This year, watch com­pa­nies will have to meet stricter re­quire­ments to la­bel their watches “Swiss Made”. Here’s what it means and how much it mat­ters.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - TEXT LYNETTE KOH

Here’s what “Swiss Made” watches mean and how much it mat­ters

At this year’s Salon In­ter­na­tional de la Haute Hor­logerie (SIHH) watch fair in Geneva, sev­eral in­ter­est­ing new spins on watch­case ma­te­ri­als were in­tro­duced: Richard Mille’s ul­tra-light car­bon­based graphene; Aude­mars Piguet’s ham­mered Frosted Gold… and H. Moser’s cheese.

Yes, that’s right. One of the key high­lights for the in­de­pen­dent lux­ury watch­maker was the Swiss Mad, a watch made from a com­pos­ite con­tain­ing Swiss cheese. And not just any cheese, but Vacherin Mont d’or, which comes from the same vil­lage as H. Moser CEO Edouard Mey­lan. It also has a cowhide strap. The watch’s rai­son d’etre: To make a satir­i­cal state­ment against the cri­te­ria that com­pa­nies have to meet in or­der to la­bel their watches as “Swiss Made”.

At the begin­ning of this year, new laws kicked in, re­quir­ing 60 per cent – in­stead of the for­mer 50 per cent – of the value of a “Swiss Made” prod­uct to be of Swiss ori­gin. For Mey­lan, these stan­dards still re­main far too lax. Speak­ing to us at the SIHH, he elab­o­rated on the Swiss Mad time­piece: “It’s an ab­surd idea. We wanted to open peo­ple’s eyes to this is­sue, and the best way to do that is to be ex­treme, provoca­tive and a lit­tle ab­surd.”


Why does Swissness mat­ter? The ac­tual name of a Bill passed in 2013 to pro­tect prod­ucts of Swiss ori­gin, the term is more than a mat­ter of se­man­tics – it’s big busi­ness. Stud­ies have shown that peo­ple are will­ing to pay more for watches from the Alpine na­tion. While fig­ures vary, a 2016 sur­vey by the Uni­ver­sity of St Gallen found that re­spon­dents were will­ing to pay up to 100 per cent more for a Swiss lux­ury watch, as com­pared to one with no known ori­gin. That’s a lot of Swiss francs.

This pos­i­tive per­cep­tion is af­firmed by lo­cal watch col­lec­tor and jew­ellery trader Christopher Yeo, who owns pieces by top Swiss brands such as Aude­mars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Rolex. Says Yeo: “To me, the term Swiss-made means pres­tige, qual­ity, re­li­a­bil­ity and tech­ni­cal know-how. When a watch is made in Switzer­land, I be­lieve it bears a de­gree of tech­ni­cal qual­ity that only a few coun­tries are ca­pa­ble of achiev­ing.”

To­day, a watch can be con­sid­ered Swiss-made if its move­ment is Swiss, its move­ment is cased up in Switzer­land, and fi­nal in­spec­tion is car­ried out in Switzer­land. It is the def­i­ni­tion of what con­sti­tutes a Swiss move­ment that has come un­der scru­tiny, and al­lows plenty of room for ma­noeu­vring: At least 60 per cent of its value – ex­clud­ing the cost of as­sem­bly – must be of Swiss ori­gin, and it must have been as­sem­bled and in­spected by the man­u­fac­turer in Switzer­land.


While most Swiss high-end watches eas­ily meet the re­quire­ments – al­most all the parts in H. Moser and MB&F time­pieces, for in­stance, have na­tive ori­gins – en­try-level and mid-priced watch brands have come un­der fire for play­ing fast and loose with the reg­u­la­tions. One way that com­pa­nies can get around the rules and use largely cheaper parts from Asia, yet eas­ily hit the 60 per cent value re­quire­ment, is to in­clude a hand­ful of Swiss-made com­po­nents, such as bal­ance wheels and springs. This is sim­ply be­cause of the ex­tremely high costs of pro­duc­tion in Switzer­land.

Dis­miss­ing the new reg­u­la­tions, the founder of high-end in­de­pen­dent brand MB&F, Max Busser, says: “It doesn’t change any­thing. What­ever the per­cent­age, you can al­ways find a way around it be­cause pro­duc­tion in Switzer­land costs so much. Be­tween the ma­chines and em­ploy­ees, pro­duc­ing a part in Switzer­land will cost you be­tween US$180 and US$200 per hour. It’s in­sane.”

