Louis Vuitton, a voyage to watchmaking credibility

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August 2012

It has been ten years now that the luxury leather goods brand, Louis Vuitton, has been active in the world of watchmaking. With its famous leather luggage, the brand’s name conjures up images of voyages and travel, and it is in this vein that its emblematic watch should bear the name of “Tambour”. Although the name might appear to be strange at first, it is not really. In the 15th century, “Tambour” was the name given to the very first portable clocks whose form evoked the shape of this percussion instrument. These first travel clocks were created to accompany various sovereigns as they travelled from one chateau to another, thus letting them always know the time. During that era, this was an important sign of power. Perhaps, it is still the case?
Hamdi Chatti, director of the watches and jewellery division at Louis Vuitton, particularly appreciates this historic reference as it evokes the travel nature of the brand. Europa Star recently met him to discuss the last ten years of Louis Vuitton watches.

Hamdi Chatti
Hamdi Chatti

Europa Star: One right after the other, Louis Vuitton has announced the acquisition of La Fabrique du Temps, an advanced constructor of movements, followed by that of Léman Cadrans, a high-end dial maker, and then the purchase and transformation of a large facility in the suburbs of Geneva. Is the Louis Vuitton watch division determined to become a real manufacture?

Hamdi Chatti: I am not sure that the term is exactly right. I prefer to call it an artisanal manufacturer. Essentially, what we are aiming for is creative independence. Our plan is to unite, under one roof, between 2013 and 2014, the three main poles of our watch activity: the Ateliers Horlogers Louis Vuitton, which employs 50 people in La Chaux-de-Fonds; La Fabrique du Temps, the movement development unit; and Léman Cadrans. Up to now, we have directly mastered the beginning and the end of the process of watch manufacturing, in other words, on one side, we do the design, development, and prototyping while, on the other side, are the jewelling, regulation, encasing, and quality control. Bringing these already-acquired competencies under one roof will let us gradually master the métiers in between that we are still missing.

ES: Is this a question of watchmaking credibility?

HC: We want to become a real player in the high-end watch segment, and acquire not only full credibility, but also stake out a very precise territory in this domain. Our strategy forcibly involves obtaining creative independence, which will lead to the total development of exclusive movements, plus an industrial credibility that we will obtain by the gradual industrialisation of our own production. Once we are well installed in Geneva, our highest level products can bear the prestigious Poinçon de Genève (Geneva Hallmark). [See Paul O’Neil’s article on certification in this issue]

ES: In this process of integration, will you also be including cases?

HC: We want to begin by making all the prototypes of our cases ourselves. And, tomorrow, undoubtedly, we will decide to make all our gold cases directly in-house. For the moment, however, most of our efforts are targeted towards the development of our own exclusive movements.

Louis Vuitton, a voyage to watchmaking credibility

ES: In this sense, the acquisition of La Fabrique du Temps is a strong signal. Its two founders, Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini, are among the best and most creative movement constructors in the Swiss watch industry…

HC: We are not unknown to each other since, already starting in 2009, we worked with them to develop our very innovative Spin Time movement, with its time display made of rotating cubes. In the beginning, the goal was to make only a very limited series of very high-end timepieces. Since it functioned not only perfectly well from a technical point of view, but was also a great commercial success, we wondered if we could further develop and industrialise the entire process in order to produce much larger quantities. This idea is in perfect tune with our theme of travel… This has nothing to do with an advertising coup or pure marketing. The travel theme gives us the development structure for our movements over the long term. It is the backbone, you might say.

ES: Yet, such a movement is still quite limited in quantity when compared to your overall production...

HC: We have two types of products, according to their movements. Below €4,000, our three-hand watches are fitted with and will continue to use ETA movements. For products between €7,000 and €10,000, we intend to produce our own in-house calibres in Geneva. To this end, we are now working on developing our own chronograph movement with world time. Still with the travel theme in mind, of course.

ES: Louis Vuitton has one essential particularity. It is, to our knowledge, the only watch brand that distributes its watches exclusively in its own boutiques. Will you be able to continue to follow this policy?

HC: It is a rather unique model, yes, but one that can work for us. Louis Vuitton currently has some 400 exclusive same-name stores in nearly 60 countries world wide, and we are opening between 10 and 15 every year. This means 10,000 sales people could be selling our watches. Louis Vuitton has been, for example, present in China since 1992, and each year, that market grows some 60 per cent. You can only purchase a Louis Vuitton watch in one of our stores. And, while, unfortunately, you may find counterfeits here or there, as happens for all the big brands, this distribution method allows us to completely avoid the grey market.

Louis Vuitton, a voyage to watchmaking credibility

ES: But it seems that customers who go to Louis Vuitton stores do not go there mainly to buy a watch…

HC: For the most part, our customers are women, and men, who like the Louis Vuitton brand, in all its various forms of expression. If, in the beginning of our watch adventure, the purchase of a Louis Vuitton watch happens because of love at first sight—love of a form, style, or name—the watchmaking credibility that we are building step by step, and that we have demonstrated with products such as the Tambour Spin Time GMT, for example, should appeal to a specific clientele, to those in search of the quality, creativity, and intrinsic watchmaking values of our timekeepers. Our primary salespeople—our retailers if you prefer—are our first-line representatives. We have thus planned to open a true training centre at the heart of our facility in Geneva dedicated to the sales of Louis Vuitton watches and jewellery. Here, our team will learn firsthand about the design and production of a watch in order to be able to relay our message as closely as possible to the customer. On another level, we also want to demonstrate to the watch community that, even if our model is different from other brands, we are a fully active player in the high-end watch sector, that we have acquired the necessary credibility, and importantly, that we are in this for the long haul.

Source: Europa Star August - September 2012 Magazine Issue