Before 2015 Ghanaian former hotel worker Anthony Dzamefe had never owned a watch. But he needed to make more money, so he bought watches from a local boutique, took pictures of himself wearing them, advertised on social media, and sold them in car parks and on university campuses. After initial success, he soon began to tinker with the designs in order to attract new customers.
“I kept adding value by using better glasses, and by taking every part of a watch apart to put it back together again, so I could learn how to do repairs. It was then that I discovered the most important part of the watchmaking process, which is the artistry,” Dzamefe says.
The 31-year-old is now CEO and founder of Caveman, a company in the vanguard of Africa’s first generation of artisan watchmakers emerging across the continent. The continent’s watchmakers enjoyed a moment in the international spotlight in 2019 when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were given LN Watches featuring straps in the colours of Zulu royalty during their visit to South Africa.
Meanwhile in Nigeria, luxury watchmaker Asorock is taking on international brands and forging a reputation for artistry and reliability. At its Ghanaian factory, Caveman now has workers expert at different stages of the painstaking watchmaking process and has had to separate its process to prevent spies from competitors stealing trade secrets.
Globally, watch sales were proving resilient even in the era of the smartphone up until the pandemic, with the global market valued at $62bn in 2020 by Business Wire, a market research company. Rising urbanisation in China and India, an expanding international middle class, and growing urban fashion consciousness in China and India, the world’s two most populous nations, had proved a bulwark to help offset dips experienced in more mature markets.
Still, despite the obvious buzz, the African market is in its infancy. Most African watchmakers are self-taught, with few opportunities for any formal watchmaking education on the continent. Creators first have to learn the different aspects of watchmaking from online video tutorials or apprenticeships with those in connected trades – Dzamefe spent two months with a shoemaker learning how to fashion leather straps.
The size of the embryonic African timepiece manufacturing sector is unclear, as second-hand sales dominate, and less research has been carried out. But the production process is the same used by counterparts around the world, with most firms starting off by importing watch movements – also known as a “calibre” in horology – the mechanical engine that drives the watch, chiefly from Japanese manufacturers Seiko or Miyota. Caveman says about 70% of their watch movement parts are imported from Japan, with 30% customised and assembled in Ghana.
Watchmakers then create their own unique cases that enclose and protect the movement, design the face and dial and add straps and boxes.
“They don’t make the watches with the African weather condition in mind. So, for example, a certain type of material or metal that could be used in European countries would expand with the heat over time here, so we customise and adapt,” says Dzamefe, who uses surgical stainless steel in his watches.
“The whole idea of the Caveman brand is to have products that can be generational. Watches that grandfathers leave to their grandsons, and by using surgical stainless steel it means they won’t corrode, or react to sweat or the oxygen in the air.”
Swiss fall out of favour
The last decade has been transformative for the luxury watch market. Smartphones have presented stiff competition to traditional watchmakers, and dominant Swiss luxury firms were suffering declining sales in Africa even before Covid-19 lockdowns forced malls to close.
“From 2017 to 2020 exports of Swiss watches to Africa have been on a downward trajectory, with exports declining by 47% in volume,” says Rubab Abdoolla, a beauty and fashion analyst at Euromonitor.
Speaking from the Swiss Business Hub at the Embassy of Switzerland in South Africa, Daniel Schneider says the luxury sector is a quick adapter, and the export of Swiss watches like Rolex, Omega and TAG will pick up again. But the recent civil unrest and looting in South African cities and the weak economy are hurting Swiss imports and investment.
“We believe that in African countries like South Africa, with strong financial institutions and longstanding established markets for luxury goods, the export of Swiss watches will pick up again, even if it takes its time,” he says.
“Very often these timepieces are seen as investments, bought intending to be passed on as heirlooms, and perceived as a status symbol. Connoisseurs also purchase certain luxury brands because they value the craftsmanship, so it’s expected that once the economic situation improves, demand for luxury watches will see healthy growth,” says Abdoola.
In the meantime, some African companies are eschewing the luxury end of the market in favour of timepieces targeting the wealthy middle classes. In the second quarter, Caveman sold 600 turquoise Blue Volta watches, which sell for C450 ($75) – while Asorock watches retail for up to around $200.
Betting on luxury
Despite the tough times for luxury, other African watchmakers continue to target the upper end of the local market. Cape Town watchmaker Bettél, whose wooden timepieces can sell for over R5000 ($340), says the lockdowns have been unsparing. Co-founder Stuart Swan led a team producing 200 handcrafted wooden-cased watches per month before Covid, to sell at its store in the trendy Watershed at the V&A Waterfront luxury shopping development.
Mixing high-quality stainless steel, carbon fibre and natural local wood, with movements often manufactured by Seiko and customised by Bettél, Swan says that a single piece of dust entering the movement during assembly can ruin the operation, meaning that precision skills are essential for workers in the labour-intensive process.
After a tough year-and-a-half, Bettél are ramping up production once again, and will target social media to release videos showcasing their watchmaking prowess. Despite growth in smartwatches like the Apple Watch – which is capable of running a host of health monitoring apps and is estimated to have sold over 100m units since 2015 – Swan believes the distinctive craftsmanship of Bettél’s watches will retain their appeal when tourists and shoppers return in numbers to Cape Town.
“Each watch is truly unique, using local wood, local leathers and metals. It’s very meticulous work and a difficult product to make, but many of our customers say this is the best watch they’ve ever had.”