Is the luxury watch industry being innovative enough? Why is the past so seductive to the modern watch aficionado? Is the rise of vintage-inspired timepieces killing innovation? There are many ways to look at it and even leading chief executives are divided on the issue. We speak to seven of the most prominent CEOs in the industry to mine their thoughts.
As a brand that appeals to a vast audience, Omega has a solid collection of crowd-pleasers, the Constellation being one stellar example, but it also has a strong fan base perpetually crazy for iconic models from the Speedmaster and Seamaster lines. Producing an estimated 700,000 watches per year, Omega has also charmed fervent collectors with special tribute watches, the most prominent one being the 2017 Speedy Tuesday limited edition, which has a vintage-inspired design and sold out via Instagram in less than five hours. But to Omega, vintage watches aren’t so much a trend as they are an homage.
To Omega, vintage watches aren’t so much a trend as they are an homage.
CEO, Raynald Aeschlimann:
“If I think about the success of Speedy Tuesday, I’m very proud of the whole team because we weren’t just selling a new watch. We were selling a new watch to this specific community. We were talking to them directly, and within hours we sold all 2,012 pieces. The guys in this community follow us on Instagram and are passionate about it. People buy Speedy Tuesday not for speculation but out of passion. When they couldn’t get it they were upset. But they don’t go and say ‘I’m going to buy something else.’ No. They want that one.
#SpeedyTuesday / #GotMySpeedyTuesday He created #SpeedyTuesday and now he's got the tribute watch! Robert-Jan Broer from @Fratellowatches receives his Speedy Tuesday from OMEGA President and CEO, Raynald Aeschlimann, at our HQ in Switzerland. #omega #omegawatches #watch #watches #omegaspeedmaster #speedmaster #chronograph #limitededition #speedy #tuesday #community #fans #fratellowatches #design #lifestyle #wristshot #whatsonmywrist #womw #watchesofinstagram #watchfam #watchoftheday #watchgeek #OMEGAmychoice
“Vintage-inspired is typical of these days. There are opportunities here if done well. First you have the legacy of the past obviously. Secondly, don’t just approach it as a trend. I think this is something that has to stay, as in heritage, and we have a great opportunity here that’s not quite found in the fashion or car industry. Last year we had the Trilogy set where we made the watches using IRM (interference reflection microscopy) which allowed us to make them 100 per cent identical. This year, we have made what I can call historical pieces which are not merely vintage because vintage is more about getting the old style.
“The Seamaster 1948 celebrates 70 years of the Seamaster. During WW2 we delivered 110,000 watches to the British Royal Air Force and these new models are reeditions of those watches that made history. There are some contemporary features such as a larger case size but the spirit of the historical pieces are very much still intact. This is about being inspired by an incredible history.
“Vintage-inspired watches as a fashion, where everything is made in brown, comes with an old-fashioned dial, and et cetera, I think that will end some day because fashion will change. Celebrating history by creating modern watches with the spirit of the old days, I think that will continue forever. This is the magic of the watch industry. It’s a question of taste. It’s a question of history. It’s a question of wearing that means something to you. I think that vintage in the fashion industry might move on but in our case we’ll continue to celebrate our past because we have so much to say.
Vintage-inspired watches as a fashion, where everything is made in brown, comes with an old-fashioned dial, and et cetera, I think that will end some day because fashion will change. Celebrating history by creating modern watches with the spirit of the old days, I think that will continue forever.
“In term of innovation, what we’ve done lately relates to the Master Chronometer certification. What is the Master Chronometer certification? It’s not just about precision as a chronometer. It’s more than that. To begin, we certify the complete watch, meaning what you buy, in any store in the world, had been certified by an independent organisation on precision, 0 to 5 seconds per day, waterproofness, depends on which watch, and also magnetism. A watch is an instrument, as well as an accessory, so you want it to be very precise. You want the soul of the watch to be the soul of precision. That’s where the Swiss industry should go, by bringing the watch into the 21st century, where we’re surrounded by a lot of new things. We have to go into certifying, giving the best value to our customers. That’s where the future should be.”
Great things have been coming from Bulgari in recent years and not one of them is a historical remake. Indeed, the Swiss-Italian giant has been making some of the most innovative and contemporary timepieces in the industry. Specifically, the Octo has made much headway into the collector’s consciousness as a truly legitimate watch combining elegance with technical and design creativity. Perhaps it’s because of Bulgari’s natural strength in aesthetics that the company never needs to replicate historical products.
