Archives & heritage

Watchmakers test their DNA


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December 2018

Watchmakers test their DNA

The grand old companies with an uninterrupted history, such as Rolex, Audemars Piguet or Patek Philippe, maintain their heritage with absolute consistency and guard it jealously. But not all watchmakers are as lucky, some having seen parts of their heritage vanish through successive buyouts and acquisitions. Others have shown little interest in it until now. Today, some brands are trying to make up for lost time.


he bestsellers of 2018 are incredibly reminiscent of those from a few decades back. The Royal Oak, the Daytona and the Nautilus – the magical trio – have not gained a wrinkle. The more things change, the more they stay the same... Within the Swatch Group, the Speedmaster from Omega is another prime example of a model that has spanned the ages without getting any older. Led by Raynald Aeschlimann, this brand has, incidentally, done a remarkable job of conserving its heritage, as illustrated last year by the 1957 Trilogy, or the repeated success of its Speedy Tuesday operation. This exploitation of heritage, in a context which seems to give an extra advantage to the watchmaking icons, is arousing envy in certain quarters.

In fact, it is a response to an underlying phenomenon: far from consigning the mechanical watch to the rank of incongruous object from the past, the digital age has put this most noble of horological products back in the spotlight through the medium of millions of images shared on social media, and the rapid advance of a globalised watch culture. Rather as if the tools of the future were taking us back to the past. Everywhere, the insistence is on the need for authenticity.

Turning dust into gold

Everyone is not equal in the face of this phenomenon. The neo-brands of contemporary, 21st-century watchmaking, for example, do not of course have any heritage with which they can claim longevity. Instead, they emphasise the idea of disruption. Such a stance works particularly well when the economy is booming and the emerging markets are creating thousands of new millionaires with less conservative tastes than the collectors of the Old Continent. A significant number of these brands were weakened by the watch industry slump of 2015. And the fundamental question of collector-investors is often the same: will this brand still exist five to ten years from now?

While the first decade of the new millennium seemed almost entirely dedicated to a (necessary) dusting down of the industry to ground it the modern era, break established codes and expand its horizons, today we are realising that this horological dust contained treasures of ingenuity and design.

Baume & Mercier: “I shut myself away with 200 historical timepieces”

Consequently, several companies with genuine historical legitimacy have not exploited the full potential of this heritage, too busy as they were with modernising their image and conquering new markets following the renaissance of the market for the mechanical watches of the 1990s.

Geoffroy Lefebvre, Baume & Mercier CEO
Geoffroy Lefebvre, Baume & Mercier CEO

Providing evidence of the synergy between the new social media and older creations, the new CEO of Baume & Mercier Geoffroy Lefebvre posts almost exclusively vintage models on his Instagram account.

Founded in 1830, Baume & Mercier seems to illustrate one such case. Its new CEO Geoffroy Lefebvre now intends to remedy this: “We’ve made too little of the extraordinary history of Baume & Mercier, notably in relation to watch exteriors. The first thing I did on taking up the reins of the brand was to shut myself up for a day at Les Brenets with 200 of our legacy timepieces. Very early on, you find watches of incredible design, such as the complete chronographs from the 1950s, or the Riviera.”

Providing evidence of the synergy between the new social media and older creations, the young CEO posts virtually nothing but vintage models of Baume & Mercier on his Instagram account. “Bringing this heritage back into the spotlight is absolutely a part of my strategy,” he explains. Having transited through two longstanding brands within the Richemont Group, Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre, the new CEO certainly has a sense of history…and a timely one, at that.

Rado: the futuristic brand eying up its past

Rado, part of the Swatch Group, has always been regarded as the “futuristic” brand of the watchmaking giant thanks to its exploration of materials such as ceramics. With this profile, and compared with brands like Omega or Longines, the company is “lagging in terms of making the most of its heritage,” its CEO Matthias Breschan acknowledges. On his arrival in 2011, his focus was on bringing the brand up to date, handicapped as it was on the Chinese market by its emphasis on shaped watches and quartz – characteristics inherited from the past, in fact.

Matthias Breschan, CEO of Rado
Matthias Breschan, CEO of Rado

“Attitudes towards watchmaking have changed over the past few years, with a strong popular interest in the past: attaching themselves to some kind of heritage is reassuring for our customers.”

The strategy put in place since then for more classic formats, and the integration of more mechanical calibres with the simultaneous pursuit of new materials, has upped Rado’s popularity in Asia. But the time has now come to turn the brand’s heritage to profitable use: “We’re in the process of building up an ensemble of information about the history of Rado,” explains Matthias Breschan. “In two years’ time, our use of the archives should really start to get interesting.”

Watchmakers test their DNA
The Rado Original of the 1970s is still one of the Lengnaubased brand’s bestsellers.

