Even a Swiss-brand watch will not run forever. Nowadays, minor repairs can be very expensive or take months because many specialist watchmakers no longer receive spare parts from Swiss manufacturers.
If your Mercedes breaks down anywhere in the world, you don’t need to send it to the factory in Stuttgart. You can confidently take it to an authorised dealer in your area.
But what is common practice in the car industry no longer works for some Swiss-brand watches: the specialist shop in Shanghai, Brussels or Zurich where you bought your Breitling, Omega or Cartier can no longer repair your luxury chronometer themselves. It's due to a breakdown in a once-cooperative relationship between manufacturers and retailers.
“The retail trade is being excluded from repairs,” complains the owner of an established Bernese watch retailer, who wants to remain anonymous. “Certain brand manufacturers no longer supply spare parts but require that the watches be sent to the brand workshop, even for minor repairs.”
Months without a watch
The experienced watchmaker takes a broken crown as an example. “This repair used to cost around CHF80 ($82) for us to do. We can now no longer carry out repairs ourselves because we can no longer get hold of the winding stem needed.”
The victims are first and foremost the customers, who now have to fork over CHF500 or more, he says. In the brand workshop, not only is the broken crown replaced but a general check-up of the whole watch is also carried out. And instead of a few days, customers sometimes have to wait for months for their expensive timepiece.
The Bern-based watchmaker is not alone in his criticism. Donato Trivisano, managing director of Mundwiler jewellers in Winterthur, gives the example of Richemont, manufacturer of Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC and Baume & Mercier brands, which wants to do everything itself.
“Even certified specialist shops whose trained watchmakers regularly attend multi-day training courses by the brand manufacturer are excluded.”
The latest example is the company Breitling, which has recently taken over all repairs – even though Mundwiler is the only recognised Breitling “service centre” around.
Customers bail out
Trivisano also knows of customers who had to pay up to CHF1,000 for simple repairs and wait months for their watches because the manufacturer carried out a full overhaul without the owner’s consent.
He says he has heard from several customers who will no longer buy Breitling timepieces.
Breitling, which was taken over by British financial firm CVC Capital Partners in April, did not want to comment on the accusations by the specialist watchmakers.
“Unfortunately we cannot help you further,” CVC head of communications, Carsten Huwendiek, told swissinfo.ch.
On its website, the Grenchen-based watch company tells its customers: “By respecting the service intervals recommended by Breitling and by ensuring that servicing is done by an authorised service centre, you will extend the lifespan of your watch.”
Jean-Daniel Pasche from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry says in response to the criticism by the specialist watchmakers: “I know that the brand manufacturers actually pursue a selective distribution of spare parts. Normally, they deliver these only to the retailers who are part of their official network.”
When asked about the troubled partnership between certain brands and retailers, Pasche says he isn't familiar with the various brands' policies.
The federation says it has been contacted by individual consumers because of the high costs or duration of repairs. “But these are individual cases, so I can’t derive a general trend from them.”
‘Faster and cheaper’
However, the experiences of the two retailers from Bern and Winterthur are not isolated cases, says André Hirschi.
The president of the Association of Swiss Goldsmiths and Specialist Watchmakers regrets this development. He appreciates that the brand manufacturers want to ensure good quality servicing, too.
However, according to Hirschi, the certified specialist watch repairers can generally provide this service more quickly and more cheaply. The association president fears that this new strategy by certain brand manufacturers could damage the Swiss watch industry's long-term reputation.
“There is no reason to spend a large amount of money on a piece just to be able to tell the time,” he says. “And if the passion for the timepiece becomes a period of suffering, some customers may fall out of love with their treasured possession.”
Switzerland's Competition Commission (COMCO) has also received several complaints from consumers and retailers in recent years, confirms Kenji Izumi of the COMCO secretariat. “We are in the process of making preliminary assessments.”
The secretariat is pursuing “possible unlawful behaviour patterns from an antitrust point of view of various watch manufacturers in after-sales services.”
The results of COMCO's preliminary assessments will be available soon, Izumi said.
Not just in Switzerland
The European Confederation of Watch and Clock Repairers’ Associations filed a complaint against several Swiss luxury watch manufacturers a few years ago because they were no longer supplying spare parts to independent specialist watch repairers. The confederation complained that the manufacturers were abusing their dominant position.
In 2014, however, the European Commission stopped their investigation, saying the distribution system in the watchmaking industry varied hugely between the brands and the chance of proving a violation was limited. The European Commission said it had already spent a huge amount of time on the issue and further investigations would be complex and time-consuming.
Translated from German, swissinfo.ch