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Reviving a watch brand: a risky venture

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July 2022


Reviving a watch brand: a risky venture

Before the 1970s, Switzerland was home to a record number of watch brands, many of which collapsed during the quartz crisis. Over the past twenty years, entrepreneurs have tried to revive several names with a glorious past. Many have failed, but a few are managing to make a go of it.

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history of more than a hundred years, iconic watches, a legendary micro-rotor movement, a dynamic community of passionate collectors. What “sleeping beauty” boasts all these assets?

The answer is a brand that bears the name of the city from which it once shone: Universal Genève. Despite its glorious past and characteristics that would make many entrepreneurs drool, the contemporary history of this sleeping giant provides a textbook example of the obstacles encountered by many companies when they attempt to recover their former splendour.

Universal Genève's best-selling model was launched in 1954: the Polerouter, worn by the pilots of the Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), was produced for many years and remains a very popular model among vintage watch enthusiasts.
Universal Genève’s best-selling model was launched in 1954: the Polerouter, worn by the pilots of the Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), was produced for many years and remains a very popular model among vintage watch enthusiasts.
©Europa Star Archives

At the dawn of the 1990s, beset by problems, Universal Genève was sold to the Hong Kong group Stelux. The brand continued to exist, but without any real success. In 2006, a new management team attempted the umpteenth revival by developing a manufacture calibre, new collections and expanding into new markets. Enthusiasm was short-lived and the owner decided shortly afterwards to put the brand on hold, for lack of results.

In 2007, the management of Universal Genève presented its relaunch plan to Europa Star: a new manufacture calibre, new collections and new market openings.
In 2007, the management of Universal Genève presented its relaunch plan to Europa Star: a new manufacture calibre, new collections and new market openings.
©Europa Star Archives

Since then, despite numerous requests, the Stelux holding company, which also owns other sleeping beauties such as Cyma and Titus & Solvil (although they do not enjoy the same aura as Universal Genève), has always refused to sell the brand, and continues to provide after-sales service in Geneva.

Reviving a watch brand: a risky venture
©Europa Star Archives

Reviving a watch brand: a risky venture
©Europa Star Archives

Reviving a dying brand

Another case in point is the Favre-Leuba brand. When Europa Star featured its new factory in 1964, this large company, whose main market was India, was capable of producing 300,000 watches a year. Again, following the quartz crisis, the eighth generation of the family, represented by Florian A. and Eric A. Favre, ended up selling the company in the mid-1980s. The Geneva brand underwent several changes of ownership, notably to LVMH, which owned it from 1995 to 2003 before selling it to the Valentin group.

Favre-Leuba is one of the oldest Swiss watch brands. In this Europa Star archive, the famous mountaineer Michel Vaucher (on skis) hands Mr. Stuart Hopper (white jumper) a Favre-Leuba Bivouac with a built-in altimeter indicating an altitude of 3,020 metres. The scene takes place in 1969 on the Aletsch glacier, the largest glacier in Europe, in the Swiss Alps.
Favre-Leuba is one of the oldest Swiss watch brands. In this Europa Star archive, the famous mountaineer Michel Vaucher (on skis) hands Mr. Stuart Hopper (white jumper) a Favre-Leuba Bivouac with a built-in altimeter indicating an altitude of 3,020 metres. The scene takes place in 1969 on the Aletsch glacier, the largest glacier in Europe, in the Swiss Alps.
©Europa Star Archives

Finally, the Indian group Titan Industries acquired it in 2011 for 2.5 million francs, according to the newspaper Le Temps. At that point, the brand seemed to be enjoying a renaissance, but there was no evidence that it was profitable. At the beginning of the pandemic a rumour began to circulate (eventually corroborated by an article published in the Solothurner Zeitung in March 2022): the Indian group was looking for a buyer for Favre-Leuba. As the time of writing this article, the Instagram account of the brand, which prides itself on being one of the oldest in watchmaking, had not been updated since 30 April 2021.

Reviving a watch brand: a risky venture
©Europa Star Archives

Reviving a watch brand: a risky venture
©Europa Star Archives

A plethora of relaunches for the digital age

In the digital age, projects to relaunch sleeping watch brands have multiplied. Two years ago, for example, French entrepreneur Guillaume Laidet, who had launched (and since sold) his own brand, William L. 1985, presented his latest project in the pages of Europa Star: the relaunch of Nivada Grenchen, an iconic brand of the watchmaking world, founded in 1879.

