Those who innovate

Franck Dubarry, code breaker


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August 2018

Franck Dubarry, code breaker

Contractually he was supposed to stay out of the watchmaking sector for a decade after the sale of TechnoMarine. It was due to a series of circumstances, involving who else but Apple, that this impatient creator and successful entrepreneur, who was one of the first to “break” the purist codes of the industry in the early 2000s, made a sensational comeback earlier than expected, this time through his eponymous brand. A portrait.


ome entrepreneurs seem incapable of standing still, for one simple reason: they get the adrenalin rush that drives them from creating new products or services far more than from managing operations over time. That is clearly the case of Franck Dubarry, whose leitmotiv is branding. And always with an avant-garde, visionary, often provocative side to it – but which is consistent and fully justifies the expression “you can’t please all the people all of the time”, at the same time juggling the different elements of the creative equation.

Judge for yourself: this fifty-year-old French man, who set out as a communications advisor for international brands like Nespresso, has during the course of his prolific and precocious career been, successively, a specialist in international licences, an intellectual property consultant in the US, a publicist and industrialist in the graphic arts in Paris, then a watchmaker in Switzerland and Hong Kong from 1998 to 2007.

By combining translucent injection-moulded plastics and diamonds on the bezel, Franck Dubarry created a whole new style that made a sensation in the early 2000s, with the aim of bringing colour to the monochrome world of watchmaking.

Franck Dubarry, code breaker

After the sale of his watch brand TechnoMarine, Franck Dubarry successively created a property complex centred on polo in Argentina; with ex-shareholders of the Pandora brand co-founded a concept for a healthy café/fast food restaurant chain in North America (Dr Smood); launched a luggage tracker via a smartphone application, not forgetting along the way to invest in cinema in the United States and in fair trade coffee and fitness in Switzerland. Enough...

Today, Franck Dubarry is back at the forefront of the watchmaking scene –a scene that has changed dramatically during his ten-year absence. And that’s no surprise, since he himself drove the changes with his brand TechnoMarine, founded in 1998 and a forerunner of mixed materials (silicone, injection-moulded plastics or rubber, and diamonds) and bold – not to say “bling-bling” – designs that caught on*. The entrepreneur helped unbridle a watchmaking industry that had until then remained rather sober, causing controversy at the time. But today, this anything but puritan style of watch is everywhere.

TechnoMarine: the trendy end-of-millennium watch

“It was a conservative milieu,” recalls Franck Dubarry, whom we met at Miami where he lives with his family. “My style may have shocked certain watchmakers. We even had problems with Baselworld under pressure from certain quarters, and we were forced to exhibit TechnoMarine outside the trade show walls one year.”

In 1997, after selling his successful advertising agency in France (Naf-Naf and Nespresso figured on the list of customers), the entrepreneur – who tends to get bored rather quickly as you will have realised – decided to create his own brand and began to take an interest in watches. He went to Hong Kong. His idea? To offer a “recreation zone and holiday feel to customers, a bit like with friendship bracelets”. He chose plastic and transparency as his basic design, initially for a diving watch. TechnoMarine was born.

“My idea was to create an affordable fashion accessory that would bring colour to the watchmaking world, a bit like Versace had done for clothes. I very soon found myself right at the top of the select distribution segment, in high-end stores: I was astonished that wealthy customers bought watches worth 250 dollars... That’s when I realised that if my products were going to last, they had to gain value and stay at the select level of distribution.”

Franck Dubarry, code breaker

Hip-hop culture, silicone and diamonds

In popular culture, it was the heyday of hip-hop and American cars with chrome hub caps. “Rappers wore chrome metal rings and necklaces, especially popular because of their capacity to reflect the light. I asked myself: what could reflect even more light? One day I had this eureka moment – diamonds, of course! At that time, you only found diamonds in jewellery watches.”

By combining translucent injection-moulded plastic and diamonds on the bezel, Franck Dubarry created a whole new style that made a sensation, again with the ambition of bringing colour to the monochrome world of watchmaking – including the high end of the market. The watches came with a screwdriver and two straps in different colours. The prices soared. “In one year, TechnoMarine multiplied its annual turnover by fifty, from 600,000 dollars to 35 million dollars!” The industry was taken unawares by this lone wolf watchmaker, who assembled his colourful quartz watches in Ticino from Asian components. Sales soared: soon, TechnoMarine had opened more than 2,500 outlets in around one hundred countries, selling annual volumes of more than 250,000 watches.

