While lists are arbitrary by nature, our criteria for naming the ten most
powerful luxury brand owners today are simple: we looked at what they contributed to the rebirth
and enduring success of the Swiss watch industry. Many of them, such as Rolf Schnyder, Jean-Claude Biver and Gerd-R. Lang, represented the first wave of resistance to the Quartz Crisis and, along with Nicolas G. Hayek, rebuilt the industry stone by stone. Others represent subsequent waves of businessmen who entered the high watchmaking industry from other avenues.
Severin Wunderman was the marketing and industrial genius who built an
empire out of Gucci watches and transformed them into the must-have fashion accessories of the ’80s.
In 2001, he purchased Corum watches and, together with his son Michael Wunderman, is activating and rediscovering the brand’s power. Of all the men featured here, Carlos Dias has charted the most meteoric rise. The former fashion industry industrialist took over where Franck Muller left off, merging haute horlogerie and vibrant, modern, baroque-inspired designs to create the most commercially powerful ticking sex symbols of the early third millennium. Pascal Raffy has single-handedly transformed Bovet from a niche luxury brand into one of the most potentially powerful manufactures around through smart investment and consolidation. We included Bell & Ross’s co-founder and president, Carlos Rossillo, because of the success he’s had in creating one of the most originally designed sports watches, the BR 01, as well as the way in which he’s evolved it into a popular culture icon featured in Ralph Lauren ads. Gino Macaluso straddles two eras: he helped to rebuild the industry throughout the ’90s and continues to lead the way into the new era with the vast industrial strength of the
Girard-Perregaux Sowind Group manufacture. On the subject of the new era, no one man has been more definitive of modern watchmaking than Richard Mille. Finally, there is Jérôme de Witt — an aristocrat, a philosopher, a patron of the arts and a man who has shown remarkable talent in not only creating award-winning products, but winning over the watchmaking establishment.
It is interesting to note that of the men who make up our list of the most powerful brand owners in
modern horology, more than half of them are not of Swiss descent. We have amongst them, men of Italian, German, French, Portuguese, Lebanese and American descent. However, in each instance, these men have come to exemplify the culture of Swiss watchmaking. The rich variety of backgrounds also points to two important things: first, the modern Swiss watch industry is one that welcomes a diverse myriad of entrepreneurs; and, second, the passion for mechanical watches is as universal as it is timeless.
Carlos Dias — The Force of Nature
The fact that the watch industry’s rumor mill is constantly abuzz with tales of Roger Dubuis being sold for astronomical sums of money, simply points to the immense brand equity created by a single individual in the course of a mere decade.
That individual is not Roger Dubuis, the watchmaker that gave over his name to create the brand, but Carlos Dias, a Portuguese industrialist. If you look at the majority of the men who have succeeded in the role of a brand owner, whether it is Rolf Schnyder or Vartan Sirmakes, they embody two great qualities: the creative talent that aids them in the conceptualization and design of vibrant innovative watches, and the industrial experience that allows them to execute these products in a timely, cost-effective manner.
Dias is similarly cut from this cloth, having industrialized neckties and other fashion accessories before branching into watchmaking. There is something singular about Carlos Dias — his whole persona vibrates with energy as if he is not just a man, but a personification of some great force of nature.
Like the other brand owners, Dias is obsessive about the details of the company he built, but he takes it to an all-new level. Employees must keep their desks completely clear at the end of each day or risk his wrath — yes, he does check. To Dias, this is all about cultivating the right mental attitude to succeed. His focus, discipline, and unremitting pursuit of success and visual perfection are second to none.
As forces of energy often are, there is a part of Dias’s nature that is combative. There is, on the wall of Carlos Dias’s booth in Geneva’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, an image that perfectly embodies his fighting spirit. The image depicts Mohammad Ali, whose story finds many parallels with that of Carlos Dias. Like Ali, Carlos Dias has staged a meteoric rise. He presented his first collection of watches in 1996. Ten years on, thanks to Dias’s visionary design acumen, Roger Dubuis has eclipsed some of the most significant brands on the market to become the most fertile hothouse for New World luxury combined with high technical achievement. And like Ali, Dias has been dogged by recurring challenges, in particular brands that were brazenly imitating his designs. They say that “imitation is the best form of flattery,” in which case Dias could well be the most flattered man in the Swiss watch industry.
