Past Master: Guillaume Laidet on Reviving Nivada Grenchen, Excelsior Park, and Vulcain
Today, we chat with the serial entrepreneur who is making a habit of reawakening sleeping giants in the watch world.
Guillaume Laidet is only 37 years old, but he is already something of a watch industry veteran, having cut his teeth in marketing roles at Zenith, Girard-Perregaux, and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Then the Frenchman founded, built up, and sold his own vintage-inspired, affordable watch brand, William L. 1985.
Laidet’s next act was to resurrect historical brands Nivada Grenchen and Excelsior Park to the delight of collectors with a penchant for yesteryear. However, even with that pair of projects keeping him more than busy, Laidet somehow found the time to help bring Vulcain back to life as it prepares to launch a slew of re-editions.
We sat down with the relaxed and amiable entrepreneur who talked us through his journey so far and gave us a hint of what’s to come next.
Guillaume, a simple question to start with: How did you first get into watches?
My father owned an old Omega Constellation that I regularly “borrowed” when I was a youngster. He officially gave it to me as a gift when I graduated from business school. I also found an unbranded vintage chronograph – 36mm, manual-winding – that belonged to my great uncle while we were cleaning out his house.
I opened a box, and there was this dirty watch head without a strap. It hadn’t been serviced since the 1950s but was still working. I got it cleaned and serviced by a watchmaker and began wearing it a lot.
Early in your career, you worked at Zenith, Girard-Perregaux, and Jaeger-LeCoultre in marketing roles. What did you learn from those experiences?
After getting my master’s in marketing and project management in 2010, I was lucky enough to be hired by Zenith CEO Jean-Frédéric Dufour as part of a new team when he set about reviving the brand. I learnt a lot about product development working with Mr. Dufour and product manager Romain Marietta. I then had a year at Girard-Perregaux before spending three years at Jaeger-LeCoultre when Jérôme Lambert was the CEO.
All three of these roles centered on digital communications. I set up Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts, ran Facebook contests and ad campaigns, developed responsive websites and apps, connected with watch blogs that were emerging, and established partnerships with online influencers. I probably sound like a dinosaur now, but it was when all these things were new for the watch industry, which was coming to the online and digital party late. I even pushed for prices to be displayed on the companies’ websites, which was unheard of at the time!
Did you always know you would set up your own watch company?
I knew I wasn’t made to work in big groups forever; I had too much of an entrepreneurial spirit and wanted to work for myself. So I quit Jaeger-LeCoultre in 2015 and launched my own watch brand William L. 1985: Quality, vintage-inspired watches at an affordable price.
The first of these was a tribute to that unbranded chronograph that belonged to my great uncle. I started with quartz movements and later added automatic movements.
I was one of the first to launch a watch brand using Kickstarter. We raised nearly €200,000 in four weeks, and after three and a half years, we had sold 100,000 watches, made a multi-million turnover, and our watches were being sold at 200 stores in 50 countries.
Did William L. 1985’s success come easy?
Not quite. In hindsight, I should have stuck with my original idea of selling directly to customers online rather than going with distributors, which is what we did, and too quickly.
Distributors take a lot of margin and leave you with little profit, especially if the watch is made with affordability for the end customer in mind, like ours was. Distributors can also take a lot of stock. And if they don’t sell it, that can lead to private sales and discounts.
Our Kickstarter campaigns went well. But after Kickstarter takes its commission and bank fees are paid, you don’t earn much profit. After four years, I sold William L. 1985 to a French investor and knew that if I were to start another brand, my strategy would be different.
After you sold William L. 1985, you were soon back in action, reviving Nivada Grenchen. How did that come about?
First, a friend had bought a vintage Chronomaster, and he also showed me a book on the history of Nivada Grenchen: Chronomaster Story by Grégoire Rossier and Anthony Marquié.
I loved the watch. And I learnt about the brand and how it thrived in the 1960s before disappearing with the quartz crisis. I identified it as a sleeping giant that had the potential to be revived.
As it happened, one of my suppliers, Rémi Chabrat of Montrichard Group, knew the Grupo Industrial Omega SA deCV in Mexico, which owned the Nivada Grenchen name. And he helped us acquire the license for it.
The idea was to create re-editions of classic Nivada models that respect the original design, proportions, and specifications as faithfully as possible. We don’t try to reinvent the wheel; we merely do what Nivada was good at.
We started with the legendary Chronomaster – or Chronomaster Aviator Sea Diver, to give it its full name – and have followed that up with the Depthmaster, Antarctic, and now Datomaster. So, we have chronographs, divers, and something more classic-looking.
Following your experience with William L. 1985, what did you do differently with Nivada Grenchen?
