Czapek is a name most watch lovers are familiar with. How did the modern company come into being?
Born in what is now the Czech Republic, and raised in Poland, watchmaker François Czapek moved to Switzerland in 1832. He met fellow Pole Antoine Norbert de Patek in 1836 and in 1839 the pair founded Patek, Czapek & Cie, a partnership that lasted six years before each man set up his own company. Huge success followed for Czapek and he became the first watchmaker to open a boutique on Place Vendôme – Chopard was already there, but was a pure jewellery company.
Documentation for Czapek disappears in 1869, and the name fell into the public domain.
In 2001, Harry Guhl started looking at the name and, in 2008, he started the process of registering the brand. I left Ebel in 2012 and was looking for a new challenge; a mutual friend introduced me to Harry who was incidentally looking for a new business partner. I then met with our other partner, watchmaker Sebastien Follonier, and we all started to work together in 2013.
Initially, we built a road map giving ourselves a year to build a movement, which everyone told us was insane. By the end of 2014, we had designs for two calibres and had found a movement maker, so we started market testing. We met 12 industry insiders – you being one of them – in November 2014. We listened to what everyone said, adapted our designs and then made the prototype that would help us raise funds.
You raised money through crowdfunding. Today it is commonplace, but you were breaking new ground when you used it back then.
We were indeed. In the beginning, we made two decisions and we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. We wanted to be true to the spirit of François Czapek, so we were determined not to be an ego-led brand. Instead our aim was simply to bring the past to the present and the future. Secondly, we decided to crowdfund and to let our clients determine our direction rather than be the plaything of a billionaire owner.
I had been working in the luxury arena for 12 years and seen companies selling out to the big groups and being treated badly. We knew that with a financier running the show, we would all be sacked within three years just because the wind on the lake had changed direction. We decided to create value by using “sharing” as our business model. I knew there were thousands of guys out there just like us and thought why not give them the chance to become shareholders, ambassadors, clients and advisors. It turned out to be an amazing direction.
Czapek was the first brand to do a multi-platform equity crowdfunding in the UK, France and Switzerland, all at the same time. We launched our campaign on 10 November 2015 and closed it on 30 January 2016 during which time we raised £1.1 million – 10 per cent more than our initial goal. Some people laughed at the way we did things, but that’s OK, every venture is risky and plenty of others put their faith in us. It took time and hard work to pull it off, but our secret weapons are our shareholders and our team.
And that first prototype watch took you a long way.
It certainly did. We finished it in November 2015 and named it the Quai des Bergues and, one year later, it won the Public Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG). Also in 2016, we shipped the first production piece to Japan. We have grown steadily since then, thanks in large part to our shareholders, who are also our customers and repeat buyers. Today we have a retail presence in Paris, Poland, the Czech Republic and, hopefully soon, the UK.
Did the GPHG prize have a big impact on the business?
It meant people would answer my emails! But seriously, it strengthened the brand and is still helping us now. People look at the watch more and understand it. Winning was a total surprise and the fact that it was the Public Prize meant that it mattered even more. We were up against the big guys and, at the time, our database was tiny compared to our competitors, so the votes we received felt even more important and genuine.
It seems that you have come a really long in way in just two years.
We carried on sourcing funds and have raised £3 million in total, which is a lot for a start-up but is nothing in terms of haute horlogerie, where it is easy to invest upwards of £30 million. We have a different approach, which is what makes Czapek so interesting. And it works – we are now operating at break-even and aim to be in profit by the end of 2018.
We have put huge effort into making the watches more than marketing and advertising. The first nine months is always the most challenging time in manufacturing but after that, it becomes easier. You know what you are doing; so, you need hands, you order them, you need cases, the same. We now have three movements and are working on our fourth – the Quai des Bergues collection has 20 models that are simple and accessible but with an extraordinary level of finish, the Place Vendôme with a second time-zone, a Tourbillon model and our Chronograph, which has three versions.
I have quite a diverse background in accessories and men’s tailoring and this has helped me manage supply in a special way.
At Czapek, we make every watch from scratch, we don’t hold stock but we aim for three weeks turnaround from order to delivery. It is just a different thought process. We are making traditional watches in a non-traditional way.
And you still work with external suppliers?
Yes. We believe in this and it allows us to source the best of the best. It was the original way for watchmaking. Our engraver works for many of the most exclusive brands, but is still independent and it is the same with our micro-painter and enameller. This way of working is collaborative and we give people a lot of freedom – they are masters of their crafts so we don’t need to teach them. It would take 20 years to build an in-house knowledge and to do what? To kill the creativity of the artist? No, we want to respect it, and to appreciate the people who are better than us. By using the best craftsmen, we give them the platform to create and the opportunity to express their creativity. The fact that we are crowd-funded means we have to be transparent, and transparency makes us collaborative.
What does the future hold for Czapek?
We will continue to share our passion and produce what we would love to wear. In the short term, we will follow two parallel paths. Firstly, producing simple models that will be our future workhorses. And secondly, to work on complications and functions that people will actually use – we call this “mechanical intelligence”. We are also working on a high complication, but this will take a long time.