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Interview with Sylvain Dolla, CEO of Hamilton

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September 2018


Interview with Sylvain Dolla, CEO of Hamilton

In this neo-vintage-crazed age, few brands can boast a past as glorious as that of Hamilton, considered the ultimate American brand before it took on a hybrid Swiss identity through its purchase by the Swatch Group. The old watch model worn by GIs during the Normandy landings – as well as Elvis Presley onstage – is now seeking a strong position on its original market.

T

he first electric watch, the first digital display watch; Hollywood, Elvis Presley, American pilots... For many years, Hamilton was a “teen idol” in the United States. Today, neo-vintage obsession is apparent in every segment, including yours. Are you riding the wave?

I try not to be “obsessed” by this trend, since such a thing would be dangerous. As for Hamilton, we have always reinterpreted watches from the past while presenting strong new designs. We are an American brand, so we feel a duty to go against the grain. For example, this year, we are launching a 50mm Khaki model with a strong character and not a trace of bling. The design cannot be said to embody neo-vintage minimalism! And in parallel, we presented a reinterpretation of a watch produced for the American army in the 1960s: the hand-wound Khaki Field Mechanical, which was an instant hit.

This mechanical watch costs less than 500 dollars, and has a vintage spirit... What is the best way to win over the new generations?

Obviously, we want people who are purchasing their first mechanical watch – for a wedding, engagement or other important event – to think of us first. But as you mentioned to start with, we have always striven to attract this section of the public. And that is not a trend at the moment.

KHAKI FIELD MECHANICAL
KHAKI FIELD MECHANICAL

But why would a young man purchase a new Ventura, when he could find one at a lower price, and with a personal story behind it, on a second-hand website? Doesn’t this new digital competition intimidate you?

Personally, I enjoy seeing people purchasing pieces from the past. That means that they truly have an affinity for watchmaking. It is the sign of a healthy market, which incites people’s interest and attracts new collectors. Tomorrow’s aficionados might be interested in the new versions of the Ventura or the Khaki Field...

For a brand like yours, and within a price range of 500 to 1,500 dollars, what would your “ideal” point of sale be?

I would say... “Omnichannel”! Today, I think that it would be a mistake to concentrate solely on e-commerce. Clients show very varied purchase modes. On the one hand, we were one of the first watchmaking brands to conduct e-commerce in the United States, more than five years before launching our commercial sites in France, the United Kingdom and Germany; and soon we will launch one in Japan. And at the same time, we have been investing more than ever in our brick boutiques. Last autumn, we launched a new boutique in Japan – our number-one market – in a New York City-style loft built in wood and brick materials. The concept is spreading throughout the world, including in Interlaken in Switzerland.

How can you work in a complementary way, and not a destructive one, both online and offline, both in your own-brand boutiques and in those of your partners?

What has surprised me most is that collections for the internet and those for physical stores are not put together in the same way. For example, in France, we are represented by 190 very high-quality points of sale. Each one presents between 40 and 60 product references. However, on our French website, we present no fewer than 200. That means that while a retailer might (legitimately) filter the models to be made available in his or her boutique, the client will always have the possibility of finding other models online. For example, the Khaki Field Mechanical model was not distributed at first in physical points of sale in France. But it became number one on the French e-commerce website... Ideally, in an omni-channel world, we would like clients to be able to see the 200 product references both online and in boutiques.

VENTURA XXL AUTO
VENTURA XXL AUTO

What measures did you take in terms of your physical retail network as you launched your e-commerce websites? Did you reduce the number of retailers?

It depends on the country. In the United States, we reduced our presence to 450 points of sale, but that reduction was not related to e-commerce. In France, we stood by our 190 very high-quality points of sale. In Italy, where we have more than 600 points of sale, we also maintained our network, and sales continued to increase among our retailers.

What reactions led to your e-commerce offensive? After all, just five years ago, the brand’s e-commerce sites were still underdeveloped.

The most “touchy” reactions came from in-house... But it’s time to stop overreacting about the internet. E-commerce still represents a relatively minor part of our turnover. Even in the United States, online sales only represent between 5% and 12% of our total sales. Some use e-commerce websites to verify the origin of a watch. One thing is sure: the client profile – whether hyper-connected or not – plays a more decisive role than other factors such as geographical distance from the nearest point of sale. The most built-up urban zones, where we have the most physical points of sale, are where we always register the most online sales.

JAZZMASTER THINLINE AUTO
JAZZMASTER THINLINE AUTO

Sixty years ago, your brand was a leading “mainstream” brand in the United States. Today, your two greatest markets are Japan and Italy... Do you think you’ll be able to make a comeback to your original market?

In just five years, we doubled our turnover in the United States. In my opinion, there are two countries where Hamilton can truly hope for two-digit growth over several years: China and the United States.

What about connected watches?

Personally, I have no faith in the concept when it comes to traditional brands. However, bringing “intelligence” to certain pilots’ watches in the form of digitisation... To that, we are open.