Servicing your watch used to be a given. Now it has become an issue.

I was talking about watch servicing with my watchmaking professor a few days ago – as you readers know, frequenting a horology course permits me to get to grips with the technicalities of the trade. I might not become the next Gerald Genta, but I am pretty sure I will know much more than your average pen-pusher (given that I am one myself).

Now put the situation in context: my professor is a watchmaker with 30 years of experience – not your average pen-pusher either – and not a theoretician. He runs a shop and a watch repair lab.

And his conclusions were that the modern watch companies – that is, post-quartz crisis – are inherently selfish, and they are deliberately bending the truth to push clients and independent watchmakers into accepting their suspicious business practices.

Not that strongly expressed, but his sentiment about the issue was quite clear.

The evolution of watch servicing

In the good old days, the profession of independent watchmaker was accepted and endorsed by the business. Companies organized training sessions open to everyone when they brought new calibers to the market so to train people to repair the new stuff. Etablissage was common – that is, there were many companies making watch movements and many more assembling them under their brand.

Then, the Quartz Crisis came in 1970, with the debut of the first Seiko Astron. The semiconductor industry was in the hands of the American and the Japanese. For the Swiss, it was a bloodbath. Most Swiss companies folded, and others were forced to join conglomerates. Almost all the traditional mechanical movement makers ended into ETA, and the number of available calibers dropped down significantly.

Some of the companies making their own movements survived, other did not. But they realized that they were vulnerable, and had to build a continual stream of income from their end clients if they wanted to have a parachute for bad times.

The answer: the creation of official repair networks

Companies knew that you had to tap into a recurring business, and they badopted the solution used by car makers.

They started to restrict the supply of spare parts only to the labs of their networks. They closed every source of information to the outside – no more technical courses, no more technical manuals. It was like “if you want to service our watches, you do what we tell you, or else”. Independents were left out of the loop, and their supply of spare parts closed.

As of today, affiliated repair labs do what their franchisors tell them to do. Full stop. This means buying certain equipment, and adhering to strict guidelines about watch servicing.

Brands however give back something. Restricting supply and establishing rules, they are basically creating bottlenecks where the customers are funneled. So, when you enter into the tribe, you get customers coming through your door – independently of the prices that you apply. No more competition with the others: you do as you wish. Nope, as your brand wishes, as you receive a “suggested price list for services”. Which is way more than the average market price, ça va sans dire.

A real tale of a fictitious company

This is a typical case of a fictitious brand. You buy a new DeBoiron (I made this brand up, do not bother searching for it). The watch has a warranty of two years. After three years it is in need of a service. You go to a DeBoiron official repair service and they tell you that they have to change this and that, then they perform a service on your timepiece.

You pay the service at the “suggested price”. DeBoiron’s service manual says that in case of a watch servicing you have to change all sorts of elements – mainspring, gaskets, maybe come wheels for good measure. Part of the money is funneled to DeBoiron for spare parts you did not need, and part stays with the service center.

Is the service center despicable to adhere to the company’s requirements?

It just follows what DeBoiron’s manuals tell it to do – they have no choice. If the manual says that you have to apply oil in some places, you do it. Because the client might be an inspector hired by DeBoiron to check is the service has been made to its standards. If the company discovers that the lab did not service the watch as written in the service manuals, the service center risks being cast off the DeBoiron’s official network.

At the same time, if you go with your DeBoiron to an independent, he cannot service your watch, unless you are lucky and he has some old spare parts available recovered from other watches. If you are not, you are stuck with the company’s official network – or your watch would become an expensive piece of junk that you cannot repair anymore.

Would you trust such a company?

the same company that runs this kind of service network is possibly the same that plasters the media with the announcement about their revolutionary new movement, the AutoDeBo.  Through the use of advanced silicon components, this movement reaches a longer maintenance period ofr six years, against the other companies’ five.

Too bad that the service costs three times as much as the others. But this is not written in DeBoiron’s ads.

All of this means that you do not have any kind of control over what any watch manufacturer asserts – without really knowing if this is the best you can do for your own watch.

The double check at the bench

To come back to my personal experience, we were servicing a quartz watch. Despite what you think about it, watchmaking schools still teach us to do such a thing. While dismounting the movement, the professor showed us that the oiling specs used to service that peculiar watch movement, issued by the manufacturer of said caliber, were completely wrong. If followed to the letter, they would tend to clout the movement, as the viscosity of the oil was too much for the faint pull exerted by the quartz movement impulse.

Possibly in the long run this would require a service sooner, or a replacement with another movement. And this discrepancy between the specs and the practice was well-known among watchmakers.

So, you get the conclusion that you want. As for me – an independent watch guy – I am continuing to buy and refurbish vintage movements, which have a large number of spares available on the market, and with the new mineral oils and techniques used in servicing, these old movements need a five-years timespan between services, on the average.

