The watchmaker-repairer: a dying trade?

L'orologiaio riparatore: un mestiere in via di estinzione?

For some months now, on the pages of L'OROLOGIO, we have been conducting a debate on the after-sales service situation in Italy. The situation is delicate for many independent watch repairers, who find themselves unable to obtain spare parts, which the manufacturers only supply to their own service network, mostly linked to official dealers.

Many watchmakers have written to us about this sensitive issue. The following is an interesting letter, with a reply, which will be published in the next issue 162 of L'OROLOGIO, on newsstands in about a week's time.


Dear Director,

I am Pierluigi Doni, an independent watchmaker for 38 years and responsible for the category of Confartigianato.

I read with interest the interviews that appeared in Nos. 159-160 of your magazine, and I am not surprised that Mr Mario Peserico, president of Assorologi, does not take a position on the 'spare parts supply' issue, as Assorologi groups together the distribution companies that are subject to the directives of the Swiss parent companies.

Confartigianato and CNA have been trying for several years to find a way of dialogue with Swiss manufacturers and Italian distributors but have always come up against a rubber wall.

As early as the end of the 1990s, the problem of spare parts was already making itself felt and even independent watchmakers who had been serviced by reputable brands (trained by the same companies and recognised as 'master watchmakers' with a printed certificate) were denied the possibility of procuring spare parts for unspecified 'new organisational strategies'. In the space of a few years, by setting up a cartel, all the major brands centralised servicing, with soaring repair costs and extremely long lead times, as they no longer had any competition.

Have we now reached the absurd point where we independent watchmakers cannot even get a replacement strap from the big brands because 'we don't have the technical skills and the necessary equipment'? And don't tell me that a strap will counterfeit a watch.

Confartigianato also organised, as part of the Quality in Watchmaking Project, advanced courses for Italian watchmakers at the Swiss Wostep school and received praise from the teachers and the school director for the preparation and seriousness of the participants in the various courses, but even this did not help in the dialogue with Swiss manufacturers.

Realising that the spare parts problem is a European problem, Confartigianato and CNA contacted trade associations in other countries and in 2003 the CEAHR (European Confederation of Watchmakers' Associations) was founded in Brussels with the participation of Austria, Belgium, France, England, Italy and the Netherlands and began collecting documents proving the discriminatory attitude of watch manufacturers towards independent watchmakers.

Within a short time, a document of over 400 pages was prepared and used to file a complaint with the European Competition Commission.

Unfortunately, for more than two years the powerful Swiss lobby has managed to keep the appeal to the commission blocked, and in the meantime we independent watchmakers are also suffering because this situation allows a few schemers to make the black market in original spare parts flourish and also puts supply warehouses in a bad situation.

This being the case, several colleagues have closed down or are about to do so, others who had employees have downsized and others are undergoing branding with the appropriate constraints.

Even young people who undertake training have a future of dependence on the big brands, without the possibility of professional development, as even the new funding projects of the Milan school I believe are aimed at finding labour for the service centres of the big brands, where work is sectorialised and it is difficult to become a finished watchmaker.

With this outlook, the watchmaking profession, understood as passion, dedication and, if you like, even inventiveness, will come to an end and the culture of maintaining a watch that over time becomes part of the family and is loaded with memories passed down through generations will be lost.

This is, in short, the situation experienced with much discomfort by the category.

Sincerely yours.

Pierluigi Doni

Dear Mr Doni,

We are pleased to publish your letter, which sums up the frustration of an entire category in an exemplary manner. And which confirms to us that the independent watchmaking profession in Italy is facing a very critical moment. The particularly difficult situation for you craftsmen is also reflected in the market. The tug-of-war with the manufacturers has the consequence that it is impossible for the owner of a watch to freely choose the craftsman or workshop to whom to entrust it. For very important parts, there is even an obligation to send the watch for servicing in Switzerland, with costs rising accordingly. This should be enough to stir up consumer opinion to support your petitions at the institutional forums (including the European Commission, which has already been approached). Knowing that consumer awareness in Italy is not mature enough to assert their rights with the same vigour as, for example, American consumer associations, we wonder what is happening in other European countries. You tell us about a European Confederation of Watch Repairers Associations. It would be interesting to know which nations have joined and whether the situation in the different countries is identical or only similar to the Italian one.

Furthermore, we wonder how the precedent of the automobile industry, where manufacturers were obliged to supply spare parts to all repair shops regardless, could not function as an ice-breaker for your protest.

The only certainty, so far, is that an entire category of small artisan entrepreneurs in Italy is at risk of extinction, which is also seeking visibility and support through the pages of L'OROLOGIO. At this point, it is only right to offer a chance to replicate those operators, distributors and manufacturers, who with their protectionist policies are helping to force so many small businesses to 'close shop'.

We as the press provide the space for the debate. It is now up to all those involved, including the consumers themselves whose freedom of choice and spending is being decided, to participate and make their views known.