2020 annus horribilis for watchmaking? It is difficult to say to what extent, since the data at our disposal do not provide an accurate picture of the sector. The only reliable ones are those for Swiss exports, thus relating to the top end of the market. But they cannot describe what is really happening in the individual markets: neither the sell-out nor the re-export phenomenon.
A snapshot of the lower end of the watch market, at least in Italy, is provided by the report carried out by Gfk on commission from Assorologi. A survey based on the panel of the consulting firm, which specialises in market research. Already in the past, I have pointed out how some of the answers given in the survey suggested that the majority of respondents are of an advanced age ('Do you own a watch?': 'I don't know'). The question that is asked every year in the trade press is then why Assorologi, funded by the major high-end watch manufacturers, only focuses on the watchmaking mass market.
The survey speaks of a decline in watch purchases of 28% in Italy, a market worth EUR 1.5 billion in 2020. Taking into account an average price of around €200, the drop in value and quantity is comparable, still around 30%. But we who love haute horology know that this is not the case. Even just in the export figures communicated by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, we read in Europe a drop of 31.4% in quantity of wristwatches, but 'only' 25.2% in value (worldwide: -33.3% in units and -21.4% in value).
In a year in which Italian sales outlets severely suffered from the lack of international tourism, there was a substantial growth in collecting. International auctions marked historic records and the emergence of new brands, in addition to the usual Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, including the recent F.P. Journe phenomenon. Even Omega, thanks to the anniversary operations on the Speedmaster, is reaping great rewards in the vintage sector, now explored in the light of day even by big names in retail, from Pisa to Verga, to name the most famous.
Lastly, the Italian clientele is regaining importance, rewarding above all traditional sales channels. Neighbourhood watch shops are thus gaining ground against the single-brand boutiques in city centres, which are popular with Asian tourists, and are now being courted by brands. A change we sympathise with, which goes against the tide of the prevailing globalisation. Which is, unfortunately, transforming the commercial landscape of our large and historic cities into a photocopy of a thousand other metropolises around the world.