IS Collective is a start-up with a simple idea: to create the best watch care products, at a time when interest in collecting watches has skyrocketed. Knowing that the best horological expertise is to be found in Switzerland, the team decided from the beginning that the product had to be Swiss made, to guarantee the highest quality.
The result, after 18 months of R&D, was the ChronoPen, an all-in-one cleaning instrument for watches, that looks, as it name suggests, like a pen, priced at 55 Swiss francs. The three German co-founders, Anna, Ivan and Said (hence the name “AIS”) met in 2019 in London, where they were all young professionals working in different fields. Said is the team’s resident watch geek; he focuses on marketing and sales, while Ivan is the operations specialist and Anna looks after the numbers and finance.
- Co-founders Anna, Ivan and Said – hence the name “AIS”
Finding the right cleaning solution
It wasn’t easy to get the project off the ground. Components ordered from various sources turned out to be unsuitable for creating a product that would be both elegant to look at and intuitive to use. Most of the development headaches concerned the cleaning solution inside the pen. It could not contain any trace of alcohol, nor could it be abrasive, as that could damage or dry out the components. Natural soap and oils of any kind were also out of the question, as they could cause a build-up on the watch. Many different formulations were tested, to ensure they met chemical and dermatological standards.
After more than one year of R&D, in partnership with a leading Swiss chemicals manufacturer, the right composition was discovered. That was the inflection point, it was now or never. Should they really go ahead? In order to get the ball rolling, the suppliers of parts and ingredients needed a certain minimum order – enough, in fact, to equip 10,000 ChronoPens.
“In order to move forward, we had to take this risk, as we were and still are a self-financing company,” Said says. “Honestly, we didn’t imagine we could sell them so quickly.” He decided to move to Switzerland to run the business. “When Said was in the warehouse and saw the number of pallets for the first time it was quite overwhelming. Our supplier simply commented, ‘Good luck!’,” recalls Ivan.
- The ChronoPen is the startup’s flagship product
Diversification to other cleaning products
The ChronoPen is assembled, filled with the Swiss made cleaning solution and then packaged and stored in Zurich. After the first manufacturing round was complete, it was time to sell. Anna took care of the website and administrative tasks, Said handled the Instagram account and resellers, and Ivan organised production, shipping and customer support. Ivan has lost none of the excitement he felt in the early days: he still gets goosebumps when the company receives messages of encouragement from customers: “It’s so rewarding!”
After the first direct sales, the company formed partnerships with retailers. They caught the attention of some big names: Hodinkee in the USA and Seddiqi in the United Arab Emirates. “Resellers helped us to enter the markets much faster than if we had done it ourselves, not only because of the sales volumes, but also because they helped us overcome language barriers, build trust faster with the local watch communities and obtain the various import licences,” Said notes.
In addition to its flagship product, the brand has also launched the ChronoCloth, a large, extra-thick microfibre towel designed for cleaning and polishing watches without the use of water or any other liquid. It comes in a special case for optimal on-the-go use. Other products are being developed to create a complete watch care ecosystem. The ChronoLeatherPen, for instance, is designed for cleaning leather straps. “Our ambition is to offer a complete user experience,” notes Anna.
Extending the retail network
Most of the ChronoPen’s components, as well as the cleaning solution, are made in Switzerland, while the material for the ChronoCloth comes from Germany. All products are hand-assembled in Zurich, in the workshops of the St. Jakob Foundation, a social enterprise dedicated to facilitating the integration of people with disabilities into working life. “This way we can also bring a social aspect to our company, while integrating with the local community,” comments Ivan.
“Some of our products are sold to retailers, but the majority go directly to end customers,” explains Anna. Growth is fastest in Asia and the Middle East (where AIS Collective was first introduced in Kuwait, via the specialist retailer Time Keeper), but European and American customers are responsible for the most direct purchases.
Will the start-up also be offering jewellery care products? “That transition would be relatively easy, but we’re not there yet and don’t want to move too fast,” says Anna. “For the moment we are fully focused on watches.”
“One of our priorities is to open new markets with new retailers,” adds Said. “We’re not just building a business; we’re building a real brand that we hope will eventually become a reference for providing the best tools for watch care. If we are to achieve this, we have to think about more than just selling out quickly.”
The AIS Collective team attended the latest edition of the Dubai Watch Week in 2021, where they were proud to see their products on display in the Dubai Mall, between timepieces from H. Moser & Cie and Ulysse Nardin.
“The ChronoPen is a new category and requires additional consumer education. Many people don’t know how to clean their watches properly. Because of this need for customer education, plus the fact that we are an accessory, there is a risk that the product will get lost in a boutique,” says Said. “That’s why we develop displays adapted to the style of each boutique.” Raising customer awareness about how to use the start-up’s products is also key.
AIS Collective launched in the midst of the pandemic, but it does not seem to have suffered. “We faced additional delays for packaging and a general price increase, but we didn’t pass them on to the customer,” says Ivan. Thanks to its close ties with the watchmaking ecosystem, and reputable partners, the start-up can now really begin to make its mark.
CHRONOPEN – HOW IT WORKS
The ChronoPen from AIS Collective, priced at CHF 55, is a cleaning instrument for watches that, as its name suggests, looks like a pen. It contains 30ml of a specially designed solution, which is deployed via a soft brush head with extra-fine bristles. The solution contains no aggressive chemicals or abrasives, and the pen can be used on stainless steel, all variants of gold, platinum, bronze, carbon fibre and ceramic, as well as sapphire crystal, gemstones and rubber. Each pen can be used up to 60 times. A polishing and drying towel is also included in the kit.