This time we didn’t use Kickstarter, and we have no distributors. We managed to launch the Chronomaster through pre-orders and direct sales through our website.
First, we built a community using Instagram and secured reviews on blogs and YouTube. That drove traffic to our website, where fans subscribed to our newsletter. When we announced the Chronomaster was available for pre-order, it was like boom! We got so many orders. And that was even during the early days of the pandemic.
What is new for Nivada Grenchen this year?
We finally got our Antarctic Spider and Super Antarctic in stock this year and our Chronomaster with a tropical dial, which sold out. Soon, we will announce a new Super Antarctic with a tropical dial.
Later this year, we will launch the Depthomatic with an internal depth gauge and the F77 day-date automatic, which has an octagonal, 1970s, Gérald Genta look to it.
One of our Instagram followers shared a picture of it with me. I then shared it as an Instagram story, asking our followers: “What do you think about this?” And there was lots of feedback, so I quickly knew that it was worth making a re-edition.
That’s an easy and effective way to do market research! It is not the first time you’ve used your Instagram community as a sounding board, correct?
I do it quite often. For example, we planned on making more Chronomasters with an automatic movement, but our followers basically told us: “No, we want manual winding!” And, in the end, that is what happened, so 90% of the Chronomasters we have sold are manual winding.
I was lucky to discover Nivada Grenchen watches first-hand at a watch fair. Are trade shows the only way collectors can explore your pieces in-the-metal?
As it happens, we have decided to open with select retailers all over the world. We already have a retailer in Japan, and next year our watches will be available at Watches of Switzerland via Analog/Shift and Sincere Fine Watches in Thailand and Singapore.
We have cut out the distributor and established direct partnerships with the retailers.
Not long after reviving Nivada Grenchen, you were part of a team that relaunched another gem from yesteryear, Excelsior Park. Tell us about that.
When I saw that reviving Nivada Grenchen would work, I tried to identify similar brands with the same potential. And as a vintage watch fan, Excelsior Park had always been on my radar.
I remember learning more about it when I was working at Zenith because Excelsior Park had, at one time, supplied movements to Zenith, Girard-Perregaux, and Gallet. I then owned a few Excelsior Park vintage pieces.
When I checked, the Excelsior Park name and its archive was owned by Tourneau group, who weren’t doing anything with it. I reached out to them and managed to buy it from them. And with Korius group, my business partner in France, we started by launching black, white, and salmon-dialed re-editions of classic Excelsior Park chronographs.
What’s next for this brand?
The chronographs we have launched so far feature rectangular pushers, but we have been working with @shucktheoyster to faithfully create a 50-piece re-edition of Excelsior Park’s pump-pusher chronograph design. I am wearing the prototype as we speak!
And you’re also now involved with Vulcain?
Yes, Vulcain was another brand that I thought could be re-awakened. I got in contact with its Luxembourg-based owners, and they liked what I was doing with Nivada Grenchen and Excelsior Park. So I am working as a consultant to help them revamp their brand strategy and restore Vulcain to its former glory.
For instance, we created collections full of re-editions. We will launch with the 36mm classic Cricket alarm watch with manufacture movement in mid-September. Then, we will release the Nautical, followed by the Real Madrid Monopusher chronograph.
The interest in Vulcain is impressive. It is a much better-known brand compared to Nivada Grenchen and Excelsior Park.
Surely you would love to revamp Universal Genève?
Definitely! If you consider all the sleeping giants out there, Universal Genève is top of the list.
Last year, I inquired about acquiring the rights to Universal Genève from Stelux in Hong Kong but to no avail. They weren’t interested.
You’ve become quite an expert at reviving historical watch brands. What is your recipe for success?
No-one is the smartest in the room. I have been open and curious enough to look at what has worked elsewhere or in the past. Then I try to understand why. Finally, I become inspired by that and then adapt it for myself.
I’ll give you a simple example: Jean-Frédéric Dufour used to often refer to Manfred Rössler’s book Zenith Swiss Watch Manufacture since 1865 while I was working at Zenith. I have been doing something similar with the book Chronomaster Story for Nivada.
I think it helps that I have the experience of working for brands owned by big groups because I can marry that outlook with a micro-brand strategy, taking the best from both.
Also, I have learnt to be a Swiss Army Knife, ready and able to do a whole range of things. Now I know a huge amount about watch production, but I have also had to learn how to close a deal with a retailer or get our brand and watches featured in the media. My days are never the same.
Finally, I had to learn to trust myself. When I quit my well-paid job at Jaeger-LeCoultre, my friends and family said: “What are you doing? You’re living the good life; why risk everything to make a crappy run on Kickstarter?” But I needed to trust myself if I wanted to move forward and follow my dream.
(Photography by Pierre Vogel)