41. time-business


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Chronoswiss, the mechanical purists

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September 2019


Chronoswiss, the mechanical purists

Europa Star has been following the Chronoswiss adventure since it started in 1983. The brand was born in the midst of the quartz crisis with a vision: to revive the appeal of the mechanical watch. It pioneered several elements that have become widely popular today, such as the open caseback, the skeleton watch and the regulator. New owner Oliver Ebstein continues to preserve the legacy of the founder of the brand, while navigating the challenging waters of independent watchmaking.

H

ow to give new life to a brand founded by a visionary watchmaker, but evolving in an increasingly tough environment? This is the challenge that Oliver and Eva Ebstein have had to face on a daily basis since they bought Chronoswiss in 2012. The brand was founded during the quartz crisis by a mechanical watch purist, Gerd-Rüdiger Lang, who had lost his job at Heuer, but not his faith in “timeless” watchmaking.

When he created Chronoswiss in 1983, he started a pioneering adventure by launching several innovations that have become almost mainstream in the watch industry today: the open caseback, the skeleton watch and the regulator, which remains the signature of the brand to this day.

More than 30 years later, the mechanical watch is back in centre stage, just as Gerd-Rüdiger Lang had predicted. A new wave of independent watchmakers has even emerged since the new millennium. But it doesn’t make the task of the new owners any easier. Quite the opposite, as the gap between the biggest watch brands and their followers continues to widen.

Flying Grand Regulator Open Gear ReSec
Flying Grand Regulator Open Gear ReSec
Chronoswiss also launched a bitcoin-dedicated timepiece last year.
Chronoswiss also launched a bitcoin-dedicated timepiece last year.

Oliver Ebstein, committed to respecting the legacy of the founding father while giving the brand a more contemporary twist, told us his fascinating story, with the support of Europa Star’s own archives.

Oliver Ebstein, CEO of Chronoswiss, at the brand's headquarters in Lucerne.
Oliver Ebstein, CEO of Chronoswiss, at the brand’s headquarters in Lucerne.

Europa Star: Chronoswiss started up in 1983, which is unusual, as it was a time of industrial crisis for Swiss watch companies. Many brands were closing their doors!

Oliver Ebstein: Before founding Chronoswiss, Gerd-Rüdiger Lang actually worked as a master watchmaker at Heuer during the 1980s. However, it was indeed the height of the quartz crisis and he had to leave the company. The only compensation he received was a set of spare parts. As he still believed in a future for mechanical timepieces, despite the ongoing crisis in the industry, he decided to launch his own watch company. He started producing Chronoswiss timepieces with the help of his wife, in their garage, using the components he had managed to save from Heuer! His goal was to revive the fascination for mechanical watches.

 “Chronoswiss remains faithful to the mechanical movement”, reads this 1988 report in Europa Star. Since its founding at the height of the quartz crisis, the vision of the brand has been to restore the prestige of the mechanical timepiece. In those days, it was a matter of survival for these types of watches!
“Chronoswiss remains faithful to the mechanical movement”, reads this 1988 report in Europa Star. Since its founding at the height of the quartz crisis, the vision of the brand has been to restore the prestige of the mechanical timepiece. In those days, it was a matter of survival for these types of watches!
© Europa Star Archives

What did the first Chronoswiss watches look like?

A distinctive feature in the first generation of timepieces was their open-backed case. It was meant to increase the awareness among customers of the beauty of a mechanical calibre, versus a quartz movement. Back then, unlike today, it was rare for watches to have an open caseback. As a pioneer, he probably should have patented it! But he was more into design and technology than pure business. Another innovation he introduced with the Opus line was a skeletonised watch, another category of timepieces that were much less common then than they are today. A third milestone for Chronoswiss was the Regulator of 1988, a unique display which he adapted to a wristwatch. Gerd-Rüdiger Lang made it a key element for the brand.

Another pioneering speciality of Chronoswiss was the art of skeletonisation, visible in its other flagship line, the Opus (today renamed Sirius).
Another pioneering speciality of Chronoswiss was the art of skeletonisation, visible in its other flagship line, the Opus (today renamed Sirius).
© Europa Star Archives
Sirius Chronograph Skeleton
Sirius Chronograph Skeleton

“The only compensation Gerd-Rüdiger Lang received after leaving Heuer was a set of spare parts. As he still believed in a future for the mechanical timepiece, despite the ongoing crisis in the industry, he decided to launch his own watch company in 1983, Chronoswiss.”

In 2012, you and your wife bought the company from Gerd-Rüdiger Lang, and started a new era for Chronoswiss. How did that come about?

