04. time-business


Baume, the gateway to Richemont

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September 2018


Baume, the gateway to Richemont

Richemont’s determination, with the creation of its fashion brand Baume, to invest in affordable, generational watches is to be applauded –even if the operation, which is something of a litmus test for a group with plenty of cashflow, is not without its ambiguities. Is this Richemont’s version of the Swatch? Here is the background.

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n paper, the project ticks all the boxes of a generational watch: an elegant, minimalist design at an affordable price; an eco-friendly slant thanks to its recyclable materials; available solely online, and with numerous personalisations possible. And of course, a launch in Los Angeles, where so many contemporary projects either make it or break it!

Is this yet one more Kickstarter project by a young Californian surfer with a yearning for luxury watches? A Komono spin-off? No: it’s Baume, by Richemont! For the second time in its history (after the jeweller Giampiero Bodino in 2013), the watchmaking giant has quit the role of prince charming who wakens sleeping beauties for that of genitor of a whole new brand. Baume, in other words. Price: from 490 euros. Available: immediately.

Baume, the gateway to Richemont

Heading a team of 15 people is the dynamic and affable Marie Chassot, who worked at Roger Dubuis before taking over as head of product marketing at Baume & Mercier. She makes one thing clear: “Baume is a separate brand from Baume & Mercier, even if it grew out of it. We share the same values of innovation and affordability.”

Digital transformation

It all began two years ago during the numerous discussions within the company about the inevitable “digital transformation”. “Faced with this upheaval, ideas began to ripen,” the manager goes on. That is how the Baume project – "always enthusiastically supported by Johann Rupert” – was born.

Is it yet one more Kickstarter project by a young Californian surfer with a yearning for luxury watches? A Komono spin-off? No: it’s Baume, by Richemont!

Certainly, no one was expecting to see Richemont at the base of the luxury watch pyramid; it is usually closer to the top… And in terms of intention, it has to be applauded, Europa Star having for a long time advocated that the Swiss watchmaking industry should also have a foot in the affordable watch segment. More expensive than a Swatch, Baume is definitely on the second step up of the pyramid – on a level with giant Tissot (four million watches a year).

Baume, the gateway to Richemont

But the brand’s sights are trained rather on the current fans of trendy names such as Daniel Wellington (more than two million watches sold in 2017) and Cluse, which currently have the upper hand. How to get under the skin of these new generations, the vast of majority of whom wear no watch at all, many having been won over by the Apple Watch and the remainder by ultra-classic, slim and affordable offerings?

Reconciling design, price and environmental awareness

Marie Chassot intends to occupy terrain that she feels is as yet unexploited: “Often, we see launches that are big on eco-responsibility but fall short on design. We want to create a product that is beautiful and responsible. There are nice-looking, affordable watches on the market and there are also eco-responsible watches: we want to combine the three factors of design, affordability and environmental awareness.”

How to get under the skin of these new generations, the vast of majority of whom wear no watch at all?

To highly contemporary aesthetic codes, Baume has added two aspects that are preoccupying brands the world over as they struggle to renew their customer base: digital features – and environmental considerations.

Baume, the gateway to Richemont

“The environmental aspect was at the heart of the project from the start,” emphasises Marie Chassot. “We wanted to design a brand that meets the contemporary preoccupations of the new generations by using materials differently. Of course, you can’t expect perfection from the word go. This is why we drew up a commitment to gradually move away from materials with a large carbon footprint, or animals, for example. We’ve also organised a recycling cycle. The journey is just beginning!”

Baume offers, for example, straps in natural textiles, upcycled or recycled, such as cork, cotton, flax, alcantara, and recycled PET. Packaging is minimal. Has the new brand calculated the carbon footprint for the production of its watches? “Yes, but you have to agree on what is taken into account, between the processes of manufacturing, then distribution. There isn’t really any standard in this respect. We’re trying to gradually reduce our carbon footprint.” The brand has also set up a partnership with Waste Free Oceans, an organisation that collects plastic waste at sea, in rivers and on beaches.

Baume, the gateway to Richemont

Pure player

In terms of distribution, Baume breaks with convention in that it is only available by ordering it over the Internet, bypassing the classic network of watch distributors and retailers. The brand is a litmus test for the Richemont group, where online initiatives are coming thick and fast – given that entry-level products are always one step ahead of e-commerce and act as a kind of “pilot fish” for what might be the future of luxury brands, as we underscored in our feature last year devoted to the fashion watch segment (read Chapter 3/17 here).

