Have you ever wondered why the latest innovation from one watch manufacturer is suddenly being used by several of its supposed competitors? Or why some brands only exhibit at SIHH and not Baselworld or vice versa, if at all? You’re not alone. Many newcomers to the world of luxury watches quickly recognize that certain brands seem to operate in unison. This runs counter to the narrative that the industry is very fragmented, made up of dozens of dedicated manufacturers, each with their own unique stories and offerings. At one point in time, this was indeed the case.
However, following several periods of consolidation that began with the quartz crisis and continued over a number of decades, the majority of the brands you know and love are now actually owned by a handful of multinational luxury conglomerates. Yes, even the ones that you thought were truly independent.
Who are the key players?
In Europe, the major groups are:
- LVMH Moet Hennessy: Bvlgari, Hublot, TAG Heuer, Zenith
- KERING: Girard-Perregaux, JeanRichard, Ulysse Nardin
- RICHEMONT: A. Lange & Söhne, Baume & Mercier, Cartier, IWC Schaffhausen, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc, Officine Panerai, Piaget, Roger Dubuis, Vacheron Constantin, Van Cleef & Arpels
- SWATCH Group: Blancpain, Breguet, Certina, Glashütte Original, Hamilton, Harry Winston, Jaquet Droz, Longines, Mido, Omega, Rado, Swatch, Tissot, Union Glashütte
In Asia, the two major groups are:
- The Citizen Watch Group: Alpina, Arnold & Son, Bulova, Citizen, Frédérique Constant
- The Seiko Group: Credor, Grand Seiko, Orient, Seiko
(Note: Almost all of the aforementioned groups own other brands as well. However, because they don’t necessarily fit into the “luxury” watch category, I’ve decided to omit them here.)
There are a couple of large groups in the USA as well. Perhaps the most well-known are Fossil and Movado; however, neither of these really fits the bill of a luxury conglomerate.
I’m sure you noticed a few big names missing from the lists above. These are beacons in the industry that every one of the major groups would probably sell a kidney (or more) to acquire. The three most notable (and powerful) are Rolex (which also owns Tudor), with estimated sales of 5.4 billion CHF in 2018; Patek Philippe (1.45 billion CHF); and Audemars Piguet (1.05 billion CHF). Despite recent and persistent rumors (especially about PP), none of these brands seems likely to be put up for sale any time soon.
Who runs the show?
Most of the brands that are owned by a luxury conglomerate operate autonomously, with their own CEOs and executive teams in place. At least, that’s the perception. Like any industry fueled by passion and emotion, there’s also a lot of speculation about who’s actually pulling the strings behind the scenes. To be fair, some executives are much better known than others, which gives the impression (rightly or wrongly) that they can exert more influence. It’s also surprisingly common for them to move around within the industry. Here are a few names you may or may not have already heard of:
Jean-Claude Biver: A bona fide industry legend, JCB is considered one of the most influential individuals in watchmaking today. He currently serves as the non-executive president of LVMH’s Watch Division, as well as the chairman of Hublot and Zenith. However, he’s probably most famous for building the Hublot brand into the global success it is today. He also revived Blancpain in the 1980s and played a major role in righting Omega’s trajectory in the 1990s.
Thierry Stern: As the fourth generation of the Stern family to run Patek Philippe, Thierry Stern is an industry giant. Since taking over the role of president from his father, Philippe, in 2009, Thierry has continued the brand’s proud tradition of creating high-end watches with traditional designs. There have also been a few surprises thrown into the mix, such as the Alarm Travel Time ref. 5520P. Thierry recently made waves when he confirmed in an interview with Hodinkee that he had no intention of substantially increasing production of the brand’s steel Nautilus models despite extremely high demand. Instead, he chose to trim Patek’s dealer network down by nearly a third, a devastating move for those heavily reliant on the brand.
Raynald Aeschlimann: Raynald Aeschlimann took over as president and CEO of Omega in 2016. Since then, he has been key in leading the brand to ever-greater heights. Omega has gone from strength to strength, from evolving the brand’s manufacturing capabilities and creating the diving watch that survived the ocean’s greatest depths, to the more recent Speedmaster celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing in July 2019. There’s no doubt that the brand has benefited from joining the SWATCH Group, particularly when it comes to developing components for their watches. But you also shouldn’t underestimate Aeschlimann’s drive or charm. Often photographed at Omega events around the world, he certainly has one of the most active travel schedules of all industry executives.
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Georges Kern: At just 36 years of age, Georges Kern became the CEO of IWC Schaffhausen, making him Richemont’s youngest CEO. Over the next decade and a half, he transformed the brand from a niche manufacturer with a very narrow focus to a global brand with universal appeal. He grew sales from around $40 million to just under $800 million and turned the company into one of Richemont’s best-performing brands. Following a massive shake-up at the Group at the end of 2016, he was promoted to the newly created role of head of watchmaking, marketing, and digital. In a move that shocked the market, he resigned only four months later. A week after that, he was named the new CEO and minority shareholder of Breitling. The industry has been watching his every move ever since, marveling as he masterfully transforms the aviation-inspired brand into a well-rounded powerhouse.
Chabi Nouri: As one of the very few women to ever hold a CEO position in the Richemont Group, and indeed in the luxury watch industry, Chabi Nouri’s appointment to the head of Piaget was a welcome one. It was also widely viewed as well-deserved. Having previously served as Piaget’s international managing director of sales and marketing, she has played a key role in the brand’s continued growth and success. Last year, she made headlines around the world with the introduction of the thinnest mechanical watch ever, the 2-mm Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept. She also pushed her team to create the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Automatic 910P, the world’s thinnest automatic watch, measuring a mere 4.3 mm thick.
This is just a small selection of the inspiring and pioneering individuals who make the luxury watch industry so fascinating. They understand that it’s the combination of passion and innovation that keeps us coming back for more – and for that, we thank them.