Swiss, behind the time(s), turn to electronic watches

Swiss watch firms are, if not exactly flourishing, then at least surviving. Swiss watch craftsmen, on the other hand, may be dying out.

The relative success of watch firms is evident in the annual sales of 70 million Swiss timepieces.

The plight of watchmakers is evident in the staggering loss of 50,000 Switzerland's 65,000 watchmaking jobs in the past three years.

The villain of the timepiece is the electronic watch - and competition from cheap labor in developing countries.

Electronic watches, Swiss perfectionists note (putting digital numbers in their proper place), are really nothing more than electric watches. And when they're being really naughty, the Swiss further draw attention to the environmental problem of disposing of used mercury batteries.

Whatever they are called, electronic-electric watches now depend on cheap computer-stamped chips, and not on the meticulous matching of parts by master workmen bending over their chalet workbenches. And this goes to the heart of the matter for Jura and some other regions.

''Technological development suddenly made a breakthrough,'' observes Michel Mamie, director of the April 17 to 26 European Watch and Jewelry fair in Basel. ''It came much faster than anyone predicted. Fifteen years ago it was said in all the watch industries, 'Yes, maybe by the year 2000 electronic watches will have 15 percent of the market. Now we know that for most firms, electronic watches account for practically 100 percent of their cheaper production.

''They found that the production of electronic watches is much simpler than mechanical watches, because parts can be machine produced. It's simpler because you must know that in an electronic watch there is an average of 25 parts, while in a mechanical watch there are up to 100.''

Mr. Mamie continues, ''The electronic watch needs no special knowledge. Anyone can make it. In the Far East, where there is cheap labor, it can be produced very simply.'' This led to greatly expanded production and even overproduction. ''It was almost an explosion. In the past year I heard that in Hong Kong an electronic watch came on the market for $4.''

The Swiss had to adjust. Moreover, they had to adjust without financial help from the government, which traditionally eschews subventions.

On the one hand, then, the Swiss followed the old adage of ''if you can't lick 'em, join 'em.'' Swiss firms began producing more and more electronic watches themselves.

On the other hand, the Swiss moved more toward the expensive end of the spectrum, catering to those customers who want elegant jewelry as well as accurate watches on their wrists. This was hardly a reflexive response. Initially, in the 1970s, watch companies tried to compete with Japanese and American and third-world manufacturers for the mass market. When that didn't work, they shifted to the elite market.

For electric watches they engineered two-millimeter wafer-thin watches selling for 7,000 or 8,000 francs (about $3,500 to $4,000). For both electronic and mechanical watches Rado - the largest Swiss producer, with an annual turnover of a million watches - specialized in making scratchproof tungsten carbide watch casings. Other companies turned to glass see-through housings, individualistic and aesthetic hands and figures, and other innovations.

To be sure, the whole market is softer than the Swiss had hoped a year ago. Economic recession in Europe and North America is cutting into discretionary spending for watches and jewelry. But 1982 Swiss sales are at least staying on a level with 1981 levels.

All this still leaves a substantial problem for those 50,000 watch craftsmen who are now out of work. The Swiss are trying some retraining. But by now the famed Swiss watchmaking schools are closing, or training foreigners exclusively.

For most of the 50,000, just about the only hope seems to be that the fad for quartz watches (and their fairly expensive replacement batteries) may eventually blow over. Specialized watches - for the blind, deep sea divers, and others - will continue to depend on mechanical watches, of course.

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