When, in 1984, barely out of the applied arts school, Ecole des arts Appliqués, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the term ‘designer’ was not really used in watch ateliers. The creative tasks were entrusted to designated designers in white lab coats. With his rock ’n’ roll allure—that he maintains today—the young Rodolphe stuck out like a sore thumb in this conservative and vaguely ‘boring’ universe. He was interested not only in watch design but he also avidly followed the developments in the worlds of music, cinema and fashion.
Contrary to all expectations, the young artist with a rebel streak got along quite well with the firm-handed CEO of Longines , Walter von Kaenel, who was also a highly ranked officer in the Swiss army. Von Kaenel undoubtedly understood that he had, in Rodolphe, an opportunity to rejuvenate the brand. Thus, he gave the young man more and more responsibilities. Rodolphe was put in charge of watch design and of the brand’s image. Often sent to Italy, he would come back with rather alarming reports. He noted the rapid arrival of new competitors coming from the world of fashion that were more reactive, more attractive to a new public and more in phase with current trends. His conclusion: Longines must reinvent itself. During one of the friendly cocktail hours that Walter von Kaenel liked to organize on Friday evenings, the CEO gave Rodolphe a challenge: “Since you are more clever than the others, make me a proposition!”
No sooner said than done. The next Monday morning, Rodolphe went to see von Kaenel with a file folder full of drawings—actually prepared much earlier following his dreams and inspirations. His proposition was to create a sub-brand whose collections would be inspired by fashion, something along the lines of, for example, a ‘Jean-Paul Gaultier by Longines timepiece’.
Von Kaenel opened his workshops to Rodolphe, giving him carte blanche and three months to come back with everything—the collection, the prototypes and a communication plan. When asked in the workshops what to write on the dials of the prototypes, the young designer did not know what to say, so merely answered, “just put, Rodolphe”.
When the collection was ready, it was presented in a global seminar by Longines that brought together the brand’s international representatives in Hong Kong. The response was enthusiastic and when it came to naming this new collection, everyone insisted on “Rodolphe by Longines ”. Launched immediately, this adventure would last eight years, with approximately 60,000 watches sold per year.
First steps towards independence
Following this success, Rodolphe began receiving requests from all over the world for his services, but he could not accept since he was under contract to Longines . Walter von Kaenel understood, however, and gave the young designer what he wanted—his independence while also continuing to work for Longines . Rodolphe thus opened his own design studio, working 50 per cent for the Swatch Group and 50 per cent for other brands, which offered no direct competition.
But, little by little, the situation began to deteriorate. Apparently, Nicolas Hayek was somewhat irritated by the success of ‘Rodolphe by Longines ’. In parallel, but without a direct cause and effect, Hayek took over the distribution of his brands in Italy, managed by Marcello Binda, a close friend of the designer. Left with only his single brand, Breil, Binda asked Rodolphe to help him relaunch the Binda brand with the aid of his design studio. It was an enormous success, but one that offended Hayek, who summoned Rodolphe to his office. Expecting to be sharply rebuked, the designer was stupefied by what happened—Hayek actually asked him to repeat what he had done for Binda, but this time, do it for Omega. The ‘deal’ was destined not to be, however, because Walter von Kaenel’s verbal agreement with Rodolphe precluded working for competitor brands, including Omega, even if both Omega and Longines belonged to the same group.
Three months later, Hayek again summoned Rodolphe to his office. In a new surprise, the head of the Swatch Group closely questioned him, calculator in hand, about each job and each cost. Then Hayek offered a good price to purchase Rodolphe’s trademarked name, his design studio, his employees, basically everything. It was a ‘take it or leave it’ proposition and Rodolphe had only the weekend to make a decision. Hesitating and not being able to sleep, he chose, at the end of the night, his liberty. Hayek angrily declared that Rodolphe was now the ‘enemy’ and that, in his opinion, he no longer existed. Hayek made the break-up official with a press release but the result was totally unexpected. Rodolphe was flooded with offers of work.
From Rodolphe by Rodolphe to Rodolphe by Franck Müller
Two years later, in 1996, in parallel with his flourishing activities as a designer carried out with his associate, Gabriel Guidi, Rodolphe decided to create his own watch brand under his own first name. He took the plunge with a childhood friend, Denis Bolzli, then owner of Louis Erard. They had a strong design strategy, daring to create new collections every 18 months, and a goal of carving out a distinct and recognizable niche in the mid-range sector.
In Switzerland at that time, though, the focus was on intricate mechanical timekeeping. It was the era that saw the creation of the first Opus timepieces by Harry Winston and the spotlight turned towards watchmaking’s rediscovered ‘new mechanical frontiers’. A general move upmarket followed.
In 2004, Rodolphe moved upmarket, in turn, with a new partner, Jacky Epitaux, ex- Zenith, a man (now at the head of Rudis Sylva) who came from the same region as Rodolphe. The two men already had the idea of working only with a network of local suppliers and equipping their watches with ETA based movements transformed by Dubois Dépraz. The watch’s average price would be around CHF 3,000. The announcement by the Swatch Group of gradually stopping delivery of ETA movement kits put a damper on their long-term vision. So what to do? Move to quartz? Stop everything? Or find an industrial partner, a manufacturer to work with?