“I thought of myself as a designer,” underscores Franck Dubarry. “It was a period of effervescent creativity. For example, we introduced mink wrist straps, and watches with tattoos, mother-of-pearl in every imaginable colour…” Although the average price of a model was 3,000 dollars, the entrepreneur also played around with mechanical complications, launching “Spiderman tourbillons” at 100,000 dollars apiece after signing a licence with Marvel**.

Franck Dubarry, code breaker

Refreshing communications campaigns

“Most observers said that success wouldn’t last, they couldn’t see me breaking codes so radically in the long term,” Franck Dubarry goes on. “But my advantage lay in the large number of new products I brought out every year: the catalogue comprised around 350 items, one-third of which were systematically new. I was also able to count on an enthusiastic customer base and very refreshing communications campaigns that had little to do with the industry’s muted codes.”

In recent horological history, the entrepreneur seems to have acted as a kind of “transmission belt” between the fashion for colour, which began at the low end of the market, and the migration of the new generation of watch products to the top end of the market – on the way affecting prices, which ended up sky high, witness Richard Mille and Hublot, to cite just two examples. Incidentally Franck Dubarry emphasises that TechnoMarine was not a luxury brand as such, but a “company with premium strategies” based on three precepts: fun, fashion, sophistication, which had affinities with colour and a holiday atmosphere***.

In recent horological history, the entrepreneur seems to have acted as a kind of “transmission belt” between the world of colourful fashion, which started at the low end of the market, and the upscaling of innovative watch products.

Did the company end up by being overtaken on the left by an Ice-Watch, and on the right by a Hublot? Whatever the case, it was TechnoMarine that paved the way to an ultra-casual watch style early on and did not hesitate to mix “noble” with industrial materials. It was a time of major upheaval in the watchmaking industry, as analysed by Europa Star in numerous issues. This scrambling of accepted codes was to lead to the “vintage counter-revolution” that the watchmaking industry is currently experiencing, light years away from the quirky colours of TechnoMarine, which was also a product of the initial effervescence that heralded in the digital revolution.

Franck Dubarry, code breaker

Saved by the bell

The brand still exists, acquired by the watch group Invicta, which is also based in Miami and transformed it into something far cheaper than it was in its founder’s day. He has now severed all links with TechnoMarine.

Why did he sell up? “At that time I was in search of new personal and professional experiences and that sale gave me the means to realise those experiences. What’s more, I was treading water, I was bored… There’s always a first generation of managers who create companies and then a generation that manages them. I’m more into creating start-ups and I get bored quite quickly if I don’t have the adrenalin that enables me to build growth!"

So, three weeks before the start of the financial crisis of 2007 (!), Franck Dubarry sold TechnoMarine and committed himself to a non-competition agreement for a period of ten years****. Another sea change was under way. He turned his fertile mind back to studies, completing an MBA in Finance between NYU Stern, the London School of Economics and HEC Paris – in the meantime diversifying into Swiss caviar with the company Kasperskian, which he founded while doing his MBA. Its principal shareholder today is Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, formerly CEO of the Nestlé Group. He then diversified into polo, developing a property complex in Argentina for polo enthusiasts and called TechnoPolo – a sport with which he has personal affinities as a player for more than two decades and which figures very strongly in his new watch brand.

Apple project and back to business

He owes his somewhat faster than anticipated return to the watchmaking industry to none other than Apple, which at the time was developing its iWatch concept. “The head of their Premium strategy, Paul Deneve, the former CEO of Yves Saint-Laurent, contacted me and we started to discuss things and correspond. But I soon found points I disagreed with, such as the black dial. I believe that a watch should keep its socio-cultural assets, it should just pace itself to its own period. And I wasn’t convinced by their sales projections either. It’s not enough to have a geeky side.“Even so, it allowed him to free himself from his non-competition agreement, with the consent of the TechnoMarine owners. So, in late 2014, he began to hatch the idea of a new watch project, but was drawn this time to mechanical movements. “I didn’t want to make another TechnoMarine; I wanted to combine the Swiss watchmaking universe with my experience in sport and design, contribute some of my experiences and tastes, with more control this time over the mechanical and industrial side.”