In 2003, out of frustration with his imitators, Dias created a distinctive cross-shaped watch. He named it “Follow Me”, daring others to copy him. Amazingly, the following year, the Locman Company launched a highly evocative cross-shaped watch that could have been named “Yes we did.” In 2006, Paul Picot introduced a watch that was eerily reminiscent of Dias’s AcquaMare from his sports activity range.
Yet Dias’s biggest grumble is about a brand with which he had a former association, Franck Muller; in particular, the launch of a watch he feels is a little too close for comfort to his iconic Golden Square. How has Dias reacted to all this? He raged forcefully and at times, intimidatingly; but in most instances, you have to admit he has every right to.
At the same time, Dias has applied his forceful energy to the expansion of his product range and his manufacture. In 2006, Dias shocked the world with the simultaneous introduction of six in-house calibers. This statement of ability elegantly, poetically and simply expresses Dias’s dominance over his imitators.
From the onset, Dias’s focus has been on distinguishing Roger Dubuis as a true manufacture. To this end, he has created an impressive array of in-house calibers and has even created his own department for the fabrication of in-house hairsprings. Dias presented his first caliber in 1998. Fittingly named the RD98, this was a manually wound mechanical movement designed and built entirely in the Manufacture Roger Dubuis workshops. He followed this impressive overture in 2000 with the highly acclaimed RD65 monopusher chronograph caliber as well as the RD99, the world’s first triple retrograde movement, where all three retrograde hands are co-axially mounted on the center pinion. The dawn of the new millennium in 2001 brought with it the caliber RD10, the world’s first perpetual calendar with bi-retrograde indicators mounted at the center and with the indication for the weeks. In 2002, Dias ignited the watch world with three new calibers: the RD14, a self-winding mechanical movement; the RD54, a manual winding mechanical movement; and the RD82, the world’s first mechanical chronograph with eight days power reserve.
What is the true meaning of power? Power is being able to take responsibilities, drive your business, make coherent decisions and follow these decisions… It’s quite a huge challenge to employ 450 people!
What is the power of independence? No one is ever 100 percent independent; however, one can be very creative and dynamic in order to create a perfect equation between the needs of the market and manufacture know-how. Thanks to our independence, Manufacture Roger Dubuis is a dynamic company that affirms its strong and exclusive identity. Independence is synonymous with liberty and autonomy!
In realizing your vision of watchmaking, what was the most powerful challenge you have had to overcome? My two most important challenges were ensuring a complete industrial independence and having all our movements stamped with the prestigious Geneva Seal.
What is the emotional power of the mechanical watch? It is the ability to associate design with a respect for traditions. This emotion is even more intense when you visit the manufacture since you’d discover all the steps of production and the precision needed to create a watch. Last but not least, the most important emotion is to discover the watch I have imagined and developed for many months!
What is the power of your brand? From a global point of view, being independent allows you to do what you want and decide when you want to do it! More seriously, the independence of the Manufacture Roger Dubuis is our strong point, our competitive advantage.
Jérôme de Witt — The Freshman
It is a little too easy to perceive Jérôme de Witt the wrong way. With his aristocratic bearing (he is, after all, descended from Napoleon), sprawling manor, jet-setting ways, adoration for art and penchant for phenomenal entertaining, one could easily see de Witt as something of a gentleman-playboy. However, to do so would be to overlook the steely determination that belies his haute monde affability. Because in a highly-compressed period of time, de Witt has succeeded in building a brand with serious equity, and is now poised with his partner — former Vacheron Constantin CEO, Claude-Daniel Proellochs — to transform an energetic young brand into a mature one with real manufacturing depth.
Jérôme de Witt began his watch career in partnership with a talented but mercurial watchmaker named Cedric Johner. However, he and Johner had a falling out and de Witt was literally left stranded, having already made considerable investments in the partnership. At that time, de Witt considered throwing in the towel, but his affection for the team he’d assembled compelled him to continue his watchmaking endeavor under his own name.
