Veteran watch journalist Joe Thompson, editor-in-chief of WatchTime, entertained attendees at the WatchTime New York show last weekend with stories about his 38 years covering the watch industry.
In a presentation called “On My Watch: Four Decades Covering the Watch World,” Thompson said that he was fortunate to get to cover three revolutions: the quartz-watch revolution of the 1970s, the fashion-watch revolution that started with the Swatch watch in the 1980s, and, most importantly, the mechanical-watch counter-revolution, or renaissance, in the 1990s.
Thompson began his presentation by declaring, “The mechanical watch is doomed!” After a pause, he went on: “If you were a young watch reporter in the late 1970s, you didn’t know much, but you did know one thing. You knew that the trusty tick-tock, which had had a good 400-year run, was doomed. You knew that because everybody in the industry told you so.” Thompson said that for someone like him, the WTNY show, so full of mechanical watches and mechanical watch lovers, was “a miracle!” “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said.
Thompson told three stories that he hoped would give “a sense of what it was like to have a front-row seat at the making of the modern watch world.”
The first story was about the watch wars of the 1970s. Thompson said there were three combatants. There were the Swiss, who were the world leaders on the strength of their traditional mechanical technology. There were the Japanese, who were clobbering the Swiss on world markets with their new battery-operated quartz watches, primarily quartz analog. But there was also a third force. These were American electronic companies who pushed digital quartz watches and were the most radical of all.
“They were out to eliminate not just mechanical watches but all analog timekeeping,” Thompson said. Thompson told the story of his encounter with the CEO of one of the digital-watch companies who told him that by the turn of the century everyone in America would use digital time and that watches with hands would be obsolete. That didn’t happen, of course. Thompson said that of the roughly 1 billion watches produced each year, only one in five is digital.
The other two stories had to do with Thompson’s coverage of Nicolas G. Hayek, Sr., the late chairman of the Swatch Group, who died in 2010. Thompson covered Hayek’s entire watch-industry career. He was the most significant figure in the watch world over the past 40 years, Thompson said, and was a crucial player in all three revolutions.
Thompson recounted Hayek’s dramatic entrance into the watch industry in the early 1980s. As Switzerland’s most successful consultant, Hayek was the man the watch industry called on to devise a way out of what Thompson says the Swiss still refer to as “the quartz crisis.” Hayek did. After two years of study, he presented a plan to rescue the industry. The Swiss banks, which were losing millions of Swiss francs bailing out watch companies, embraced the plan and recruited Hayek to implement the plan. Hayek became the CEO of a new company called SMH, and led the industry through the three revolutions.
SMH’s first great success was the Swatch watch, which created the fashion-watch revolution. Hayek became known as Mr. Swatch. Thompson’s second story was about a column he wrote in 1998 opposing Hayek’s decision to change the name of SMH to the Swatch Group, arguing that Omega, Blancpain, Longines and other brands should not be identified by a group named after a $35 plastic watch. Thompson described what it was like to cross swords with the colorful, powerful Hayek, who surprised Thompson with an angry phone call challenging him to come up with a better name for the company than “Swatch Group”.
Thompson’s third story had to do with Hayek’s involvement in Switzerland’s mechanical watch renaissance and his decision to have the Swatch Group acquire Montres Breguet and Nouvelle Lemania in 1999. The more he learned about Abraham-Louis Breguet, who founded the Breguet firm in Paris in 1775, the more Hayek appreciated his genius, Thompson said. Hayek’s evolution mirrored that of the industry: he evolved from Mr. Swatch of the 1980s to Mr. Breguet of the 2000s. Thompson talked about the circumstances surrounding Hayek’s decision to create an exact replica of Breguet watch, No. 160, the famous “Marie Antoinette” watch. Steeped in mystery and lore, the watch was ordered for French Queen Marie Antoinette in 1883. Due to the French Revolution, it was not finished until 1826. By that time, both Marie Antoinette and Breguet himself were dead. It was the world’s most complicated watch for 100 years. Donated in the 20th century to the L.A. Meyer Museum of Islamic Art, it was stolen in 1983. In 2005, Hayek decided to make an exact replica of the watch in Montres Breguet workshops. Amazingly, after Hayek announced that he was re-creating the “Marie Antoinette,” the original watch was returned to the museum after a deathbed confession by the thief. Hayek triumphantly unveiled the new “Marie Antoinette,” No. 1160, in 2008.