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A shop from the Big Apple relates a century of watchmaking
Economy

A shop from the Big Apple relates a century of watchmaking

Thursday, 21 February 2008
By Katja Schaer
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Katja Schaer

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6 min read

Over the course of a century, Tourneau has imposed itself as undisputed leader in the distribution of Swiss-made timepieces. The company recently changed owners, and now seeks to step up its growth.

Tourneau is the story of a small shop from New York which, having started from scratch, successfully carved itself a piece of the American Dream. Not a great deal is known about its origins, except that it was created by two Austro-Hungarian brothers who owned a jeweler’s shop in Paris before venturing to the New World. Indeed, we know nothing of their paths in life, their family or even their role in the business. All that is left of the company’s humble beginnings is the “Tourneau” name.

From New York to Florida

Founded in 1900, the business was simply a small sales outlet for luxury watches. The actual Tourneau brand name only came into being in 1916, when the brothers began designing their own timepieces using, then as now, Swiss-made components.

While the family business gradually built up its reputation during the first half of the 20th century, it would stay within New York limits for a long time. Only in 1970 did the business venture further afield, opening a new outlet in Florida. Since then, it has never looked back. Today, in addition to its own creations, Tourneau sells over a hundred different brands in more than 8000 unique styles via 50 retail outlets. The latest store to open was on the Hawaiian island of O’hau, on January 31, 2008.

Records and extravagance

Tourneau has broken a number of records along the way, as if to underscore its notoriety. In 1998, its TimeMachine store located at the crossroads between Madison and 57th Street in New York, covering some 1500 square meters, officially entered the Guinness book of records as the biggest watch store in the world. Tourneau would better this achievement in 2005, with the inauguration of its 1580-square meter Time Dome store in Las Vegas. The Tourneau name has even entertained a touch of decadence, setting up a shop inside Caesar’s Palace in the heart of Sin City.

Distributor of such prestigious brands as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier, Breitling, Omega and TAG Heuer, among others, Tourneau has also indulged in a little irreverence, offering watches at the highest end of the range alongside cheaper low-end models. In 1999, in its quest to win over a younger clientele, the company created a specific brand – Tourneau Watch Gear. Moreover, in the wake of other watchmaking players, the company has since diversified its offering, launching jewelry and accessories in 2004, leather goods in 2005, and writing instruments in 2007.

From America to Asia

On the back of its success in the US, the company has set its sights on Asia, opening its first outlet in August 2006 in Shanghai. Since then, four more Tourneau stores have opened up in China. This expansion is set to forge ahead at a breakneck pace, with some thirty new outlets planned over the next three years. The company has also shown a discreet interest in new markets, without revealing any specifics. In fact, as with its development plans, Tourneau remains highly reserved regarding its financial results. The only figure made public concerns its estimated annual sales for fiscal year 2006-07, which closed in January, representing some $300 million. In fact, this information was published at the same time as Tourneau’s buyout, for this same amount, by the Leonard Green & Partners investment group at the close of 2006. Insofar as yearly profits are concerned, not to mention the company’s orientations, mum’s the word. However, the group’s growth is clearly on the new owners’ agenda. And so the little shop that started out in New York a hundred years ago is now out to conquer the world.

Tourneau, inventor of “watch wardrobing”

You sell over a hundred different brands. How are your sales assistants trained to keep up with such a large number of different models?

Andrew J. Block, Executive Vice-President of Tourneau: Each new sales assistant is trained within our company. Our program covers a number of components, including knowledge of products, and proficiency in various operational aspects of selling. While holding down their jobs, our sales assistants go on to perfect their knowledge via ongoing training. We also have “ambassadors” for specific brand names. These people are taken to visit Swiss watchmakers who pass on all the necessary knowledge for the corresponding brand. Once back in the US or Asia, the ambassadors share this newly acquired knowledge with other sales assistants. In addition, watchmaker representatives visit our stores once a month to make sure our employees are kept up to date.

What type of customers come to Tourneau?

Given our very broad range of brand names, our customers, whether local, American or international, are highly diverse. In recent years, our products have also reached out to a younger audience. These changes reflect our “watch wardrobing” concept, which consists in wearing different watches according to the clothes you wear. Timepieces now represent part of a person’s wardrobe. What tastes are specific to American customers?

Americans love accessories. What they wear expresses their personality. Consumers no longer consider watches merely as useful articles, but as a reflection of their lifestyle and identity. That’s why we continue to promote our “watch wardrobing” concept, and the idea of the watch as an accessory, by offering our customers a huge choice of models. Today’s watch buyers no longer have only one model which they wear at all times and in all circumstances. What they want is a selection of timepieces adapted to their situation, and that represent an integral part of their wardrobe.

What are the latest trends?

We are seeing more and more customers who buy large-size watches, which used to be considered as being for men only. For this reason, we have moved away from a strict separation of watches for men and women. In fact, we often describe our watches simply in terms of size – small, medium, large – so as not to associate a style with only one gender.

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