He tells us, “It was pretty daunting. I talked to the team that I hired and they told me we must continue. I was always a watch lover and collector, but never a technician. But I knew that to create real, legitimate products, I had to learn as much as I could.”
De Witt made the all-important aesthetic move to develop an iconic case shape and a sense of modern, three-dimensional design. But his smartest move, and the one that helped him make his “horological bones”, was when he convinced a group of highly talented but disgruntled watchmakers, who comprised the technical team at Franck Muller, to start their own high complication company named BNB.
De Witt explains, “I offered them the opportunity for independence. I gave them a guarantee of orders for an innovative piece that I wanted to create.” The piece in question ended up being DeWitt’s Academia Tourbillon Differential — a watch that won the 2005 Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix for technical innovation. But de Witt didn’t rest there. He had greater ambitions and brought on board Claude-Daniel Proellochs to help him achieve them. Because what de Witt intends to do is to transform his brand into a true manufacture, and he has all the financial clout, determination and product sense to do it.
Walk through the chateau that houses his watchmakers and you’ll see some of the greatest living artists amongst them, including Yves Meunier — formerly a star at Patek Philippe. Says de Witt, “I never pressure anyone to join me. I simply create an environment where these individuals are respected and are free to do what they do best… create!”
We felt compelled to include Jérôme de Witt as the freshman in our power list, because while he may be the youngest member of watchmaking’s high establishment, he solidified his position amid its ranks with his creativity and daring, and by forging relationships with some of the best partners in the business
What is the true meaning of power? For a relatively young company like DeWitt (founded in 2003), power represents freedom. Power is the ability to act freely and quickly, to be creative and to have no limits. I do not believe that power is strength or control. Power is always discovered after the act, when the latter has been successful.
What is the power of independence? The power of independence is the freedom to decide what to create and produce. We try to have a long-term vision, supported by the investment necessary to prove that we can produce. The power of independence also needs the right team of people. You must control the knowledge to be independent.
What was the most powerful challenge you have had to overcome? I think the question should be what is the “greatest” challenge. We fight to produce a strong, identifiable product that reflects our values. The real challenge is already to make a decision. From that point on, the creation of a new product or catching a new market is a challenge. Today, our greatest challenge is yet to come; it is still a wish or a dream!
What is the emotional power of the mechanical watch? The emotional power of a mechanical watch is that for more than four centuries, anyone producing a watch or a movement was thought to be the best and the most creative. However, after a few days, weeks or months, something different would come out on the market. The objective is not only to measure time, but also to move ahead with technology and to create a dream that becomes a piece of art.
at a time when most men would have switched gears, relaxed and enjoyed the fruits of their hard work, Schnyder was still restless
Pascal Raffy — The Strongman
Pascal Raffy is an incredibly strong man. His biceps and shoulders strain the fabric of his custom-made shirts. He’s known to have, in moments of happiness, lifted men several times his size directly overhead. Okay, there’s physical strength and then there’s the other type of strength: the strength of perseverance, the strength to make hard decisions, the strength to invest and the strength of vision. Raffy has got these too. And he’s needed them. Because until Raffy, Bovet was a company that had been owned by many men who loved watches but none of whom knew how to run a watch company. With him, Bovet is becoming not just a company, but incredibly, a highly legitimate manufacture.
Bovet was established in 1822 in the idyllic watchmaking epicenter of Fleurier in Switzerland, and represented the alignment of watchmaking’s technical skills with the expressions of watchmaking’s high decorative arts. These included enamel dial-making, miniature painting on enamel and mother-of-pearl, hand engraving in relief, and the use of split pearl decoration. After it fell out of family ownership, Bovet bounced around, constantly changing hands throughout the 20th century. It was not till 2001 that it landed on a pair of hands that were strong enough to hold it firmly, yet such that its artistic spirit would not be diminished.
Raffy first encountered Bovet watches by chance. He explains, “A friend and fellow collector was visiting. He made a bet with me. He took three watches from my collection, turned off the lights and passed them to me. He asked me to name each of these watches simply by touching them. But when I got to the second watch I told him, ‘This is not my watch. I have nothing with a crown at 12 o’clock.’ He turned on the light and there in my hands, I saw my first Bovet. It was unforgettable.” Since he took over Bovet, Raffy has focused on identifying the brand with its 12 o’clock crown design and undertaking a masterful series of small acquisitions that would empower Bovet’s future.