Added to this is the possibility of personalising your watch, which is also part of the current “consumer-creator” trend. The Custom Timepiece series is, for example, entirely personalisable thanks to an online configurator that offers more than 2,000 variants. The basic watch lines closely follow the aesthetic codes of numerous other minimalist brands found, for example, on Kickstarter.

One question springs to mind at the sight of these elegant, understated watches: should Baume not have taken a more original, breakaway stance, rather than following what is already fashion – at the risk, precisely, of going out of fashion fast? That was the strength of the Swatch, which in the 1980s swept everything before it with its unusual design and its use of plastic (read about it here).

Baume, the gateway to Richemont

Baume without Mercier

Two points provoked reactions from the watchmaking ecosystem at the announcement of this bold and unexpected initiative by Richemont: the name – and the origin. Why choose the name of Baume, at the risk of “diluting” or even “devaluing” the image of its larger sibling, Baume & Mercier? Marie Chassot defends the choice: “The Baume brothers created the Baume & Mercier brand and we wanted to retain the affiliation with the spirit of that creation.” But would it be imaginable – albeit at a different level – to see a new brand entitled Patek, Vacheron or Jaeger? The reputation of Baume & Mercier is not comparable, but even so the operation is somewhat ambiguous here.

“Often, we see launches that are big on eco-responsibility but fall short on design”

First and foremost, the name points to an all-Swiss origin. But in actual fact, the Baume watches, non-Swiss-made, are assembled in a subsidiary of Richemont based in the Netherlands – Rotterdam being the largest port in Europe, that makes logistical sense – with Japanese movements from Miyota (Citizen group) for the automatics and from Miyota and Ronda for the quartz. The cases are made in Switzerland, the dials in Mauritius and the straps in Thailand. Certainly, with Swiss mechanical movements the brand ran the risk of overstepping the symbolic barrier of 1,000 francs.

Baume, the gateway to Richemont

“We fully assume the fact that the watches are not Swiss-made,” states Marie Chassot. “I believe that our new customers are looking for a quality watch more than a label. The brand was launched in Los Angeles, because we’re starting to activate it in the United States, which is without a doubt the maturest market today from the perspective of e-commerce for watches. We’re taking it in stages, first of all in the United States, then Europe, in a more global manner. But we’re already shipping the watch to 83 countries, including China.”

The brand, which today is Richemont’s “gateway” brand, has succumbed to a few facile, contemporary temptations that cater to millennial fantasies. For example, one line is called Iconic – somewhat of a cliché for a new brand... Names of the same ilk abound for brands that are springing up from nowhere on the Internet, to the point where the term has become virtually meaningless. With the watchmaking legitimacy of the group to which it belongs, did Baume really need to contribute to this semantic devaluation as well?

More questions than answers

Despite these debatable points, Richemont has the merit of considering the entry-level niche that the Swiss industry has greatly neglected during the past decade. And Baume offers fantastic terrain for experimentation and reflection on the current globalisation of the luxury watch industry.

What compromises can be made between price and the origins of the materials? Is it possible to survive solely online? How to win over the new, highly digitalised generations? Is there still a place for mechanical or quartz watches at the low end of the market, when there seems to be growing segmentation between smartwatches and the “genuine” Swiss-quality mechanical watch? Just like Code 41, this new brand sparks more questions than answers.

Baume, the gateway to Richemont

For example: one burning issue at the moment is “glocalisation”. In that case, should they not rather have gone the whole hog and set up different, local, assembly centres (United States, Europe, Asia), to reduce the carbon footprint by systematically using local products and being transparent about their origin? “We have to wait a while for the carbon footprint to improve thanks to decentralisation,” replies Marie Chassot. “First of all, we have to centralise. It’s a question of critical mass.”

A new way of functioning

The manager is aware that the project is prompting many questions, especially from purists: “Today, we want to respond to calls to consume differently. Baume is in lots of ways a laboratory brand for the group, whether in terms of e-commerce or the management of the future.”

This is because Baume intends to function in a whole new way entitled “Teal” , a scalable organisational paradigm based on the natural environment. The concept was introduced in 2014 by Frédéric Laloux. “We’re setting up a culture of adaptation,” explains Marie Chassot. The participants in the project have a strong sense of responsibility as to its success. It’s a set of consistent practices, no contradiction between the person you are at home or at work. It is already applied in larger structures than ourselves.”

Baume, the gateway to Richemont

Will this organic, horizontal way of functioning set a precedent in a group that has just undertaken a vast restructuring of its top management, which is now also considerably younger?

One line is called Iconic – somewhat of a cliché for a new brand...

The daring move that Baume represents is both risky and fascinating for the number of questions it raises and for the future of the industry We will be following it closely.