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Discovering Backes & Strauss

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November 2019


Discovering Backes & Strauss

The timepieces crafted by Backes & Strauss are as rare as it gets. We have been following the brand for a long time, and for good reason: it is the oldest diamond company in the world, with roots dating back to 1789. In 2006, after teaming up with Franck Muller, the company shifted its attention to timepieces. We met Vartkess Knadjian, the CEO of Backes & Strauss, who told us his story.

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artkess Knadjian, the CEO of Backes & Strauss, is a man with a long history in the diamond trade and the watch business. He started working for Backes & Strauss as a diamond trader in 1976. But his roots are really in watchmaking, as he best explains: “I come from a horological background, because my father was a master watchmaker who represented Patek Philippe, Omega and many of the Swiss brands in the kingdom of Ethiopia. He was the watchmaker to the Emperor.”

Europa Star actually went to Ethiopia in the 1950s to report on Mr Knadjian Sr. and his prestigious mission in Addis Ababa with Emperor Haile Selassie. Here are some archives of this report, which was published in our African edition Orafrica.

A story about Vartkess Knadjian's father, master watchmaker to the Emperor of Ethiopia, published in Europa Star in 1957.
A story about Vartkess Knadjian’s father, master watchmaker to the Emperor of Ethiopia, published in Europa Star in 1957.
© Europa Star, 1957
A report on Ethiopia, published by Europa Star/Orafrica in 1956.
A report on Ethiopia, published by Europa Star/Orafrica in 1956.
© Europa Star, 1956
Mr. Knadjian Sr. in his watchmaking workshop in Ethiopia, featured in 1956 in Europa Star/Orafrica.
Mr. Knadjian Sr. in his watchmaking workshop in Ethiopia, featured in 1956 in Europa Star/Orafrica.
© Europa Star, 1956

Vartkess Knadjian was sent to study in England and was planning to return to Ethiopia. However, after the 1974 revolution, the new regime confiscated private businesses and properties, among them his father’s watch store. He explains: “I stayed in England and started working for Backes & Strauss. Then in 2003, I was involved in a management buy-out of the company. It was a time of change, diamonds were increasingly becoming a commodity. Previously, only experts could operate on the market, but by the late 1990s, mass certification changed the way business was done. You simply sent diamonds to laboratories, which provided all the information that was required. There was no more margin left for specialised traders like us.”

An interview with Vartkess Knadjian, CEO of Backes & Strauss, in 2007. Twelve years later, in a changing watch industry, we interview him again.
An interview with Vartkess Knadjian, CEO of Backes & Strauss, in 2007. Twelve years later, in a changing watch industry, we interview him again.
© Europa Star, 2007

Relations with Frank Muller

In 2003, Backes & Strauss CEO Vartkess Knadjian welcomed a new client from the Swiss watch industry: Franck Muller. “We got along well,” recalls the diamond expert. “The company was a ‘disrupter’ in the watch industry. And we thought that it would make sense, for a brand like Backes & Strauss that has a long heritage in diamonds, to come out with a diamond watch collection.”

Backes & Strauss Berkeley Renaissance Duke Tourbillon
Backes & Strauss Berkeley Renaissance Duke Tourbillon

The partnership between Backes & Strauss and Franck Muller has been effective since 2006. “All the production is done at the Watchland site in Geneva. Franck Muller is responsible for all the technical part, and that’s a great advantage we have now. We call this sort of collaboration a ‘meeting of the masters’: Franck Muller is the master of complications, and we are the master of diamonds. We support each other, by reaching out to different clienteles.” As an expert in the field, Backes & Strauss also supplies diamonds to Franck Muller.

The Berkeley, the Piccadilly and the Regent were the core horological collections of the brand in 2007.
The Berkeley, the Piccadilly and the Regent were the core horological collections of the brand in 2007.
© Europa Star, 2007

Reverse the thinking process

The creative watchmaking process at Backes & Strauss is quite different from the rest of the industry. It doesn’t start with a design for the watch itself, but with the raw material. “We look at diamonds and then we think about how we can craft a watch, rather than take a given watch and think about where we should put the diamonds. Once the diamonds have been polished to perfect symmetry and proportions, with the highest colours and purity, only then do we focus on the watch itself.”

The horological teams were initially surprised by this way of doing things: “Basically, I come up with an idea, and I challenge my team to create something that I imagined. It’s interesting for them because normally they have to design a watch and then decorate it with the addition of precious stones. We are thinking the other way around.”

The Regent 1609 AD is available in white or rose gold.
The Regent 1609 AD is available in white or rose gold.

Production is very limited. In fact, most of the watches created by Backes & Strauss are not even small limited series, but one-off timepieces. “The setting of diamonds is what really distinguishes our watches,” says Vartkess Knadjian. The company uses a worldwide network of diamond polishers and has its own dedicated workshop in Armenia. However, some of the polishing, for example the baguette-cut gems, is done directly at Watchland.

“The world's oldest diamond company”: an advertisement by Backes & Strauss in Europa Star from 1990.
“The world’s oldest diamond company”: an advertisement by Backes & Strauss in Europa Star from 1990.
© Europa Star, 1990
The 201st anniversary of Backes & Strauss in Europa Star's News pages.
The 201st anniversary of Backes & Strauss in Europa Star’s News pages.

Target audience

Japan is Backes & Strauss’s leading market (as it is for Franck Muller), ahead of the Middle East, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Nigeria. The brand still operates a showroom in London, the city where it came of age. Rare limited series start at CHF 20,000. From there, the sky’s the limit, depending on the diamonds...

“As we are a more discreet brand, known to discerning customers, our clientele must show a certain strength of character, and appreciate our craftsmanship and our history. There is an interesting phenomenon: many women wouldn’t like to be seen wearing the same designer outfit or carrying the same bag as another person in a room, yet when it comes to watches, it seems less important. We’re trying to change the mindset in watch buying.”

The Regent 1609 AD celebrates John Nash's sweeping Regent Street and Sir Thomas Harriot, the first British astronomer to map the moon.
The Regent 1609 AD celebrates John Nash’s sweeping Regent Street and Sir Thomas Harriot, the first British astronomer to map the moon.

Backes & Strauss has recently started a collaboration with the leading e-commerce platform Farfetch. But sales still largely revolve around the figure of Mr Knadjian, who virtually embodies his brand: “To this day, our most effective way of selling is the organisation of private lunches or dinners very small groups of potential customers. And I am always present during these events.”

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