Traditional watchmakers have a secret weapon to use against smartwatches

High-tech features will always challenge traditional craftsmanship, but they can never replace it

Feature image

The smartwatch is the latest hurdle facing traditional watchmakers. It is a spectre looming overhead, just as digitalisation was for mechanical cameras. Yet, with mechanical watches often comes an invaluable story of heritage that simply cannot be rivalled. It is this nostalgic narrative that sets some mechanical watchmakers apart from their modern, tech-savvy competitors, and it is this that many customers crave in a world of disposable, throwaway fashion.

European CEO had the chance to discuss heritage, tradition and the future of watchmaking with Soren J Petersen, President and CEO of Urban Jürgensen, a surviving industry dynasty that was founded by Jurgen Jürgensen in 1773. It is one of the few traditional watch brands that has continued operating uninterrupted since its inception.

Why is heritage so important in the watchmaking industry?
It is always easier to market a valuable story when it’s true. Nowadays, however, a lot of brands use some constructed reason for people to buy their products, such as the use of very exotic materials or crazy designs. The task of selling a client a timepiece of very high quality is a lot easier, in terms of differentiation, when you don’t have to construct a storyline; this is crucial in the high-end game. Few independent watchmakers combine ultra-high quality with a personal brand successfully and with integrity. Kari Voutilainen is one such example, but they are few and far between.

So, if you bring your timepieces to a global marketplace and your heritage is made up, you will have difficulties. Clients can fact-check everything on the internet, and a claim to being handcrafted, for example, does not align well with having several corporate factory buildings, thousands of employees and an annual production of tens of thousands of pieces.

What is the current state of the traditional watchmaking industry
Unfortunately, the industry is not in good health and it will get much worse. The advent of smartwatches has effectively turned many brands’ value propositions to nothing, and there will be a need for restructuring in many parts of the industry. It’s not about value migration – it’s value destruction. Mobile phones had a similar effect on the camera industry and the film industry. At the high end of the business there will continue to be good growth for some time, as global economic development will sustain it. To take advantage of this, brands need to develop truly high-end products, as the mass-market side of the luxury industry has a less certain future.

How does Urban Jürgensen position itself within the mechanical watch industry?
Urban Jürgensen makes atelier handmade timepieces, with a level of craft rarely seen today. Our timepieces are collector grade and, typically, are only sold aftermarket through auctions. We see ourselves as perpetuating classical, timeless, traditional watchmaking, and so we do not resort to new technology to make our timepieces.

Most of our clients already have a collection of various brands and, after learning about the history of watchmaking and understanding what goes into a handcrafted atelier watch, they arrive at Urban Jürgensen. We handmake dials, moon discs, hands and moving parts, and we only use pure materials. For example, our white gold cases will never be rhodium plated. Our silver dials are single-piece dials that are made of solid fine silver, not just silver coated. It is about integrity and honesty in the application of craft – Picasso never used a spray can!

What does Urban Jürgensen have in store for the future?
We will continue to carefully build our legacy and stay true to our founder’s quest for only the best quality. We will expand our collections, but maintain a very modest volume. We have no need for artificial marketing and we will never become a marketing brand – we just wish to be a little better known and to develop close relationships with independent watch retailers who can advise clients about the legacy, value and uniqueness of Urban Jürgensen.