PORTRAITS of watch strap makers


Twelve strap makers and bracelet manufacturers under focus, from A to Z: Corium, Fleurus, Hirsch, Kuki, Lic, Morellato, Promotion, Protexpo, Salin, Sibra, SIS, Zuccolo Rochet and Boucledor (clasps).

Europa Star WorldWatchWeb, 1 December 2016   

PORTRAITS of watch strap makers

 CORIUM DÉVELOPPEMENT - FOREVER INNOVATING

Founded in 2006, Corium Développement specialises in straps for luxury watches. With the aid of 3D software, it produces watch strap inserts (leather-covered metal or plastic parts that fit between the case lugs) and the leather elements that enclose the strap. In 2009, Corium Développement developed a new technology, called Corioflex, which prolongs this insert with what they refer to as a “supple soul”, which gives the strap its shape. In another innovation, in 2012 the company developed Corioform, a process for creating simple or complex relief designs on the leather. The principle behind this process is to create raised motifs or to emboss the leather while ensuring that it keeps it shape throughout its life by backfilling.

“Our technologies are a guarantee of long life, suppleness and shape for straps,” underscores Anthony Marteau of Corium Développement. The company head also explains that he sometimes goes to the tanneries to check out the origin of the leather. Because in times of crisis, pressure on prices can affect leather quality. Depending on demand, the tanners may source their supplies from different countries, which can impact not only quality, but also the price.

 FLEURUS - A FAMILY STORY

Fleurus was founded in 1942 by Pierre Laval in the Cantal region of France. It was subsequently run by his son, Yves Laval, and is now managed by his three grandchildren, Cécile, Frédérique and Pierre Laval. Specialising in the production of leather watch straps, the company has branched out into luxury leather goods, the finishing of leather articles, and silver jewellery. The brand has several production sites, in France (around 450 employees) and in Madagascar (around 600 employees), where it has been present for more than 20 years.

The watch straps are produced in France or Madagascar, depending on the customer’s demands. “We are able to develop both complex projects that demand enormous precision in our French ateliers for our luxury customers, and high-volume projects in our Madagascar atelier,” explains Frédérique Laval. “We manufacture more than a million bracelets a year.”

The strap components are made in Europe, primarily France and Italy. “All the exotic leathers we use comply with CITES requirements.” Fleurus also offers customers the choice of chrome-free tanned leather made with solvent-free glue.

 HIRSCH - A GIANT AMONG STRAP MAKERS

Hirsch can boast 250 years of experience in leather-working, 70 of them in manufacturing watch straps. Offering a broad selection of flexible products in leather or caoutchouc, today it employs a workforce of more than 600 and supplies straps both to watch brands and retailers (around 16,000!) around the world. “We’re acknowledged first and foremost for our capacity to innovate. For example, the Performance Collection offers a combination of leather and caoutchouc, which is a first,” explains Robert Koban, who heads up Brand Management at Hirsch. The brand won a Red Dot Award last year. “We file patents, but we’re often copied!” Another example of innovation: its combination of stones and caoutchouc. And at Hirsch , the future is already here, with the development of built-in NFC chips that will let you – for example – transact payments with your watch strap!

Hans Hirsch patented a way of assembling the leather upper and underside back in 1955 which has entered the tanning and leather goods annals under the name of “the Hirsch Rembordé technique”. The brand celebrated its 250 millionth watch strap five years ago. As for the types of leather, alligator ranks first, just before calf. ISO-certified and a member of the British Leather Council, the brand also offers rarer products. The guarantees range from one year for caoutchouc and up to 30 months for Performance Collection.

Hirsch is one of the rare truly global players in the watch strap industry, with a presence in 85 countries. So how is business in 2016? “On the one hand, we’re noting a slowdown among watchmaker brands, but on the other we’re seeing slight growth on the watch retailer side. We operate on several fronts and can always attract new customers, thanks in particular to our innovations. For 2016, we’re anticipating stable results compared with last year.”

 KUKI - LEATHER WATCH STRAPS FROM SLOVENIA

The Slovenian brand KUKI has been making leather watch straps since 1963. The family company KUKI began its international development in 1991 when KUKI appeared at Baselworld for the first time.

