n our last issue, we published profiles of five young watchmakers who we are convinced are destined to make waves – some are already supplying several of the industry’s leading names. Alongside these artisans at their workbenches, another new wave is starting to emerge, this time of entrepreneurs.
They have in common affordable price positioning, a focus on e-commerce and social media that lets them connect directly with their community, a genuine passion for vintage timepieces and a natural talent for making the right product drops at the right time – often selling out online within minutes. Spearheading this new generation of horological entrepreneurs (and sharing an exhibition space during the Geneva fairs this spring) are Guillaume Laidet (Nivada Grenchen, Vulcain, Argon), Etienne Malec (Baltic) and Andrea Furlan (Furlan Marri).
Neo-vintage for all
While artisan watchmakers produce a handful of pieces a year, which sell for tens if not hundreds of thousands of francs, these entrepreneurs have taken the opposite tack, producing in the thousands and selling for a few hundred. Together, this generation of artisans and entrepreneurs are forging a whole new scene that covers every price point.
These OGs have something else in common: they reach out to their community and grow with them. It’s no coincidence that a lot of them start out with reliable, no-frills Asian-made movements, emphasising design instead, before possibly moving to Swiss Made at a later stage. They see labels as less important than being upfront about their sourcing. However, the real gamechanger is accessibility: not just in terms of price but also being inclusive in an industry that is becoming increasingly exclusive and luxury-focused.
- Guillaume Laidet (Nivada Grenchen, Vulcain, Argon)
Some of these young brand bosses earned their stripes working for high-end legacy brands before striking out on their own, bringing their knowledge of the premium market, and its well-orchestrated communication, to a considerably more affordable segment.
Guillaume Laidet is one, having worked at Jaeger-LeCoultre before setting up his vintage-inspired brand William L. 1985 (which he has since sold). He funded the brand through Kickstarter − Etienne Malec did the same when he launched Baltic. The two budding entrepreneurs met in those early days, both part of a generation intent on shaking up the watch industry.
- Tapping into the trend for steel watches with integrated bracelets, Nivada Grenchen has reissued a 37mm model from 1977. The F77 is priced at just over CHF 1,000 and was available for pre-order for 77 hours.
“The pre-order model works well for us,” says Laidet. “It means we can offer the best value, involve our community and at the same time avoid excess inventory.” It’s also an effective way of “getting your finger on the pulse prior to launch,” confirms Andrea Furlan, who launched Furlan Marri just a couple of years ago, having gained experience alongside master watchmaker Dominique Renaud. He also uses pre-orders to sell his mecha-quartz watches whose designs channel a 1940s style − and which earned the brand the Revelation prize at its very first Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, in 2021.
Reaching collectors, too
Like it or not, the horological “establishment” is starting to accept these newcomers who are imposing their own, non-traditional way of doing things. Collectors too, according to Andrea Furlan: “Our watches appeal to young people who appreciate vintage designs, but not exclusively. From the beginning we’ve sold to customers who already own a really nice watch collection. These are watches you can wear to dinner with other collectors and not feel embarrassed.”
- Etienne Malec (Baltic)
They are, Guillaume Laidet assures us, “always on the lookout for the latest thing, something fresh. Because of distribution bottlenecks, many of the most in-demand new releases simply aren’t available or are priced out of reach. We come in as an interesting alternative.”
- At €580 and powered by a Miyota movement, the Aquascaphe dive watch is one of Baltic’s bestsellers.
Creating desirability at very affordable prices (around CHF 500 for entry-level models at Furlan Marri) is also part of the package and something these brands do very well, for example by allowing only a 24-hour window for orders.
Another commonality is their willingness to work together; a mindset that was widespread in the industry prior to the globalisation of luxury. “Sure, we’re competing with each other but that doesn’t mean we can’t help each other out sometimes. The sector is seeing an influx of new customers. There is room for everyone,” notes Etienne Malec. In fact he’s the one who introduced watchmaker Theo Auffret to Guillaume Laidet. This serial entrepreneur has teamed up with Auffret to launch experimental brand Argon, which was also showing its watches in Geneva.
