them in a single effort. It is reminiscent of Jean-Claude Biver, who became somewhat of an industry celebrity after reviving Blancpain and helping the ailing watch company Omega back on its feet.
Starting from Scratch
“I have nothing against new brands,” Van Wijlick says, “But sometimes beautiful, longstanding household names with impressive track records unnecessarily disappear because of external forces, which is an absolute shame.” He adds that setting up a new brand brings lots of advantages, “but in an age where storytelling is more important than ever, a new watch brand simply cannot compete with the stature of the renowned watchmaking families of yore.”
To him, old watch brands possess value, simply through their prior existence. “Some new brands drum up a bogus brand story and call it added value. Yet they are too young to have achieved anything to give them real clout yet. All the while, traditional watchmaking families with impressive histories dedicated their lives to perfecting beautifully accurate pieces of sublime mechanical engineering. Surviving for as long as they did through all kinds of trials, crises, and wars is a worthy story in and of itself. They just deserve to be revived and preserved.”
One reason for the demise of many old brands is the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. Traditional mechanical watchmakers with unique traditions and impressive pedigrees saw themselves flushed out by a cheap but more accurate, mass-produced new technology that took the market by storm. The old horologers’ defining traits were mechanical accuracy, and they used to be watch buyers’ only option. From a consumer’s perspective, however, the choice is logical: if you only need a watch for telling time, you’ll want it as cheaply as possible, regardless of a brand’s story or heritage. Quartz watches cost a fraction of the price it takes to produce a mechanical timepiece.
But the established houses just couldn’t throw their good name overboard and bend the knee. “It was a matter of honour,” explains Van Wijlick. “You do not just replace your mechanics with cheap run-of-the-mill electronics when mechanical accuracy was your defining trait in the first place.” Sales plummeted, and many could no longer stay afloat, much to the dismay of real watch lovers with a genuine appreciation for the art of the craft. Generally speaking, watch enthusiasts aren’t interested in low prices. They are willing to pay for skilfully crafted timepieces, and revel in their backstories. Tom van Wijlick counts himself among them.
From Essential Tool to Personal Accessory
And there’s a market for it, too. Van Wijlick points out that times have changed. In our mobile-minded digital age, wrist watches are no longer an essential tool. We simply look at our smartphones or laptop screens to get an accurate time reading. Van Wijlick even admits to it himself. Yet he explains that a watch now has new relevance as an exclusive piece of jewellery, an expression of one’s personality and flair, or simply for personal enjoyment. “A watch has become a thing to admire, rather than just to look at. It’s about being associated with traits represented in the brand. Endurance, finesse, accuracy, to name just a few. And longstanding traditions.”
Demands for Durability
Consumer needs have changed as well. “The next generations bring a whole new world view and energy to the table. They demand a straightforward answer to questions about durability and a brand’s impact on the world. Reviving old watch brands is a bit like recycling in itself. Moreover, investing in a lasting mechanical timepiece that can be sent for repairs time and again is much more sustainable than buying single-use watches or batteries that must be replaced every other year.” He goes on to explain that he continuously balances tradition with practicality: “Industry standards have improved. We want to honour the old brands’ methods, yet make them relevant for today’s market needs.” Some manufacturers are even experimenting with the use recycled steel, and lugs and casings are now sturdier and longer-lasting than before. Today’s traditional mechanical timepieces are built to last.
Individual Investor Interest
Revived old brands are an interesting niche for investors, according to Van Wijlick. New generations of watch lovers are dedicated to genuine brand stories. They are more than happy to pay larger sums if they find a watch they like. “They are very self-aware, and shallow brand promises do not fool them for one second. Old brands have earned their time and place in history, and often possess a wealth of emotional evidence of affecting real peoples’ lives through their products. We’ve seen that with the historically relevant Airain Type 20 in the French Air Force, or Omega’s iconic Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch. That’s real value for money.” Which is why Van Wijlick is keen to make an effort.
Starting a Family
The entrepreneurially minded Van Wijlick doesn’t just stop at one brand. “As an industry adept, I’ve come across many beautiful but dormant brands, steeped in genuine tradition, all with their own unique personality. It’s like asking a parent who is their favourite child. I can’t choose one over the others. I want to start a family of historically relevant watch brands.” And his growing circle of contacts wholeheartedly supports him for it.
He adds that this makes it more interesting for investors as well. “By betting on multiple race horses simultaneously, we spread our chances of winning. We know from experience that our clientele loves to look around and compare. Our clients know that if we commit a brand to our collection, they can trust that it is worth it.”
To make his dreams come true, and attract eager investors with a keen eye for watch traditions, Van Wijlick has opened a crowdfunding campaign on Eureeca.com, an international investment platform. He’s quite confident about the outcome. “We’re already at 104% of our minimum required investment target, and pre-sales for one of our re-editions have already surpassed our initial 2020 target by 89%.”