Perhaps it’s because of Bulgari’s natural strength in aesthetics that the company never needs to replicate historical products.
CEO, Jean-Christophe Babin:
“In the field of watchmaking where most brands are pure Swiss players, the fact that we’re from Italy, from Rome, which is probably in terms of architectural treasures one of the richest on the planet and not only for antique times but also more recently, we have in our genes this obsession for pioneering design. It shows very much if you look at the new Octo Minute Repeater. It looks like a UFO, something you may not easily imagine.
Already as a watch it’s extraordinary. Then you discover it’s a minute repeater. It departs a lot from 99 per cent of the repeaters which are often in cases and dials dating back to the 19th century. We prefer a vision of the minute repeater which comes from the future.
We have in our genes this obsession for pioneering design.
“This year Bulgari is celebrating 100 years of jewellery watchmaking. We started the first watch in 1918, that’s a very long time ago. But rather than replicating the piece, a diamond and platinum watch, which was designed by our founder Sotirio Bulgari, we come with the Diva Finissima which is a totally innovative watch. It’s the thinnest automatic minute repeater jewellery watch. So we have tried 100 years later, rather than just replicating a watch that had been our starting point, to celebrate that watch with our own vision of a ladies watch for the 21st century. This is the way of Bulgari. I wouldn’t imagine myself doing a watch of 1918.
“I think it’s important that we bring something new to Swiss watchmaking. We are bringing an innovative minute repeater in an ultrathin case, which itself because of the weight is further stressing this very technological and aesthetical dimension. This really gives it a true reason for being. It’s not one minute repeater amongst 10 others. It’s a new generation watch that’s also a repeater, and it very much expresses our innovative spirit not only technically with the movement but also with the material. Carbon is a technical challenge. You can imagine the resonance in terms of acoustics in carbon is not at all the first thing that would cross your mind. So here you have as much aesthetic innovation as you have technological innovation. Technology is not limited to movement. Carbon layering itself is highly technological.”
Mining its long history for inspiration has proven to be a successful strategy for Longines. The brand has spent the last six to seven years producing limited edition tribute watches which were enthusiastically received by collectors, who find the price to quality ratio difficult to resist. Intriguingly, the brand has a markedly different perspective on the vintage trend, acknowledging its meteoric rise and impact on the market but also maintaining that it is just a small percentage of its 1.5 million watches per year annual production. Perhaps as proof of Longines’ strength with vintage reissues, its Avigation BigEye took home the Revival Watch Prize at the 2017 Grand Prix de la Haute Horlogerie de Geneve.
Longines has a markedly different perspective on the vintage trend, acknowledging its meteoric rise and impact on the market, but also maintaining that it is just a small percentage of its 1.5 million watches per year annual production.
CEO, Walter von Känel:
“I started looking at heritage pieces in 1987. We made the Lindbergh 1928-1988 because it was the 60th anniversary. Next we relaunched the Heritage 1954 and 1957, and step by step the Heritage collection was formed. Some of our watches we have to keep no matter what the sales are.
Watches like the Weems, the Avigation… We keep them because they’re part of our history, proof that we were probably the real brand in navigation. The Heritage 1954 however has been amended with sapphire crystal and slightly bigger because we don’t have the old movements anymore. The Flagship 1957 is our biggest star, we sell about 7,000 pieces a year. Yet not all are successful. There is this piece that is inspired by a piece from 1969. I pushed to do it but it was a flop. (Laughs)
“But I won’t make exclusive movements for these watches. We already have a fantastic movement assortment. Also exclusive movements are expensive. Remember, this company is 1.5 million pieces per year. That’s between nine and 10 thousand a day. I agree to do heritage but using existing calibres. The collections are doing very well. At the Grand Prix de la Haute Horlogerie de Geneve we got the vintage prize.
“I insist that we produce less than before. I keep the main core and I accept the volume for heritage pieces won’t be big. The Flagship is the only exception. Having history, having heritage, having a museum, having archives, having great document allow us to tell the truth. We’re not a brand building heritage without heritage. Every year we will have some, but that’s it. They’re below five per cent of my business.
Having history, having heritage, having a museum, having archives, having great document allow us to tell the truth. We’re not a brand building heritage without heritage.
