A friend of mine got me interested in watches, or more specifically, chronometers. Exploring this sub-culture has reminded me again of the power of perception.

First let me set the stage with a little background information.

This past fall my wife and I celebrated 20 years of marriage by going on our first cruise. It was an incredible trip. A few weeks before our cruise my friend at work, Jack, came to me and said I needed to be looking at watches while we in the Caribbean. That simple comment started us down a journey of discovery and exploration as Jack educated me on the world of chronometers.

We went on our trip and sure enough both my wife and I returned with new purchases adorning our wrists. She got a ESQ and I held to my fascination with motorcycles got a Pirelli. (Yes, Pirelli. The watch band looks just like the tire tread that was on my Ducati Monster M800.)

Only a few short months back from the cruise and both of us found that our watches needed new batteries. I called Gould Jewelery in Anoka, MN since they are close to home and had advertised servicing watches. They said they could service both of our watches, so my wife and I headed there this past weekend.

My wife knows me well so on the way there she smiles and says, “you can’t get a new watch”. But like a kid in a candy store I was drawn to the polished counters filled with watches. I’ve been wanting a new watch with a silver band for those occasions when motorcycle tread may not be the most fitting.

There it was … a Bulova BVA-Series 100.

What caught my attention was the face design with the small window to display the intricate swiss-movement of an automatic winding chronometer. I had to try it on. The band was silver and the watch fit nicely on my wrist. I looked a bit closer to see it was a 21-jewel movement; the back face was transparent as well so you could see all of the inner-workings of the piece.

While searching for my next watch I have seen a consistent pattern that the automatic watches are $1000 on up. I even found one that was selling for more than $200k; it was a glorious example of precision engineering, but that price is just outrageous. I was a bit surprised when I noticed the list price was $425. Why so inexpensive?

Back to Jack. He would know. Sure enough he knew the brand and quickly explained that it was a good piece, but the price difference was because it wasn’t manufactured in Switzerland. Swiss automatic watches are $1000k on up. Bulova is made in America; not Switzerland.

Perception is lasting

Switzerland … just the mention brings two thoughts to mind almost immediately: dark chocolate and precision time pieces.

How can it be that a watch made in Switzerland can claim a list price that is three times a watch made elsewhere? Perception.

I don’t know the inner details of the manufacturing process enough to know how different Bulova’s manufacturing when compared to Tag Heuer’s. Is there an intrinsic difference in the engineering? Does the manufacturing process somehow improve by location? Are the raw materials of higher-grade?

While any of these could be true, my guess is that the price difference is based solely on customer perception.

That led me mind to ponder the power of perception in other areas. Simple User Experience = Apple. High-performance elegant automobiles = German Car Companies. Fast food = McDonald’s. Reliability = Maytag.

I found myself confounded with unanswered questions. Questions like … How is this perception developed? Once established can the perception be destroyed or altered? Can a new overriding perception be built? Where does a perception start?

Those perplexing problems brought me back to Bulova’s situation. I realize we, as Americans, need to find ways to develop and build sustainable manufacturing industries. But if the business at hand is designing precision chronometers, why would I manufacture anywhere other than Switzerland? Could Bulova build a business that is designed in America and manufactured in Switzerland?