Century began its horological life in 1966. Under the exceptionally creative eye of its founder Hans-Ulrich Klingenberg, and many years of research and development, in 1977, an entirely new product concept was launched onto the market - a watchcase created from a 'megalith' - a single block of sintered sapphire.
The resulting timepiece is unique, since each and every watchcase is individually hand-facetted by expert craftsmen and, given that the sapphire is second only to the diamond in terms of hardness, this means that all Century watches are scratch-resistant. Another advantage is that by using an original and incredibly simple vacuum extraction system devised by the founder, the watches are all water-resistant to 100 metres.
Seeing is believing
Having read and often talked about the special facetting of the Century watchcases, I was delighted to be able to discover for myself the intricacies of the process in the company's newly renovated workshops in Biel. To say that I was impressed at the expertise of the stonecutters doesn't do justice to either their talent or the finished product. Each person works on one watchcase from start to finish and the diamond milling machines they use are regulated to their personal touch, which obviously varies depending on their size and weight, whether the cutter is right- or left-handed, or even because it is a man or a woman. All of which underlines the fact that each watchcase is truly an original and one false manoeuvre means that hours of work are condemned to the rubbish bin.
To illustrate the complexity of the cutting by hand of the numerous facets of a watchcase, through guile and persuasiveness I managed to convince Philip Klingenberg, the company's President and the son of the founder and Roderich Hess, Century's marketing and Sales Director to let Europa Star have an exclusive illustration - one of the complex drawings scrupulously followed by the stonecutter.
Worth more than a thousand words, this technical artwork illustrates just what is involved in the creation of a Century timepiece and highlights how man's dexterity can still compete with the programmed precision of a computer.
Catering to the ladies
Last year, Century sold 10,000 watches and this year the company looks like reaching 12,000 pieces through its 200 points of sale worldwide. Ladies quartz models dominate sales (90-95%) and range in price between 1,700 Swiss francs for the first entry-price model of the Chill Out, to 115,000 Swiss francs for a multi-facetted white gold and diamond model.
Century's largest market is Japan where 40% of its worldwide network of points of sale are to be found and 75% of its sales are recorded. Two and half years ago, the company also opened its own boutique there. Given the success of the boutique venture in Japan, Century are now planning to open 20 more around the world over the next five years, which includes in the near future, Zurich, Geneva, Rome and London.
With most of the sales originating from the Far East, I asked Roderich Hess the whys and wherefores of the rest of the world.
"Century is a family owned company with a genuine passion for the watch business and they are willing to spend to develop. However, having said that, it has to be achieved slowly but surely. We have employed additional people this year - as opposed to many companies that are starting to lay-off staff - and we will achieve our goal of having 500 points of sale around the world in 5 years. But 500 outlets means two and a half times the facetting production of today and it takes at least three months to train someone to do the more simple models.
"Because sales were so strong in the Far East, we have neglected the European markets for too long so we now have to begin to create a brand awareness here, which includes our own country which really has to be re-built. The problem here in Switzerland is that most retailers are not interested in taking on new brands. In their shop windows they give prominence to the Pateks and Omegas, but they very seldom give display space to the smaller brands like ours.
"Our business strategy over the next five years is to have around 120 to 150 points of sale (POS) in Europe, including 3 to 5 Century boutiques. We want to develop the sales in France, the UK, where the watch consumers tend to go for smaller watches, Italy where we will almost certainly focus on the touristic sites, such as Florence and Rome, and eastern Europe and Russia in particular, where, through distributors we are looking for around 20 POS. We are already active in Spain, but business is bad in Germany so its really not the moment to try and develop there.
"We are currently expanding the Caribbean market which also caters for the US tourists, but we haven't attempted to enter the US market yet because, as of today, we know that we couldn't meet the demand. But in 3 or 4 years we will move into the North American market and we have planned for 80 to 100 POS, with 3 to 4 boutiques.
"We are established in Hong Kong where clients from mainland China also make their purchases, but China is potentially a huge market. Unfortunately we had planned a series of visits there, but with the SARS problem earlier this year we had to cancel them, but they will be rescheduled. Also, a year and a half ago, we began selling our watches in India and, rather surprisingly, only our very expensive models sell there.
"Our boutique business in Japan is flourishing where 99 per cent of our sales are ladies' quartz watches, and we expect that when we establish boutiques in other countries there will be a similar reaction. By the end of June this year, sales in our Japanese boutique had already reached the year-end estimate and 50% of its sales were customized watches. Since we offer around 160 standard models and they are basically interchangeable modules, we can offer thousands of variations of case forms, colouring, facetting, bracelets and straps and diamond content.
“As you know we introduced our first jewellery collection at the Basel Fair this year. The results were very successful so we are now considering creating an entire range of boutique products that would offer exclusive Century leather goods and, for example, top quality handmade silk ties.”
"We are going to become very active at our points of sales and intend having a whole series of special events and introduce special mailings. As I mentioned, we are looking to develop our POS in Europe so we are looking for new retailers to take on our products. But because we have such a unique product, we are looking for retailers who are capable of understanding our product and then explaining its originality to their clients. We don't really have any direct competitors because most watchcases are made up from stainless steel or precious metal and produced in a similar manner.
“Century watches have a real USP - a Unique Selling Proposition. The case is made from a sapphire crystal and is facetted by hand. The watch, by definition, is unique and all our watches, from the least expensive to the most expensive are all created with the same care and attention. If the facetted sapphire is not perfect it doesn't leave the workshops because the slightest flaw will show. It is an original piece of handmade jewellery that is also a watch. That's what makes Century timepieces so unique and since the vast majority of our watches are worn by ladies, exclusivity plays an all-important role.”