With the added bonus that everyone who knows his trade can repair them, and there won’t be anyone ever telling them not to.

You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual. It is a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual

The rise and fall of one of the most illustrious watch companies

Old Zenith movement

I could be biased, but I still cringe somehow when I think about Zenith and its current fate of being a sort of troubled child lost in the stable of LVMH, with watches felt just as undeservedly “expensive”.

It saddens me to see a brand with such an illustrious history that is vegetating, without a clear path to re-establish itself at the levels of quality and technical excellence that were typical of its legacy.
And I cannot do anything but think about Georges Favre-Jacot, the founder of the company, who, after finishing a caliber, felt that the name used to indicate the universe’s highest point was the fitting name for such mechanical excellence.

So many changes, so little focus

The recent history of Zenith follows closely the one of several other important brands of horology. After a troubled period during the Quartz Crisis, the company had a comeback, and in 1999, it entered into the orbit of the LVMH luxury group. Which put different CEOs at its helm – all eventually ineffective.

As per the New York Times in 2019:

Over the last 20 years, Zenith has been reborn a number of times. In the 2000s, under Thierry Nataf, it embraced the excesses of the years before the 2008 global downturn. Then, under Jean-Frédéric Dufour (now leading Rolex), it became more conservative.

In 2016, a breakthrough. Enter Jean-Claude Biver, the genius marketer that made the fortune of a brand like Blancpain and Hublot, amidst great expectations of a relaunch of the iconic Zenith brand.

Jean Claude Biver

Yet, the cheers lasted only for one year. In 2017 Biver leaves Zenith for “health reasons”.

And then the current CEO becomes Julien Tornare, coming from a career inside one of the most irriverent and forward-thinking companies there is, Vacheron Constantin. I am being sarcastic here, as much as I love the brand (and I love The Old King much). Anyways, Tornare has ideas. Great ideas. But maybe, not the right ones for the company.

The launch of the amazing caliber 9100

Right after his debut, Tornare – who was heading the Asian operations of Vacheron Constantin – keeps busy with the preparation of the innovative (and I am meaning it, extremely forward-thinking) caliber 9100, with its groundbreaking silicon oscillator.

The innovative silicon oscillator

The watch is launched in 2019, and takes the market by storm. It is critically acclaimed by the industry and the media. The movement has awe-inspiring stats: its innovative design is based on a huge vibrating oscillator that beats at 129,600 vph (18 Hz). Almost mind-boggling for a mechanical movement.

Remember that the El Primero, possibly the best-known modern chronographic movement made by the same Maison, beats at 36,000 bph – almost 4 times slower than this.

Yet, what happens? Enter the COVID in 2020. Zenith production came to a screeching stop – and the lucrative markets that Tornare knew so well immediately dried up, also thanks to the Hong Kong revolts. The exports of Swiss timepieces went down like lead balloons – and Zenith’s numbers with them.

As of late, the company sells around 21,000 timepieces per year – which Tornare, in an interview, says that should grow to 25,000, and has an annual sales figure of around 100 million CHF. Unfortunately, the other members of the LVMH group like TAG Heuer and Hublot are six times bigger than Zenith.

A typical Zenith Pilotìs chrono

Are Zenith watches expensive? In Mr. Tornare’s point of view, not enough. His “sweet spot” for watches is 10,000 CHF from the 5,000 CHF the company enjoys now (which is already considered expensive by the public). It is desirable? Yes, for him. Is it possible? I am highly doubtful.

The real issue? Lack of coherence

While the movement, mounted inside the Defy line, is extremely promising, the rest of Zenith’s production looks like it has been abandoned, marketing-wise. The traditional production of models for which Zenith is famous, the vintage-inspired pilot’s watches that fight squarely against IWC’s.

How can you put together something like the Defy and a Pilot’s watch? It seems a bit far off, and not only to me.

Detail of the mechanism of a Zenith Defy

So, despite the good intentions – and great technical achievements – fostered by Mr. Tornare, I am not seeing the launch of the Defy as a solution to the company’s ailments. Possibly, it is even something that is going to put more strain into a brand that has not a clear view of its future, tactically and strategically.

And if I can make an educated suggestion to Mr. Tornare, he should start from the basics. Please revise the current production lines and models, and reorganize. Divide it into coherent lines, and match them against the competitors, product-wise and price-wise. Most of all, take a long, hard look at prices. My readers say that Zenith prices are way out of the watches’ technical merits, and I tend to agree.

You cannot build up a brand if you have weak foundations – and the first is price. Get back to the four “P’s” of marketing, please: Product, Place, Price, Promotion.

Price. “Zenith watches are expensive” should not be heard from its would-be clients anymore.

You can find much more about horology and its fascinating history in The Watch Manual. It is a thorough e-book that explains all the basics about watchmaking and its protagonists.

To download a FREE 8-chapter extract from The Watch Manual