The Rado Original of the 1970s is still one of the Lengnau-based brand’s bestsellers. Matthias Breschan gives us his analysis of why: “Attitudes towards watchmaking have changed over the past few years, with a strong popular interest in the past: attaching themselves to some kind of heritage is reassuring for our customers. You can see everywhere a return to simpler values, to nature, to sustainability. Today, Rado is able to work on its historically strong designs while at the same continuing to introduce innovative materials. It’s a formula that works for us.”

Watchmakers test their DNA
The highly recognisable shape of the Rado case on the cover of Europa Star in 1979

This archival work could be useful in China too, underscores the CEO, brandishing an advert published in the late 1970s in a newspaper from the People’s Republic: “At the time there was also a slot on Chinese TV entitled Rado Quiz. We still have good potential for growth in China. We were pioneers in India too, and we’re still dominant where Swiss watch sales are concerned.”

Heritage – not a question of age

Even a brand as young, industrially speaking, as Frederique Constant – which has just celebrated its 30th anniversary – is already intending to capitalise on its heritage. “For a watch brand, it’s much easier to work on the tried-and-tested successes of the past. Without revealing any more, I can already tell you that I’m working on our heritage in preparation for a future new collection,” announces Niels Eggerding, the new CEO of Frederique Constant.

An even younger brand (it was founded in 1994), Bell & Ross went with the vintage aesthetic right from the start, at a time when the trend was rather for flashy colour. “With our round, military watches with white figures on black dials, we were really going against the grain,” remembers its co-founder Carlos Rosillo. “Some well-established brands no longer had any models of that type! It was neither vintage style, nor military watch style.”

Watchmakers test their DNA
The “Montre Ecole”, an artisan watch project thought of as a way to maintain the endangered know-how of craftsmen of the past

Greubel Forsey , despite being only 14 years old, has taken the initiative to save traditional know-how with the “Birth of a Watch” project run by the Time Aeon Foundation, of which it is the co-founder. This is an ambition dear to the hearts of Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey. Their protégé, Michel Boulanger, who started building a series of watches single-handedly under the patronage of Philippe Dufour, is now touring the globe to share his experience. In 2016, his “Montre Ecole”, or school watch, was sold at Christie’s in Hong Kong for the price of 1.46 million dollars.

Ulysse Nardin: a “moral obligation”

The boss of Ulysse Nardin (and recently also of Girard-Perregaux) Patrick Pruniaux has made upscaling the brand’s heritage a priority of his mandate, which began just after the introduction last year of the Marine Torpilleur model, a “freshened-up” version of one of the company’s historical lines. The Marine Torpilleur Military US Navy limited series launched this autumn is one result of this heritage work. “We rediscovered that Ulysse Nardin was the sole supplier to the American navy for several decades starting in 1905,” explains Patrick Pruniaux. “That provides obvious legitimacy to our collaboration. Military men never forget their origins!”

Watchmakers test their DNA
Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur Military US Navy

“We long were the sole supplier to the American navy, which provides legitimacy. Military men never forget their origins!” Patrick Pruniaux, CEO of Ulysse Nardin

Under the influence of Rolf Schnyder, the former owner of the brand who held the reins for all of 30 years, Ulysse Nardin took a highly futuristic turn, as illustrated by Freak with its crazy display and movement, as well as the pioneering use of silicon in the escapement. “He was incredibly future-focused, which was what established the brand on the two bases it stands on today, one traditional and the other highly innovative. Now, we have to dig deeper into this heritage. Today, there is a very strong recognition of artisanship, for handcrafted work. That’s the current definition of luxury, which is based on historical knowledge.”

For Patrick Pruniaux, this work is virtually a moral obligation. The brand is using the services of a historian to reconstruct its heritage which dates back to 1846. The problem is that, for one thing, acquiring historical models is a costly mission, and for another, Ulysse Nardin does not have all of its archives at its disposal. A large proportion is at the Château des Monts in Le Locle.

Girard-Perregaux: three box files on which to build the future

The objectives have been set and the other brand headed up by Patrick Pruniaux, Girard-Perregaux, is also occupied with exploring its heritage. But it has come up against several obstacles, as the company’s historian and “living memory” in the literal sense of the term, Willy Schweizer, explains. “Today, our entire archive fits into three box folders. That’s due to our company’s tumultuous history.”

Founded in 1791 by the visionary Geneva-based watchmaker Jean-François Bautte, the company’s ambition from the beginning was to bring the “factory” – the skilled artisans and workers who previously worked from home – together under one roof. Passed from one generation to another, sold and bought, the manufacture then oscillated between growth and commercial problems for a century. The merger in 1906 of Maison Bautte with the Girard-Perregaux cooperative gave the company its current name.

