For a few years now, Chinese manufacturing has been at the heart of much of the first world’s consumption. Factories across China produce components of increasing complexity, assemble them into advanced technology, and then ship it off to Europe and the US for us to enjoy. This allows companies to keep their prices low and to maintain a high level of productivity. We export capital, and China exports goods. So far, so capitalist.
Swiss VS China – as it used to be
This doesn’t come without drawbacks, of course. We’re aware of the sometimes horrific conditions under which our marvellous tablets are manufactured and we sigh, tell each other that it’s terrible, and then ogle the latest mobile phone. We can buy more ethically produced goods, and we do. We mark our domestically-sourced goods and agree to pay a little more to keep jobs in our country and to reduce our dependence on Chinese labour.
These solutions apply especially to the luxuries market for the simple reason that we expect them to be expensive and we assume that Chinese goods are somehow inferior. They don’t have the same quality control measures, or they use imperfect materials. So, one would think that luxuries – like high quality watches – are immune to the behemoth of Chinese industrial power.
Unfortunately, this may no longer be true.
A question of tourbillon
The tourbillon, as we know, is an expensive, intricate and remarkable complication. Watchmakers include them to show that they are masters. They occasionally innovate them to show off their ingenuity. When you buy a watch with a tourbillon, you can generally assume that you are buying a serious piece, and that the inflated cost matches both the rarity and the remarkable engineering involved. For the last few years, however, Chinese manufacturers have quietly been offering tourbillons in bulk and for more than reasonable prices.
For the sort of person who persists in seeing Chinese manufacturing as a mark of poor quality, it’s likely to be alarming to think that the expensive and beautiful piece of mechanical genius on their wrist might be concealing something Chinese. It’s really not that bad, however. With the precision of CNC engineering now freely available, there’s no reason to think that the Chinese tourbillon is in any way mechanically inferior. They’re exported and sold to European watchmakers, who include them in their warranty, which shows that they’re considered to be at least as good as those produced in Europe. Depending on the rules for each region that offers a mark of authenticity, these tourbillons could even make it into hallmarked pieces.
After the quartz, the tourbillon crisis ?
Back in 2010, there was some muttering that a flood of Chinese tourbillons could result in a second Quartz Crisis. It’s true that a sudden influx of tourbillons could suddenly result in a host of ‘ordinary’ watches featuring tourbillons. This must be galling to those who see them principally as a status symbol. But, for all the fear of a Chinese invasion, all we have seen in the last four years is perhaps a renewed interest in mechanical watches, in seeing the ingenuity on display, and in further innovation from the great brands, seeking to establish greater distance between themselves and the ‘common’ market brand.
It’s certainly no quartz crisis.