Swiss watch exports grow from record to record

If there is one economic sector that seems unaffected by the world's economic and political ups and downs, it is the watch industry. Neither inflation, weak global economic growth, nor the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East last year have hindered the forward momentum of this flagship of the Swiss industry, which sells more than 95% of its products abroad.  

Watch exports reached a new record in 2023, according to figures released by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH). Their value rose by 7,6% compared to 2022, reaching 26,7 billion francs.  

As in the last two years, the most important market for sales of "Swiss-made" watches is the United States (+7 %, to CHF 4,1 billion). Second place goes to China (+7,6%, to CHF 2,7 billion), ahead of Hong Kong, which proved to be the most dynamic market last year, with growth of 23,4%, to CHF 2,3 billion.  

The Big Four and the marketing coup

Once again, it was the high-end and very high-end watchmaking houses that helped the Swiss watch industry achieve a new record. Watches with an export value of more than CHF 3 000 - that is, with a final selling price of more than CHF 7 500 - accounted for more than three quarters of the total export value. "Growth was concentrated on very few players, mainly those in the "big four": the four main independent brands Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Richard Mille," emphasized Oliver Müller.

Two brands excelled in the entry-level and mid-range segments: Swatch, which sold more than 2 million pieces of its "Moonswatch", an affordable version (CHF 250) of Omega's Speedmaster Moonwatch, and Tissot, another Swatch Group brand that achieved success with the launch of the PRX line.  

Thanks to the success of the Moonwatch and the post-Covida recovery, the total number of watches exported is rising again (+7,2% to 16,9 million). However, the long-term trend remains towards a general shift to a higher market and lower volumes. Recall that in the early 2000s, the industry exported almost 30 million watches, twice as many as today.  

The highest level of employment in the last 50 years

The steady growth is also reflected in a marked increase in employment, with more than 4 400 new jobs created in the watch industry last year. Companies in this sector, which operates mainly in the cantons of northwestern Switzerland, now employ more than 65 000 people, a figure not seen since the 1970s.

The number of employees increased above all in the administrative sector (2 680 new positions). Production staff also continued to grow (1 588 new positions), but this growth was held back by a shortage of skilled labor.  

"Industry is experiencing a shortage of personnel in certain specialized profiles. This situation is inevitable given Switzerland's historically low unemployment rate," notes Ludovic Voile, secretary general of the Convention of Employers of the Swiss Watch Industry (CPIH).  

Towards the end of the boom period

After three years of post-Covid euphoria, 2024 should mark the industry's return to normalcy. Most analysts are predicting weak or even slightly negative growth rates. "We can expect a decline of around 5%, which would put watchmaking on par with 2022, which was nevertheless the second best year in the history of the Swiss watch industry," says Oliver Müller.  

At the beginning of this year, some watch companies are already seeing a clear slowdown in production. Many subcontractors, who are the first to suffer from the downturn in the economy, are forced to postpone orders.  

Should we fear a wave of layoffs after the mass hiring phase? "The year 2024 is likely to be more challenging and this will inevitably have an impact on employment. But we expect the workforce to stabilize, which would be great news given the current high levels," says Ludovic Voile.


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