With Raffy’s business acumen, quick thinking and seemingly limitless financial clout, Bovet has consolidated its famous watchmaking, enameling, engraving and miniature painting facilities in Château de Môtiers, a Fleurier stronghold once owned by the Bovet family. Bovet was also one of the key shareholders of Aubert Complication in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux. 2006 was a year of considerable change for Raffy. He reconfigured his team to bring younger and more creative energy into the brand. He cut ties with agents that he felt did not adequately express his commercial vision, and forged new relationships with those he felt would help build the modern understanding of his brand. His products similarly expressed a new youthful energy.
But the surprise of 2006 occurred when Raffy purchased the famous Swiss Time Technology (now renamed Dimier 1738), the manufacturer of tourbillons for Harry Winston, Chronoswiss and Bovet. So now the full strength of Raffy’s vision has unfolded. Dimier 1738 works in tandem with Aubert Complication and is now focused on the creation of Raffy’s in-house calibers, which will symbolize Bovet’s ascension to true manufacture status — something it has not been able to claim since it was founded. And this has been the work of Pascal Raffy in a mere five years, giving us pause to wonder what this strongman will achieve in the next five years.
What is the true meaning of power? It is the unquestionable ease with which one carries out what one wishes by mastering a maximum of aspects, without calling into question the collective ensemble. Power should be intimately tied to wisdom, and should not be abused. It is necessary to ensure reliability. Therefore, quality standards must be respected.
What is the power of independence? It is the ability to fulfill one’s dreams.
In realizing your vision of watchmaking, what was the greatest challenge that you have had to overcome? My primary objective has always been to live the true luxury of being able to bring to fruition my dreams as a watch collector, without any obligation to follow a trend, whatever it may be. Meanwhile, in a world that is becoming more and more uniform, it is the challenge of being able to keep alive the rare magic of creation through exceptionally talented craftsmen, who live the philosophy of the exceptional and the realm of reality in perfect symbiosis.
What is the emotional power of the mechanical watch? It is a place of certainty and comfort, while being a magical journey through nearly three centuries of watchmaking history. It is also a secular contact, which is essential to keep alive all the emotions that are captured in a timepiece containing a manually-wound mechanical movement, and which respects the most awe-inspiring tradition of watchmaking genius.
It is the ability to arouse admiration, when it is obvious that an art such as this one is made possible only through the genius of its craftsmen — for the outsider, the difficulty of what they do is hardly imaginable — in the appreciable task of creating such exceptional movements; and the extreme energy required in their development under such limited conditions. Lastly, it creates an emotional bond between man and machine. First, by manually winding his timepiece, the user confers on his timepiece a heartbeat. The latter gives back to its owner, with poetry and emotion, the indication of time, which he needs on a daily basis.
With Raffy’s business acumen, quick thinking and seemingly limitless financial clout, Bovet has consolidated its famous watchmaking, enameling, engraving and miniature painting facilities in Château de Môtiers
They say that “imitation is the best form of flattery,” in which case Dias could well be the most flattered man in the Swiss watch industry
Biver has also been a man who has been at the very epicenter of the rebirth of the mechanical watch industry during its two key definitive phases, and who struck gold during both eras
Richard Mille — The Originator
Definition of the word ‘origin’: the point at which something comes into existence. It must dawn on Richard Mille from time to time, as he looks around the Swiss watch industry, how massive an effect he has had on it. He must notice that he has single-handedly changed the prevailing aesthetics of the commercial watch world, impacting brands as far ranging as Blancpain, Hublot, IWC, Ebel, Baume & Mercier, Concord and even normally conservative marques like Vacheron Constantin.
He must have noticed that so many watches are now opening up their dials, playing with dimensions and using alternative materials to construct their cases according to the tenets of high performance that he defined at the beginning of the new millennium with the launch of the
Does he know that he has even compelled the normally august CEO of two of watchmaking’s best-known brands to toss his tourbillon onto the floor in emulation of Mille’s demonstration of his watch’s shock resistance? The fact that Mille is probably blissfully unaware of all this is the secret to his success.