At the time, I actually didn’t know Mr Lang personally. But as I grew up in Zurich in a family of watch aficionados during the quartz crisis, watchmaking was often a topic of discussion at home. And we regularly talked about Gerd-Rüdiger Lang’s efforts to revive the mechanical watch. So I had followed him for a long time. One of the first watches I bought was actually a Chronoswiss. I worked in the banking and pharmaceutical industries. When I finally met Mr Lang in 2011, we talked about watches, philosophy, time... He understood my passion for mechanical watches and was looking for someone to take over the company. Five months later, we signed the contract.

 An interview with Gerd-Rüdiger Lang from 1998, in Europa Star.
An interview with Gerd-Rüdiger Lang from 1998, in Europa Star.
© Europa Star Archives

What has been your strategy since you took over Chronoswiss?

When we started in 2012, the business situation was not good, and the company had been restructuring in the aftermath of the financial crisis. At the time, Chronoswiss had about 150 different references and worked with 60 suppliers. It was too complicated. Our first task was thus to change the supply chain, as well as the distribution. When you come up with a new story and a new vision, some partners are ready to come on board, and others are not. Another important decision, in 2014, was to move all the facilities, which were previously scattered between several places, to our headquarters in Lucerne. Outside of Switzerland, we maintain one subsidiary for logistics in Germany and another one in Hong Kong for after-sales. Once this was completed, about four years ago, we could really start to focus on the redesign of the timepieces.

“An important decision, in 2014, was to move all the facilities, which were previously scattered between several places, to our headquarters in Lucerne.”

How have the product lines evolved since then?

We are concentrating on the Regulator as a distinctive feature in a highly competitive landscape. We’re trying to develop this display by giving it a more contemporary look. An inspiration for me is how Porsche has adapted its iconic 911, keeping the basic idea but giving it a contemporary appeal. The design of the Regulator had not changed for several decades and the customer base was mostly people in their 50s or 60s. With the redesign, we have succeeded in reaching a younger audience too. Besides the Regulator, we have kept some more traditional-looking fine mechanical timepieces in our collections, such as the Sirius.

What is the core price range for Chronoswiss?

Between 5,000 and 8,000 dollars.

Oliver and Eva Ebstein took over the company in 2012. “Gerd-Rüdiger Lang refused to sell Chronoswiss to any company or third party he felt would simply buy the name and completely change the brand's DNA and raison d'être: manufacturing quality mechanical watches. Oliver and Eva Ebstein convinced him of their sincerity to do just that,” we wrote at the time.
Oliver and Eva Ebstein took over the company in 2012. “Gerd-Rüdiger Lang refused to sell Chronoswiss to any company or third party he felt would simply buy the name and completely change the brand’s DNA and raison d’être: manufacturing quality mechanical watches. Oliver and Eva Ebstein convinced him of their sincerity to do just that,” we wrote at the time.
© Europa Star Archives

How do you operate as far as the calibre is concerned?

We work with ETA or use vintage calibres as a base, which we adapt and redecorate to build the complications such as the regulator or the jumping hour. As mentioned, the supply chain has been streamlined in recent years, and today we work with about twenty suppliers, most of them family businesses.

Where are the most important markets for Chronoswiss today?

We have also reduced the number of points of sale since we took over, to about 130 worldwide, and we are still cutting down the distribution network. In my view, a big country doesn’t need more than 4 to 5 points of sale for Chronoswiss. So it’s all about creating the right connection with the right partner, as a small company. We concentrate on Europe, which was already the most important area when we took over the company. The core of our sales take place in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Our new target is the USA, where we started working with a new distribution partner two years ago. Two other growing markets are Japan and Singapore.

What about e-commerce?

We launched our online store three years ago. Our intention is not to create competition for our partners. Rather, we view it as an important source of information and dialogue with our customers.

 “Export has increased by approximately 50 per cent,” declared the owner of Chronoswiss Gerd-Rüdiger Lang in 1994 to Europa Star. Today, in a totally reconfigured watch market, the brand's stronghold is in Europe.
“Export has increased by approximately 50 per cent,” declared the owner of Chronoswiss Gerd-Rüdiger Lang in 1994 to Europa Star. Today, in a totally reconfigured watch market, the brand’s stronghold is in Europe.
© Europa Star Archives

Could you share the biggest challenges you face as an independent watch brand?

The daily challenge is communication. I think that we offer very attractive products at the correct price, but getting the message to the end client is not easy. What this requires primarily is for sales staff to really understand our products, so that they can convey our identity, our history, our vision... The pitch must be right in order to attract customers who already have two or three watches, and want something different. Some bigger watch brands are abandoning traditional retailers, which may create new opportunities for us, but at the same time it puts enormous pressure on potential points of sale. It’s very hard out there.

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