Watchmakers test their DNA
The Three Gold Bridges, a signature of Girard-Perregaux

“Of all those years, nothing much remains in the archives,” says Willy Schweizer. “A large number of the documents were scattered, some destroyed or thrown away. We might chance on a few finds or recover a couple of items as we search, but not much.” Having worked in marketing and advertising, with responsibility for the Swiss and Middle-Eastern markets, this local history buff fell in love with the heritage of Girard- Perregaux the day a suitcase full of antique watches was entrusted to him. He patiently analysed the contents, which he eventually restored.

In 1991, Willy Schweizer opened a small museum in the attic of the main Girard-Perregaux building to put them on public display. Encouraged by the former owner, Gino Macaluso, who fully understood the value of this historical research, he then opened a museum in the adjoining Villa Marguerite, which belonged to the group. But in 2007, the villa was the target of a serious robbery. A new museum is now in the works.

History can hold surprises

Whatever the case, this collection of historical watches is still crucial to the brand: not a single retailer or private customer visits the company without being given a presentation. Above all, it is the promotion of this heritage that gave rise to the “renaissance” of the Three Gold Bridges which, in various forms, has grown into the icon of the brand. “It is a unique case: it is the only watch immediately recognisable by its movement.” Another example is that of the recently relaunched Laureato – a watch that symbolises the profound changes that took place in the 1970s.

“History is an aid to creation today,” emphasises Willy Schweizer. “It provides consistency. There’s a very clear interest in vintage and antique watches. The number of searches is constantly growing, including for quartz models, of which Girard-Perregaux was a pioneer.”

The brand continues to purchase older watches; today, it has around 400. “The problem with this research is that we don’t always know what we’ve made. And sometimes, we get surprises.” As with the currently popular DNA tests that often throw up astonishing results, watchmakers too sometimes discover an unsuspected genetic heritage.

Montblanc: purchasing a past

Lastly, some companies get themselves a glorious horological past by means of a clever acquisition. Such is the case of Montblanc, which for the past two years has been heavily promoting the historical manufacture Minerva, a chronograph specialist purchased in 2006 by the Richemont Group and simply handed over to the brand with no further ado.

Davide Cerrato, managing director of Montblanc watch division
Davide Cerrato, managing director of Montblanc watch division

“The 1970s were the last period when we still thought of the future with optimism. This confidence in technology was strongly expressed in design. Today we have a more catastrophic view of the future. A new vision of tomorrow has not yet emerged.”

“It has an extraordinary heritage: we’re fortunate that Minerva has never been the victim of a fire or of flooding despite its 160 years of history – the climate at Villeret would appear to be particularly clement!” says Davide Cerrato, who heads up Montblanc’s watchmaking division. “Everything is extraordinarily well preserved, from the thousand historical timepieces, the antique movements, components, cases, to the paper archives. We still have all the company’s accounts registers.” Back when he worked for Tudor, before the mania for vintage watches we are now experiencing, Davide Cerrato revamped the brand’s legacy models, notably relaunching the Heritage Chrono in 2010, then the Black Bay. At Montblanc he found fertile ground with Minerva; when we met him, this history-loving aesthete had in his pocket a vintage dial from the 1950s!

“We still haven’t exhumed everything from this veritable tomb of Tutankhamun,” he enthuses. “I make new discoveries every week. We’re only just starting to draw up a rational catalogue of all this inheritance. We’re also starting digitisation, which could result in interactive experiences through Minerva’s past thanks to the possibilities offered by digital technology.”

This heritage is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for Cerrato, who is also a designer. Montblanc’s new collection, both classic and vintage, which is to be presented at SIHH next January, is in fact the direct result of his historical discoveries. But why did they not conserve the Minerva manufacture as such? “It’s highly unusual, certainly,” replies Davide Cerrato. “Montblanc has only two decades of watchmaking history. We’re in the process of merging it with that of Minerva to extract the best of those two worlds.”

Watchmakers test their DNA
The new Montblanc 1858 Geosphere, a vintage-inspired timepiece

You only have to look at the Montblanc product catalogue of the past two years, which includes the 1858 Geosphere, to understand the work in progress on heritage in a brand that is simultaneously exploring the world of connected watches, with the Summit, and that of grand complications. The spectrum is broad...

Vintage is not a vague trend, but a “major underlying cycle,” Davide Cerrato believes. “The 1970s were the last period when we still thought of the future with optimism. We imagined carefree tomorrows and flying cars. This confidence in technology was strongly expressed in design, which explains the current interest in that period. Today we have a more catastrophic view of the future. Lots of people prefer to look back in history, since a new vision of the future has not yet emerged. The debate is only just beginning.” In this respect, we can expect an explosion of research into watchmaking heritage in the years ahead.