In 1998, André and Josette Saunier created AJS Productions. Today, installed in a new factory in Porrentruy, AJS has an impressive portfolio of 220 clients. They range from the mid-range to the high-end, and even to the ultra high-end, and include some of the biggest names in the watch industry. (We can affirm this because we saw firsthand some of the pieces in production.) AJS produces dials, hands, bezels, cases, clasps, oscillating weights, rubber straps and even precision parts such as balances, toothed gears, pivots for hands, screws, crowns and push-pieces. It also creates specialty devices such as patented luminescent capsules as well as additional mechanisms as epitomized by the very interesting semainier that was designed and crafted for Cuervos y Sobrinos. AJS also assembles watches, including encasing and renovating movements, applying decoration, circular graining and engraving.
Clearly, this is an extremely versatile company, whose versatility is also seen in its very fluid spatial organization and the diverse com-petencies of its employees. “Here, we don’t have workers”, declares André Saunier, “We only have managers”. His comment was corroborated by the employees themselves. Thanks to this generalized sense of responsibility and a relaxed management style, the ambiance is really quite extraordinary and very friendly. This does not preclude—quite the contrary—a high level of efficiency at the company. In fact, it even strengthens its reactivity. As a direct subcontractor or sometimes a “subcontractor to a subcontractor”, as André Saunier says with a smile, AJS Productions has always been self-financed, with the exception of the lease on its high-performance equipment. Among these tools are the new five-axis Chiron milling machine, capable of making plates and other components, and the very advanced, versatile, and ultra-precise tooling machine using wire electro-erosion. “The economic crisis had one advantage,” adds André Saunier. “The machines today are being sold for 50 per cent of their original prices.” And, since he brought up the ‘crisis’, we asked Saunier what his thoughts are after the first half of 2010. “For twelve years, our turnover increased by 20 per cent each year. During the summer of 2009, while everything else was slow, we were still up by 18 per cent. Then, starting in October and November of 2009, things went drastically downhill—we were down 40 per cent. Today, we are working again but all the orders that we signed in Basel have not yet been confirmed. The watch market has become a little like dealing with carpet salesmen!”
From the other side of the screen
A thin ‘screen’ separates AJS Productions from the watch brand, Louis Chevrolet. André and Josette Saunier took this big step six years ago. Creating their own brand was important to them, and we can certainly understand why. All, or nearly all, of their amazing and versatile production tools can easily be put to this use. “At that time, we had a bit of luck and we were also rather naïve”, explains Saunier, “because, in the end, a brand is only worth what you make of it. We soon realized that the respective hunting grounds were very well guarded. But in good years and in bad years, we have grown and our offer has become more coherent with more depth”. The story is really quite wonderful. Louis Chevrolet, who gave his name to the famous American car brand, was a child of the land, born December 25, 1878 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the son of a watchmaker. He began his initiation into the world of mechanics in his father’s atelier. In 1900, he set out to find the American Dream, first by emigrating to Canada and then moving to the United States. The rest, as they say, is history. He became a mechanic working on automobiles, then a pilot. At the steering wheel of his machines, he won many of the most import-ant racing competitions. Breaking all records, he soon become famous throughout the country. He worked at Buick, then in 1911 along with the millionaire William Durant, created the Chevrolet Motor Company. Louis’ following adventures proved more difficult. He closed the door on Chevrolet and returned to racing with his famous ‘Frontenac’ vehicles. He regained his fame alongside his brother who was killed during a racing accident the evening before he was to be crowned the race car champion of America in 1920. Louis then devoted his efforts to aviation until the crisis of 1929 put an end to his plans. In 1934, he fell ill and passed away in 1941.
An epic birth
So, exactly how did this brand that bears such a famous name see the light of day? “One day, a guy came to me and suggested I take the brand ‘Louis Chevrolet’. It took only ten seconds for me to decide and I immediately registered the name in Switzerland, the United States, Europe, China and Taiwan, etc. There were 87 oppositions including one from General Motors, but GM had nothing on Louis Chevrolet—no archives, not even a single photograph. And he was their co-founder! They wanted to write a book so they contacted me directly since they knew that I had all the rights to the photos of Louis. I gave them the rights to reproduction and they made their book. One day I ran across some of the top directors at Chevrolet and offered them a watch that I had already made. I also mentioned that there were 87 oppositions. A while later, I saw them again at the Manicourt circuit and they told me that everything was OK. All the oppositions had been dropped thanks to their army of attorneys.”
The first collection dedicated to Louis Chevrolet logically bears the name of his famous race car, the Frontenac. These are essentially sports watches in a style that we can qualify as ‘neo-retro’, complete with a few strong identifying signs—the number 8 (Louis Chevrolet’s favourite number), the laurel leaves and the fluted sides—that evoke the dashboards of the cars of the early 20th century. Among them is the Frontenac 7100, a powerful 43-mm mechanical chronograph (ETA 7750) in stainless steel that is water-resistant to 100 metres. A limited edition 45-mm Frontenac 7500 comes with a very structured contemporary dial. The brand also offers more ‘urban’ models, if we might use the term, with either mechanical or quartz movements such as the quartz Frontenac 5500, equipped with a large date and a retrograde semainier, or the very elegant and classic automatic Frontenac 9500. For the ladies, there is the beautiful Frontenac 10500, with a quartz movement. In the works is an innovative concept watch called the Frontenac Driver, a remarkable fusion between the automobile and the watch that has never before been taken to this point.
“Never give up”
Today, Louis Chevrolet produces about one thousand pieces per year but Saunier quickly adds, “we have the capacity to rapidly increase this to 2,000 per year. Our price/quality ratio is excellent, with prices starting at around CHF 700 for a quartz timepiece to a maximum of CHF 6,000 for an automatic chronograph that has been decorated and finished in keeping with the art of haut de gamme timekeeping. The average price tag is between CHF 1,000 and CHF 2,500”. He goes on to explain, “Our distribution is rather particular. We have important distribution contracts in the USA and in Russia. We have some presence in France and in Spain but we have no stores in Switzerland. In our own country, we have hit up against the famous glass ceiling that locks up distribution. Be that as it may, while waiting for the situation to change, we sell around 600 watches a year directly from the factory.” “Never give up” was Louis Chevrolet’s motto—a motto adopted in unison by the Saunier family (son Anthony is responsible for technical development and design), and which is clearly echoed in their watch brand.