The Masters of Time

Examining the fine watch industry through the prism of the people who run it, allows one not only to identify the powers that be, but also to reveal some of the major issues. Bilan Luxe turns its loupe on some of the people who will certainly mark the year 2013.

Gian Riccardo Marini, Stanislas de Quercize and Stephen Urquhart lead the three giants of Swiss watchmaking, respectively, Rolex, Cartier and Omega. An Italian boss for the first; a Frenchman for the second; and a man with Scottish origins for the third! These three major players dominate the industry and they have further increased their lead since the crisis.

Arguably the most iconic brand of Swiss watches, Rolex (Hans Wilsdorf Foundation), led by Gian Riccardo Marini since May 2011, is also the most impressive, with a turnover of more than Sfr4 billion from watches alone.

The new CEO of Cartier (Richemont), Stanislas de Quercize leads a brand whose sales are estimated at more than Sfr5 billion, of which almost half comes from watchmaking. To complete the triad, Stephen Urquhart, at the head of Omega since 1999, directs the largest global brand of the Swatch Group, with an estimated turnover of Sfr2.5 billion. Note that both Cartier and Omega are, by far, the largest contributors to the profits of their respective groups, Richemont and Swatch.

 

The billionaires

Besides the three giants mentioned above and Patek Philippe, few watch brands exceed Sfr1billion in revenue. The Swiss watch industry is a small-scale business... Led by Walter von Känel since 1988, Longines (Swatch Group) is one of these minute companies. And Longines has the wind in its sails, as does Tissot (Swatch Group), led by François Thiebaud since 1996, which recently crossed the Sfr1billion mark.

Jean-Christophe Babin will have just enough time to take TAG Heuer (LVMH) to the Sfr1billion mark (including its eyeglass and telephone lines) probably by the end of this year. He is about to resume Bulgari - another billionaire brand with a turnover estimated at over Sfr1.5 billion, of which one quarter comes from watches and slightly less than half from jewelry.

 

Large families

Watchmaking remains a history of groups or families. The Hayeks are a perfect example with Nayla (daughter) as President of Swatch Group, Nick (son) as head of operations and Marc (nephew) in charge of luxury watches. The Biel group is present in all segments and stands out for its industrial capacity.

There remains the first global “watch” group, Richemont (owned by the Rupert family), whose higher revenue derives in large part from jewelry and fine-writing instruments. Richard Lepeu and Bernard Fornas, the two co-directors of the group, depend on such key executives as (in addition to the heads already mentioned) Juan Carlos Torres (Vacheron Constantin), Philippe Léopold-Metzger (Piaget), Angelo Bonati (Panerai), Lutz Bethge (Montblanc) and, representing the new guard, Georges Kern.

Bernard Arnault, owner of LVMH, the world’s primary luxury group, entered the watch industry nearly 15 years ago with the acquisition of TAG Heuer, Ebel (since sold), Zenith (Jean-Frédéric Dufour) Hublot (Ricardo Guadalupe) and, most recently, Bulgari. Francesco Trapani heads LVMH Watches and Jewelry, not a formal part of Louis Vuitton’s promising watch and jewellery brand which are under the direction of Hamdi Chatti, Vice President. Another group, Kering, is in the hands of the Pinault family.

Integrated within its luxury division, the watch business is now mainly the work of Michele Sofisti, CEO of Gucci Watches and the Sowind Group (Girard-Perregaux and JeanRichard). Hermes is also in control of a family, the descendants of the founder: Axel Dumas (Co-Director as of June 2013), Pierre-Alexis Dumas (Artistic Director) and Guillaume de Seynes (Managing Director of Manufacturing Division & Equity Investments) hold key positions in the group, while Luc Perramond has led Hermès Watches since 2009.

 

Industrial

Under the guidance of Pierre Landolt and Jean-Marc Jacot, the Sandoz Family Foundation has invested heavily in watchmaking.

First, by investing in a brand – a decision not in itself very original - to support the work of Michel Parmigiani (Parmigiani Fleurier); then, and much rarer, by investing in a real manufacturer (Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier), now able to deliver high-quality movements to selected third-party brands.

The Foundation’s total investment is estimated at nearly Sfr.150 million. Hermes took a 25% stake in this industrial entity. At the head of the Festina-Lotus Group, the Spaniard Miguel Rodriguez also recognized the need to invest beyond brands (Festina, Lotus, Calypso, Candino, Jaguar, Perrelet, Leroy L.) in machinery and the production of watch components. Over the years, with his faithful associate Jean-Claude Schwarz, Rodriguez has developed or acquired several entities, including Festina-Candino (Herbestwil), the group Soprod (Sion, Les Reussilles, Saignelégier and Maîche) MHVJ (Manufacture Horlogère in the Valley of Joux) and Astral in Porrentruy. Festina-Lotus Group is now able to deliver mechanical or quartz movements to third-party brands.

 

Independents

The worthy representatives of an endangered species, the independents who carry any weight in the watch industry can now be counted on the fingers of two hands. Besides Patek Philippe and Chopard mentioned otherwise, Audemars Piguet meets this definition.

Chaired by Jasmine Audemars and managed as of this year by Francois-Henry Bennahmias, Audemars Piguet remains the only factory at this level still in the hands of its founding family (1875). Another renowned independent brand, Breitling, has undergone only one change of ownership, when the Schneider family acquired the company in 1979.

Ulysse Nardin, in its death throes in 1983, was taken over by Rolf Schnyder, who made it successful. Since Schnyder’s death, his wife Chai has presided over the brand, with Patrick Hoffmann as CEO. Franck Muller, while known as a group, is primarily a brand driven with determination by Vartan Sirmakes.

An independent company since its creation in 1959, today led by Antonio Calce, Corum has changed ownership but remains independent of the large groups for now. Although they are rare, some independents do manage to emerge and reach a considerable size. Two contrasting examples illustrate this phenomenon: Richard Mille created the eponymous brand in 2001 by focusing on the very high end. Successfully so: Richard Mille’s turnover today is around Sfr.110 million, from some 2,500 watches sold at an average retail price of Sfr.130,000.

In a much more accessible segment, Peter and Aletta Stas founded the brand Frederique Constant in 1988: 120,000 watches were sold last year through 2600 outlets in more than 100 countries.

 

The other 500

The Swiss watch industry is also composed of a variety of brands - nearly 500, of all sizes - that enrich all segments of the watch pyramid, but overall concentrate towards the high-end range. There is gold among them, as well as opportunists; brands that are interesting, recognized, respected, innovative, by watchmakers of genius, as well as self-promoters.

Time usually sorts them out rapidly. Some of these companies are extremely discreet; others, prominent. But one should remember that the noise some of them make is inversely proportional to the weight they really have in the watch industry.

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