In an ar­ti­cle from 2012, when the Swissness Bill was in the midst of be­ing passed, The New York Times ran a story that men­tioned en­try-level watch brand Swiss Moun­taineer: “Swiss Moun­taineer em­bla­zons Switzer­land’s na­tional flag on the dial of each time­piece. Does it mat­ter that ex­cept for its Swiss move­ment, the watches’ com­po­nents are made at a fac­tory in Shen­zhen, China? Or that Swiss Moun­taineer

is owned by a Hong Kong com­pany called Golden Hawk?”


For some in­dus­try watch­ers, how­ever, “Swiss Made”, while a typ­i­cally recog­nis­able mark of qual­ity, is far from ev­ery­thing when it comes to haute hor­logerie. Firstly, while the Swiss dom­i­nate the fine-watch in­dus­try, a few other watch­mak­ing cen­tres – most no­tably in Ger­many and Ja­pan – have emerged (see side­bar: Be­yond Bor­ders). Their prod­ucts are as re­spected by con­nois­seurs as any ticker crafted in Switzer­land.

Lo­cally based col­lec­tor Steven Kris­man, whose col­lec­tion in­cludes Swiss brands such as MB&F, as well as Glashutte Orig­i­nal (Ger­many) and Grand Seiko (Ja­pan), points out: “Grand Seiko, which is Ja­panese, is no less in­fe­rior to Swiss or Ger­man watches in terms of fin­ish­ing and fi­nesse. It does not mat­ter to me where a watch is made, just like it would not change my ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the Las Men­i­nas ( by Diego Ve­lazquez), if it had been painted by a non-spa­niard.”

As the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of a fam­ily busi­ness spe­cial­is­ing in alu­minium, Kris­man has greater in­sight than the av­er­age layper­son when it comes to the sourc­ing of raw ma­te­ri­als. He adds: “High­erend Swiss-made watches are not nec­es­sar­ily 100 per cent Swiss. The di­a­monds and al­loys, ex­otic rep­til­ian leather straps, and sap­phire crys­tals are most prob­a­bly im­ported from other coun­tries. Just be­cause a watch is 100 per cent Swiss-made watch does not mean it is the best. The best watches in my book would re­quire com­po­nents from out­side Switzer­land – I would pre­fer, say, the lapis lazuli on a dial to be from Afghanistan, a black mother-of-pearl dial from Tahiti, or al­li­ga­tor straps from the United States, and so on.”

Top watch­mak­ers do not dis­agree. In­deed, Mey­lan shares that H. Moser watch straps are sourced from out­side Switzer­land be­cause “we want high qual­ity and we haven’t been able to find the right source”, although he adds that this might change in fu­ture. While show­ing us the lat­est MB&F watch, the avant-garde HM7 “Aqua­pod” div­ing watch, Busser was happy to share that the watch’s bezel was made in South Korea.

A fully curved bezel that ap­pears to float around the spher­i­cal in­ner case, it was “a pretty big night­mare” to cre­ate, says Busser. Each bezel was en­graved with five-axis lasers, filled with ti­ta­nium and pol­ished. He says: “The HM7 is fully made in Switzer­land ex­cept for the bezel, be­cause we couldn’t find any­body in Switzer­land who could make it.”

He re­veals that the bezels for the watch, which will be made in a lim­ited run of 50 pieces this year, were made in South Korea by a large com­pany spe­cial­is­ing in high-end ce­ram­ics. With a laugh, he says: “But we didn’t save on any ex­penses, for sure. It was much more ex­pen­sive do­ing it there than it would have cost in Switzer­land. We had to go back and forth four times, and we made it do I-don’t-know-how-many pro­to­types and tests. It is a gi­gan­tic com­pany, and we broke its stamps, just for 50 bezels.”

To Busser, at the end of the day, the is­sue that all watch lovers should be con­cerned with is not the “Swiss Made” la­bel per se, but trans­parency. He says: “When you have an MB&F, we give you the name and de­tails of ev­ery per­son who has worked on your piece. You can see all their profiles on our web­site.”

The out­spo­ken MB&F chief sums up his stand by cit­ing, in­ter­est­ingly, the ex­am­ple of tech gi­ant Ap­ple. “Just be hon­est. What’s writ­ten on an iphone? ‘De­signed by Ap­ple in Cal­i­for­nia. As­sem­bled in China.’ No­body has a prob­lem with that. It makes fan­tas­tic prod­ucts, and makes US$200 bil­lion a year that way. No­body says, ‘Oh, it’s made in China; it’s crap.’ Of course not.” .

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