“These watches appear to be very hot but the market still wants basic models. For example, diving watches are suddenly huge in China and suddenly I have to produce 200,000 watches there. So it’s not all about heritage watches. This is a journalist thinking. The truth is 90 per cent of my business are basic models, which is very profitable and we’re probably number three now in the watch industry in terms of consolidated turnover. Heritage we love of course, it’s food for the press, but it’s not a big volume and that’s the truth.
Heritage we love of course, it’s food for the press, but it’s not a big volume and that’s the truth.
“We are the king in our pricing segment. We dominate it. That’s my territory. We can control our market share and we can exactly measure it because the statistics are based on consumer by price segment. With the big brands like Rolex, Omega, Longines, Tissot, the change is not what you think. Look at what we’ve introduced here in Basel, this Master collection is 344,000 pieces per year which is not peanuts business. We introduced two annual calendars and retailers get crazy on it.
“There is no factory boss stupid enough to kill winners. If you have very good stuff, why should you kill them? We introduce new things here and there like the Conquest VHP, which is big volume here, very big volume. We keep the diving watch with aluminium turning bezel but we now add a ceramic insert, but it’s not what you think in my company, and we’re number three in this industry.”
The first part of its name stands for techniques avant-garde, so it stands to follow that TAG Heure is a brand rooted in innovation. For the most part yes, but there had been some directional changes lately, especially since the legendary Jean-Claude Biver has been standing at its helm. TAG Heuer made great inroads into ultra-precise timekeeping with hundredths of a second to thousandths of a second chronographs but arguably those products have not been true to its core segment. Under a new management, there is a clearer sense of identity, one that balances its rich heritage with meaningful innovation.
CEO, Jean-Claude Biver:
“Yes vintage watches are a big trend, and no it’s not a good trend. The trend to repeat yesterday is not a good trend. Why? Because we cannot go forward by repeating yesterday. It’s a trend that shows people are hesitating, that people don’t know what is tomorrow. And when you don’t see tomorrow, where do you look? You look to yesterday.
The trend to repeat yesterday is not a good trend. Why? Because we cannot go forward by repeating yesterday.
“It’s not necessarily a good trend but on the other hand, before going to tomorrow, you must understand yesterday. If you understand history, you can understand the future. I think it’s a trend that comes from millennials who need to connect first to yesterday before they can go to tomorrow, so it’s a trend that I can understand. But it’s not a trend that will last. That is probably the most important thing to say. That it’s a trend that’s necessary for the millennials but it’s not a trend on which you can build the next 10 years.
I think it’s a trend that comes from millennials who need to connect first to yesterday before they can go to tomorrow, so it’s a trend that I can understand. But it’s not a trend that will last.
“Building the next 10 or more years is the job of visionaires. You must project, you must take risks, you must innovate, you must create. This is what has to be done. To do this you need people with courage. Courage to be wrong, courage to see different, etc.
“If you want to be successful, you must be first, different, and unique. You cannot be first, different, and unique without taking risks. If I want to be unique, I cannot copy others. If I want to be first, I cannot be behind anybody. Being first, different, and unique positions you, gives you immediately the highest risk factor. First, different, and unique has the highest risk factor but it’s also the best way to win. If you’re first, different, and unique, how can you lose?
“If the message of your brand is to repeat tradition, then you should repeat tradition. If the message of your brand is to be disruptive, and you repeat tradition, then you’re wrong because you’re not fulfilling the message of the brand. Every brand has its own message and every brand has to adapt its philosophy, management to this message. Message of TAG Heuer is techniques avant-garde. We want to be a young dynamic brand. Therefore what we do is right for the DNA of TAG Heuer, which will probably be wrong for the DNA of Zenith for instance, because Zenith has a completely different message.
“Companies today have to adapt their message. They also have to adapt to the customer. They have to communicate to the customer in their language and by language I mean tattoo or music or fashion, etc. I use language as a global definition of the behaviour. Adapting and speaking in the language of the new generation is sometimes the most difficult thing because not everybody can accept.
Companies today have to adapt their message. They also have to adapt to the customer.
"Here’s an example: Catholicism in the 60s decided to stop celebrating its ceremonies in Latin because not enough people understand Latin. All the old guards started whining. Come on, stop it, that language which nobody understands, why do you even need it? Language is something that people understand so it’s better to use French in France, German in Germany, etc. This way you will drive more people to come to church because they understand. See what I mean? Adapting the language is the key to newer younger audiences.”
