Right Watch, Right Time: The Schwarz Etienne Roma Synergy by Kari Voutilainen
Watchonista chats with Schwarz Etienne’s CEO Mauro Egermini about how the brand’s co-signed creation with Kari Voutilainen not only saved the La Chaux-de-Fonds-based company during uncertain times but also helped propel it to the next level.
When COVID-19 hit Europe at the beginning of 2020, Schwarz Etienne’s CEO Mauro Egermini was one of many Swiss watch industry chiefs bracing himself for the worst on the business front. With production halted and retailers shut because of enforced lockdowns, the survival of the small independent watch brand he had led since 2015 appeared in serious jeopardy.
Despite the bleak outlook, Egermini had an ace in the hole: He and his team had been working on the Roma Synergy, a co-signed creation with acclaimed watchmaker and friend of the brand Kari Voutilainen, scheduled for launch later that year. And Voutilainen had been tasked with imparting some of his dial and decoration magic to Schwarz Etienne’s Roma model featuring the in-house automatic ASE 200.00 calibre.
Recently, Egermini sat down with Watchonista to talk to us about how the Roma Synergy came to be and how its success helped Schwarz Etienne survive troubled times while also providing a springboard for it to thrive.
When Schwarz Etienne launched the Roma Synergy in the second half of 2020, it was a challenging time, as much of the world had just come out of lockdown or was about to enter a second round of lockdowns. What was your reaction when COVID-19 first struck Europe?
The truth is, by July 2020, I was genuinely worried for the future of our employees. After four months of confinement and lockdowns, I honestly feared that Schwarz Etienne might not be there at the end of that year.
Our production had been delayed; we didn’t have a movement ready, so we couldn’t make anything to sell. Also, our retailers had been forced to shut. So collectors couldn’t buy our watches, and we weren’t sure if they would buy online. So, the signs weren’t good at all. We also make and modify movements for other brands, but even then, it was difficult to tell if our private-label operation, La Division du Temps, would survive.
Luckily you had the Roma Synergy waiting in the wings…
When we began working with Kari on this collaboration in 2019, we always planned to launch the watch in the second half of 2020. The launch was a bit delayed because of production delays, but we eventually managed to release it.
Tell us how this collaboration came about.
It all began at Salon QP in London in 2017, where both Schwarz Etienne and Voutilainen were exhibiting.
One evening, I saw Kari heading off. I obviously knew his work and had a lot of respect for him. I asked if he wanted to join us, and a few other independent brands, for dinner. He came along, and we got on very well, discovering that we share a similar outlook.
About a year later, we both exhibited at a watch fair in Luxembourg, where he, the Grönefeld brothers, and I had dinner each evening and spent a great time together.
Then, one evening during the final 2018 edition of Salon QP, just before midnight, Kari and I were having dinner again, and I said to him: “Kari, I’d like to add a bit of classicism to our watches. Would you like to do a collaboration with us, bringing your classical touch?” I told him to think about it and that there was no obligation. Then I told him that, for me, the appeal was to do something based on friendship, not on business.
He got back to me a couple of weeks later to tell me he was in! I was thrilled.
Was the creation of the Roma Synergy Schwarz Etienne’s first collaboration? How did the working relationship take shape?
Yes, that was the first time we collaborated with another watchmaker, and I asked Kari how he could add his touch to our dial and movement.
We both worked on the dial design. The dial has five parts, and Kari reworked these while I designed the three hand-guilloche patterns that Kari’s team executed using a rose engine lathe.
In the end, there were fish scales on the dial center, waves on the small seconds, and a sun motif on the chapter ring. The idea was that the dial could lend itself to our own limited editions but also to customized editions later on.
For the movement, in addition to perlage on the ratchet wheel and frosting on the micro-rotor, Kari proposed a sunray hand-guilloche decoration on the bridges, something rarely found.
At first, I was worried that it might be a little too busy, with guilloche on both the dial and movement. But after seeing the prototype, I thought it looked superb, so we continued going in this direction. Meanwhile, the Schwarz Etienne team worked on refining the design of the stainless-steel case to make it smaller – 39mm instead of 42mm – and more classical looking.
What was collector reaction when you unveiled the Roma Synergy to the public?
In 2015, we relaunched Schwarz Etienne, if you will, when we unveiled our first in-house movements. And in those first five years, we steadily built up interest in and demand for our watches.
But the Roma Synergy was something else. I had never witnessed a reaction like that to one of our watches. After running a teaser campaign on social media, we revealed two 50-piece limited editions, with solid silver dials in sand gray and ocean blue, priced at CHF 27,400. The number of email inquiries we received from collectors was simply incredible. We had set aside capacity to make an initial batch of 30 pieces before the end of 2020, but orders far exceeded this.
Then, one collector asked if he could have a bespoke piece made for him, with a cherry-red dial, which we – and Kari – were happy and able to make. After we released images of it, we received several requests for customized pieces – unique pieces or special limited editions – from individual collectors, watch clubs, and retailers, asking for different dial hues, sometimes paired with different numerals.
How has the Roma Synergy’s success impacted Schwarz Etienne?
Since we relaunched in 2015, we have had more and more interest from collectors, retailers, and journalists each year.
But, with the Roma Synergy, it has definitely helped us to expand our audience. We went from being at the back of the stage to suddenly being at the front with the spotlight in our face. Collectors and retailers have come to us saying: “Wow, what you’re doing is impressive. We didn’t even know that you existed!”
Moreover, the Roma Synergy has encouraged collectors to discover other models in our collection. And while we have received many orders for the Roma Synergy, we have also got orders for our La Chaux-de-Fonds tourbillon, Roswell micro-rotor, and Fiji ladies’ watches.
The result is we have nearly doubled the number of watches we have been making each year, from between 200 and 300 pieces in 2020 to 500 to 600 in 2022.
Now, the challenge is to keep up with demand! And rather than having to lay off employees, as I feared I would have to do in 2020, we have needed to expand our team from 15 to 25 people. We’ll probably need to employ even more people next year.
Given its resounding success, are collectors still able to buy the Roma Synergy, or is it sold out?
We’ve allocated all hundred pieces of the limited editions with the sand gray and ocean blue dial to individuals and retailers. We have also agreed to make a final Roma Synergy special limited edition for one of our retailers. We’re delivering all final pieces of the Roma Synergy over the coming year.
That isn’t to say there aren’t one or two pieces that haven’t been snapped-up yet, and of course, there are some special editions for our retailers that have not yet been publicized.
So, if collectors are interested in the Roma Synergy, they should get in touch with us. We can point them in the direction of their nearest Schwarz Etienne retailer or one of our retailers that has a piece available for purchase.
With all this growth, can you tell us what is next for Schwarz Etienne?
Well, before the end of this year, we will launch two new limited editions of the Roswell 08, our model with an innovative, rapid date corrector.
And then next year, after finishing our collaboration with Kari, we will unveil a new co-signed creation that we are working on. It will be with another highly respected watchmaker who will help us reinterpret our Roswell timepiece.
Called the Roswell Synergy, it will feature a very original moonphase indication, mechanically speaking. And it will be housed in a smaller case: 40mm in diameter instead of the usual 45mm. The Roswell already has a technical and avant-garde aesthetic – a bit like a UFO – and I can assure you that this new interpretation will look even more out of this world!
For more information, please visit Schwarz Etienne’s website.
(Photography by Pierre Vogel)