Gregor and Matjaž Drolc, the owners of KUKI, explained: "A quality of KUKI leather watch straps is the fruit of handwork supported by modern technology. The KUKI Company has obtained two of its own patents: ArmStrong (1994) and KUKI-FLEX (2003). ArmStrong and KUKI-FLEX have distinguished the KUKI Company as a producer of sophisticated leather watch straps. In 2009, KUKI launched a new innovation, i.e. the KUKI Strong&Flex offering flexibility, softness and durability all in one and providing excellent reliability and resistance to deformation."

The owners issued the following statement: “Instead of having normal development environment, KUKI has been pressured from Slovenia and abroad. Destruction of the KUKI Company began in 2005 in Slovenia using judicial crime and continued in 2011 by Austria. By political persistence in the legitimacy of the security service’s crime committed at the Vienna airport against the KUKI company and its directors, Austria is still politically persisting in international discrediting the KUKI company and its directors, by making them appear as the international deceivers or even criminals who send lighters in their parcel with accompanying post document having “leather straps” for the description of contents. Unfortunately, Slovenia has been politically assisting Austria… Such attack on KUKI followed after the year 2003 when among others KUKI at the press conference in Baselworld launched its second patent under the name of KUKI-FLEX. Namely, since 2003 KUKI has produced flexible leather watch straps with exceptional softness and durability”.

They add:“Using a simple structure for the watch straps, KUKI-FLEX patent is one of the best patents among leather watch straps! Since 2008 KUKI has remained faithful to its slogan, “KUKI - A Family Company with an Innovative Tradition.“

 LIC - HOW TO COPE WITH EXCESSIVE REGULATIONS

Founded in 1971 by Yves Thomas, a Frenchman living in Belgium, Leather International Cuir (LIC) is a Belgian artisanal, family brand. Early on in his career, Yves Thomas worked for Camille Fournet, a major Paris player on the watch strap scene, where he was able to hone his skills. He then decided to move to Belgium to develop his know-how, before setting up his own business. When he died some ten years ago, his wife Willianne Thomas- Genillier took over the business. Her son and nephew recently joined it.

LIC is present first and foremost in the Benelux countries, where it works with most of the jewellers in the region. Starting in 1986, LIC began to develop its export market, designing straps primarily for Swiss and French watchmaker groups. Today, the company employs 25 people. Resolutely artisanal, LIC makes its straps exclusively in Belgium. “We’ve been around for 45 years already, which is quite a long time for a family business, and I don’t want to delocalise production,” Willianne Thomas-Genillier explains. “We buy our leather mainly in France and Italy. Also, I’m very concerned with animal welfare even though checking that out with suppliers is complicated. I only buy leathers that are CITES-certified.”

Even so, the REACH regulations have turned their way of working upside-down. “With these restrictive standards and tests, the leather is so abraded it doesn’t look like leather any more and the end product sometimes has a dead look about it. The major groups oblige us to comply with regulations, but the consumers pay scant attention to that: what they want first of all is a well-crafted, aesthetic product on their wrist. I’ve succeeded in setting certain limits on the brands to conserve my know-how and specific style.”

 MORELLATO - FROM STRAPS TO JEWELS

Morellato has an atypical business history, which began in Italy back in the 1930s. Giulio Morellato founded his company, specialising in leather watch straps, in Venice. At that time, watchmaking was enjoying a boom and the small company gradually conquered all of Italy. It has diversified since then: from the noughties onward, Morellato began also to focus on the production of jewellery and watches. In 2007, the group acquired Diffusione Italiana Preziosi, the company behind the Bluespirit store chain, thereby enlarging its footprint in the jewellery sector. Today, foreign sales represent nearly 45% of the company’s total turnover.

Morellato describes itself as an artisan company: it uses little machinery and all the major work is done manually. In Italy, 195 employees process leather for the major watchmaker groups, producing 150,000 to 180,000 straps a year. But for the past twenty years Morellato has also owned a workshop in China, geared to volume: “Our China production of around two million items a year is strategic. But the real high-end is made in Italy. For the Swiss manufactures, that is crucial,” explains the brand’s director, Andrea Gemetto.

 PROMOTION SPA - DISCREET AND ECOLOGICAL

Promotion Spa was founded in 1978 near to Vicenza in Italy. This specialist manufacturer of metal watch straps, clasps and buckles cultivates discretion. To ensure the quality of its products, Promotion Spa is careful to comply with quality standards and has redesigned its production system from start to finish.