Between vintage and innovation, it is obvious that Zenith sits squarely in camp innovation. Just look at its latest invention revealed in 2017, the Zenith Oscillator, which is probably the most innovative creation since Breguet invented the tourbillon. This Le Locle manufacture is an old brand but there always is a pioneering spirit whether it’s in producing and sustaining the world’s first high frequency self-winding chronograph El Primero or in something as fundamental as establishing the Swiss watch industry’s first integrated watch manufacture. The brand has also undergone a shift in management direction and now finds itself straddling its glorious past with a dynamic future.
Revealed in 2017, the Zenith Oscillator is probably the most innovative creation since Breguet invented the tourbillon.
CEO, Julian Tornare:
“I think the vintage trend is a style and that’s linked to the fact that everything is going so fast that people need to feel attached to something from the past. But vintage is actually contemporary because it is cool now; it’s not something for old people. They are trendy now but I don’t know about five or 10 years’ time. Maybe it will go away and then come back… it always comes back.
“Lots of things have been done and redone. I would not present it that way. We don’t repeat the past. We get inspiration from the past but we do it in contemporary way, for the 21st century. The Defy is a perfect example.
Its name came from the 60s and the shape from the 70s as the second generation of El Primero. So El Primero becomes El Primero 21 because it’s measuring 100th of a second. We got inspiration from the past but we don’t do a replica, we create something more.
We don’t repeat the past. We get inspiration from the past but we do it in contemporary way, for the 21st century.
“I’m Swiss so I can say it. Swiss watchmaking sometimes a little too repetitive. Repeating complications invented hundred years ago or more, same designs and same things… I believe that for people today everything goes fast so you need to continue to move on. Chronometry is our field. The oscillator for example is about precision, also our field of expertise. We want to stay in our field of expertise but create and keep moving forward.
“In today’s world, we’re turning this industry a little bit into a museum industry if we continue to be in the past and repetitive. People will be bored, the new generation, and they won’t care anymore. The way I believe is you start from your history, you stay in your DNA, you don’t do too crazy things, but you use the past to build the future.
We’re turning this industry a little bit into a museum industry if we continue to be in the past and repetitive.
“I make a difference between vintage trend and classic, old-fashioned watches. You can be vintage and be very cool. Look at some motorbikes, they are new but with a vintage style. Look at the watches we have, the Pilots have a vintage touch but are new and trendy. It’s not really the approach. I would make a difference between a very classic two-hand grandfather’s watch and a vintage watch.
“Many brands do vintage-inspired watches. Yes, you can say it’s a shortcut but it’s only tactical and helps on the short term. If you want to build something in the long term, we should not go that way. It’s a mistake. As far as I’m concerned, for Zenith, I want the models I’m launching now to stay for a long time. I want them to become iconic. If that doesn’t happen it means I have failed. I would go for long term myself for sure. I would avoid the shortcuts.”
Being built on the principles of engineering, IWC is most definitely an innovative brand with serious classical watchmaking chops. Not only has it got a good balance of trendsetting models such as the Pilot’s watches but the Schaffhausen manufacture is also a consistent producer of grande complications. Due to popular demand it has made a few vintage-inspired models, many of which sell out as quickly as they were launched. Collections like the Portugieser and the Big Pilot’s Watch remain its most iconic best sellers but other lines like the Da Vinci and the Portofino have also begun to garner a strong audience.
CEO, Christoph Grainger-Herr:
“I feel that the vintage trend is coming to an end and I think there are good reasons for that. In the watch industry as people feel more insecure about where things were going with digital technology, the more this idea of vintage becomes aspirational and interesting to people. This is the same time that vinyl records had a real rejuvenation, because the analogue world, the machine world, offers an illusion of a better world, one that’s easier to understand, less complex and at the same time much more emotion, with the idea of retro machines. With technology, when the battery runs out, there’s no way for the human mind to grasp how it works. With vintage cars and watches, there’s always this idea that I can take it apart and if I put my mind to it, understand how it works. There’s also this sense of eternity.
As people feel more insecure about where things were going with digital technology, the more this idea of vintage becomes aspirational and interesting to people.
“I just came from the Goodwood Festival of Speed. There were some cars racing at 110 years old. You do wonder if the electric car will be racing in 110 years’ time. This idea of longevity has brought about a lot of vintage design trend because it conjures up ideas of great adventures, pioneering spirit. People generally believed that the future was somewhat better and yet this whole modernist idea of technical improvement leading to better lives for everybody has crumbled a little bit in recent years because people are not quite so sure about the future. That’s why vintage design became so interesting. But then the shift will come again. People will say ok we feel a bit of Mars travel and let’s colonise space again… This is all forward looking thinking, and forward looking thinking will lead to visions of the future will lead to futuristic design.
