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Swiss time on display in Beijing

Wang Kaihao
Updated: May 8,2015 8:39 AM     China Daily

A master craftsman demonstrates watchmaking skills for visitors to the exhibition.[Photo by Jiang Dong/China Daily]

The sound of ticking watches rings through an exhibition hall in the Capital Museum in Beijing.

Several robots re-create scenes from a 17th-century Genevan watchmaking workshop.

One of the most important exhibitions for the museum this year, Geneva at the Heart of Time-The Origin of Swiss Watchmaking Culture, finally opened to the public in April, as part of celebrations for 65 years of diplomatic ties between Switzerland and the People’s Republic of China.

One of the heritage pieces is on display at Geneva at the Heart of Time-The Origin of Swiss Watchmaking at Beijing’s Capital Museum.[Photo/China Daily]

The exhibition is a collaboration with the Geneva Museum of Art and History and Vacheron Constantin, the world’s oldest watchmaker still in operation. About 350 of the exhibits include antiques clocks, pocket watches and wristwatches, as well as watchmaking tools and equipment. And the exhibition is categorized under three sections-”history, watchmaker and artistic craft”.

“For the Chinese public, watches still represent the country whose population is less than half of Beijing,” says Guo Xiaoling, director of the Capital Museum. He is excited to have the first Swiss horological exhibition in the museum’s history.

“But a watch is only a window to nurture deeper interests among Chinese people to get to know more about Switzerland, which leads the world in many other aspects. Chinese visitors will also learn about the Swiss spirit represented by these delicate watches.”

There is a slogan in the exhibition hall: “Do better if possible, and that is always possible.” The quote, attributed to Swiss watchmaking legend Francois Constantin in 1819, still leaves an impression among watchmakers.

According to Estelle Fallet, a curator of the exhibition from Geneva Museum of Art and History, a pocket watch with gold casing and enamel miniature painting on the dial made by Huault Brothers in 1680 is a highlight among more than 200 heritage pieces from her museum. Visitors will probably be struck by the shape of a Rochat Brothers’ 1814 watch that has an octagonal cage with three singing birds.

The first-known pocket watch in the world, created by Jean-Marc Vacheron, founder of Vacheron Constantin, in 1755, is on display. A 1923 gold pocket watch with an enameled case-back, miniature painting and engraved movement representing two angels, is also a key piece from Vacheron Constantin due to its combination of complicated techniques in Swiss watchmaking.

“The exhibition displays the history and excellence of Swiss watchmaking and offers a unique view into the fine watchmaking history in Geneva, the cradle of fine watchmaking for more than three centuries, with a focus on its technical aspects and craftsmanship excellence,” Jean-Yves Marin, director of Geneva Museum of Art and History, says.

“Organizers from three institutions combine to use the most suitable approach for Chinese visitors to portray a clear lineage of watchmaking in Geneva,” he adds.

For example, five master craftsmen from Geneva, including a watchmaker, an enameler, a gem-setter, an engraver, and a guillocheur, demonstrate traditional techniques during the exhibition.

“Amateur visitors want to see behind the scenes, and that is the difference between quartz watches and manual watches,” Juan-Carlos Torres, CEO, Vacheron Constantin, tells China Daily.

The number of watchmakers in Switzerland remains low, but Torres considers it crucial to pass down the techniques. Ten years ago the company had only three watchmakers and apprentices, but now they have 34 professionals.

“The more we grow, the more we have to protect the traditions. It’s not a question of size. It’s a question of responsibility,” he adds. “It’s not an exhibition of Vacheron Constantin, but an explanation of how the watchmaking industry started. I understand it’s difficult for a museum to be linked to a company, but this time it’s about a history represented by a brand.”

Although the company wants to maintain a low-profile, this ongoing exhibition reveals the luxury brand’s closer relationship with China, especially when Vacheron Constantin has a long connection with China: It made its Chinese market debut in 1845.

Torres emphasizes they will not directly put Chinese elements into their design some limited number of anniversary or Chinese celebration editions were made.

Nevertheless, their involvement with China has gone beyond that.