Advertisement for Nivada Grenchen's Chronomaster featured in Europa Star in the mid-1960s. At that time, this chronograph was primarily aimed at a male audience, as the slogan “For versatile men only” indicates. Different times, different customs.
Advertisement for Nivada Grenchen’s Chronomaster featured in Europa Star in the mid-1960s. At that time, this chronograph was primarily aimed at a male audience, as the slogan “For versatile men only” indicates. Different times, different customs.
©Europa Star Archives

Since then Guillaume Laidet, with an associate, has also acquired the rights to the Excelsior Park brand, a historical chronograph specialist, and is involved as a consultant in giving new impetus to Vulcain, famous for its Cricket alarm watch. For Nivada Grenchen and Excelsior Park, the modus operandi is similar: faithful re-editions of iconic watches, direct sales on the internet, movements supplied by Sellita, accessible prices and strong use of social networks to reach enthusiasts and collectors directly.

The re-issue of Nivada Grenchen's iconic Chronomaster chronograph
The re-issue of Nivada Grenchen’s iconic Chronomaster chronograph

Two different methods

These various case studies provide convincing evidence that two models of revival are going head-to-head. One is more traditional, requiring considerable industrial investment and classic distribution networks; the other is more disruptive, using the agility of digital networks and globalised production chains.

In the hands of powerful groups, Universal Genève and Favre-Leuba have committed substantial resources to their redeployment, and have continued to distribute their watches mainly or solely via traditional retailers. The bill also tends to increase when a brand decides to develop its own calibre, and to manufacture mainly in Switzerland.

One of the last sleeping beauties of Swiss watchmaking, Excelsior Park, has just been relaunched by the entrepreneur Guillaume Laidet, who is not a first-timer. He has previously put Nivada Grenchen back on track and is working on the redeployment of Vulcain watches.
One of the last sleeping beauties of Swiss watchmaking, Excelsior Park, has just been relaunched by the entrepreneur Guillaume Laidet, who is not a first-timer. He has previously put Nivada Grenchen back on track and is working on the redeployment of Vulcain watches.
©Europa Star Archives

We also remember the relaunch of Marvin, founded in 1850, which Europa Star reported in 2007: an investment of five million francs and a simultaneous launch in 16 countries. This adventure ended in failure, with the brand being taken over by its Chinese distributor in 2014, before disappearing from the watchmaking landscape for good. Nor should we forget Aquastar, a specialist in 1960s diving watches, which resurfaced in 2020 with a re-edition of its famous Deepstar chronograph.

Distribution: a crucial element

For a watch designer, simply making faithful reissues remains an easier exercise and limits the risks for a relaunch, particularly in a commercial context that is very favourable to neo-vintage. But this strategy leaves little room for innovation and creativity. Because of these limits, the question remains as to what long-term strategies these relaunched brands are putting in place in order to set themselves apart in the watchmaking landscape, beyond reissues. Choosing the right distribution model has also become a crucial issue.

Would Universal Genève or Favre-Leuba have had a different fate if they had been relaunched with a different strategy? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain as watchmaking knowledge becomes more widespread: the “purists” of these brands are intransigent, and they don’t mind making this known on social networks. This makes the task even more complex.

Neo-vintage entrepreneurs

But these aren’t the only cases. There are new brands that, while they do not adopt a glorious name from the past, are directly inspired by what can be considered a “golden age” of watchmaking, notably from the 1940s to the 1960s. Brands like these have proliferated, not least because of the power of crowdfunding networks such as Kickstarter, which attract customers before the watches are produced – and thus limit the financial risk.

Baltic's MR01 model
Baltic’s MR01 model

Many are called, but few are chosen. Still, some players stand out, such as Baltic, launched on Kickstarter in 2017 by Etienne Malec and his associates. The gamble was successful, with watches featuring a 1940s-inspired design at accessible prices (read here for more).

This approach was also perfectly handled by the Genevan Andrea Furlan and his associate Hamad Al Marri. Their Mechaquartz chronograph, whose design is influenced by the Patek Philippe reference 1463, raised more than one million francs for its launch on Kickstarter in 2021 and won the Watchmaking Revelation Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève that same year.

The chronograph launched by the young Furlan Marri brand is inspired by a Patek Philippe waterproof chronograph manufactured in the 1940s and nicknamed “Tasti Tondi” in reference to its distinctive pushers.
The chronograph launched by the young Furlan Marri brand is inspired by a Patek Philippe waterproof chronograph manufactured in the 1940s and nicknamed “Tasti Tondi” in reference to its distinctive pushers.

Like Excelsior Park and Nivada Grenchen, newcomers Baltic and Furlan Marri have for the most part cut out the middle-man, and rely on the power of e-commerce. But they also offer limited editions, available through renowned retailers such as Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons. They can keep prices contained because their main components are manufactured in Asia.

Thanks to these successful first steps, they have the ability to evolve. Furlan Marri offers its first mechanical watches this year, and Baltic is working on promising new projects. Whatever direction they choose, their success shows that the clientele for accessible watches inspired by the past is very much alive.

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