he World Presentation of Haute Horology (WPHH) is when Franck Muller likes to unveil a mindboggling variety of new releases, and this year’s edition was no different. Among the many bold timepieces on show, standout models included the Curvex CX Giga Tourbillon, the Curvex CX Grand Central Flash Tourbillon and the Vanguard Damascus Steel. Prior to the exhibition, the brand gave its unique interpretation of the Year of the Rabbit in the form of the Vanguard Fxxking Rabbits…
Among this slew of novelties, the watches that most caught our eye were three commemorative models, introduced last December for the brand’s thirtieth anniversary. This trio, including a double-sided rattrapante and released in collaboration with Grail Watch, stood out for their classic design − a million miles from the exuberant aesthetic more commonly associated with the brand. Our imagination piqued, we deep-dived into our 1990s archives and sat down with Chief Executive Nicholas Rudaz for a chat about these models, and others.
- Nicholas Rudaz, CEO of Franck Muller
Europa Star: Last December you released a particularly intriguing series of chronographs whose restrained aesthetic reveals a different side of the brand’s heritage.
Nicholas Rudaz: When Franck Muller started out in 1992, he was one of just a handful of watchmakers producing unique and remarkable complications. For the brand’s thirtieth anniversary last year, we went back to our origins and reintroduced three chronographs from these early days, in partnership with Grail Watch. There are always new trends that everyone in the industry follows. Sometimes you’re ahead of the curve, sometimes you’re behind. What’s important is to show how diverse your heritage is. Franck Muller has always defied convention. It’s his hallmark. Back then, putting a tourbillon on the front of a watch, for example, was a purely aesthetic choice and completely unheard of. He only made complications until one day, the wife of an important collector commissioned him to make a watch with no complications at all. He didn’t know what to make of the request; it was completely outside his usual domain. Still, he decided to work on a new case shape inspired by feminine curves, and that became the Cintrée Curvex. A case that also defied convention…
- Franck Muller, grand complications “prodigy”, in Europa Star, shortly after the launch of his brand in the early 1990s. ©Europa Star Archives
Do you plan to release other classic designs alongside the more unconventional models?
People might not realise it, but we offer such a vast range it’s impossible for a customer to say, “Franck Muller’s not for me”. Our models span everything from classic quartz watches at CHF 5,000 to CHF 2.5 million for the Aeternitas, an exceptional piece with 36 complications and 1,483 components, that will keep track of leap years for 999 years. Whereas the market as a whole has been reducing costs and cutting the number of references, we continue to offer the widest possible choice. That’s the advantage of being an independent group.
- For its 30th anniversary, in partnership with Grail Watch, Franck Muller revived a series of elegant, classic chronographs with a 39mm diameter, with bi-compax and tri-compax versions fitted with new old-stock Lemania movements, and a double-sided rattrapante version.
It’s true that, early on, you set out to vertically integrate as much of your production as possible.
Whether you’re developing new complications or buying in materials, having your own timeframe is vital these days − possibly even more so given current lead times.
There was a boom in Swiss watch sales after Covid. You tend to “go it alone” − we don’t often see you exhibiting alongside other brands at fairs, for example. How has it been for you?
We’re in line with that trend and performed well even during Covid. As an independent group, we’re financially solid. We’ve invested heavily in our infrastructure in recent years, without having to rely on banks. And by a twist of fate, in September 2019, just before the pandemic, we took an order from the Middle East for more than seven hundred watches, including a dozen Aeternitas Mega 4. We delivered every single one.
“Premiumisation” is another key trend. Including at Franck Muller?
Rather than focus on the high end of the market, we prefer to maintain a balance between value and volume. This is something we monitor on a daily basis: one country always wants something very different to another. Also, average prices can vary considerably between markets. Globally, our average price is currently CHF 23,000 and has tended to increase slightly due to the popularity of gold and gem-set watches.
How have you handled suspended operations in Russia, where traditionally there is high demand for more exuberant models?
Russia wasn’t a big market for us geographically but Russian spending abroad is, and the Russians are still buying, mainly in Turkey and Dubai. However, we aren’t dependent on tourist spending. During the pandemic, we were pleasantly surprised by how well local consumption held up, despite the absence of Chinese tourists travelling to Europe. Local markets in France, Germany and Italy were stable.
There is still huge untapped potential for the brand in China and the United States. We’re in the process of restructuring our presence in China, a market that has so far been developed by our importer in Hong Kong. We’re also gathering momentum in Southeast Asia, where we are represented by Cortina.
- For the first time ever, the iconic 20mm Giga Tourbillon is housed in a Curvex CX case.
Is Japan still your main market?
Yes. Japan has always been our main market, thanks to the work put in by our local agent. In any market, you’re as good as your agent. Mr Sato met Franck Muller shortly after losing TAG Heuer distribution. He saw the brand’s potential and has done a remarkable job. Now Japanese couples are having Franck Muller-themed weddings! These are complete packages with tableware and decoration inspired by our brand identity. Not forgetting wedding anniversaries. There is a high social status attached to the brand.
We’d like to recreate this in other markets, which implies having excellent relations with local representatives. Whereas other brands are opening their own boutiques, we continue to put our trust in multibrand retailers. Whenever brands pull out of points of sale, they create a gap that we can fill.
- The design of the Curvex CX Grand Central Flash Tourbillon is inspired by futuristic cars.
What about online sales?
They are just a small part of our revenue, including through our distributors. The pandemic boosted e-commerce but for us it also opened up a new opportunity… in chocolate! We had planned to build a new canteen at our site in Genthod but, given the circumstances, this didn’t seem like the best idea. Instead, we used the five hundred square metres to launch the “Chocolaterie de Genthod” chocolate factory. You’d be surprised how many similarities there are with watchmaking. We sell our chocolate online and are looking to build a network of retailers in Switzerland and internationally. Chocolates are also an appropriate gift for our retailers. The quality is excellent. We call it “Haute Chocolaterie”!
Brands are overwhelmed by demand and wait lists are now commonplace. What’s the situation at Franck Muller?
I don’t think this is a good thing. Wait lists are a source of frustration for customers and are perceived as a lack of respect. Our end customers tell us they feel they are being manipulated. It’s also part of marketing. Because we chose to integrate production from the outset, we are pretty much unique in our capacity to respond fast and deliver fast, despite the large number of models we offer. A thousand Franck Muller customers could get together and none of them would be wearing the same watch. Of course, the customer is also acquiring a form of rarity, when we’re talking about production in small quantities.
What are your next challenges?
Keep on pushing the boundaries of watchmaking and run counter to tradition, as we always have done, with the innate creativity of our complications and designs. We’re working hard on integrating new materials, such as LumiNova in carbon. Also, we’re developing models as partnerships, for example with Grail Watch, Bamford or, more recently, the Japanese streetwear label #FR2, for the Year of the Rabbit. These are all initiatives aimed at reaching young generations.
- Created in collaboration with the Tokyo streetwear label #FR2, whose rabbit logo features on the dial, the #FR2NCK MULLER Vanguard arrived just in time for the Year of the Rabbit...