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Current State of the watch industry with “theOpenCaseback”

We are discussing today, a few interesting topics in the watch industry with Mike from TheOpenCAseback blog. Mike and I got in touch a few months ago through instagram and I noticed immediately the strong opinons shared on his blog about the watch industry, collectors, social media…

So we thought it would be nice to share with you more from Mike’s perspective.

Who is “theopencaseback”? Tell us more about yourself , your collecting story and likes/dislikes in watches

The Open Caseback is run primarily by myself with a few watchmaking / watch collecting friends that jump in occasionally with their own articles. I work in the startup / tech world, and first liked watches when I was pretty young.

I honestly don’t remember when it originally happened, but living in Hong Kong for the last ~4 years has been an incubator for this watch fanatic virus. As for collecting, I’m a bit of an odd-ball because I pretty much went directly into the independents.

I was gifted a Breitling Superocean for my graduation from university and then the first watch I bought myself was a very unusual Sarpaneva K2 Prototype. Since then, it’s been independents all the down.

How did the page/blog start and what is your main objective since inception? What do you foresee for the future ?

The Open Caseback really scratches my own itch. For the last few years, I’ve wanted to see more writing and analysis in the watch world, not on product, but on bigger questions, i.e. how has the watch world and community changed, has social media been positive or negative for brands, why do many independent watchmakers follow a similar path of development, etc.

A lot of these questions are driven by my own intellectual curiosity and desire to uncover new ways of thinking about the watchmaking world. So far, I’ve been lucky to attract an audience that is similarly curious and open to discuss these bigger questions and higher level concepts.

For the future, I don’t have any wild or crazy plan. For now, I just want to continue down the same path. I really think there’s no shortage of big questions to continually ask and address – or at least, there’s no shortage of angles we can take to understand them.

What are your current favourite brands/ models in the market and why?

Of late, I have a really strong attraction to autodidacts – self-taught people. Hajime Asaoka and Josh Shapiro are both independents who taught themselves watchmaking later in life. Super amazed by all of their watches, and really fascinated by the obsessive dedication it takes to excel as a self-taught watchmaker.

How do you evaluate the last decade in watchmaking in terms of innovation, achievements…? Who were the biggest winners and biggest losers?

If I take a bird’s eye view of the last decade, I think overall it’s been one of transition. Nothing feels really settled or fully figured out yet. Social media, the transition to more direct to consumer sales, the rise of the secondary market, changing retail experiences, all still feel like they are only in the beginning phase of development.

At the same time, everyone knows that the future is going to be really different, really fast. I feel there’s a lot of hesitation – no one is taking the bull by the horns and leading the charge into the future yet. So, to evaluate the last decade in watchmaking on a very high level, I think it’s been one of uncertainty and anxiety for the inevitability of change.

That said, there have been some clear winners in the 2010’s: the independents. I think most of the things that hurt the big brands – social media, transition to direct to consumer, retail experience – have actually helped a lot of the indies.

Instagram specifically has been such a great platform for indies to establish themselves and build much bigger audiences. In 2010, names like Max Busser, Romain Gauthier, Bart and Tim Grönefeld, Rexhep Rexhepi were either only known in very small circles or completely unknown. In 2020, pretty much every collector, including those of only the traditional maisons, have some sense of these strong independent watchmakers and brands.

What do you think of the current hyped up sport steel wave? Justified? Whats driving it and why so much?

I’m going to take a bit of an unconventional approach to this subject. Honestly, I wish the topic of steel sports watch hype, waitlists, and secondary market premiums were discussed way less than it is. The watch community has tried mediating this problem by talking and debating about it for 4+ years and it has yielded very few results, if any at all.

I hear and read so many of these conversations where the collector/consumer occupies the position of helpless victim in current market conditions. I would love to see if there’s some way to get out from underneath that victim position, if possible.

The question that’s never really asked is, what can we consumers do to get better access to the products we want at retail prices? I don’t have an answer, but that’s the type of question that provokes action and remedies.

What do you think needs to change in the next decade?

It seems like such low hanging fruit, but I’m going to focus on retail for this answer. I’m a firm believer that the overall experience and “vibe” of retail needs a facelift for the future. It didn’t always need a revamp, but it’s progressively becoming more needed as time passes.

I say this because we’re in a bit of an in-between phase where luxury was historically associated with tuxedos and black-tie events and now it’s increasingly linked to a much more casual existence – jeans and sneakers.

Haute couture has already made this jump, but haute horology has resisted. There continues to be something about most retailers that comes across extremely formal. I don’t see a world, already now even, but also in the near future, where that formal vibe pays dividends.

What is missing today between collectors and brands communication?

From my vantage point, collectors want more substance in what the brands communicate online. I don’t know many collectors that would say it that way, but here’s why I think this is true. The disparity between our online experience and the experience we have when there’s a brand-hosted gathering are lightyears apart.

I have rarely heard anyone complain about how awful a brand gathering is amongst fellow collectors, but I do hear quite often about how shallow social media feels. The in-person gatherings are joyous, and usually leave a really strong impression of the values, history, and great people involved with each company.

The digital brand experience, on the opposite side of the spectrum, leaves almost no lasting impressions of a given brand’s values, history and the great people involved. Digital is so product-focused that it leaves nothing else to grasp. Figuring out how to truly digitize the positive aspects of in-person gatherings would really improve everyone’s connection to the brands overall.

How do you see the role of social media impacting the industry?

This is a great question! My answer requires a look at different layers of the industry – what’s been great for the community has created a real predicament for the brands. As I see it, the role of social media for the watch community has been overwhelmingly positive by many measures – ease of access, ease of connecting with others, ease of exploring product. As I mentioned, this has created a particularly positive impact on the growth of independent watchmakers. Of course, social media is also not as educationally profound as the forums, but it operates a scale the forums could have never managed.

As the rise of social media has been great for overall consumer awareness of product, it has flattened the entire industry for the brands. In this new social media era, the big brands have definitely struggled to maintain consumer awareness of the things that differentiate, not product, but unique brand DNA – the values and history.

In that sense, social media has played a heavy role in the commoditized view of watches today – hard to differentiate, very pricing driven. One of the big challenges in the next decade for the brands will be in finding a way for each to re-establish who they are, why they matter, and what makes them great to audiences at scale on social media.

Any advice for new comers and collectors starting their journey?

Have the courage to follow your own tastes and interests. Early on in my own journey, I thought I was doing something wrong by being mostly uninterested by the big brands. There was some second guessing about my fixation on independents. I resisted it, and it’s been one hell of a time. You’ll always get the most enjoyment out of collecting by doing it on your own terms.

If you guys enjoyed this interview and would like to hear more from Mike, just follow him on Instagram @theopencaseback or his blog


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