“If you looked purely at the external design of watches, then maybe yes there’s less innovation. However, at the same time there’s so much innovation in technical capability of movements really benefiting a much wider audience. We had years where innovation in watchmaking was focused on the top end of watches, making them more complicated more perfect etc. In recent years we’re seeing more companies putting innovation into basic movements that benefit a wide range of customers. This is a huge development happening on the inside of watches.
We had years where innovation in watchmaking was focused on the top end of watches, making them more complicated more perfect etc. In recent years we’re seeing more companies putting innovation into basic movements that benefit a wide range of customers.
“The younger generation is concerned about the value chain: where things come from, how are things made. In many industries, you’re talking about design in one country and production in another. You have no real understanding of how a product comes together. Which other industry can show you every side of the company which has been around since 1868. I can show you everything from the initial guy who does the sketch, through all the stages of production, then to the guy who writes the advertising, all the way to the guy who puts the watch in the box and ships it out. People can come to us and ask how is this bit made, we can literally show them. I think this allows us to capture people’s imagination.”
BELL & ROSS
For a young brand whose history stretched only to the early 1990s, Bell & Ross has been making exceptionally exciting vintage timepieces. But unlike other companies, it finds inspiration not from its own heritage but rather military heritage, specifically World War Two events and aesthetics. Its Vintage collection bridges past and present, offering the design savvy crowd largely affordable and relatively well made timepieces that had a distinct identity. The oversized numerals and hands, the stark dial designs, and utilitarian nature of a Bell & Ross watch led this Swiss-French company to establish modern icons such as the square cased BR01. A thriving vintage trend benefits Bell & Ross but it could also be argued that Bell & Ross was one of the first brands to spark that trend.
A thriving vintage trend benefits Bell & Ross but it could also be argued that Bell & Ross was one of the first brands to spark that trend.
Design director and co-founder, Bruno Belamich:
“In 1997 we had the idea to introduce vintage watches that we liked, watches with the soul and spirit of authentic antique watches, you know, with faded Superluminova that evokes a patinated feel. We made this in new watches so we ended up with new watches that had the spirit of old watches, and it became a success.
“What is good design? Good design sells. Without economic reality you are not able to develop your passion. We introduced vintage watches because at that time, you don’t find them on the market, and I’m referring to those colours, those finishes, those patina that make the soul of a watch. We never forget that today you don’t buy watches for its function, well maybe, but first you buy because you like a beautiful product, quality product, and you want to wear a product that gives you this emotion.
We introduced vintage watches because at that time, you don’t find them on the market, and I’m referring to those colours, those finishes, those patina that make the soul of a watch.
“In developing a new collection there are two approaches. The first one is a response to a market demand. The second is to propose your vision, your idea, so it’s what we call the offer. You offer your vision of a watch that you like. Sometimes the market doesn’t follow, and sometimes it does, and you sell the watch. There is no recipe for good design. If there has to be one, then it’s passion and the desire to share your passion with your public. That’s why communication is also very important.
There is no recipe for good design. If there has to be one, then it’s passion and the desire to share your passion with your public.
“I can think of one watch which is the Guynemer that’s very classic, made in tribute to a French pilot. It was a small production but until today there are people asking for it.
“Vintage-inspired watches have the spirit of old watches but come in the same case we use in modern watches. It’s not exactly vintage; it’s round watches with modern design and finish. I think there’s a place for both, the modern and the vintage, but maybe the image of a brand like Bell & Ross is more tuned to innovation and avant-garde design than on vintage. But we propose both because we think they’re complementary and that actual designs are all from the past. Look at watch design in the 70s. It was crazy. If you see it, you’ll be sure that everything has already been done. So where does innovation come from now? I think it’s less to do with form and more with techniques like new materials, new complications, and new production methods.
“Some brands much older than Bell & Ross do products similar to us. Why? Because I think for them it’s more difficult to take risks, to innovate, they don’t want to take the risk, it’s easier not to take the risk, but you need to take the risk. Especially for small brands because without taking risks and without innovation, you’re dead. So all of that is a game and a way of finding a good balance between emotion, passion, tradition, vision, to make the connection between your passion, your desires, and the reality of the market. It’s a business of passion.”