While everyone is talking about haute horlogerie, no one as ever has written down in a conclusive manner what defines this label. The Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie has finally decided to sort the wheat from the chaff and recently published the first White Paper on Fine Watchmaking.
The trigger point to start this project was quite obvious. If you make a claim using the term “haute horlogerie/fine watchmaking” you have to be capable of defining it! The FHH was many times faced with the same question: “What differentiates fine watchmaking from watchmaking?”
So they came up with a sentence designating the world of fine watchmaking: “Fine watchmaking is excellence in watchmaking, the techniques of watchmaking in symbiosis with the applied arts.”
But you can’t get away with just that sentence, with watch collectors becoming increasingly literate and having learned that a critical second look at the watchmaking world helps to better appreciate the difference between the good and the excellent.
Moreover, we are in a market where new and existing players are applying the codes of fine watchmaking visually, but not respecting either the ingredients, nor the recipes to make genuine timepieces. It is like opening a French restaurant and putting on the menu good-sounding plates such as foie gras and then using products which where neither produced in France, nor respect the elaborate process of making traditional foie gras.
So, the goal of this white paper is to apply criteria that will set apart people respecting the tradition genuinely and not just “packing,” for instance, a Swiss-made movement into a Chinese-made case and dial, etc.
Therefore, the evaluation made in this white paper is as much about the product as the ingredients and the manufacturing processes. It is also evaluating the coherence between what a brand says and what it does. A very central point in the whole process is to understand how much the brand or the artisan is aligned with their communication and their claims.
I had the pleasure of meeting the whole team behind this ambitious task at FHH, and foremost, the man who initiated the project, Mr. Franco Cologni, a living legend of Swiss watchmaking and a founding member of the FHH.
His vision after a long stint as a board member of Richemont, was to create an independent organization capable of endorsing some essential claims of the brands thought to be part of an elite league.
But let’s start with the first question, which is: what is the mission of the FHH and how does it work?
In 2005, three partners decided to create a foundation to promote the values of fine watchmaking: the Richemont Group, Audemars Piguet, and Girard Perregaux.
The three main goals pursued by the FHH are:
And last but not least, the FHH is also the organizer of the Salon de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), the major event – besides Baselworld – showing every year in Geneva the novelties of la crème de la crème of fine watchmaking.
In other words, the FHH is acting as the guardian of the temple, as other official bodies such as the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry FH are not in such a position - or at least not willing - to define what differentiates fine watchmaking from the rest.
Many years ago, Mr. Cologni wanted to set a benchmark to finally lay down a clear line between the elite of watchmaking and everyone else. Using the FHH as the think tank to become the jury of this challenging task is a legitimate way of saying that the project is not being driven by the interests of only a few brands or luxury groups. The FHH is today funded by as many as 25 brands (a 26th is to be announced soon, and it is coming from the independents' corner…), and of course, historically and factually, the Richemont Group is still a predominant partner… In a positive way, by providing, for instance, the facilities for the FHH.
Fine, but what is the added value for the clientele of fine watchmaking to know exactly what the criteria are that make you a member or not of this elite league?
In times of transparency, traceability, and genuine values, the luxury industry overall, including the watch industry, is challenged by their existing and their aspirational customers to lay down some of their cards. Not all of them, of course, because – and this is especially true for watches – the industry is still full of mysteries, and sales figures on a brand level do not exist.
So, the first thing to know is that the FHH is not restricting the access to its label of haute horlogerie by quantities, but by quality criteria mainly. The first criteria chosen to differentiate the brands is the market segment or natural territories of the brands:
So the remark that I dare to make - and it’s in the interest of the consumers - is that the initial thought was to adapt the selection criteria to players with fundamentally different backgrounds, in terms of size, history, and clients’ focus. Even though Kari Voutilainen produces fewer than 50 watches per year, he is crafting timepieces which are to be measured with the same quality criteria as a maison such as Patek Philippe which manufactures 1,000 times more watches each year.Both pursue, in their own manner, a quest to perpetuate a tradition of fine watchmaking.
But one was born a few years ago, and the other one continues a tradition of more than 150 years.
Now, we come to the quintessential point of the process, which is: who is deciding what fine watchmaking is, and how are the brands being evaluated?
It was decided at an early stage that the panel of independent experts had to be large enough (46 members) and as independent as possible from the brands.
My only criticism in this respect is the fact that no one from the manufacturing side (cases, dials, hands, etc.) is represented on any board, and that some names I saw on the list are more self-proclaimed than real experts. On the positive side, the panel is cross-cultural and diversified in terms of expertise.
