Extracted from "The Star" newspaper
In the nick of time
By VIVIENNE PAL
Photos by BRIAN MOH
The Swatch Group comes to the rescue of the Swiss watch industry in the face of increasing global demand for Swiss timepieces and limited watch specialists.
AT THE risk of sounding ironic, it looks like time could be running out for the watch!
Findings by the Swatch Group have revealed a critical shortage of watchmakers and skilled technicians in the face of a rise in the demand for mechanised timepieces in more recent times.
On the dot: Precision is required in watchmaking.
“We realised that there was a global shortage of watchmakers more than 10 years ago,” Swatch Group Malaysia general manager Bernard Yong revealed recently.
“The entire market has changed. Watchmaking is no longer a trade passed from father to son, and not many people are interested in repairing watches although more people are acquiring mechanised watches – Swatch Group’s global sales alone increased from 1.85 billion Swiss francs (RM5.7bil) to 5.94 billion Swiss francs (RM18.3bil) last year.”
Statistics reveal that the number of watch specialists employed in the Swiss watch industry has been fluctuating since before the 1970s.
In an article by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry FH in 2004, it was reported that during the 1970s and early 1980s, technological upheavals, i.e. the appearance of quartz technology (see story on P6) and difficult economic situations resulted in a reduction in the size of the industry, causing the number of employees to fall from some 90,000 in 1970 to a little over 30,000 in 1984, while the number of companies decreased from about 1,600 to about 600.
The decline, says Yong, was also the result of competition by Asian countries banking on the quartz technology invented – though ironically, not highly regarded – by the Swiss.
He adds that following the formation of the Swatch Group in 1983 and the success of the Swatch revolution, the number of people working in the Swiss watch industry increased to about 50,000 presently.
Steady does it: Repairing a watch is tricky business, requiring patience and steady hands. The more complications the watch has, the trickier it is to remain accurate. Note the minuscule-sized watch parts at the left background.
Yet, the situation remains rather precarious.
“Even if the number of watch technicians or watchmakers do not drop, it is still not enough to service the increased number of watches. We are in need of more of these specialists to support the market,” says Yong.
To illustrate the direness of the situation, let’s assume that the 25.9 million timepieces exported out of Switzerland in 2007 are representative of the total number of watches sold in a year.
“If 1% is returned within the year for repairs and half of this percentage requires the attention of skilled watch technicians, we are then talking about 1.295 million watches. Let’s assume that 80% of these watches can be repaired at service centres located outside Switzerland, which would then mean that 259,000 pieces need to be sent back to factories in Switzerland for servicing,” says Yong.
Class in session: At the recently opened Nicholas G. Hayek Watchmaking School located within the Asia Pacific University College of Technology & Innovation (UCTI, formerly known as APIIT) premises at Technology Park Malaysia, Bukit Jalil.
“We further assume that the same estimate applies to watches sold over the last five years – this means as many as 1.295 million watches may have to be sent back to Switzerland for repair, and this assumption does not include watches which are more than five years old!”
Swiss watch owners, particularly those within this region, who have suffered the misfortune of a watch malfunction can only understand the frustration of waiting for their watches to be repaired.
“The more complications in a watch, the more chances the watch would not be so accurate,” acknowledges Swatch Group SEA country manager David Ponzo. “And so repairs would generally entail a long wait because the watches need to be sent back to Switzerland or Germany. That can be frustrating.”
Something had to be done to avert a potential crisis in the horlogerie industry.
Enter the Swatch Group and its noble (though admittedly profitable in the long run) move in setting up watchmaking institutions to arrest the situation. Its active endeavours to “save” the Swiss watch industry saw the setting-up of five Nicholas G. Hayek Watchmaking Schools in the world: Shanghai, China; Glashutte, Germany; Secaucus, the United States; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and, in the very near future, Pforzheim, Germany.
Trusty: Some of the tools used in the watchmaking trade.
Nicholas G. Hayek, incidentally, is the chairman of the Swatch Group.
Overall, the company has spent an estimated 1.5 million Swiss francs (RM4.57mil) to set up of each school, says Yong.
Thanks to the support of the Sapura group and partnership with the Watchmaker of Switzerland Training and Educational Programme (Wostep), the school in Malaysia was finally set up barely three months ago with a total of eight pioneering students supervised by technical training director Jacky Wong from Hong Kong.
At the moment, the school is situated within the premises of the Asia Pacific University College of Technology & Innovation (UCTI, formerly known as APIIT) at Technology Park Malaysia, Bukit Jalil.