Mille exists in his own world. He is dictated only by his own emotional need to push watchmaking further into ever-new creative directions. He was the right man at the right time, the one who created the right watch that has permanently altered the face of watchmaking. He is the rupture, the inspired lightning that signals the end of one era and the beginning of the next. And while there are some brands that will always remain beautifully old-fashioned such as A. Lange & Söhne, the majority of the industry has rushed to follow in his wake and many brands have already reaped vast rewards in doing so.
That Mille launched his brand with the specific intention to be the most expensive brand in watchmaking, was a fantastic piece of subversive marketing; that it worked, is a testament to the appeal of his products and the inspired partnership with profoundly driven men such his USA partner, John Simonian and his Asia partner, Dave Tan.
Mille’s value will always be that of the originator of the future, the man who made the first step into the new horizon. Based on this, he is almost guaranteed future classic status. He has also empowered his brand with almost limitless brand equity — almost like that of an Internet company in that there is really no way you can value it based on some simple mathematical equation.
No doubt there would be many companies happy to pay a truly staggering fortune for his company, but for the time being, “Ricardo” — as he known to his friends — is happy to be his own boss. That’s the way he likes it and he sees no need to change.
What is power? Power is to be able to say “yes” or “no”, to be able to do exactly what I want. Like a boy who does not listen to his parents, but with a great advantage: I more or less know what to do and, more than anything else, I know what not to do.
The combination of my creativity, my passion, my experience, my good common sense and my financial reflexes, gives me the sensation that this power is well-used — quantity mixed with quality! For me, power must work like a laser — sharp and precise — and delivered with the perfect dosage, and according to the perfect strategy.
There’s nothing better than a power that leads you to make the right decision. There’s no special sense of extra excitement, just the serenity when you achieve your target. I love the Pirelli slogan, “Power is nothing without control.”
What is the power of independence? The possibility to make a decision without referring to anybody! I left my previous job before launching RM, just to do that. Of course, the risk is total; but with the ingredients I stated before and a great self-discipline, when it works, nothing is more agreeable!
In realizing your vision of watchmaking, what was the most powerful challenge you have had to overcome? When I look back, I feel that the real difficulty was to persuade myself to leave my previous job, where I enjoyed an important professional status and social life. It felt like it is 4 am and instead of going to bed, you decide to do a marathon… Then, friends do not understand why you did what you did, and that you needed a cold shower…
What is the emotional power of the mechanical watch? I am a complete paradox, as my watches look completely cold; but in fact, my dream is to ensure that they would express a lot of emotion, and they do… My concept is based on three pillars: a watch full of technique, pushed to and beyond the limits, full of innovations and without any gimmicks; a watch that has a lot of personality, a strong drawing and a case expressing the extreme technique; a watch that carries the best of the watch culture, as everything is hand-finished and hand-polished.
Then, the discovery of a RM model becomes a real “parcours initiatique” — when you see from afar, a model that has a strong identity, and the nearer you get, the more emotion you feel. You take a magnifier, and a real magical world — in three dimensions — jumps to your eyes! I have seen heads of state, industrialists and prominent bankers overwhelmed with emotion… But I mostly love the fact that the more people look at this watch, the more they get addicted to it. To me, that is pure emotion; and emotion is the most powerful energy on earth.
He is dictated only by his own emotional need to push watchmaking further into ever-new creative directions
Gino Macaluso — The Champ
Before he became the owner and head of Girard-Perregaux, Luigi “Gino” Macaluso smoked innumerable tires and vaporized countless liters of high-octane fuel as a highly successful professional driver.
Macaluso got his start racing motorcycles in Italy before making the switch to rally cars. In 1972, he became the European Rally champion, piloting his Fiat Abarth to victory; in 1973, he was the runner-up European Rally champion; and in 1974, he was the Italian Rally champion. Since 1985, he has worked with the Automobile Club d’Italia to preserve the heritage of classic Italian racing cars and became its president in 1991. In 1997, he became the director of the Italian Sports Car Association.
Amazingly, during this time, he has managed to simultaneously build one of the most significant horological empires.