Rodolphe met with all the prospective brands at the time. They all were, according to his criteria, able to offer a quality movement. They also were reasonably integrated manufacturers, thus capable of ensuring strong distribution and having ‘something charismatic’, like Rodolphe himself. In the end, he met with Vartan Sirmakes, in charge of the Franck Müller group. Rodolphe was wary of his interlocutor, whose reputation left a lot to be desired, and who was reproached by many for a multitude of things. The designer expressed his reservations, offering precise examples of problems that involved suppliers notably in the Jura region. But Vartan Sirmakes had an answer for everything and provided solid arguments for his own side. And, Rodolphe felt that he was a true professional. The two men agreed on the same strategy, which was to propose an original mix of design and haute horlogerie, offering something characteristic and distinctive, and working only with the watchmaking network in the Jura region. Their agreement was signed on 22 March 2005. Sirmakes took 51 per cent ownership of all the companies that had ‘Rodolphe’ in their name: Rodolphe & Co (the watches) and Rodolphe Montres & Bijoux (the design).
The winds of recession
During two and a half years, everything worked fine. “It was the grande classe,” as Rodolphe liked to say. The designs were validated, the prototypes also, the collections were manufactured, the offices were ready (as well as a successful bar named Rodolphe that was opened in Neuchâtel), and the orders started flowing in. The only thing left was to deliver the watches. But then, nothing happened. It must be said that, in between time, the first winds of the recession began to appear, blowing particularly early and violent over Watchland in Genthod, near Geneva. To weather the tempest, it was the flagship brand that had to be saved above all, so Vartan Sirmakes announced that all the other brands would be put on hold. In Geneva and in the canton of Vaud, 200 people out of 428 were laid off. All the others were called together to focus on the Franck Müller flagship that was beginning to take on water.
On top of all this, Rodolphe, who harboured a certain bitterness about the situation, had serious differences with his partner Gabriel Guidi. The two men no longer got along at all. In October 2009, Rodolphe decided to keep his 35 per cent share of the company, but to quit, leaving his former friend in charge of the brand. He quit all the operational functions within the group and thus, once again, obtained his freedom.
Adding a last name to the first name
But what was he going to do with his newfound liberty? He pondered the question and, by his own admission, the watchmaker became depressed. He then left for Brittany in France, a region that he loved—a little like the Jura on the ocean—where he had time to think. Upon his return to Neuchâtel, he created a design studio called Rodolphe Design SA, with a small group of five or six people, not more.
In January 2010, after the relaunch of his design business, Rodolphe went to the SIHH with a friend, Thomas Müller, who was not from the local area. Müller sold tropical wood before becoming impassioned with watchmaking. He joined Aquanautic, then became responsible for sales at Bertolucci before returning to Aquanautic, but this time as the brand’s CEO. When he left Aquanautic, he had an idea for a brand that would be closely tied to the region, in Chaux-de-Fonds—a ‘manufacture’ in the old style, in other words, using a solid network made up of complementary suppliers and associates. This idea was not displeasing to Rodolphe. Together, at the SIHH, the two men met with a number of agents from around the world that they had known for a long time. All of them said the same thing, “With the crisis also comes opportunity”. But what did the markets need, what were they asking for? On that point, too, everyone agreed. “What the market wanted were real and beautiful ladies’ watches, and for men, not divers’ watches (as there were already too many on the market), nor copies of Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin because of the importance of authenticity, especially today. What was needed was something new, of course, but something that made sense… and something elegant.” In terms of price, the markets also demanded “an end to the so-often seen discrepancies between the price and the product. The actual price was not so important since today prices are all over the map. But there was a condition—the price had to be correct in relation to the product.” The two men agreed on the project, finalized their partnership, and created others over the long term with the movement designer and manufacturer, Concepto, with a case maker, and an assembler, all local to the region. They organ-ized their company’s capital (Rodolphe maintains the majority) and created the Manufacture Rodolphe Cattin SA. The first watches have just been revealed.
Balls and drops
Rodolphe went to work at his drawing board, visualizing purity, softness, a lack of ostentation and a restrained size. Beginning with the feminine timepiece, he designed his remarkable first model—a curved watch, playing on its lines like a pebble, ending by little balls integrated into the case, balls in which were inserted the bracelet and which offered a thousand decorative varieties based on their material, their type of polishing and their stone setting.
On the masculine side, these balls transform into elongated drops using the horns, giving the piece a soft vigour and a calm avant-gardism, if we can describe it thusly. Watches in steel, pink gold, or black PVD with a variety of mother-of-pearl dials range from CHF 2,000 for a steel ladies’ watch to CHF 3,000 for a men’s automatic, or even CHF 5,000 for a chronograph.
From the beginning, however, Rodolphe Cattin has also offered a higher level of timekeepers consisting of tubular skeletonized tourbillons or displays using discs, designed in collaboration with the ‘motorist’ Concepto, as well as minute repeaters and other complications already in the pipeline. In the realm of the jewellery watch, the brand proposes remarkable designs set with diamonds, precious stones and pearls.
The goal for the first year is to produce 1,000 watches, later reaching 5,000. Some of the markets that had advised the brand in the beginning are now open and waiting for their deliveries, as is the entire Middle East, whether Qatar, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Oman or Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia. Discussions are well underway in China with two different groups and the hour of decision is not far off. As for the other markets, the Manufacture Rodolphe Cattin expects to open them soon with a new first and last name. They say that cats have nine lives. Rodolphe is now on his fifth.
Source: Europa Star February - March 2011 Magazine Issue