Swiss watches: time’s not up

Time is still money. But timekeeping costs nothing. A multiplicity of devices bought for other purposes — notably mobile phones — display the hour. No modern utilitarian needs an old-school wrist watch. The decision of retailer Watches of Switzerland to list in London may seem foolhardy.

Competition comes not only from pocket phones, but the kind you strap to your wrist too. The main London outlet of WoS, purveyor of Rolex and Patek Philippe, is near the Apple store, seller of the eponymous smart watch since 2015.

Apple launched its watch in 2015, well after Samsung had weighed in. Apple’s version not only came with clever functions, but looked, well, smart. Some now cost up to £1,500. The smartwatch market has nearly doubled in size to $13bn in three years, says Euromonitor.

In theory, the toll on the Swiss watch industry should be heavy. In practice, it is ticking over nicely.

Digital technology has taken a bite out of cheaper Swiss watches, priced below SFr200 (£150). Exports have fallen a quarter since Apple launched its smart wearable. Shares in Swatch have languished for nine years.

Pricier Swiss watches are still much in demand as luxury goods. The average export price has not budged for five years. Volumes are healthy. The fanciest watches rise in value. One Patek sold for SFr23m in a 2014 auction, doubling in over 15 years.

Patek’s slogan — “You only look after one for the next generation” — can sound corny. But the built-in obsolescence of smart devices has given it new currency.

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