In 1975, Macaluso began work in the watch industry for a distribution company called SSIH. By 1982, he was running his own successful distribution company. In 1987, he became the official agent for Girard-Perregaux in Italy, and became a significant shareholder of the company and a member of its board of directors in 1989. In 1992, Macaluso became the owner of Girard-Perregaux and a few years later, he became the owner of JeanRichard as well as EMG SA — a company specializing in watch components and cases. He eventually merged all three under his mighty Sowind group.
For the next decade, he exhibited peerless leadership skills. Passionate about preserving the culture and heritage of watchmaking, Macaluso’s most significant decision has been to invest in autonomous manufacturing, which has resulted in numerous in-house calibers and visionary watches.
Because of his vision, Girard-Perregaux has risen over the horological landscape to be one of the few marques inthe business that can claim true manufacture status.
What is the true meaning of power? Power is a means to realize a vision. When well used, it can influence the environment in order to achieve an objective, but it is not an end in itself.
To be relevant, fair and efficient, the exercise of power — whatever it is — must be accompanied by a solid mastery of the area related to it.
In the matter of watchmaking, power is legitimate and can lead to success only if the foundations of its development are healthy and authentic: if there is real know-how and a strong identity inherited from a long experience in the art of watchmaking, and if this legacy is enhanced by a continuous willingness to progress. From this point of view, an integrated manufacture can be a real power.
What is the power of independence? Independence enables a man or a company to think long-term, to articulate his own vision, but not at any price. The constraints of the market exist and for a company that is not supported by a group, the risks can at times be higher. Mistakes are not allowed.
This is why Girard-Perregaux is committed to a daily quest for improvement, with the objective to achieve continuous excellence.
The power of independence is also illustrated by our ability to control our production and answer rapidly to the needs of our clients who we listen to carefully. Girard-Perregaux has invested a considerable amount in its production tools. With our manufacture, and our bracelet and case factory, Girard-Perregaux is one of the few high-end watchmaking companies that design, develop and produce its own calibers and watches, across the entire manufacturing chain.
Going one step further, one can say that we are one of the very few brands that practically use 100 percent home-made movements. Our R&D department is the cornerstone of our company — it provides us with the ability to evaluate various directions, which lead to innovative timepieces.
Independence gives us the power to establish and respect high standards of quality. But independence is not only power, it is also a perpetual challenge, and requires passion and commitment.
In realizing your vision of watchmaking, what was the greatest challenge you have had to overcome? My greatest challenge was to reinforce the production facilities of Girard-Perregaux and give a new creative spirit to the company, while preserving its authenticity and know-how.
When I took over the company in 1992, Girard-Perregaux had a rich legacy of centuries of tradition, particularly in the high-end watch sector. I was convinced that this treasure had to evolve in a modern approach. This is why I invested in developing the manufacture.
Today, Girard-Perregaux produces a complete collection of movements. The company continuously invests in research and development to keep the products relevant, with an eye on the future. Exceptional timepieces are handcrafted in our haute horologerie workshop. To make sure that we develop without losing our brand identity, I am personally involved in the design of the new watches. Thanks to this organization, the spirit of one of the oldest Swiss manufactures is very much alive and ticking in our modern and innovative watches.
What is the emotional power of the mechanical watch? A mechanical watch is the finest expression of the nobility and magic of a tool for measuring time. In the era of atomic clocks and fast consumption, it pays homage to the human hand, which produces or assembles the pieces of the watch. It is an expression of beauty and art; some pieces of haute horlogerie, such as the Tourbillon Under Three Gold Bridges, require hundreds of hours of work — sometimes even more than 1,000 hours for a single watch. Such concern for perfection and attention to detail, added to the rarity and exclusivity of the object itself, create the emotional power of the timepiece.
What is the power of your brand? I believe that in a world driven more and more by the tyranny of the immediate and latest trends, a brand like Girard-Perregaux stands for atemporal values like authenticity, passion and respect for human values and crafts — emotions that refined, sophisticated people respond to on a global level. It is a brand for the few who are true connoisseurs.