Primarily to counter the allergenic hazards of certain components, Promotion  Spa uses low-sulphur steel (which is more resistant to corrosion but more difficult to machine and requiring special machinery). From a legal point of view, it is the EN1811+A1 standard combined with Annex XVII of REACH that governs the release of nickel onto metal items in direct and prolonged contact with the human body. The ecologically-minded brand consequently uses non-toxic materials, out of respect for the environment.

 PROTEXO - THE WATCH STRAP FROM GENEVA

Founded between the wars, Bracelets Protexo SA has belonged to the Ducimetière family since 1953. The second generation is currently in the throes of handing over the reins of the business to the third. The latter employs around fifteen people in its Geneva premises. Bracelets Protexo SA turns out some 50,000 watch straps for the biggest watch brands.

All production is in Switzerland. “It isn’t easy for us to maintain this business with a 100% Geneva-based manufacture, but we’ll continue come what may. It takes courage to do it, but we’re proud that we can still offer this kind of service, while many of our competitors are exporting their know-how!” explains sales manager Jérôme Ducimetière. Here, the ‘Swiss made’ claim is no idle one: “Whatever the quantity, our products, which can require up to 80 operations per strap, are made 100% here in Geneva.”

While underlining the necessity of the CITES regulations, Jérôme Ducimetière points out that they pose huge deadline and logistics problems in numerous countries. But the manager puts things in perspective: “Luckily, our customers are looking for 100% Swiss products, because they know that in a Swiss-made watch the end customer expects all the components to be genuinely Swiss.”

 SALIN SPECIALITY – GOLD

It was in the historic centre of Vicenza, in Italy, that Salin was founded in 1953. Today, the company can boast a 3,000m² production facility operated by some sixty employees.

The company’s story begins with Romeo Ermenegildo Salin, who decided to try his hand at watch bracelet making and opened a tiny craft factory. His speciality: goldsmithing. During the 1970s, Salin made not only bracelets, but also cases in gold. Having realised how demanding Swiss customers were, he needed a product that equalled that of the bracelets in quality. So it was that the most famous Swiss watch brands came to place their orders for gold watch cases in the family’s hands. “We constantly check the origin of the gold and we don’t count the cost,” sales manager Ernesto Zigliotto assures us. Salin uses different techniques to process the gold and produce the bracelets – featuring Polonaise links, fancy flat mesh, gold strip and close links. “Our customers demand speed and flexibility. Since everything is made in-house in Italy, it’s easier for us to respond to their demands.”

  SIBRA - FROM FRANCE TO INDIA

Founded in 1991 in Besançon by Gérard Simon, Sibra’s production operations are twofold. The first specialises in high-end goods from its Franche-Comté base, producing exotic leathers primarily. The second is geared to volume and is based in India. However, these two entities are distinct – no “semi-finishing” (design in India, assembly in France) here.

Sibra is determined to be transparent about its Indian factory, which employs around 600 people. “This is our own structure, not a subcontractor’s: that means we know who works there and we comply with Indian legislation,” explains Gérard Simon. “ We ask for a dental X-ray – the only real proof of a person’s age – before recruiting anyone. What’s more, our different customers regularly carry out surprise audits.”

In Besançon, some twenty employees are busy making watch straps. As a general rule, customers do not ask to have the “Made in France” mark inscribed on them. Sibra, which is hoping to get a stronger foothold in the Swiss market, is counting first and foremost on the new Swissness legislation due to come into force on 1 January 2017. “Some brands will be looking for ways of protecting their profit margins to some extent, notably by sourcing cheap components which are not affected by the new legislation.”

 SIS - OUT OF THE ASHES

SIS Group is now in its second life. In 1983, “SARL Supercuir”, a company specialising in wristwatch straps, was created in a tiny house in the middle of a village in the mountains of Franche-Comté, not far from neighbouring Switzerland. The company developed internationally and opened production facilities in Mauritius and in China. But in 1997, its key account, at that time representing around 70% of its business, broke off its partnership with Supercuir. The following year, the company faced liquidation.

