One on the most powerful men in luxury retailing has said it is time to stop seeing smartwatch makers Apple and Google as threats.
Jean-Claude Biver, who runs watchmakers Tag Heuer, Hublot, and Zenith, said the smartwatch will boost his industry.
Mr Biver was instrumental in reviving the Swiss industry after it was devastated in the 1970s and ’80s by Japan’s quartz battery revolution.
The entrepreneur also warned about the impact of a US-China trade war.
Speaking during the Baselworld watch and jewellery fair in Switzerland, the global showcase for the Swiss industry, Mr Biver said Apple and Samsung should be invited to exhibit at the event.
But Mr Biver, now head of watches at French luxury goods giant LVMH, said traditionalists in the industry would be against it. “A lot of people wouldn’t want Apple here. I know people who say this [event] should only be for the Swiss.
“The Apple watch is a watch: it’s a bracelet that gives you information: hours, minutes, the date.
“But there are too many people here [in Basel] who don’t think it’s a watch. There are people here who say, if you’re not Swiss you can’t be here. It’s like telling, say, Kia they can’t come to the Geneva Motor Show because they are South Korean.”
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Mr Biver’s sideswipe at sections of the industry will resonate because of his decades of experience in deal-making and reviving brands, especially after Japanese manufacturers emerged as powerful competitors with their quartz battery products.
His early use of product placements, notably in James Bond films, and celebrity endorsements are now routine in the luxury goods sector.
Apple sold about 20 million smartwatches last year, and many analysts think it will be the next big challenge for the Swiss industry.
Baselworld saw the launch of several hybrid smartwatches, which mix traditional mechanical features with connectivity.
But, crucially, the technological lead at Apple and Samsung has made them hugely popular among younger consumers.
Mr Biver said on of the biggest challenges facing his industry is getting a new generation to buy traditional watches.
“Apple and Samsung are promoters of the watch because they teach people to wear something on their wrist.
“Imagine a generation who did not wear any watch. It would be much more difficult for us to sell them something.”
The traditional watch makers should embrace Apple and Samsung rather than run away because they could learn so much, the industry veteran said.
Mr Biver said a far greater threat was the current geo-political situation. A China-US trade war and growth of protectionism threatens to bring the luxury sector’s recovery to a halt.
“When the mood changes to pessimism, the luxury sector suffers… At this moment, we are on the verge of something that could be damaging.”
He said there had recently been a big turnaround in luxury goods sales in China, and particularly in watches among young people. “China has been the driving force in the recovery” of luxury goods, he said.
Swiss watch exports were up 12.8% in the first two months of the year, with Hong Kong and China both rising around 30%.