“Chinese artists are very knowledgeable in aesthetics,” Torres says. There are some Chinese designers trained in Geneva, he says. “For example, philosophy is not part of Swiss design, but in China it is. Their different dimensions of thinking will help us.”

And, Richemont Group, to which Vacheron Constantin belongs, has established its school in Beijing and Shanghai to train more local expertise in China.

“We have thousands of pieces (of watches) to fix in China every year, so we need stronger watchmakers here.”

Chinese timepieces are better noticed at this year’s Basel fair

Since returning to Beijing from the world’s leading watch and jewelry show, Baselworld, held in Switzerland, Wang Mengjin, has had his hands full.

Wang, the counselor for China Horologe Association, the national-level body supervising the industry, has witnessed China’s watch industry grow in the past few decades, and says its golden period has arrived.

Wang says attending Baselworld in March, helped establish that understanding. About 20 Chinese watchmakers attended this year’s fair, with three even invited to Hall No 1, which is usually preserved for the best in business.

“Complicated watch movements shows our muscle. Though our industry still lags behind Switzerland, I guess Swiss watchmakers may notice we’ve approached the world’s top quality in some sectors, and the gap isn’t insurmountable,” he tells China Daily.

Tianjin-based Sea-gull, which made its debut at Hall No 1 in March, is now among the world’s largest watchmakers in terms of size. It produced 3.5 million watches in 2014.

“Competition is always good, and there is enough space for everybody,” Juan-Carlos Torres, CEO, Vacheron Constantin, said of the growing ambition of Chinese watchmakers during a recent visit to Beijing.

He said that he hoped Chinese brands would make fewer mistakes while making watches and produce quality products.

While many renowned Swiss brands have centuries of history, Wang considers China’s newbie watchmakers equipped with some of their own skills.

“They have enough investment to buy the best movements, but what matters more for them is creativity,” he says. “Chinese watchmakers emphasize more on the making of a watch than branding it.”

Speaking of changes in the local industry, he says, application of Chinese elements into watch design has become a trend in recent years. For example, Longio, a Beijing-based brand uses pictures of wheat from popular folk arts in the northern Chinese countryside to decorate dials. Koncise, another Beijing brand, has become known for its delicate enamel dials, and Zhang Dao from Shanghai has introduced porcelain in dial designs.

“Some high-end Swiss brands ordered our dials at high price in Baselworld this time,” Wang says, refusing to give the brand name because of business agreements.

But despite the progress made by the local industry, he says, there’s still a perception that Chinese watches are of low quality.

According to China Horologe Association, China manufactured about 100 million watches in 2014. But 4 million imported Swiss watches composed more than 60 percent of China’s sectoral turnover for that year.

In January, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released guidelines to establish globally recognized watch brands. China plans to make five of its watch brands globally influential by 2020.

“It is the first time that the watchmaking industry is being promoted at the State level,” Zhang Hongguang, executive vice chairman of China Horology Association, says. “As a combination of precision instrument making and information technology, the industry deserves much attention.”

The Sino-Swiss Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2013, will gradually decrease tariff on watches within a decade. China Horologe Association and Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry also co-established a panel to promote cooperation between two countries.

And, for Chinese watchmakers with big dreams, the first step would be to establish a healthier market.

Zhang says in spite of difficulties, some achievements have been made. For example, after the panel met in February, it was decided that Switzerland will likely release a complete list of all certificated Swiss watch brands in the near future to discourage knock-offs in China and the country will also help train more Chinese customs officials to be able to better apprise such items when they come into China.

“When consumers want to check whether the Swiss watches they buy are genuine, they have to refer to the brand itself. That is unbalanced, so we need an independent and authoritative appraisal institution to make that conclusion,” Zhang says.

If you go

When: The exhibition will run through Aug 12 (next onstage shows from May 28-June 3; July 9-15). 9 am-5 pm; no entrance after 4 pm. The museum is closed on Mondays.

Where: Hall A, B1 floor, Capital Museum, 16 Fuxingmenwai Dajie (Avenue), Xicheng district, Beijing.

Phone: 010-6339-3339.

Book online at www.capitalmuseum.org.cn. No entrance fee, but reservations needed.

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