Franck Dubarry, code breaker

The sporty pop mechanical watch

The industrial part involved approaching a Jura-based factory formerly controlled by Franck Muller, and which today produces the modules and assembles the watches that now bear the name of Franck Dubarry. The designs reflect the exuberant, colourful character of their creator, on the themes of polo, the martial arts, graphic art, tattoos, Art nouveau and Argentina.

They also include Fileteado Porteno motifs, an Argentine graphic art style imported by Italian immigrants in the 1920s. Consequently, the price is positioned higher than that of the TechnoMarine. A number of models cost over 20,000 francs, although the core range costs between 7,000 and 9,000 francs. Diamonds have been replaced by gold, and quartz by mechanical movements!

“I didn’t want to make another TechnoMarine; I wanted to combine the Swiss watchmaking universe with my experience in sport and design, with more control this time over the mechanical and industrial side."

Franck Dubarry, code breaker

The effective launch of the brand in fact took place this year, after a two-year gestation period. When it is pointed out to him that his watches are reminiscent of those of other watchmakers, such as Hublot, and that they stand out less than in the days of TechnoMarine, he has a ready answer.

“It’s because of the shape of the bezel: go and ask Hublot if their bezel isn’t reminiscent of Audemars Piguet! To a certain extent you’re always surfing on the back of what already exists in terms of market trends. When it comes down to it, a handful of brands and designers have left their mark on an industry which today sells hundreds of brands and millions of products. The Oyster by Rolex had a huge influence on the whole gamut of sports watches. And the genius of the much-missed Gérald Genta with the Royal Oak or the Nautilus is still influencing the market. By contrast, the timepieces in my collection are multicultural; they might belong to styles that recall this or that, but they possess their own graphic characteristics. They are original, creative works!"

Horology 2.0

Distribution is commencing, through concept stores especially, such as the defunct Colette in Paris, now restyled Nous and located in new premises run by the former team of the legendary brand; or Vault on Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, to cite two examples. Demand is especially strong in the Middle East, China, Taiwan and Japan, which is hardly surprising given the motifs, colours and designs of the brand’s first lines.

But since times have changed a lot in ten years, what of direct sales over the Internet? “That’s a crucial point, which brings us to the question of how the watchmaking industry is going to be structured," replies Franck Dubarry. “I think we’re coming to a point where the structure of distribution and intermediation is going to undergo a radical change. Personally, I think you need to create special series exclusively for the Internet. The Internet should not be used to sell stuff off cheap. The days when you could work with margins of over 50% and give 40% to the distributor are over. Manufacturers have to lower their margins so that a mix of distribution and sales systems ultimately enable them to retain the same gross margin.”

When change becomes the norm

At the same time as certain retailers are disappearing, we are seeing the average prices in the industry dropping. With this state of affairs, how will the brick-and-mortar boutique of the future look, since all sales cannot be done online? “I believe strongly in the creation of new, highly original spaces, like Nespresso has done for coffee. My dream would be to take a space on the third storey of a residence on Place Vendôme and transform it into a laboratory for the brand! The boutiques have to become a destination in themselves, with a strong identity. An emerging brand like ours has to create a buzz and make itself coveted.”

“I believe strongly in the creation of new, highly original spaces, like Nespresso has done for coffee.”

To conclude, now that he is back, how does Franck Dubarry think he is perceived in an industry that he helped shake up from top to bottom and which, despite what you might sometimes hear, has changed radically in ten years?

“I think they’re watching and I have good relations with the industry! I’m rediscovering with huge passion a trade that I love. And I might have a surprise announcement to make... But anyway, we’ll talk about that another time. Things haven’t finishing changing in this industry!”

*Read TechnoMarine is back in the headlines

**Read TechnoMarine is alive and well!

***Read Technomarine, the Maoris and Spidergirl

****Read TechnoMarine, the facelift before the transplant