- Andrea Furlan (Furlan Marri)
It hasn’t escaped any of them that they are forging “a scene that didn’t really exist a decade ago”, namely watches priced under €1,000, sold direct to consumers who are genuine watch aficionados, far removed from the “fashion watch” segment and led by a new generation who understand how luxury works.
- Driven by the G100 movement by La Joux-Perret, the elegant Salmon Sector, priced at CHF 1,250, is among Furlan Marri’s most popular models.
Their strategy meets that of major movement assemblers, traditionally based in Asia, who are adapting their model to provide tailored solutions, implementing agile manufacturing processes to produce limited series. Remi Chabrat, founder of Montrichard, is a champion in this field. We visited him in Hong Kong and toured his factory in Shenzhen a few years ago. Having set up his own incubator for up-and-coming watch brands, he joined forces with Guillaume Laidet to revive Nivada Grenchen.
Transparency in production and distribution
All these new players prefer to sell direct to consumers through their websites, although Remi Chabrat sees good opportunities in bricks and mortar. “The groups have taken a large slice of revenue away from the traditional multibrand retailers, who by necessity are opening up to new names. We’re taking advantage of that. In a way we should thank our colleagues for pulling out of retailers!”
The way that traditional retailers operate can nonetheless clash with the way these upstarts do business. “The retailers we work with won’t share information about the customers who buy our watches,” says Andrea Furlan who, like his counterparts, relies heavily on data science to create desirability for his brand. As for Guillaume Laidet, he explains how he developed certain models as a direct result of feedback from his Instagram followers.
“The most important thing, in production and distribution, is transparency,” Andrea Furlan insists. Upstream and downstream, these entrepreneurs are changing business practices.
“I’d rather say outright that my suppliers are in China than have to look away when someone asks me where I source my components,” Etienne Malec declares. “The Swiss watch industry has always kept quiet about this. To a certain degree, we’re making it more transparent. One of our first Kickstarter campaigns was for a watch with a Chinese movement and that hasn’t prevented us from growing. What matters, beyond labels, is knowing how to distinguish between a Swiss Made product at CHF 500 and a Swiss Made product at CHF 500,000.”
Sometimes, these worlds collide… with positive results. Guillaume Laidet recently became a consultant for Vulcain, a historic brand looking to relaunch. He rapidly drew up a plan to redefine the brand, ranging from price positioning to direct distribution to the reissue of certain iconic models. “Previously the brand had never sold a single watch online,” says Laidet. “After introducing e-commerce, it made one million francs in online sales last November and December.”
The pandemic helped accelerate business for these entrepreneurs, whose clientele is first and foremost local with no physical traffic, and who are not reliant on tourist spending. “Distance isn’t a barrier for us,” insists Etienne Malec. “We can deliver anywhere in the world. We sell our Baltic watches in more than 70 countries although 80% of sales are to the United States. E-commerce is by far our main sales channel, ahead of physical stores. It’s a different paradigm. Digital used to be seen as a complement to physical in the watch industry. Now physical is a complement to digital.”
- Since November 2021, Guillaume Laidet is also a consultant for Vulcain.
Another element that plays in their favour: the watches they offer are inspired by some of the industry’s best-known references, when collectors often keep their most desirable watches in a safe, for security reasons. Here too, a form of complementarity exists between watches bought to be worn and watches purchased as an investment (even if the value of certain Furlan Marri watches shot up online, after the brand stopped taking orders for its first series).
But what if the vintage wave they are surfing should come to an end? As brands that are still “under construction”, surely there’s a risk? “Of course there will be change, it’s inevitable, but adapting shouldn’t be a problem because we engage so closely with our community,” Andrea Furlan replies. “We encourage participation, in particular through social media. When I meet people I follow online, a lot of the time I recognise their wrist before their face!”
The last word goes to Guillaume Laidet: “Being present on Instagram means we can stay ahead of the latest trends and be agile. My phone is my office, communicating directly with our community. I’m not sure my girlfriend appreciates it, though!”