The school, says Yong, ensures that the maintenance of the Swatch Group watches in the Asian market will continue, particularly at a time when watchmaker services in Malaysia are below expectation (there are only six qualified watch technicians under the Swatch Group in Malaysia).
“Our objective is to recruit Asian youngsters who are determined to join the watchmaker profession and to train them adequately in the face of the increasing complexity of mechanical watches,” he says, adding that the Swatch Group is the most active organisation in establishing watchmaking schools.
The programme, thanks to Wostep, currently the only independent watchmaking institution in Switzerland offering a watchmaking curriculum in English, takes about 3,200 training hours, or two years.
The collaboration between UCTI and the Swatch Group is the first and only one in South-East Asia and promotes watchmaking as an alternative career path.
“We want to recruit locally to lessen repair time for our watches,” says Ponzo.
The course commenced last month, and is spread out over three training modules which will enable graduates to repair all mechanical watches, including chronograph.
“Upon completion of the course, the student qualifies as a level 3 watchmaker. Repairing a simple mechanical watch can cost about RM2,000. A level 3 watchmaker can fetch about RM2,500 to RM5,000 a month, depending on experience,” says Yong.
Close supervision: Nicholas G. Hayek Watchmaking School Technical Training watchmaking industry. director Jacky Wong supervises as 22-year-old Cyprus Choy performs a delicate manoeuvre. Wong is currently the only teacher and principal of the school.
Ponzo adds: “A master or chief watchmaker can get a basic package of RM300,000, besides starting their own timepiece brand. There is long career development in this path.”
Here’s the best part: the course – inclusive of meal allowances, accommodation, tuition fees, repair tools and insurance – is fully sponsored by the Swatch Group. Scholarship applicants need only have Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) level education and basic English communication skills; no watchmaking experience is required.
What’s more, successful applicants are guaranteed of a job due to a four-year bond with the Swatch Group at selected areas in the region.
A quick note to future applicants, though: the selection process is more stringent than you think. Although the basic criteria are rather loose, applicants are selected based on the success of their interview, patience and steadiness of hand.
There is no stipulated age limit although 40 years seems to be the unspoken ceiling; the current batch of students from Malaysia (2), Singapore (2) and Hong Kong (4) range from 21 to 30 years old.
For the moment, classes will remain small.
“We were overwhelmed by the unexpected number of applications, especially since the art of watchmaking is still not known here. Nonetheless, it’s tough to increase our intake from the present eight because finding teachers is tough! Our capacity for expansion depends on how many teachers we can find. Right now we are in the process of finding a second teacher,” quips Ponzo.
Come to think of it, the future is looking brighter after all, on all counts. Swiss watch owners – in this region, at least – need no longer endure a lengthy wait for their watches to be repaired once the current crop of Nicholas Hayek Watchmaking Schools students graduate.
And if they stick it out, graduates can look forward to plenty of dough and, perhaps, their own name on a timepiece in future.
Swatch on hand
THE quartz technology was invented by the Swiss to be used mainly in vehicles which rely on very accurate time-keeping, such as airplanes, trains and ships. A vast majority of prestigious Swiss watch manufacturers refused to venture into mass production using the quartz technology as they felt that wrist watches should remain hand-crafted, thus creating an opportunity for Japanese firms such as Seiko, Citizen, Casio and a variety of unknown Asian brands manufactured in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
By 1978, quartz watches overtook mechanical watches in popularity, plunging the Swiss watch industry into crisis. It reached a critical point in 1981.
And then the Swatch Group (it was called SMH Group until 1998) stepped in: 1982 saw the launch of the first Swatch prototypes. Swatch was instrumental in reviving the Swiss watch industry, mass producing quartz watches and popularising them through creative marketing concepts.
Saving time: Nicholas G. Hayek played a key role in the revival of the Swiss Close supervision: Nicholas G. Hayek Watchmaking School Technical Training watchmaking industry
In 1983, Nicholas G. Hayek (chairman of the Swatch Group) merged ailing Swiss watchmakers SSIH and ASUAG, giving a clean bill of health to the timepieces under both labels (which included Omega, Longines and Tissot), as well as propelling the development of the Swatch Group to what it is today.
The achievements of Hayek have been widely recognised in Switzerland and beyond, and his innovative strategies have served as an important model for the Swiss watchmaking industry as a whole and played a key role in the revival of the industry. – Source: Swatch Group Malaysia and www.swatch.com