7 Watch Execs On The State Of The Watch Industry In 2021

7 Watch Execs On The State Of The Watch Industry In 2021

We spoke to seven watch executives during Watches & Wonders Geneva about their latest timepieces, the buzz around independent watchmaking, and what the pandemic has taught them.

By Victoria Gomelsky

In the spring of 2020, watchmakers, like most people, were extremely anxious about the future. Was there a point to selling luxury timepieces during a pandemic? Many wondered, privately, if the industry would survive the global health crisis.

A year on, it’s clear that most luxury watch brands have done more than merely endure the pandemic. Swiss watch exports and sales are down, but not across the board; some brands are, in fact, having their best years ever. (Here’s looking at you, Mr. Meylan.)

We spoke to seven leading watch executives on the eve of last week’s virtual Watches & Wonders 2021 fair about a number of timely topics, from the highlights of their 2021 collections to how COVID-19 has shaped marketing strategies.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Catherine Rénier, CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre. “There is an energy we can sense from this Watches & Wonders. That energy shows that nothing has slowed down in terms of our willingness to create and to innovate.”

Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari

“Believe it or not, we are above 2019 in both watches and jewelry, which is mind-blowing having in mind that Bulgari was particularly exposed to travel retail. Bulgari had a vision before I joined that airports could become luxurious shopping centers. As a consequence, we have a higher share of our business in travel retail. Obviously, for us, the stoppage of travel retail has been a huge challenge compared to some other brands.

“However, thanks to the incredible work done by our team, especially in the U.S., which has been just mind-blowing — very high double-digit growth, combining one-on-one [appointments] with clients with a lot of activities to drive traffic to e-commerce — we are having strong growth. And in Q1, that has offset travel retail.

“We have at last refocused all our energies, our patience, on local clients. And the strength of a brand is the ability to be deeply rooted with local clientele because travel retail is always volatile. It could be COVID; it could be exchange rates; it could be political tensions. COVID has been the opportunity to remix totally our split, which makes us quite optimistic. Because when travel retail restarts later this year, we will benefit from what we do locally. Then it becomes the cherry on the cake.”

Stéphane Waser, Managing Director of Maurice Lacroix 

“At watch fairs, you used to present watches, but you’d put embargos on them. It was quite confusing, and some news got out. It was a bit counterproductive. At Maurice Lacroix, we started rethinking our whole launch strategy two years ago. The only thing the pandemic changed was the execution. Before, we did some launches digitally, but there was also a physical part. With pandemic, we went fully digital.

“2020 was very good for us. Digital has been good to us. Since 2016, we have been focusing much more on millennials, hence a younger target group than we used to have. To reach these people, we’re investing more in social media and digital. Most of our partners all have a digital solution in place. More than 30% of our sales are through an online channel, not counting eBay and Chrono24.”

Sascha Moeri, CEO of Carl F. Bucherer

“At Watches & Wonders, we introduced the most complicated watch we’ve ever launched: the Manero Minute Repeater Symphony, which has three peripheral movement elements: the rotor, the regulator, and a tourbillon.

“I wanted to wait until we had the right platform. The piece is around $400,000; some [gem-set] versions will be half a million. We worked on it for five years; the movement has more than 600 components. It’s a really new product: new straps, new hands, new case, new buckle, a completely new watch. It was one of the novelties I was holding back [from 2020] because this needs a global audience, and Watches & Wonders was the exact right platform.”

Pierre Jacques, CEO of De Bethune

“I don’t want to be too optimistic — I always have my feet on the ground — but this year, and the new decade, is for independents. ‘A big vacuum cannot vacuum in the corner.’ And for a small independent like us, we can easily take this audience that wants something different and special. If you do the right product, not crazy — De Bethune is only making 200 watches a year — the world is big. To find 200 customers, it’s challenging but not that challenging.”

Edouard Meylan, CEO of H. Moser & Cie.

“The first quarter of 2021 was by far the best quarter we ever had. Today we are ahead of April last year. This momentum behind independent brands and the craze around difficult-to-get products — it’s addictive. Once they get their [Royal Oak] Jumbo, their 5711, what’s next? They go to a handful of brands like ours.

“We’re feeling this massive wave, coming from the U.S. Today, the main parameter, especially in the U.S. market, is ‘What’s the resale price?’ We now have the Streamliner trading at 22-25% above retail. The Swiss Alp Watch is selling above retail. I think the independent brands are next. Because of our small quantities, increase in demand, people have identified independents as the next big thing. ‘Will this company still be there?’ used to be the main concern. But if they believe we will [be there], then we break the glass ceiling.”

Laurent Lecamp, Managing Director of Watches at Montblanc

“In 2008, [the explorer] Reinhold Messner decided to cross the Gobi Desert. It took him about five weeks. Temperatures can be as low as minus 40 and as hot as plus 40. He had a Camelback with 40 liters of water. And he was alone.

“The 1858 Geosphere Limited Edition watch is like a mirror of all the colors he observed when he was crossing the desert: the bezel, the dial, the hands, even the bronze case, all of them remind you of those colors.

“It is not a watch; this is a book. And it is chapter one. It’s about colors, crossing, exploration. The caseback is chapter two. It’s the first time you see such a detailed image on a large surface [featuring the Flaming Cliffs, an archaeological site in the Gobi]. The caseback is in titanium, and we have generated the colors using only a laser, which means the depths and contours are all generated by laser oxidation. That’s really unique.”

Catherine Rénier, CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre

“I feel stronger after this year. Having gone through what we had to face just 12 months ago, without any knowledge about what the future would be. When all your stores were closed and the manufacture shut down. And you didn’t know what would be next — managing it day by day with the team in a very pragmatic, agile, and somewhat positive way. When we could keep the energy going with the team, building projects we could sustain despite the challenges we were facing. Once we see where we are today and what we have accomplished, honestly, you feel confident. Are we stronger? Have we learned something? Are we proud of what we accomplished? Definitely.

“This week of Watches & Wonders has put this even more in light. We came here after a year of the pandemic with fantastic products, fantastic energy, and you’re like, ok, this is good. Watches are strong; they’re appealing. The history and heritage of what we do means a lot — even more today, probably.”

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