Rodolphe by Rodolphe by Rodolphe

April 2003

Rodolphe is a talented designer who could have been content to design watches for other people. But, while continuing to work as a designer, he decided to launch his own collection of watches, signed simply, 'Rodolphe'. Europa Star talked with him and learned of the joys and challenges of being an independent contemporary brand.

Rodolphe is a satisfied designer. With his team of about a dozen people, based in La Chaux-de-Fonds, he is successfully working for a series of brands in Switzerland and in Europe. While some prefer to remain anonymous, we can cite two examples whose success is without question. For seven years now, Rodolphe has designed two collections with over 50 models for Esprit. Then there is Breil, for whom he started from zero, and which has now become one of the greatest recent Italian success stories, with more than 800,000 watches sold per year exclusively in Italy (international markets will be opening soon). His experience surpasses the examples of the fashion watch. He has also designed in the haut de gamme sector for Bovet, for example, as well as the particular oval form of Mellerio dits Meller.

Beginnings with Longines
A graduate of the Ecole des Arts Appliqués in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Rodolphe started soon with Longines. Noticed by his superiors, he was given the responsibility of re-launching the key Italian market, a project in which he succeeded brilliantly. Then they offered him the singular opportunity to create a collection called 'Longines by Rodolphe'.
With this venture, his reputation spread very rapidly. As the designer of the collection giving Longines a fresher and more youthful image, Rodolphe also became directly involved in the brand's communication. Soon, he became a 'star' in the design world. This status gave him his wings to leave the nest and fly on his own. His watches were selling very well (more than 60,000 per year) and after his third collection for Longines, Rodolphe decided to strike out on his own, while still continuing to collaborate on three new collections for Rodolphe by Longines. He would also learn that the roads leading to independence would be long and difficult.

Different partners
While continuing his successful work as an independent designer for various brands, Rodolphe, drawing on his experience with Longines, created his own brand called Rodolphe by Rodolphe. From then on, different industrial and business partners would come and go, but the alchemy was hard to manage, and after a dazzling beginning, sales dropped off.
The brand's positioning, in the mid-range with innovative new shapes, is hard to maintain. Either too expensive or not expensive enough, confined to a niche market and not generating enough margins, the first collections had a hard time establishing themselves in a highly competitive environment. It became increasingly harder for independents who did not have the resources for communication and production that the large groups enjoyed.

Move up-market
Then an opportunity presented itself. Jacky Epitaux, formerly with Zenith, offered to help. His strategy was simple. It was necessary to move up-market, he explained, in order to give the brand more credibility and to ensure a niche market that wanted the originality of Rodolphe's designs, mid-way between experimentation and modern classicism.
The decision to move up in range paid off. (Steel models are priced between 1,000 and 5,000 Swiss francs, gold versions up to 10,000 francs, and more for diamond-set timepieces.) The change in positioning was accompanied by a large effort in communication and rebuilding the brand's image, centred on the essential: 'Rodolphe'.

Unique positioning
With its 5,000 watches sold per year, and a long-term goal of 20,000 pieces, Rodolphe can feel satisfied with his achievements. Aesthetically, the brand's watches are quite unique. They have a strong and immediately recognizable character, which is very modern, even trendy, but which don't have any hint of excess, thus avoiding the risk of becoming an ephemeral phenomenon. Very visual and equipped with quality movements, Rodolphe watches evoke the current minimalism. Sensual, they don't hesitate to renew classical forms such as the tonneau (taken larger), the circle or the rectangle.
“As an independent, everything must be carefully thought out. Even the least error can prove fatal. But, independence also offers a unique opportunity to be able to side step the strict criteria and laws of the marketplace. It also allows experimentation, risk taking and original ideas.”

Mechanical evolutions
This upward move in range involves the need to become more 'horological'. Very clearly, the brand is moving in this direction with its new and interesting mechanical pieces, developed notably with the firm Dubois Dépraz. Soon we will see a timekeeper equipped with a week indicator and lunar phases, a watchmaking premiere that goes particularly well with the very visual dials made by Rodolphe.

Rise in distribution strength
This move upmarket also requires a vast effort in the structure of the brand's distribution. Even as an independent, Rodolphe has created veritable subsidiaries with the responsibility of distributing the products, whether in France, Germany or the USA where a group of six people located in San Diego takes care of the American market. “We are positioning ourselves in the haut de gamme,” explains Jacky Epitaux. “Here, we are conducting original experiments, such as the licensing agreement that we just signed with Dodge to make Viper watches. From three countries opened in January 2000, we are now in more than 20 countries. Some are in the introductory phase (such as Germany), while others are in full expansion or consolidation, such as the Middle East, which is our market leader.”
Obviously, the current period is not the most favourable for the watch industry as a whole, and prudence is the order of the day. However, Rodolphe's original and unique offer should ensure him a special place in the constellation of new brands.