Hautlence, at a strategic turning point

October 2011

Guillaume Tetu, now the only captain aboard the Hautlence “ship” (his co-captain, Renaud de Retz, gave in to the siren’s song and left the watch industry for the music field) has always put his cards squarely on the table. After the rough seas of the economic crisis where the small independent brand was seriously tossed around (Hautlence has sold 900 watches since its creation in 2004) and its business plan was left in disarray, everything had to be started again. Not from a product point of view but for the brand’s international distribution.
Courageously supported by a board controlled for the most part by a group of French and Swiss investors believing in the proposed new strategic directions, Guillaume Tetu has made radical changes.
To start with, the brand discontinued all its distribution using official distributors who controlled a territory or a group of territories in favour of dealing directly with the retailers itself. Twenty sales points were closed and the stock taken back. New points of sale were opened directly by the brand, without intermediaries. “I start with the idea that the retailers don’t really need us,” Tetu explains frankly. “It is up to us therefore to persuade them, to reassure them, and to demonstrate that we are not in any way a flash in the pan, like we have seen so much of over the last few years.”
The task is difficult, made even more so since “everything has to be redone in the United States as well as in South America. Europe and Switzerland are in a different category because we weathered the storm better in these markets where we did not have to close a single store,” adds Tetu. The goal of this operation is to open fifty new stores, and to sell from 500 to 1000 watches a year. “It is a long-term plan,” Tetu is quick to point out.

Hautlence, at a strategic turning point Guillaume Tetu

Creation of the Atelier d’Horlogerie Contemporaine
To achieve its goal of producing the targeted number of watches, Hautlence intends to expand its palette of products and notably to propose more affordable and more commercial pieces (today, the average price is CHF 54,000 excluding the HL2.0) without, however, deviating from the line that represents the originality and specificity of the brand. It plans to concentrate on the mechanical display rather than to offer traditional complications.
Moving to the next level involves a transformation of production methods and tools. An atelier was thus recently created in La Chaux-de-Fonds that regroups the vital parts of the brand. Large, luminous, and located in the centre of the town, it has the advantage of being close to the network of suppliers in the Jurassian arc region with whom Hautlence collaborates closely. Tetu goes on to explain, “Hautlence is not a manufacture and it would be ridiculous to claim to be one. It is an Atelier d’Horlogerie Contemporaine, which is precisely how we define ourselves. It is an Atelier because we design the mechanisms, create the forms, develop the methods and plans for fabrication, produce the prototypes, and mount, assemble, encase, and control all of our products. Hautlence is an Atelier d’Horlogerie Contemporaine because all our products are innovative and offer new displays. The brand is Horlogerie Contemporaine because our codes for the time display, style, and architecture are resolutely contemporary, the result of profound reflection on the mechanical aspects. This term is also applicable because our tools are contemporary—CAD, 3D simulations, CNC—and allow us to push the technological envelope even more. I am thinking, for example, of the conic gears and pinions that we created for the HL2.0.”
With these tools and this Atelier (where ten people work), Hautlence has total control over its creativity in one single location. Cutting and machining the component parts, cases, and dials, as well as the finishing decorations such as polishing and chamfering are, however, carried out by external suppliers not far from the Atelier. In fact, 90 per cent of the components for a Hautlence timepiece are sourced in the canton of Neuchâtel. Thus Hautlence can sign its watches not “Swiss Made”, since we all know what this term can really mean, but rather with the proud label “Horlogerie Suisse”.

Hautlence, at a strategic turning point Hautlence, at a strategic turning point

The example of the HL2.0
As a demonstration of the creative process adopted by Hautlence in the design of a product and the competencies in place at the Atelier d’Horlogerie Contemporaine, Guillaume Tetu relates the example of the brand’s latest model, the HL2.0 watch.
We won’t enter into the technical details of this extremely innovative timekeeper, the first watch to present a jumping regulating organ. (For more on it, see the article Watchmaking 2.0 by Hautlence in Europa Star 2/11 or on www.europastar.com.) Developed in 2007—based on previously developed display systems with the hour, shown on a jumping disc, and the retrograde minute linked by connecting rods—it consisted essentially of “adding another dimension thanks to an hour display using a chain with 12 links,” driving at each passing hour a slow (four seconds) rotation of the vertically positioned regulating organ.
We can easily imagine the number of technical and energy-related constraints demanded by such a mechanism, so much so that Hautlence—which collaborated with an independent constructor, Philippe Ruedin, on this project—opted to develop its own calibre in order to perfectly manage the energy required by this mechanism. More than four years were spent developing this new uni-directional self-winding calibre, with an excentric rotor, power reserve indicator (45 hours), and double barrel (the winding barrel supplies energy to the complication barrel). Three patents came out of this complex and original endeavour, which involved the semi-continuous hour chain, the regulating organ integrated into the movement on a mobile baguette, and the supply of energy from the two barrels. The development drew from, among others, earlier research followed by studies on automatic winding, the power reserve, 3D design, the assembly of self-winding prototypes with an excentric rotor, timekeeping trials and analyses, the prototyping of the barrels, and then the progressive integration of all the sub-assemblies making up the movement, the trials and tests before starting production on the first series of component parts of the regulating organ, then the barrels, etc., etc.
As a good illustration of Hautlence’s methods—the brand wanted the aesthetic design of the piece to follow the mechanics—two separate designers were also consulted independently during the process. The two individuals, Claudio d’Amore and Bibi Seck, came up with more or less the same proposition to meet the challenge of maximum transparency for this spectacular mechanism. In the end, the case nearly totally disappeared, replaced by a three-dimensional sapphire crystal carved from a single block (a glass so complex that only one Chinese firm was willing to make it!). The result is that the wearer has the feeling of wearing a nearly naked kinetic sculpture on the wrist.

Hautlence, at a strategic turning point HL2.0

Becoming a “brand”
The outstanding HL2.0 is definitely a wonderful way to attract attention to the name Hautlence. Yet, for all this media attention—and commercial interest, we hope—this does not make Hautlence a “brand” in the true sense of the term.
“The construction of a veritable brand is the next and necessary step that we are em-barking upon with our Atelier d’Horlogerie Contemporaine,” explains Guillaume Tetu. “In the future, there will be other exceptional watches—we are working on them already—but our goal now is to produce pieces with affordable prices, in the range of CHF 20,000. They are very important for the new relationships with our retailers. Besides the additional necessary publicity, they will help us reach the critical mass that will allow us—in addition to creating exceptional products—to finally consider ourselves as a real brand, one that is identifiable and long-lasting.”

Source: Europa Star October - November 2011 Magazine Issue