Passers-by looking at pictures displayed in a public gallery
Patek Phillipe’s Watch Art Grand Exhibition in Tokyo in June

Japan may be home to some of the most discerning and sophisticated luxury buyers but, for years, it has been stymied by slow growth and an ageing population. Now, the country is making a comeback — and watchmakers are taking note.

“Japan is going through a bit of a revival,” says Erwan Rambourg, global head of consumer and retail research at HSBC. In the wake of the pandemic, a more conservative and health-conscious culture had led luxury Japanese shoppers to curtail purchases. But they seem poised to shop again. “Local consumption of luxury has impressed and should continue to impress as Japanese citizens rebuild confidence — and their balance sheets,” says Rambourg.

An uptick in exports and a relatively weak yen are also contributing to a more favourable economic environment. “Our projections for Japan are quite bullish on the prospects for this year,” says Rambourg.

The strength of the local market is evident at Patek Philippe, which last month hosted the sixth edition of its Watch Art Grand Exhibition in Tokyo. Free to the public and running for two weeks, the show was 2,500 sq m in size with 500 objects and timepieces on display, making it the largest exhibition to date for the family-owned watchmaker.

Japan is among Patek Philippe’s top five markets globally, with nearly 100 per cent of sales going to local customers. “Our strategy has always been to push the retailers to sell locally,” says Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern, who adds that this was already being implemented before Covid, which helped it weather the pandemic when tourism vanished.

Patek Philippe watch
Patek Philippe’s 5531R-014 World Time Minute Repeater Limited Edition Tokyo 2023

Patek Philippe’s Japanese clients have a penchant for complicated watches and smaller sizes, Stern adds — an indication of where the market may be heading, considering this trend was also evident during this year’s Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva. New features of Patek Philippe’s Tokyo exhibition included a room dedicated to sound, showcasing 17 chiming watches, and a section in its museum room on super-complicated historic pieces.

The brand launched six new limited editions, as well, including the first world time watch featuring a date display synchronised with local time, as well as another model combining four complications. In addition, there were two understated Calatrava designs, sold as a pair, coming in 36mm and 31mm that Stern described as more “traditional” and “extremely conservative sizes”.

“Japanese people love taste, craftsmanship — and love Switzerland,” says Pierre-Alexandre Aeschlimann, chief executive and president of watchmaker Andersen Genève. He was also in Tokyo last month launching a limited edition jumping-hour watch inspired by Japan (the event was held in the Swiss ambassador’s residence).

The company has been selling to Japanese collectors since the 1990s, with today’s clients increasingly younger (aged between 20 and 40), says Aeschlimann, who adds that Japanese and Italian clients are his most discerning ones. “If you sell your product to a high-end Japanese or Italian collector, then your product is right,” he argues.

Cartier chief executive Cyrille Vigneron, who was president and chief executive of Richemont Japan in the early 2000s, says: “Japan has always been a country and culture valuing refinement, beauty, attention to details — exuberant or minimalist or the combination of both in ‘counterpoints’.”

In 2025, Cartier will present the Women’s Pavilion in collaboration with the World Expo 2025 in Osaka.

The country seems especially susceptible to the age-old art of horology. “Japan is a conservative country of fast changes, both keen on keeping traditions alive and adopting new things and new trends, reinventing itself constantly,” says Vigneron. “It lives a new spring, with a refreshed energy.”

Local watchmakers are also benefiting. In recent years, Grand Seiko has been consciously designing products with a distinct Japanese focus, in terms of their craftsmanship and design inspiration. Watch dials have reflected the cherry blossom season or the snowy landscapes as seen from the company’s watch studio in central Japan’s Nagano prefecture.

Grand Seiko watch
Grand Seiko Shunbun 40mm Cherry Blossom edition

Such watches are becoming increasingly popular in the west, with demand growing, says Akio Naito, Seiko Watch Corporation’s president. “People, today, are more curious about Japanese culture than ever before and, thanks to easy access to information, consumers from a wide range of countries and cultures can find an emotional connection to Japan and Japanese products,” he says. New boutiques on Paris’s Place Vendôme and London’s Bond Street, and an upcoming store on New York’s Madison Avenue should further drive international awareness.

In contrast to the rest of the world, where luxury buyers increasingly are younger, Japan’s watch buyers are part of an ageing population. However, this does not seem to be putting a dent in the outlook. Instead, brands are selling to all parts of the market. Rambourg says, they “will be quite proud to say they’re selling to the grandmother, the mother and the daughter, not just the daughter”.

“Japan used to be a slow growing market, with very high spending per capita, but growing slowly because the demographics are negative,” says Jean-Christophe Babin, chief executive of Bulgari, which counts Japan as its second-largest market. “Post-Covid, the bouncing back of Japan has been unexpected. [There is] a much stronger appetite for enjoying life to its fullest,” he observes, noting that clients are increasingly seeking the best of the best, and willing to spend more on luxury.

In April, Bulgari opened a hotel in Tokyo, its eighth property globally. It is located above Tokyo Station and features wraparound terraces with views to Mount Fuji. “The upselling which used to be a push from sales associates is now becoming a natural request from the client,” Babin says.

So how long will this boom last? Rambourg says the country is in “a rebound phase that’s probably going to be longer lasting than most people had imagined. [But] the demographics are not going in the right direction,” he adds. “There will be a limit to how far you can go with the local consumer.”

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