DIVING DEEP TO REVIVE THE SWISS WATCH INDUSTRY
January 2, 2019
The glitterati of the global film industry made their annual pilgrimage to the Côte d'Azur for the Cannes Film Festival in April 1956. That year stands out because it was the first time that the Palm d’Or, the festival’s most prestigious award, was awarded to a documentary film, The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau. His pioneering use of underwater cinematography delighted audiences and critics, many of whom were seeing the aquatic realm in full color for the first time. One detail that probably escaped notice was the watch worn in the film by chief diver Andre Laban. The watch was a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, a state-of-the-art dive watch that had recently been developed for the elite combat dive school of the French Navy. The audience that screened Cousteau’s film that spring would probably be surprised to learn that this insignificant detail would be used 40 years later to help define the heritage for a global luxury watch brand.
The story of Blancpain is, in many ways, the story of the Swiss watch industry. Blancpain was founded in 1735, just as the domestic watch industry was beginning to emerge. About 150 years later, Blancpain typified the Swiss industrial trend toward mechanization and mass production, a trend that established Switzerland’s position as the global leader in watch production, usurping England, France, and the United States. Unfortunately for Blancpain, and the Swiss watch industry as a whole, this leadership position would not remain unchallenged.
The 1970s saw the rise of a serious competitive threat from Japanese watchmakers, who used superior management techniques and popularized innovative quartz technology, and global macroeconomic forces that drastically increased the relative cost of Swiss watches in key export markets. This perfect storm almost wiped out the Swiss watch industry. Swiss watch production fell from a high of 84 million watches in 1974 to a low of just 30 million in 1983. This tumultuous period has become known in the industry as “the watchmaking crisis” or simply “the crisis.” Blancpain, like with many other Swiss brands, became a casualty of this crisis and ceased operations. The few brands that managed to survive did so by producing quartz watches, which at the time were widely believed to be the future of the watch industry.
However, a handful of watchmakers and industry executives lamented this so-called progress, believing that consumers would grow bored with quartz technology and eventually crave the tactile satisfaction and tantalizing complexity of traditional mechanical watchmaking. Chief among them were Jean-Claude Biver, an executive at Omega, and Jacques Piguet, owner of the renowned independent movement supplier Frédéric Piguet, who together developed a plan to prove that traditional craftsmanship could surpass innovative technology. With this concept in mind, they began searching for a brand that could serve as the vehicle for this vision.
The Blancpain that we know today was re-born during the throes of the crisis. At the time, Blancpain existed as nothing more than a trademark, owned by the struggling conglomerate Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogére SA (SSIH), which also owned major brands like Omega and Tissot. When Biver and Piguet approached SSIH about acquiring the Blancpain brand, the conglomerate was happy to let it go at a fire sale price of only 18,000 Swiss Francs (then about US$30,000). The visionary duo of Biver and Piguet proceeded to create new product lines using high-quality Frédéric Piguet movements in order to position the new Blancpain as a prestige manufacturer of luxury watches and a guardian of traditional Swiss craftsmanship.
Blancpain was the first “new” mechanical watch brand created during the crisis, and the first to capitalize on the power of brand heritage. The original Blancpain brand had languished and ultimately failed in the 1970s due to its inability to innovate and produce a viable quartz watch. Biver turned this failure into a rallying cry for mechanical watchmaking with the famous slogan, “Since 1735 there has never been a Blancpain quartz watch. And there never will." Biver used this quartz aversion to spiritually unite the new and old Blancpain brands and effectively backdate the new firm’s brand heritage to 1735. This novel approach to brand positioning, which put heritage front and center, earned Biver a reputation as a nostalgia salesman.
The resurrected brand’s first line of watches was launched in 1983, accompanied by marketing communications that focused on the intricacy of its complicated mechanical movements. At the time, most brands were espousing the virtues of quartz technology, so this was an unproven strategy that depended on convincing customers that a luxury watch is, by definition, a traditional mechanical watch.
The launch of Blancpain was met with skepticism from industry observers, but it was a hit with consumers. In the six years from 1985 to 1991, revenues surged from 9 million to 56 million Swiss Francs. In 1992, the Swatch Group, then known as Société de Microélectronique et d'Horlogerie (SMH), acquired Blancpain for 60 million Swiss Francs and appointed Biver to its board of directors. The success of Blancpain paved the way for the industry’s transition to luxury by proving that consumers would pay a premium for watches that are overtly traditional and uniquely Swiss.
The story of Blancpain came full circle in 1997, when the brand launched a successor to the Fifty Fathoms dive watch worn by members of Jacques Cousteau’s crew. The current Fifty Fathoms now forms a cornerstone of Blancpain’s product portfolio, and has enabled the brand to develop an additional connection to the heritage of the original Blancpain brand. Furthermore, this aquatic heritage has given direction and purpose to the company’s corporate social responsibility focus, the Blancpain Ocean Commitment. Through this initiative, Blancpain sponsors underwater research and photography, bringing attention to the ocean’s critical need for environmental conservation.
The visionary formula that Biver developed to transform Blancpain from a defunct maker of military-grade dive watches into a global luxury brand for the post-quartz era has become a strategic template for launching luxury watch brands. Since the rebirth of Blancpain, defunct brands like Bovet, Jaquet Droz, Angelus, Arnold & Son, Ferdinand Berthoud, and many others have been reborn and reimagined as luxury brands using this formula.