I’ve never seen someone who’s had the same shirt from when he was 18 to 80 years old. But I’ve met plenty of people who’ve had the same watch from 18 years old until the time they were 80. The emotional significance of the watch is huge
Passionate about preserving the culture and heritage of watchmaking, Macaluso’s most significant decision has been to invest in autonomous manufacturing, which has resulted in numerous in-house calibers and visionary watches
Gerd-R. Lang — Power to the People
The watch industry is alive and well today thanks to the first few men who fueled the rebirth of our fascination with mechanical watches during the ’80s. Amongst them, one of the bravest and most audacious is the German, Gerd-R. Lang.
What is of considerable importance is that while many of the men here, such as Rolf Schnyder and Jean-Claude Biver focused on creating complicated haut de gamme timepieces for the cognoscenti, Lang brought watches back to the common man. And without this audience forming the underpinnings of present consumer culture, the watch industry would not be in the rosy position it is in today.
During the Quartz Crisis, Lang — like many other watchmakers — was retrenched. Understanding how watches fulfilled the human spirit, Lang launched Chronoswiss, a brand dedicated to championing well-built, technically intriguing and highly affordable mechanical watches.
With his first Regulator watches introduced in 1987, which had independent hour, minute and seconds hands, he put Chronoswiss on the watch industry map. Then, taking his expertise in chronographs, Lang (together with Andreas Strehler) created the Chronoscope — the world’s first chronograph with regulator dial. The well-priced Chronoscope went on to win numerous industry awards and helped to define Lang’s brand equity. More importantly, it spread the interest in chronographs and mechanical watchmaking to even greater numbers of new watch collectors.
Says Lang, “I and Chronoswiss are a bridge. We take novice collectors and give them access to complications like perpetual calendars, repeaters and chronographs, which they otherwise couldn’t have. In doing this, we help them develop into the mature collectors of tomorrow.” To us, this statement is profound in that Lange realizes that we must cultivate the collector of tomorrow in order to ensure the future viability of this precious industry.
Today, Lang is joined in the company by his daughter, Nathalie Lang, who is being groomed to one day fill his rather substantial shoes.
What is the emotional power of the mechanical watch? There is no way to rationalize it. It is a very powerful emotion that human beings respond to. Watchmaking was my profession and we lost everything at the end of the 1970s. I had a vision for helping my profession come back. Now, 30 years later, look at the Basel Fair. Watchmaking has come back so strongly. It shows you that there is an innate emotional connection between the mechanical watch and the consumer that endures beyond fashion. But we should be careful about removing the emotion from watchmaking. We have a new tool this time that they didn’t have in the past: it is the computer. Now, with the computer, you can put three tourbillons in a movement and case it. But I like the old way of watchmaking, which used the human hand. I think that many new companies use the computer as their dominant tool, but I prefer watchmaking done the old way. I do not need new materials or plastics. I like watches that use the traditional elements of steel, brass, gold, sapphire and finally, human emotion — the emotion of the watchmaker, who creates the watch using his hands.
What can be done to maintain the commercial power of the watch industry? At the moment, many companies make watches that they will never realize. They make concept watches for the press to draw attention to themselves. But I don’t think that this is the right way. Look, for example, at the Porsche Design Indicator. They made 80 watches, but 79 of these don’t run. This is not good for watchmaking. Watches should be made for people, to be used by people. We make real watches that function, and not simply for the advertising campaign. We want to build watches that last for generations… literally forever.
What is the unique power of Chronoswiss? It is the heartfelt appreciation of what happened over the past 400 years of watchmaking. I would say that our unique power comes from a sincere appreciation of the story of watchmaking, and our desire to contribute meaningfully to it.
Severin Wunderman — The philanthropist
Severin Wunderman’s connection with human culture is profound. During the course of his life, he has created several charities: Change A Life aids people in moral and material distress, while Severin Wunderman Family seeks to finance research on incurable illnesses. Along with the film director Steven Spielberg, he created the Severin Wunderman Collection of Child Survivor Testimonies from the Holocaust.
Perhaps it is because Wunderman’s own life has been touched by darkness that compels him to seek out light.
In 1938, when World War II broke out, he became a refugee and sought exile in the United States from his native country of Belgium. In later years, he fought and survived an epic battle with cancer. The fact that he has a first-hand understanding of mortality is probably the reason why Wunderman is so capable of celebrating life.