This brings me to the side remark that, at the start of the project three years ago, the steering committee selected 105 brands which received a survey on how they were manufacturing their timepieces, etc. Some of the brands didn’t dare to reply, and some were not selected in the final evaluation. So finally, 86 of them underwent the process, and 64 of them were selected to enter the "champion’s league" of watchmaking.
Of course, some of them now regret that they haven’t been more active or… less arrogant.
So how are the brands being evaluated?
The brands are measured in seven different areas of expertise:
This is a very good range of internal and external elements that qualify a brand and its products. It addresses where the brand comes from and where it wants to go.
We will go into more details of each criteria later on.
The panel of experts is provided with the data that the FHH is capable of providing them with. In other words: in the watch industry, many aspects such as the sourcing of components (e.g., parts of the movement) are kept very secret, and there are no surveys available. So the primary data used in this evaluation is based on the goodwill of the brands themselves willing to give the information for the survey sent to them by the FHH or the knowledge that is publicly available.
Each member of the cultural council evaluates the brand by giving it a grade from 1 to 10 for each area and a 65-35% weighting between objective (measurable, differentiating, etc.) and an individual appreciation.
Mr. Pascal O. Ravessoud of the FHH told me that the toughest experts in the field of the subjective evaluation were the watch collectors sitting on the different boards. And that might prove to be a main asset for the consumers reading this white paper and the list of members because it reflects the real market’s point of view.
Each domain of expertise was then divided by criteria, which by its essence can be questioned, but overall I think that the project team has done very good work.
My only remarks to Mr. Ravessoud and Mr. Cologni were that due to the opacity of the watchmaking industry some facts are difficult to know: e.g., how can you exactly know the provenance of a watch movement and rate it as an in-house movement when so many collaborations between the watch brands and "motorists" exist.
My other remark was that a criteria being triggered by the use of precious metals, gem-setting, or special alloys was not quite accurate, as, for example, Richard Mille is definitely making haute horlogerie even when he makes his cases in polymer material.
R&D, production, and technical expertise
In this field, eight evaluation criteria were used, from range of quality to the quality of finishing of the movements. The movements are, of course, more highly valued if they are designed and produced in-house, but a luxury or contemporary brand can satisfy the criteria by having exclusive movements developed by specialized third-party ateliers such as Chronode or Agenhor. A lot of attention is also given to the quality of finishing (chamfering, polishing, satin brushing).
Another aspect is the technical innovation brought with the movements and if they’re certified by an official authority such as COSC, Poinçon de Genève, Qualité Fleurier, etc.
For the so-called external parts such as dials, cases, etc., the credits are given according to the percentage of in-house designed and/or developed parts.
I would only consider movements with a 100% in-house R&D including the escapement, at least for the so-called Historic Maisons and Artisans-Creators. But that would probably reduce the list to fewer than 35 names.
Style, design, and artistic expertise
This is probably the most subjective part of the whole evaluation because it includes criteria ranging from original product design to the use of métiers d’art (what is the exact definition here?), new designs, and techniques.
The four criteria are, of course, mostly very subjective, but the idea is probably to ascertain if certain codes of fine watchmaking design are respected. It is a wide field when you want to compare an Urwerk with a Calatrava from Patek Philippe.
History and DNA
The FHH was clever enough to introduce two different sets for this evaluation: one for the Historic Maisons where the three criteria go from “authentic and uninterrupted history,” to the respect of the founder’s spirit, to the conservation strategy (heritage collection and archives).
For the contemporary brands, the three criteria range from developing and documenting their own history, the will to “progress in watchmaking,” and the will to start their heritage and their archives.
This is the domain where I can’t agree with some of the criteria, such as the uninterrupted history. Everyone knows that a brand living through centuries may one day stop producing due to external events, such as wars, etc. Is Panerai less a historical brand than Piaget? Yes, if we look at the interruption of their production; no, if we look at their heritage. And the second criteria not being applied to the Historic Maisons "established with the will to contribute to progress in watchmaking." Well, I wish that some of the so-called "manufactures" would dare to do as much as the Artisans-Creators do with their limited capabilities in terms of finance, R&D, etc.
Distribution and after-sales service
This is, of course, the most crucial point for any client of fine watchmaking. The three criteria relate to the quality of the retailers, the quality of the after-sales service (waiting time and cost when I have to service or repair my watch), and the selectiveness of the distribution and the pricing policy.