But the story does not end there: a new company emerged when the shares were bought up by the management and employees! SIS was born, the name made up of the initials of the company’s former business sectors: the “S” of Supercuir for the production of watch straps and small leather goods, the “I” of IWD for the distribution of leather watch straps, and the “S” of Softline Box for its luxury leather goods. Today, SIS has five production sites in Franche-Comté, one in Madagascar and one in China and produces a total of some one million straps a year.

“When we rose out of the ashes with the name of SIS, there were just over 60 of us. Today, the group has a workforce of 700,” says Europe and Asia sales director Jean-Yves Chauvy.

The test phases are important for compliance with European (REACH) and American (FDA) standards. “They’re conducted in two stages. First of all, we test all the strap components – the material, the glue and the thread – separately. Then we test them after the strap is assembled. We take samples from every batch. Some ten straps are taken and crushed at different stages of assembly: the laboratories test the powder. They can then identify the suspect material should a problem arise. There are internal and external tests; we’re not chemists ourselves so we call on certified laboratories that are recognised by  Richemont, LVMH or the Swatch Group.” The company is feeling the effects of the crisis: “We’re being asked to make an effort on price, but above all to be responsive. Before, watchmakers sold the same product all over the world. Now, they design different products for different countries and in ever smaller series.”

 ZUCCOLO ROCHET - THE REPLACEMENT WATCH STRAP

French company Zuccolo Rochet already has a long and rich history of watch strap making. In 1904, Joseph Rochet and Edmond Zuccolo decided to team up and establish a company in Geneva. They invented the first extendable watch straps, and were even rewarded with an innovation prize in Geneva in 1917 for their work. During the First World War, Switzerland was subject to a blockade and the brand was forced to move to Annecy. In 1946, Edmond Zuccolo left the company and the daughter of Joseph Rochet, Georgette, brought her husband, Louis Brunet, into the firm. In the 1950s, the brand created its famous Grands Fonds 300M watch specifically for professional divers – incidentally, it was part of the equipment of the French Navy from 1963 to 1974. Since 2004, Charles and Georges Brunet have been at the helm of the company, in line with family tradition. The company does not supply brands directly: it specialises in replacement straps for thousands of chains and retail outlets around the world. Paradoxically, this positioning is an asset at a time when watch sales are falling, underscores Georges Brunet: “Watch-owners tend to keep their watches for longer and consequently replace their worn straps more regularly.”

The company head emphasises the ecological effort that goes into their production. “To offset the virtually non-existent recycling, we have created biodegradable straps with our BioConfort range. It also reduces allergy risks. The titanium used to make the straps contains no chrome and is 100% biocompatible. We use vegetable tanning: instead of soaking the hide in chrome salts, we use rock powder, for example.”

On the other hand, Georges Brunet complains of excessive regulation of the sector: “We have to stop prohibiting new materials all the time. Everybody ends up lagging behind, virtually nobody is in line with REACH! Tanners have several months’ worth of stock…”

 BOUCLEDOR - WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Just like watch straps, the clasp also plays a vital but sometimes forgotten role and is a critical component for the industry. In Switzerland, four independent subcontractors produce buckles and clasps (the major groups also have their own strap, buckle and clasp production units). Boucledor is one such subcontractor. Founded in 1965 in Meyrin, the company is a supplier to the main Swiss watchmaker brands. Its products are 100% Swiss-made, with “zero foreign subcontractors” as Boucledor’s deputy CEO Claude Durand likes to point out.

Personalisation, innovation and exclusive models – these are the brand’s leitmotifs. Despite the crisis, Claude Durand was determined to strengthen the brand’s development activities to stay competitive. Not a single job has been cut, he underlines. As its name suggests, Boucledor’s primary activity is the production of gold buckles and clasps – in French boucle means “buckle” and or means gold. The precious metal worked by Boucledor comes exclusively from a major bank which is accredited by the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) and a member of the London Bullion Market Association, or LBMA.  Boucledor’s supplier guarantees compliance with LBMA requirements, which include, monitoring and accreditation of establishments specialising in gold refining. Boucledor also complies with REACH standards, which Claude Durand describes as “effective protection for consumers”. Moreover, the company is a member of the Geneva-based Eco-Engagement programme, which fosters the implementation of sustainable development measures in business.

Source: Europa Star 5/16 Winter 2016 Magazine Issue



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