Wunderman loves art. He is the world’s single greatest collector of Jean Cocteau’s works and, in 2004, was awarded the rank of Chevalier in France’s Legion of Honor for his numerous cultural and philanthropic acts. Wunderman’s love for life, fashion, visual irreverence and passion is also expressed in his professional life.
Wunderman began his career in the watch industry in a decidedly indirect manner. He explains, “I worked for a gentleman in the watch industry in 1958 as a chauffeur. I drove and carried suitcases for him. Then, he passed away a year later. His wife asked me if I would continue working for her. After a while, I bought the company, which is how I got involved in this industry.”
But it was with Gucci watches that Wunderman built his vast financial empire. He recalls, “I met Dr. Aldo Gucci in 1970 whilst on a sales trip for the firm, Alexis Barthelay. Coincidentally, I met him in his boutique while I was trying to sell our private label watches to Gucci. On that fateful day, I was standing alone next to a phone in the boutique. The phone kept on ringing and ringing, and nobody was picking it up. So, I picked it up and started talking, and it was Aldo Gucci. He was looking for somebody else. I started talking about the watches I wanted to sell. He initially thought I was one of his staff and he made a rude comment in an obscure dialect used in some parts of Florence, which I happened to understand. I talked back in the same dialect. He roared, ‘Who are you?’ Then, one thing led to another and he became my mentor, my best friend. He really taught me everything I needed to know about the business.”
In 1972, after working with Aldo for two years, Wunderman went to see him and asked for the license to distribute and sell Gucci watches. Upon being awarded the license, Wunderman transformed Gucci watches into the must-have fashion accessory of the late ’70s and ’80s.
Wunderman explains, “The success of Gucci watches was basically due to the fact that we were the first. Never had a major designer label like Gucci been put on a watch. I priced it within a very accessible price range and, from there, the rise continued on its own. The success of Gucci was due to the fact that I gave fashion, price and quality.”
Having practically built the business, Wunderman was initially not pleased about selling back the watch rights to the Gucci Group, but as the latter had gone public, they were looking for every point of profit that they could take and decided not to renew his licensing contract.
Around this time, Wunderman started to sense the momentum building for the return of high watchmaking and he set his sights on acquiring a well-known marque to relaunch.
Says Wunderman, “Yes, not only was I negotiating for Ebel, I also negotiated for Zenith. I negotiated for quite a few brands… Unfortunately, every time I was interested in one of the brands, one of the majors came behind me and outbid me substantially.”
Finally, Wunderman found the jewel he was looking for: “I chose Corum because, for me, Corum is one of the most beautiful brands there was. It has always been very innovative… very creative. It was a marvelous jewel that only needed some polishing and, actually, I am quite a good polisher.”
In the first years of its relaunch, Corum was marked by a capricious fashion sense and creative fecundity that shook up the watch world. Watches like the domed crystal Bubble series injected a new energy to high watchmaking.
However, as the brand gained momentum, Wunderman and his son, Michael, who had been appointed Corum’s president, have been focused on returning Corum to its status as a home for somewhat more serious horology.
What is the true meaning of power? Being able to maintain your leading position in the marketplace against all competition.
What is the power of independence? Being able to launch new products that are outside of the norm, and being successful with them.
In realizing your vision of watchmaking, what were the most powerful challenges you have had to overcome? The competition, counterfeiters and grey market goods.
What is the emotional power of the mechanical watch? The human labor involved in a complication.
What is the power of Corum? Being able to change direction, creating the fashion that others will follow; being very exclusive, creating limited editions; and giving rebirth to forgotten branches of watchmaking (for instance, enameling, marquetry, hand-painted dials on mother-of-pearl, etc.).
Mr. de Witt (left) and Mr. Proellochs
I chose Corum because, for me, Corum is one of the most beautiful brands there was. it’s always been very innovative, very creative. It was a marvelous jewel that only needed some polishing and, actually, I am quite a good polisher
in a highly-compressed period of time, de Witt has succeeded in building a brand with serious equity, and is now poised to transform an energetic young brand into a mature one with real manufacturing depth
Lang brought watches back to the common man… without this audience, the industry would not be in the rosy position it is in today