One important point is missing here: the online sales! We all know that distribution is undergoing a tremendous change from a totally outdated multi-brand retailer with as many as 20 brands in a single shop, to both mono-brand boutiques and online sales.
All major brands, independent or affiliated with a luxury group, have integrated their wholesale business in the last 20-25 years; the days of independent distributors (wholesalers) are over, for sure, for any established brand. The next war going on is the qualitative reduction of the number of POS needed around the world. Any brand today tries to reduce and switch from multi-brand to mono-brand stores for a better control of the brand’s image, higher margins, and better inventory control globally.
On top of that, we have a major trend coming up with the hybrid model of the digital + brick-and-mortar business model linked to digital sales. The web site is the window, and the showroom is the replacement for the traditional retailer.
Connoisseurs and Collectors
This is probably the most relevant point by which to judge a brand: how is it perceived by the collector community? What are the prices for the historical timepieces and the contemporary pieces at auctions? And most importantly: what is the resale value after 10 years excluding the auctions.
Who other than the potential buyers can give a value to express the goodwill linked to a brand and its products? Excellent way of giving you the buyers and aspirational buyers the power of rating.
Brand image and communication
The first four criteria evaluate the brand’s esteem, the product identity (might be redundant with the set of criteria listed on the design), the digital presence, and the corporate ethics.
The other three criteria are linked to the training of the sales staff and the technical staff.
I couldn’t agree more on evaluating the brand’s efforts to have their products presented and serviced in a professional and appropriate manner. Most of the institutional brands have achieved big improvements in this field in the last 10 years, knowing that it is a sensitive area.
In conclusion, my feeling is that a tremendous amount of work has been done by the FHH and the cultural council members (all of them worked pro bono!). As Mr. Cologni said to me at the end of our meeting, it is an ongoing process, and it will improve with each new version to be released every two or three years.
The idea was not to make the Gault & Millau or Parker’s of fine watchmaking with a ranking, but to clearly define haute horlogerie and have an independent jury decide who was to become a member of this elite league.
The killjoys won’t be happy because their favorite brand is not included, and I asked the secretary of the steering committee – Mr. Ravessoud – why in fact one specific brand had made it and another one not. I must say, in one case, the reason for the non-admission was questionable, but for all the other cases I could agree with them that some brands have some homework to do before they can pretend to be part of the haute horlogerie.
I would definitely credit the FHH with the merit of giving the consumers a clear definition and using a transparent method to evaluate the candidates. Watch collectors get a label in which they can trust, as it is an independent organization managing the whole process. Two thirds of the brands admitted into this first selection are not part of the FHH, and that should be enough of a proof of independence.
Time will tell if the FHH manages to communicate to the clients of fine watchmaking how important it is to work on transparency and respect tradition, knowledge, and artisanship defined on commonly understandable criteria.
We have seen in the past a few examples of “quality” labels or hallmarks fail, not because they are not well-thought-of, but because the consumers wouldn’t understand what they are about.
My guess and wish for the sake of the future of fine watchmaking is that the client of a timepiece manufactured with the codes of “haute horlogerie” will appreciate the list as a trustworthy indicator.
The 64 brands which entered the list of haute horlogerie established by the FHH:
A. Lange & Söhne, Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, Bovet Fleurier, Breguet, Breitling, Bulgari, Cartier, Chopard, Girard Perregaux, Glashütte Original, H. Moser & Cie, Harry Winston, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Jaquet Droz, Officine Panerai, Omega, Patek Philippe, Piaget, Rolex, TAG Heuer, Ulysse Nardin, Vacheron Constantin, Van Cleef & Arpels, Zenith.
Armin Strom, Ateliers Louis Moinet, Cabestan, Christophe Claret, De Bethune, De Witt, FP Journe, Greubel Forsey, Hautlence, Hublot, HYT, Laurent Ferrier, Maîtres du Temps, MB&F, MCT, Parmigiani, Ressence, Richard Mille, Roger Dubuis, Romain Gauthier, Romain Jerome, Speake Marin, Urwerk.
Chanel, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Montblanc.
Andreas Strehler, Antoine Preziuso, Beat Haldimann, Christiaan Van des Klaauw, Grönefeld, Kari Voutilainen, Philippe Dufour, Roger W. Smith, Sarpaneva, Thomas Prescher, Vianney Halter.
Oliver R. Müller, Founder, LuxeConsult
Oliver R. Müller is a longstanding observer of, and consultant for, the watch industry with his own opinions about certain industry behaviour. The content here is never on specific products or brands and you will not find product reviews!